A life plan must precede a financial plan

With the increasing readership of my blog, I get a lot of requests to either make financial plans for people or to review an existing financial plan that was made by someone for them. What strikes me as amazing is that people by and large focus greatly on their financial goals and almost take their life goals for granted. This flies in the face of the obvious reality – your finances are there to support your life goals and therefore must come after you have thought through your life goals.

The first thing which surprises me is that people project their lives for the next 30 years or so without having the ambition to do more with it. Let us say you have passed out of college and got a job. While it may be a job which you like, you may still look at ways and means of improving it. An IT person who started his career just 5 years back may already be finding himself in the cross roads. There is no guarantee that your current job will last for 10 years, let alone 30. It is therefore imperative that you fix your life goals based on your current skills, future skills you may need to acquire and the kind of work you want to do. It may be necessary for you to take up your first job for many reasons, but there will be equally good reasons as to why you may want to do other things.

The same goes for people who are in their mid career with a family. Yes, changing your life direction may be more difficult now but it is not impossible by any means. I had a friend who was a hotel manager for 10 years, worked in Rediff for another 10 years, went on to do an MBA abroad and is now a professor in an US Business school. Note that the latter career moves were all done when he had a family. Another friend of mine who is from an IIT and an IIM, went to the US recently to pursue a second MBA as he was not happy with how his career was shaping up. In his case too he took his wife and a young daughter to the US. There is no doubt that these people had to go through a lot of tough times but they were clear as to what they wanted to achieve.

Changing careers are getting much more common nowadays than ever before. I just came to know of a Doctor, who practised for 7 years after his MBBS and has now got into IIM Ahmedabad for their one year Executive program. He wants to be associated with Health care but not as a practising Doctor and felt that an Executive MBA will give him the opportunities that he is seeking out.

The problem with financial plans is that they are done assuming people will proceed in their lives linearly. They will start with a job, increase their salaries every year, get married, invest and increase their investments, plan their finances, home buying and have other goals such as children’s education, marriage and retirement. This does not at all cater to real life and real people. For example, I started working at 24 and always wanted to retire at 45, or at least be financially independent by then. If I had been to a financial planner, he would probably have told me that I needed to work for 35 years and early retirement was just not possible in India.

The logic can get extended to any particular passion you have in life. Earlier it was difficult to take up your passion due to lack of resources and opportunity. However, many people nowadays want to take up their passion after they have fulfilled most of their responsibilities. I know of people who have taken up travel, reading, teaching and several other interest areas at a relatively late stage in life and have done very well in them.

So the point is your life plan must be dynamic in nature to fulfil the aspirations you have. We will not meet all our aspirations but there should be a clear and concerted attempt to do so. The financial plan must adapt to your life journey not the other way round. You need a financial planner who understands this.

How does one go about doing this? Let that be the subject of another post.

An Italian odyssey

Writing this post is an anticipated event for me as, even before we left for our Italy trip, I got a lot of requests from several quarters to do this. I will directly start with the trip itself as I have already covered the planning of the trip as well as my thoughts and experiences with the tour operator Kesari in other recent posts.

We started off from Hyderabad on 5th May morning as we had to join the group for the night flight to Abu Dhabi and Rome. Though the wait in the Mumbai airport was somewhat long, we were quite impressed with the facilities, the only jarring point being the food costs. We connected with the Kesari representative on the appointed time, collected our hampers and checked in early. The tour leader welcomed us and wanted us to meet her before the transit from Abu Dhabi. The flights were largely uneventful, though tiring as usual. Breaking it up into two flights is a good idea as long as the layover is manageable. We reached Rome in the early morning. Immigration was a rather long process and freshening up in the airport with hordes of people wanting to do the same took it’s own time. We boarded the coach after that and the trip was well and truly underway.

We had a pretty comfortable coach which we would be using for the entire trip, the tour leader was articulate and knowledgeable and the visit to Pompeii was fulfilling a long time desire. The ruins of Pompeii are maintained rather well and we were lucky to have a good guide who spoke English very well. She explained the times of 2000 years back with a lot of imagination and some of the things such as the water pipe of those years, the stepping stones on the streets so that people could cross when they got waterlogged in the rainy season, the roadside eateries with ovens for cooking the food and a brothel with the services menu drawn on the walls were the highlights for me. As was Homer’s Odyssey drawn as fresco’s on the walls of an erstwhile commercial place.

In terms of sheer heritage, history and scale few places in the world will beat Pompeii. Our own Hampi is great too but it is not as old as this. Moreover only 25 % of the city has been excavated and that itself boggles the mind. A near perfect experience was made even better by an excellent 3 course lunch in a good restaurant.

Day 2 of our Italy trip was very different from the first. From history and heritage of Pompei we landed in Sorrento and Capri, with all it’s natural beauty of the sea and hills. The views all over were quite captivating and the sheer cliffs rising practically right from the sea. Much of Sorrento is perched atop these cliffs.

The highlight of the day was travelling to the highest point of the island in a chair lift. It is literally a chair hung from a cable. As we sat there, the mist rolling in from the sea quite engulfed us as the chair passed through some greenery with the sea to our right and the hills to the left. A surreal experience is probably not an exaggeration in this case. While I was sorry to miss the Blue Grotto, a cave with the blue reflection from the sea water, this was somewhat made up by the views from the highest point of the island – particularly, the myriad hues of the sea, I myself could count some six colours.

Day 3 of the Italy trip started with a whistle stop tour of the Naples square. Quite an impressive place with the Galleria and the Opera house, which was built way back in 1737.

Next stop was Rome and we spent the afternoon in Vatican City. I had always been interested in it and my keenness had grown over the years after I followed the Dan Brown novels. The Vatican museum was a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance creations and it was rather overwhelming in some sense. The Sistine chapel is definitely the crowning glory of Michaelangelo’s painting career and the vivid colours were remarkable just for their longevity as well as the artistic brilliance.

The Basilica is probably the most famous example of a Christian Church and the richness in terms of conception and execution is simply incomprehensible at first take. Finally, the square which finds mention in so many novels for the Papal conclave and election, the news of which is conveyed by the colour of the smoke through a chimney, was a fitting end.

Day 4 of the trip was dedicated to Rome. We saw the Trevi fountain in the morning and it was a great sight. It is maintained very clean, even though a lot of shops are around.

The Rome orientation done from the bus was rushed but we did get to know a lot of unknown stuff about the city. The Time elevator ride was a great experience and the show has been conceived very well.

The Piazza Venezia is a magnificent structure and I went and explored it on my own. Finally the Colloseum was a fitting finale to the day. Even with much of it being in ruins, it is easy to imagine the grandeur it had in the past and our guide was brilliant in conjuring up the visions of gladiators going at each other full tilt in a filled Colloseum with the spectators baying for blood.

Rome is truly a city where the past and the present live in complete harmony and we have been fortunate to witness it. Though I have posted pictures for each of the above and some of them are quite good, one will need to get a real experience to understand this.

Day 5 of the trip was spent in San Gimignano and Pisa, both of which were exceptional.

San Gimignano is a very well preserved medieval town and it got the award of an UNESCO heritage site in 1990. It is a living city but the structures of the past are all preserved. Walking through it you get the feeling of being transported to a long past age. Definitely worth a visit, even for the brilliant natural beauty of Tuscany surrounding it.

Pisa is of course known for the Leaning tower and seeing it in front of us was an amazing experience. The Square of Miracles has several other great structures such as the Baptistry and the Cathedral. As with most Italian structures these are very well maintained.

Day 6 of our trip was mostly dedicated to Florence with a worthwhile viewing of the Ferrari museum in the afternoon.

Florence is probably the best example of architecture and sculpture seen anywhere, though Italy and Europe will have close rivals. The Cathedral is undoubtedly the high point of the walking tour we had. The two domes and the Bronze door were just amazing. The main square with the replicas of David and Hercules will please any art lover. Finally, the Alexander point offers a great overview of the City landscape.

The Ferrari museum is a veritable feast for the eyes to any sports car lover. Just to see so many of these together is great and gives you a feeling of elation.

The 7th and final day of the trip was for Venice, aptly called the Queen of the Adriatic. The whole experience was great from the approach by the boat, the walk through the markets and over the bridges, the church of St Marks and finally the Gondola ride through the canals.

Venice is different from all other places because of it’s unique ecosystem and the way it has been preserved over the years. Yes, the motor boats have made it more noisy and a tad more polluted but, in today’s day and age, a place sans any surface transport is great by itself.

The memories of Venice will stay with us for long. In all ways it was a high point of our visit to Italy. I have been to several places over the years but for the sheer diversity of natural beauty, history and heritage this tour has been an unique one.

Coming back from such a trip is always laced with a tinge of sadness but the memories will last us a long time. The return journey was more tiring as we were not really looking forward to the Hyderabad heat after the salubrious climate of Italy.

For the interested reader, my recommendation will be to go through the pictures I have posted in Facebook. To be candid though, no picture can do justice to the real experience of seeing the statue of David, the waters of Capri or the Sistine chapel among many others. You really need to visit Italy if you love history, heritage and culture.

For me, it was the only major country in western Europe where I had never been and I will now be looking at Scandinavia, Africa and South America as possible next destinations for my travel.

Children’s marriage – a financial goal?

In one of my earlier posts I had written as to why I do not consider the marriage of my children to be a life goal for me. I believe, they have been brought up in a way such that they can select their own partner for life when the time comes. Yes, as parents we will be supportive of it and may also interact with the families of their would be spouses according to the prevalent social norms but, neither my wife nor me, think that we have to initiate the process of finding a bride or groom for our children.

Some of the feedback I have received to the post is a pointer to what is wrong with our societal mindset till today. Sample some of this :-

  • If the girl is not having a good education, she may want to get married at the age of 22 or so. People saying this need to realise that if a girl is being brought up from her early childhood to simply get married after a perfunctory graduation, she is hardly going to have the motivation to do anything else in life. In this day and age, we as parents need to give wings to our girls, not shackle them with chains so early in life.
  • If a son is unable to find a suitable life partner on his own, it is the responsibility of his parents to do that for him. Well, I have no real issues with the parents taking an initiative in this matter as long as it is just for facilitation. Unfortunately, in most cases it turns out to be deterministic and two people, who have little going for themselves in terms of compatibility, get married to each other largely because their families are fine with it. The consequences, often, are quite disastrous.
  • Others said that while it was good in principle for the children to foot the bill of the marriage, how will they do it at such an early age etc. My thoughts on this are very simple – fund the marriages of your children to your heart’s content, as long as you can afford it without affecting what else you desire in life. If you are having a grand wedding but do not have enough money for your retirement years, then there is a lot wrong in how you are thinking through your decisions.

Having gone through those above, let us examine why I think it is a good idea to fund the marriages of children through them. We live in a very different world and social milieu today as compared to even 10-20 years back. At these times the parents were taking complete responsibility of their children till they got married and this included higher education as well as marriage. The underlying assumption was that the children, in turn, would take care of their parents, at least financially, when the time arrived. Today we dare not depend on such hopes as parents and therefore need to look at things with a lot more objectivity and logic rather than just filial emotion. The other thing that has changed is the cost of both higher education as well as marriage. Even 15 years back a B school degree used to cost about 3 lacs, today the same figure is close to 25 lacs. A degree in Engineering with associated expenses has gone up from 2 lacs to 16 lacs plus in the same period. So if you are sponsoring just the first graduation degree of your child you are probably paying more than what our parents paid for all these together.

Coming to the issue as to whether the children can fund their own marriages at such a young age. Well, I think that no son should marry till he is about 28 and this can probably be 25 or so for a girl. This will give then 4-6 years of working life which can be quite adequate to save up for the wedding. Of course, if they are paying a high student loan then the idea should be to pay it off first. Also, if you have the bandwidth as a parent to sponsor either a PG education OR the marriage, I will say choose the first.

I will write other posts on typical wedding costs and how these could possibly be funded by the children, but for now, let us look at a situation where you want to foot the bill. As long as you are being reasonable about the spending according to your own financial bandwidth there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, Indian weddings today have become a spectacle of unmitigated desire to show off money, promoted by mindless and rather vulgar consumerism. I have seen many parents go completely out of the way, in order to show up their relatives and neighbours. At the end of the day, such reckless expenditure cravings often have rather sad endings.

My own experience here will not be out of order. I had worked for about 5 years and a bit when I got married to Lipi. Though I lived a good life as a bachelor in Delhi, I did manage to save a fair bit in those years. In 1993 the world in India was a different place and weddings were expensive affairs but not exorbitantly so yet. In order to comply with my mother’s wishes about how the wedding should be done, I ended up spending most of my accumulated savings and was quite happy to do so. I remember being so broke that Lipi had to sponsor the train tickets for our honeymoon in Panchmarhi. I never thought anything about spending for my wedding as my father had spent a lot of money for my education and those of my sisters. Yes, they were less expensive then but his salary as an Engineer in SAIL was also not a lavish one. 

So coming back to the core issue, is the marriage of your children a financial goal for you? Yes, if you want it to be but look upon it as the least priority item, after your own retirement and children’s education. If you have enough money, do what you want with it. However, if your children are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their lives when they are 26-28 years of age there is a basic issue. Also, if you have brought up your daughter letting her think she just has to complete her graduation somehow and marriage is her only real goal in life, there really is a huge problem.

Coming to my children, I do hope they will choose their own partners when they want to get married. I will fund their marriage to the extent I deem logical but if they want to indulge in crass consumerism, they can foot the bill on their own. By then, they should be doing rather well in life and will be able to afford it quite well anyway.

How much did our Kumarokom vacation cost?

A question I have had to face several times last week is the title of this post. Ever since I wrote about the vacation in my blog, people have wanted to know more about how they could go there and also how much it had cost me. For the first, I will definitely recommend a vacation in Kumarokom for anyone who is looking for relaxation. As to the costs, let me handle it in this post.

As any experienced traveler will know the costs of a vacation can broadly be divided into the following heads :-

  • Transportation to and from destination.
  • Accommodation.
  • Local conveyance.
  • Food.
  • Sightseeing and other activities.

In our case, the week long accommodation at the Karma Chakra resort was a bonus week through our Timeshare and it cost us 5750 Rs. Of course, if it was a regular exchange week then the cost would have been in the region of 22000 Rs. In the absence of Timeshare such a property will at least go for 6000 Rs per room night, so be prepared to shell out 42000 Rs if you are planning to stay for a week. Apart from the bonus week fee we also had to pay about 1100 Rs for the luxury tax levied by the state of Kerala.

As far as transportation was concerned, we took the flight to Kochi and back. From the Kochi airport to the resort we had taken a cab. As we bought tickets reasonably early and also used credit card discounts, the ticket prices came to only 8000 Rs. The travel to the resort and back by cab cost 4800 Rs – 2300 for the onward journey, 2500 for the return one.

Local conveyance in Kumarokom was mostly by Autos and we took the bus on one occasion from Kottayam. The Auto drivers are a law unto themselves and even a 1-2 kms ride will cost you 50 Rs easily. Our total expenses on these were not much, maybe in the range of 1000 Rs or so. Travel to the Hyderabad airport and back home was another 1500 Rs.

Food is something which both me and my wife love to indulge in and it was reasonably expensive at the resort though the quality was great. We also dined out a few days at a local restaurant apart from sampling some rather good fare at the nearby bakeries. For the 7 days our overall food costs came close to 9000 Rs.

Sightseeing and activities were mostly a visit to the Bird sanctuary and a house boat ride on the serene Vembanad lake. Overall costs were in the region of 5000 Rs.

So putting it all together the tally will be as below :-

  • Accommodation       – 6850 Rs
  • Transportation          – 12,800 Rs
  • Local conveyance      – 2500 Rs
  • Sightseeing                  – 5000 Rs
  • Food                                – 9000 Rs

Overall cost of the vacation was therefore 35000 Rs and change. Pretty expensive, by most standards but we had a great time. The costs were real but so was the experience and the memories, quite priceless.                     

Kumarokom – a bliss for the discerning traveler

For an avid traveler like me, the first trip of the year is always an eagerly anticipated one, often setting the tone for the rest of the year. Last year we had been to the Rann of Kutch and this year we have started off with Kumarokom – both in some style !!

Kumarokom is not new to both Lipi and me – we had been there in 2003 for a few days in the KTDC property Waterscapes, adjoining the bird sanctuary. It was a memorable trip then but a trifle rushed and a lot of time has passed since then. Therefore, when our upgrading of the Timeshare entitled us to a bonus week which could be taken in the signature property Karma Chakra, I had no hesitation in making the decision.

A little about Kumarokom and the Vembanad lake will be useful for readers who are not completely aware of it. Kerala is a narrow state with an extensive coastline. In several places the sea water comes inland creating a vast system of canals, more popularly known as the backwaters. There are also lakes pretty much adjacent to the sea and almost leading to it. The charm of the backwaters is that you can navigate these on boats and get a slice of the Kerala village life as the boat sails past the inhabitants engaged in their daily work. These boats come in all shapes and sizes – from the humble rowing boat to the shikara type ones and finally the fully loaded House boats which in the local lingo are called Kettuvalams. These are fully functional house boats which can navigate the lakes and canals. They come with air conditioned bedrooms, proper toilets and great cooking arrangements. These house boats have a lot to do with Kerala being an iconic tourist destination – not to forget the beaches, culture and cuisine of course.

The Vembanad lake is the largest fresh water lake in India, if one does not consider the Chilka lake in Orissa for it’s brackish water. It is a vast water body covering an area greater than 2000 sq kms, stretching in length for 93 Kms between Aleppey and Kochi, with a maximum width of 14 kms. If you see it for the first time, you may well mistake it for the sea – such is the vastness of it’s expanse. Kumarokom is really a village in the Kottayam district and has a lot of resorts now, bordering the lake. The nearest town is Kottayam, a rather bustling place, quite different from the idyllic serenity of Kumarokom.

Ok, enough of an introduction then. Our journey started off on 4th February and the availability of a flight to Kochi made it rather easy. A short flight and a car ride for a couple of hours saw us in the resort by 2 pm in the afternoon. The resort is really built on what used to be a wetland before and is right on the Vembanad lake. All the 24 rooms are on one side ensuring that each room has a lake view. The other side has the Reception, Activity center and the restaurant. The swimming pool is in the middle of it and the whole middle section is on stilts with water being there. You get a feeling that you are crossing bridges when you walk from one side of the resort to the other. In all ways, this is a great property and our room was a very nice one too. It had all the amenities and the crowning glory was definitely the spacious balcony which had a great view of the Vembanad lake – we practically woke up each morning with the mist swirling over the vastness of the lake with the birds flying around and swooping down to get an early start for their food.

The best activity in the resort was definitely the sunset which could be observed sitting under a Gazebo, erected strategically at a perfect place. The lawn next had a swing and a hammock, the swimming pool with the deck chairs just behind and the resident house boat of the resort tied nearby. This along with the variety of birds moving around in the evenings, made this an idyllic activity. We spent all our evenings there and though the final moments of the sunset were often obliterated by the clouds, whatever we did get to view was spectacular nonetheless. At night the resort was also lit up beautifully and the lights coming on as darkness engulfed us slowly was rather magical. On a more prosaic note, the restaurant served quite delectable fare – both local cuisine and also some North Indian varieties.

The resort was good enough to just laze around, lie down in the divan provided in the balcony and catch up with some reading while soaking in the sight of the majestic Vembanad lake. To be sure, we did that awhile and I finished the 2 books I had got for the trip. Even managed to do some work done for my current engagement, courtesy the wifi available, which was rather good. But as travelers who are fairly active, we also got to do a lot of other stuff too.

Lipi has a friend in Kollam and she visited us along with her husband, who is in the army, on the Sunday we were there. It was great to meet them and even better that I got some Beer as a gift – saved me a lot of expensive buying at the resort. We went down to a local restaurant and had some authentic Kerala food – Fish thali, Karimeen fry and Prawns Masala. We also repeated lunch there on our last day – this time trying the Karimeen wrapped in a banana leaf along with some Duck Mapaas.

Ferries are a common mode of transport in Kerala waterways and we went in a local ferry one day. It was quite an experience, what with all kinds of local people clambering on board the ferry in their bikes. As the resort house boat was way too expensive we hired one on our own for 3 hours and 3000 Rs another day. It was a great way to spend time on the Vembanad lake, we nearly went close to Aleppey. Just the number of birds we saw – Egrets, Kingfisher, Cormorants, Snake birds, Storks, Robin and many others made it worthwhile. While you are there the peace and serene tranquility is broken only by the chirpings of the birds. One can also go for an overnight trip but as we had experienced it last time, we did not opt for that.

Some word on transportation – autos are available and are the same as everywhere else in India, inasmuch as they will quote their price which is normally high. We also went in a few buses for short distances and once coming back from Kottayam. The service is fairly good but there is not a word of English written on any of the buses so you really have to find out things for yourself from the conductor or fellow passengers. They were normally helpful though, especially the one who directed us in Kottayam.

We had a good visit to the bird sanctuary one morning and though the birds were not seen in great numbers, the walk through the sanctuary was a good one. We also revisited the KTDC resort Waterscapes after all these years and liked what we saw. There was a bird enclosure with a huge Turkey and some Emus there. The buffet breakfast was rather expensive but good otherwise and our appetite was rendered rather keen after the long walk.

Kottayam was another day visit – we had snacks in the Indian Coffee house, which is pretty ubiquitous in most of Kerala towns and also went to the local mall. It was not a big one but had a pretty good collection of clothing for all types and occasion. We did not spend much time there, it looked quite a bustling place with all the normal stuff.

The days kind of flew by and it was soon time to go. Kochi airport was overcrowded and we started missing Kumarokom even while we were in Kerala !! All vacations have to end sometime but the good thing is you can keep the memories and play them in your mind as much as you want. When life really gets busy, and it will this week itself, I will play the mornings and sunsets of Kumarokom in my mind’s eyes.

It will be an almost guaranteed way of seeking some relaxation and busting stress.

 

Experiences and money – my take

As I am writing this blog post on Monday, sitting in our unit in Karma Chakra at Kumarokom, I cannot but feel somewhat philosophical. I think it partly has to do with the backdrop of the beautiful Vembanad lake which stretches out in a seemingly endless manner and can be viewed really well from our balcony. So instead of the usual investment related post, let me write one on the quality of experiences and whether you need to have a lot of money to spare if you have to undergo these experiences.

Let me start by admitting that some experiences you seek will definitely require a fair amount of money. For example, if you are keen on visiting the Swiss Alps or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, you will need a certain amount of money to get there. If you do not have that amount then you simply cannot do it and need to accept the same. However, even here the kind of experience you seek will define the quantity of money you need to have to go through it. So you could go to Australia with 2 lacs or do the same thing for a much higher price.

The concept that we must understand here is what you consider to be the core of the experience versus the peripheral frills. It is much like the cake and the icing concept – the icing looks attractive, tastes good and enhances the whole experience of having the cake BUT it does not really decide the quality of the cake. The core of your experience is like the cake itself, the associated frills are akin to the icing. So it really boils down to the kind of person you are and what are you temperamentally suited to. Is the movie important to you or do you want to lie down in a sofa while seeing the movie?

Let me explain with an example that happened just today morning and led me to think about writing this post. Many of you will know that the backwaters of Kerala and the Vembanad lake is famous for the different kinds of boats that ply through them. You have simple rowing boats, ferries and also the large house boats that come with all kinds of comforts and trappings from air conditioned bedrooms to authentic Kerala cuisine which is prepared in the boat while you relax. Now, if you have not been to one of these Rice boats or Kettuvalams, I will recommend you do it once in your life. It is an unique experience and will stay with you life long. In one of our visits to Kerala earlier, we had taken one such boat from Aleppey and enjoyed our overnight stay immensely. This was about 15 years back and it had cost 5000 Rs then – expensive but entirely worthwhile. Note that in this case, the experience we were seeking as a family was being in the House boat and having an authentic Kerala backwater experience. Here the House boat was very much part of the cake itself and not the icing.

Cut to the present – Lipi and I are visiting Kumarokom after a long time and our resort is right on the Vembanad lake. The location of the resort is breathtaking and you can have your fill of the Vembanad lake, including the surreal sunsets and bird watching. Now this resort has a House boat of it’s own which they rent out to the guests, either for overnight or for a 5 hour lunch cruise. The cost of the first is 17,500 Rs and the second is 9000 Rs. It is a happy situation that we can afford to spend the money, but should we? Going by the cake analogy, what is the cake here? For me it was clearly to experience the Vembanad lake and getting closer to the birds to watch their hunting of fish. Yes, it could be done very comfortably from the house boat, but the rest of the facilities there were really an icing.

We chose to visit a local boat jetty reasonably nearby where there were ferries plying from Kumarokom to Muhamma. It was a great slice of local life, with people driving onto the ferry in their bikes and getting to see the regular inhabitants of Kumarokom. The ferry transported us from one end of the lake to the other in about 45 minutes on way. Through the whole journey we got a great view of the Vembanad lake, got to see the water birds at really close quarters and I can vouch that the experience I was seeking was fully met by my criteria – luxury was of course nor one of them and neither was it available. Note that the core requirement had changed from our earlier backwater cruise as I had already experienced it once before. The cost here was obviously a trivial one – tickets were only 10 Rs each on the ferry and we ate at a local bakery close to the jetty for 200 Rs.

So next time you are looking at an experience, separate the core from the extraneous. If you can afford designer holidays and want them then go for it by all means. However, if you love travelling do not deny yourself just because you cannot do it in style. You really do not need an upscale seaside resort to enjoy the views of the sea, nor do you need a private beach to enjoy swimming there. I think many of us are unable to separate the cake from the icing, so I will give you some examples here :-

  • If you like reading, become a member of a library. Do not give up reading just because you cannot buy all the books you want to read.
  • If you want to visit a place but cannot afford the rates in peak season or in the popular resorts, check out home stays and other less expensive hotels.
  • In case you cannot afford the local cuisine in a 5 star joint, check out the local eateries for the same – many of these will be as varied and taste good too.

Coming back to this trip and separating the cake from the icing, I will conclude with how I have looked at it :-

  • Our stay at Karma Chakra is really the cake – we wanted to stay in a comfortable place and have planned for it over the years through our Timeshare investment.
  • Our travel to Kochi by air was also the cake – read my post on air travel to understand more on this.
  • Experiencing Vembanad lake is the cake and doing so by house boat is the icing.
  • Experiencing good food is the cake – we went to a local hotel yesterday with some friends where the local food quality was superb. It was not really inexpensive but clearly lacked the frills of a high class restaurant. Our resort has one such eating place and we are happy to eat there as well.

The point is have both the cake and the icing as your experience if you can afford it. But too often in life, we ignore the cake because we cannot get one with an attractive icing. Maximise the number and quality of your experiences within your means and you will be leading a much more meaningful and happier life.

Travel by air can be a smart option

I have always been fond of travel whether it is for business or for pleasure. A visit to new places within India and outside it is always an exciting event for me. Fortunately this interest is shared by my wife and our children too as they have been to several places over the years.

When I was younger and traveling alone, it hardly mattered as to how I did so. Normally train and specifically the AC 2 Tier coaches would be the medium. As the family grew and time became a premium courtesy my demanding corporate job, I had to look into air travel within India. If one went by air it was possible to take a break even with a 3-4 day time window. Part of it was of course lifestyle creep too, as it was way easier to get my wife to go on such short trips if we were going by air. With the options being more today and there being the probability of tickets being reasonably priced, this makes sense in many ways.

I have a very simple way to decide as to whether we should go by train or air. In case the journey can be done by an overnight train, typically in less than 10 -12 hours, I prefer to take the train. The romance of train journeys has stayed with me since childhood but  even though the spirit is willing, the flesh is definitely weak as far as longer journeys are concerned. So, if I am going on a personal vacation I am quite happy to take the train between Hyderabad and Chennai or Bangalore or Pune. Of course, if I were going on business I would go by air. On the other hand travel to Kolkata or Delhi or Mumbai from my city Hyderabad would always be done by air.

As many frequent travelers will know, the price of air tickets vary greatly depending on the time you buy them. In general, the earlier you buy the better are the chances of getting a good price. However, if you are planning to go around the school holidays or some festival or a long weekend, the prices will normally be always high. The second element is waiting for an airline sale etc and taking advantage of the cashback and discounts that some credit and debit cards offer. If you plan early and take these into account by using the mobile apps from different travel sites, you can get a rather good deal.

Let me give some examples of the air ticket purchases I have done this year, so that the readers can get the point easily:-

  • We are leaving for Kumarokom tomorrow for a week’s vacation. I wanted to book an air ticket as trains were few and the journey time exceeded my benchmark.
    •  I looked at a few sites and decided on Make My Trip site. It had reasonable prices and good options though it charges convenience fees of 175 per ticket.
    • However with the MMT site Citibank was running a cashback offer of 1200 Rs which I utilized along with some MMT points.
    • The overall price after the cashback came to about 8000 Rs, which was not much higher than the AC 2 tier fare.
  • I also booked air ticket for my son as he wanted to come in mid semester for a couple of days. While there is a train and regular Volvo buses between Goa and Hyderabad, those were not convenient for a 2 day trip.
    • As the overall price was coming to less than 5000 Rs the ICICI or CITI cashback was not working for this ticket.
    • I booked with Ease My Trip as that is a site which does not charge convenience fees for booking tickets.
    • A round trip ticket came to about 4000 Rs, which is only about 20 % more than an AC 2 Tier round trip ticket.
  • The third trip is to Kolkata in October. We have not been there for a long time during Durga Pujas and wanted to do so this year.
    • In this case the tickets were priced at levels where it made sense to break up the purchases in order to maximize the cashback.
    • For the onward journey I used ICICI debit card in the MMT application. Despite the convenience fee the 1500 cashback was worth it.
    • For the return journey, I used the same MMT application with my CITI credit card. The cashback available was 1200 Rs.
    • The overall price of the trip came to about 12000 which is the least I have paid in  years.

Note that these were normally booked without an ongoing sale etc. My experience in that has not been too encouraging and these eventual prices were pretty good. If you are of the opinion that air prices are much higher than train prices think again. With air prices in a competitive situation and train fares increasing greatly in the last 2-3 years, it makes much more sense to look at air travel than ever before.

Of course, traveling by air at short notice is a terrible idea as the prices are astronomical. This is not something which you should ever look to do.