Tools of the (remote) trade!

I have been working remotely for a few years now (three if I remember correctly).

Over time, I have started using a whole bunch of tools which I now take for granted but would make my life very difficult if one or more of them disappeared.

Recently, a friend asked me to compile a list of tools I use for a project she was doing on remote teams and I sent her the following email.

Sharing it here if anyone else finds something useful. Please comment and let me know if you use a tool you love — which I haven’t covered in my list.

1. Communications

– Slack (https://slack.com) – chat between team mates. Heavily used.
– Appear.in (https://appear.in) (quick video chats. no registration required)
– Google Hangouts / Google Meet (https://meet.google.com)
– Zoom Chat (https://zoom.us) (great video quality. Especially between timezones – limited to 40m for free sessions)
– Uber Conference (http://uberconference.com) — Good if you have people dialing in.

2. Time Tracking

– Toggl (https://toggl.com) (Tracks hours and projects which you work on and when)
– RescueTime (https://rescuetime.com) (advanced time tracker. Tracks time automatically and sends weekly report letting you know whether you are productive or not)

3. Finance

– Payoneer (https://payoneer.com) — Get paid in a virtual US / UK bank account and get converted to INR.
– Transferwise (https://transferwise.com) — Get paid in your local currency from abroad. Easily.
– Toshl (https://toshl.com) — Manages your finances, transactions, etc.
– Paypal (https://paypal.com) — Convenient. But use only if all other options are exhausted. High commissions.

4. Clocks

– Clocks on the Mac App store for all timezone needs (for Mac) (http://studiodalton.com/) – Highly recommended
– Klok on the iPhone 

Both these apps allow you to scrub a timeline changing times across timezones. Very effective.

5. Calendaring

– Google calendar is the best (https://calendar.google.com)

6. Travel

– Nomad List (https://nomadlist.com/) — Best cities to live for remote workers. Really good.
– TripIt is excellent (https://tripit.com) — Puts all your travel plans in one convenient location easily.
– LoungeBuddy (https://www.loungebuddy.com/) — Which lounges do you have access to? + Reviews.
– City Mapper (https://citymapper.com/) — Transport planning in new places.

7. Project Planning

– Trello (https://trello.com) — For light weight project planning. Very easy to learn and use.
– Jira (https://jira.com) — Mostly for software stuff. Quite detailed.

8. Notes (Collaborative)

– Google docs (https://docs.google.com) / spreadsheets (https://sheets.google.com) are excellent
– Evernote (https://evernote.com)

9. Tasks / To Dos

– Wunderlist (https://wunderlist.com)

10. Music

– Spotify (https://spotify.com) — You can get access worldwide if you have a premium account (needs US CC)
– Apple Music — Second best option if you don’t have Spotify.

11. Audio / Video

A good webcam / headphone is essential for good video calls. Don’t rely on your default laptop ones.

I use Logitech C920 (https://amzn.to/2RUpMoP)
Which comes with a great HD, noise cancelling mic as well.

Headphones any work. Though noise cancelling ones are recommended for working from noisy places.

Personally, I use Sennheiser PXC550 (https://amzn.to/2DnjXw6) but the Bose QC25 and Bose QC35s are great as well.

It also makes sense to have an external monitor if you are working from home to prevent stress and work easier.

No recommendations here. Any monitor that fits well on your table and does not stress your eyes is good.

12. Keyboards & Mice

If you are working from home, it may make sense to invest in a good external keyboard and mouse.

You can prop up your laptop on a stand. Quite economically available — such as Amazon Basic’s laptop stand (https://amzn.to/2zWbuwn)

Keyboards and mice — whatever suits you best.

I use a mechanical, TVS Gold keyboard which is responsive and nice and a Logitech gaming mouse (G102 Mouse) — I don’t play games on my laptop but the mouse is so much nicer to use.

How to setup a custom WordPress site on your domain in under 5 minutes

I generally write tech related blogs on https://saurabhontech.com to keep things a little separate from what I write here.
But this tutorial that I have just put up will be applicable to lots of folks – techie or not.
Nowadays, it is quite easy to setup your own website in under 5 minutes with around $10 / month of hosting space (allows for unlimited sites).
So, if you ever felt you wanted to setup a site and didn’t know how to start, this tutorial should get you up and running.
Any questions, please shout out in the comments.
Click on the link below to go to the tutorial:
How to setup a custom WordPress site on your domain in under 5 minutes

Love you to bits: excellent game to play together with your child!

Just wanted to tip my hat to this lovely iOS game that my three year old and I finished playing recently together called Love you to bits.
I stumbled on it by accident quite a few months ago (it was the Free app of the week) and kiddo got interested while I was attempting the game.
Soon, it become our daily ritual to spend half an hour going through the super cute, point and click puzzles. The music is soothing, artwork awesome and the game play excellent.
The story is simple enough that a three year old can follow.
It does have a little bit of cartoon violence on a couple of levels (nothing too drastic – but it isn’t designed for children as such).
However, it has the exact balance of many elements that makes it a joy to play.
I for one, hate point and click games and can never finish them without using hints of a walkthru – but this game though challenging, never made you feel like you couldn’t get out of a level.
A true gem of a game. Highly recommended!
Download here. Trailer is below:

How credit cards work in India and why you should use them

I remember applying for my first credit card on Day 2 of my job after college. ICICI bank at the time had a black, platinum credit card that they were offering.
The guy however told me to come back after three months – they needed three salary slips from my current employer as I was not in Infosys or Wipro (guys at these companies got credit cards on the basis of  their offer letters).
I did, and had my first credit card finally. Good decision too — as six months later, I had quit my job and started a start-up (sounds funny now) – and no bank would give me a credit card then.
This was back in 2007.
Almost ten years later, even after the demonetization thingy, there are quite a few folks who are just getting a credit card and even then, are super hesitant to use it.
There are many bits of misleading information doing the rounds due to which people shy away from getting one – or using one if they have it.
I hope that after reading what I have to say, you will be more inclined to get a credit card or start using the one you already have.

Why credit cards make sense

Credit cards are by far, the safest way to make purchases – primarily because the entire channel is validated. The merchant who is accepting credit card payments is approved by a credit card company and also has to maintain a deposit with them.
Here are some reasons why paying via credit cards are a no-brainer.

Buyer Protection

In today’s world, buyers have extremely strong protections.
Even if you buy something from an extremely untrustworthy website (and I have on occasions) and your goods don’t arrive — all you need to do is call your credit card company and file a dispute.
They will open an investigation and if they find your claim to be true, the money is returned back to you.
Depending on the credit card company, you will have somewhere between 30 – 60 days to file this claim.
While the claim is in process, you (mostly) do not have to pay the money to your credit card company.
Which other mode of payment gives you this level of security? If you pay via debit cards, the money is gone from the bank and very often, there is very little the banks can do to help.

Theft Protection

Most of the good credit card companies will have some sort of theft protection which they offer because they have their own insurance.
If you are on a trip abroad and your wallet gets flicked and the thief buys stuff with your credit card, the credit card company will waive this off provided you notify them of the theft within a day or so.
The onus on verifying the card is with the merchant and when this happens, the card company will mostly just pull the money back from the merchant.
So, you are absolutely safe. Imagine this happening with stuff like cash or debit cards.

Reward Points and other offers

Almost every credit card company will offer you some sort of reward points for making transactions on them. They are able to give you reward points because they charge the merchant a transaction fee when you swipe your card. This is generally between 1 – 3%
Personally, using reward points accumulated, we have flown to places free of cost and stayed at 5 star hotels for free.
(Long story short, if you spend around 5L on an American Express Platinum Travel card in a year, you would have flight tickets worth 10K and a Taj Holiday voucher worth 10K in addition to having some more points to spend).
Lots of credit cards will also give you free movie tickets every month and other benefits like hotel and restaurant discounts on top of reward points.
As a customer, you have not spent anything additional – but have reaped benefits. So, why wouldn’t you do it?

The actual credit

If you plan your purchase correctly, you can get upto 50 odd days of credit on something you just bought. (For example, if you buy something on Day 1 on your credit cycle,  you have 30 days of the month and an additional 20 days of the following month to make the payment).
If you have just bought flight tickets worth Rs. 1L, and kept the money even in a fixed deposit (giving you 6.5%) and pay the bill after 50 days, you would have made around Rs. 800 — which is essentially free money.

Keep track of your expenses in one place

The credit card statement at the end of the month lists down all your expenses in one place. You have to maintain this yourself if you use cash.

How credit cards work

Behind the scenes, when a merchant swipes your credit card and you put your PIN number in, the credit card company informs the merchant whether you have enough credit available in your account.
Till this point in time, no money has actually transacted.
The merchant then needs to ‘collect’ the charge at the end of the day (usually).
So, if there is an issue with your product or anything,  the merchant can simply cancel a transaction even after you have put your PIN in and received the payment SMS.
In some cases, the merchant will simply not collect the charge and after 7 days or so, this gets automatically refunded.
You do not pay the amount for an un-collected charge – so you are protected at that point as well – incase the merchant runs out of stock or cannot procure the goods for your order.
Plus, due to the merchant requiring to keep a deposit with the card company, it is much easier to reverse a charge and get your money back.
And in the worst possible situation in which the merchant disappears after taking your money, the credit card company has insurance and you will rarely need to pay anything for a bad transaction.
Still with me? Awesome!
Next section contains tips on picking out a credit card.

Tips on getting a credit card

Salaried vs Business

I have found that it is much easier to get a credit card if you are salaried versus if you are a business owner. Especially if you are a new business owner – some banks may still offer you a credit card, but with a lower credit limit.
So, if you are in a job and plan to quit soon, make sure you get a couple of credit cards before you do so.

Credit cards attract more credit cards

At one time, I had over 7 credit cards from different banks even when I was doing my startup simply because I had an existing credit card.
Most credit card applications will ask if you already own a credit card and if you do, your chances greatly improve on getting a new credit card.
However, having many credit cards is generally not recommended as it affects your credit rating (CIBIL).

Free versus Paid

I have found that the paid credit cards offer a much higher value.
Sure, you don’t pay anything for a free card — but then you don’t get back much as well.
For example, an ICICI bank Rubyx card which costs 3,500 bucks to get gives much better points conversion than the free card they offer. In addition, you get stuff like airport lounge access (each access costs Rs. 1,000 if you pay for it) and the starting bonus is a pair of Sennheiser headset worth 3K.
So, overall, I would highly recommend getting a paid card if you can afford it as the payback is significantly higher if you move all your purchases to the credit card.

How many cards should I own?

I think you should have 2 credit cards to be really safe. Try to get cards from different providers.
For example, you should try and get an American Express and either a Mastercard or Visa.
Not all stores accept American Express even though it has great benefits – hence you need a supplementary Visa or a Mastercard.

Get supplementary cards for your spouse / family

It makes sense to get supplementary cards for your spouse rather than getting them a separate card as the points add up on the same account for all supplementary cards.
You may have lower limit overall (because the limit is shared between the cards) – so it makes sense to get 2 different cards with 2 supplementary ones for the both of you.

Things to watch out for

Paying bills on time

Most credit cards will want you not to pay the entire amount by the due date.
The balance amount left is shown as a personal loan and the interest rates can be brutal – 2.5 – 4% a month (i.e upto 48% a year) on the remaining amount.
The only way you can use a credit card to your advantage is to always pay the entire amount by the due date.
Never get into credit card debt. Not only will they take you to town with their interest rates, your credit rating will also be hit.
If you can’t afford to pay for something a 100%, you should probably not be buying it.

International transactions – 1

Most international websites will not have an OTP mechanism. So, payments go through just by giving your CC number and CVV + expiry date.
If you do not see yourself buying anything internationally, it might be worthwhile to call the bank and ask them to block all international transactions on your card even if your card is international by default.

International transactions – 2

Remember that your credit card company will charge around 3 – 3.5% as currency conversion fees when you spend on anything in foreign currency. So keep that in mind while doing transactions.

International travel

If you happen to travel out of the country, it makes sense to call your credit card company and inform them on the dates and countries of travel. They generally add a note to your credit card asking their fraud prevention team to allow international transactions.
Once, my credit card was blocked while I was billing at an Apple store in the US leading to an embarrassing situation.
(Ironically my debit card worked and I was able to complete the purchase)

Never withdraw money from the ATM

Most credit cards will allow you to with draw some small amounts of cash from any ATM – around 10 – 20K depending on your limits.
The credit card company will show this as a personal loan and charge between 3 – 4% interest per month on the amount.
So unless you are in a bad situation, always avoid doing this even if convenient.
That is about it! Happy credit card shopping!
I hope this post has been helpful and if you have any questions, please put them in the comments and I will definitely help you out.

How to hack your home loan

Please note: Though this post talks specifically about a home loan, it is applicable to any type of loan. I only speak of a ‘home’ loan as I have experience there.

Please note #2: All the calculations that you see below have been made by the super-awesome Home Loan Schedule calculator that I wrote a few years ago and something you should check out and bookmark.

So, you have gone ahead and taken a home loan and are looking dejectedly at your bank balance which will never see the highs that it had — just before you put the 20% upfront (required in India). Don’t worry – we have all been there.

I have some good news though – things will get better after a while 🙂

I will try to share some insights and tips that I learnt while we tackled our home loan.

Recently, while speaking to some friends regarding their loans, I realised how uncommon this knowledge is – so decided to write a post and share what I know.

Some jargon that will be used in the post

  • ROI – Rate of Interest (the interest rate that you are paying).
  • Principal – The amount of money you require the loan for.
  • EMI – Equated monthly installments – the amount of money that you need to pay back to the bank every month.
  • Part payment – An amount of money that you pay off more than the required EMI.
  • Pre-payment – The amount you pay and the process of closing of the loan by making a final lumpsum amount which equals to the balance principal amount to be paid.

Things to keep in mind BEFORE you take your loan

Everyone will offer you more or less the same interest rates today – but some have better features than others. So always look around and find the institution that has features which will make your life convenient.

During our time, Axis bank had no pre-payment charges and was okay with you moving your loan to another bank at no additional cost.

All other institutions will charge you a 2% penalty when you try and switch your loan to someone else.

ICICI Bank (with whom we ended up going) provides a nifty feature by which you can call them over the phone and make a part-payment every month in under 10 minutes (up to a certain amount).

This saves you the hassle of going to the bank and sitting across a person who will take 30 minutes to do the same if you are lucky.

SBI always has the best rate of interest but I have found dealing with them to be extremely tedious and something I have really avoided since my college days (I had a student loan with them at the time).

So look around and see what features you will require.

Remember that you can always negotiate your terms with the banks even if they are not part of the normal plan as the banks are quite desperate to hand out loans to people with good credit rating.

Banks versus other Financial Institutions

Please keep in mind that there are many places were you can get loans. These generally come under 2 categories – banks and home-loan institutions.

Examples of banks will be ICICI, Axis, SBI, PNB, etc.

Examples of institutions are LIC, India Bulls Home Loan, Reliance Home Finance, HDFC, etc.

As a caveat, remember that even though HDFC has banks, its home loan department is a separate entity and does not come under a bank.

When we were taking a loan back in 2010/11, different rules governed banks and institutions when it came to loans and we decided to focus on banks as the rules seemed more transparent and governed heavily by the RBI.

Please keep this in mind and do your home work. Financial institutions like LIC, HDFC, etc (from experiences shared with me), tend to be less transparent with their interest rates.

Will the Rate of Interest go up or down?

Hmm… When we took our home loan, we were paying 11.5% (which was the standard at the time).

At the time of writing this post, my friends are taking loans at 9.4 – 9.5%

What my loan advisor explained to me was that even though 11.5% was on the higher end at that time, the good news was that it would go only lower.

It all depends on the economy and the growth rate. So, expect your loan to fluctuate between 9% to 12% depending on how we are doing as a country.

There was a time when ICICI was offering loans at 7% and I have heard of rates going as high as 14% – but I feel those days are behind us.

With so many people buying houses now and RBI playing big-brother, things seem to have settled down.

How much does a 2% change in the interest rate affect you?

  • Loan of Rs. 50L over 20 years (240 months) @ 9.5% ROI = Rs. 46,606.56 per month
  • Loan of Rs. 50L over 20 years (240 months) @ 11.5% ROI = Rs. 53,321.48 per month

So you effectively pay Rs. 6,715 every month for a 2% increase

How loans work?

Apart from the simple principle in which you borrow money from the bank and pay that and some more back, home loans work in a peculiar way when you start repaying the monthly installments.

Banks will always try and recover the interest component of their loans first.

To see what is really going on, you need to take a look at your amortization schedule.

Say for example, you are taking a loan as follows:

  • Loan Amount: Rs. 50,00,000 (50 lacs)
  • Rate of Interest: 9.5%
  • Tenure: 20 years (or 240 months) – the standard tenure nowadays
  • Start Date: 1-Jan-2016

This works out to an EMI of Rs. 46,606.56

If you will look at your amortization schedule, it will look like this:

Amortization Schedule

As you can see, the bulk of your installment goes into the interest component.

So after 1 year, you have paid the bank Rs. 5,59,278 but the actual loan amount paid is Rs. 88,046.94 (16% of the amount paid). The rest of the money or Rs. 4,71,231.78 (84% of the amount paid) goes as the interest component to the bank and does not help in reducing the loan amount.

So at the end of year 1, you have paid the bank close to Rs. 5.6L but your loan has reduced only by Rs. 88K

If you go down further and see how your year 5 looks like, there isn’t much improvement.

Amortization Schedule - 5 years

  • You pay: Rs. 5,59,278
  • Interest: Rs. 4,30,721 (77% of amount paid)
  • Principal: Rs. 1,28,557 (23% of amount paid)

Total paid at the end of 5 years / 60 installments is:

  • You pay: Rs. 27,96,390 (~ 55% of your home loan amount)
  • Interest: Rs. 22,59,662.83 (81% of amount paid)
  • Principal: Rs. 5,36,730.74 (19% of amount paid)
  • Load pending: Rs. 44,63,269.26 (89% of the home loan amount taken)

That means if after 5 years of paying the loan, you win a lottery and decide to pay back your 50L loan, you will still have to pay Rs. 44.6L to the bank.

So how much do you actually end up paying the bank over 20 years?

Loan Paid over 20 years

Rs. 1,11,85,574.25

Or Rs. 1.11 Crores on a Rs. 50L over 20 years!

How do I beat this thing?

There is a very simple way to beat this and unfortunately, this is not very common knowledge.

This is the most important bit – so read carefully.

The biggest damage that you can do to your loan is in the first few years while the interest component percentage is at the highest. As time goes by, this tends to get less and less effective.

Option 1: Increase your EMI

Once you have paid your first monthly installment, head over to the bank and ask them to bump up your EMI to whatever you can afford.

I’ll show you a simple example of how this will have an effect.

From our earlier example of a Rs. 50L loan / 20 years @9.5%, the EMI comes to Rs. 46,606.

If you can even afford to pay Rs. 50,000 – i.e. approximately Rs. 3,400 more from month #2 onwards, this happens:

Change in EMI to 50K

Your tenure is reduced from 240 months -> 200 months

That is, 40 months are shaved off your home loan and you are now paying the bank a total of Rs. 99.6L (approx) versus Rs. 1.11 Crores earlier.

A saving of Rs. 12.26L overall or 11%

If you say you can afford to pay a little more – say Rs. 55K (instead of Rs. 50K), this is what happens:

Change in EMI to 55K

Your tenure is reduced from 240 months -> 162 months and you pay the bank Rs. 88L instead of 1.11 Crore and save a whopping Rs. 22.9L in the process (20.50%)

How does this work?

If you compare the original payment schedule and the new one, can you spot the difference?

Amortization Schedules Compared
(click for a larger image)

Basically any excess that you pay over your existing EMI, goes directly to your principal.

So where earlier, you were paying only Rs. 7,000 odd per month against your principal,  you are now paying Rs. 15,000 which really eats up your principal and reduces the interest and hence the tenure.

This is the magic of compounding interest and how you can use it to your advantage.

Option 2: Make part-payments

Some banks allow you to make part-payments which are equivalent to one month’s EMI or more while others have no such restriction. (You should find out what your bank’s policy is.)

So whenever you are able to save up some money, put it in the loan. It REALLY helps killing that loan off.

Say you are able to save up Rs. 1L at the end of the year and you make a part-payment. What happens?

Part Payment of 1L

As you can see, making a part-payment of Rs. 1L in month #13, cuts down your tenure from 240 months to 228 months. A saving of 12 months of paying EMIs or basically Rs. 4.72L by paying 1L earlier.

Hence, in addition to increasing your EMI, if you make part-payments, that really helps in killing your loan.

Should I save up for part-payments or increase my EMI?

Say for example, you can save 1L additional every year. Does it make sense to part-pay 1L at the end of the year or increase your EMI by Rs. 5K?

It definitely helps to increase your EMI as the extra money you pay cuts into the principal every month and the compounding principal helps you pay lesser every month compared to waiting for 12 months and then making a lumpsum payment.

However, the goal is to do either or both. Whatever you can afford. It does not matter as long as you are making some kind of additional payments.

Reduction in tenure versus EMI?

Whenever you make a part-payment, the bank will ask you whether you want a reduction in EMI or in tenure.

It is ALWAYS better to ask for a reduction in tenure. Reduction in EMI will keep giving the bank interest for extended periods of time and is not beneficial to your cause at all.

However, there may be some special circumstances under which you would want to reduce your EMI for some temporary relief. In those cases, after making a part-payment, you can ask your bank for a reduction in EMI. However, this should be the exception rather than the norm.

Some final notes

Every bank is different and they have their own weird clauses.

So if you want to follow any advice from this blog, I would highly recommend checking up with your bank first.

There could be a clause that you cannot reduce your EMI once you increase it to some level or that you cannot make part-payments for the first year, etc.

You have to do your homework and spend sometime with customer care to get your doubts cleared.

Some Examples

The following Google Sheet contains examples of the following:

  1. Schedule for 20 years with no part-payments
  2. Schedule for 20 years with increase in EMI to realistic levels (depending on job promotions, etc)
  3. Schedule for 20 years with part-payments
  4. Schedule for a non-aggressive, realistic home loan payment (increase in EMI and part-payment)

Spreadsheet: https://goo.gl/qcyPLn

The Calculator

After learning about the amortization schedules and the way this works, I wrote a calculator to help myself with this. You can find it here:


I would highly recommend you play with it and find your own sweet spot. If you stumble upon any errors, please do let me know (though I have verified the calculations with my banks schedule and they match up).

The table generated can easily be COPY-PASTED into excel for further analysis, etc.

Hoping this post has been useful to you. Happy home-loan-hacking!

Why eCommerce is eventually going to eat up all brick and mortar businesses in India

I recently bought a mattress for our guest bedroom. My first offline purchase in many months. A mattress is something that you need to touch, feel bounce on before making a purchase. And hence, we went to a nearby mattress place and after checking out a number of options, settled on one.
We could have easily walked out and purchased it online – but my conscience wouldn’t let me. So we made an order.
The guy asked me to pay half the amount as advance — in cash. I did.
What followed was a series of back and forth – calling the guy, checking with the delivery schedules. Canceling plans to wait at home and the delivery not showing up.
What was promised to be delivered on Monday, was delivered after a lot of following up 4 days later.
Worse was that the guy refused to give me a legitimate bill. He made excuses. He finally told me that his CA was away and when we will be back, he will issue me a tax invoice. I paid the entire amount in cash. After having such a tough time just getting the goods delivered, it would be foolish to follow up on a bill.
That’s where I think eCommerce really shines for me.

Not having to deal with another human for purchasing something

You look up things online. The marketplace makes prices competitive – removing the entire point of haggling. You click a button and the goods are delivered in a timely manner with all legalities in place. Without ever speaking to anyone.
Hell, you can even start your own store, use Shopify to setup your shop – and start selling your own goods. All without speaking to anyone.
Technology keeps people honest. It keeps the contract binding.
I think that is the most important aspect for me and many people like me. And that is why I think eCommerce and every single experienced eCommerce development company will eat up all the brick and mortar businesses in India. It is not simply because eCommerce is painless (which it is) – but brick and mortar businesses are, as a friend put it, hitting their foot on the axe!
This blog was originally posted on my LinkedIn Account.

What to do when you are in Turkey

Sometime back in June 2013, we had quite a fun and successful trip to Turkey – which we had planned from scratch (Pritika mostly). Everything from airline tickets to the itinerary, hotels, etc. was meticulously planned and we did not use any travel agents.
I had then intended to write a six part blog post on the entire trip – but life got in the way. Since then, I have been asked by a bunch of friends about the trip and finally thought of putting in a one post with tips and things to do. I am going to try and be concise.
Our itinerary was as follows:

  • Mumbai (BOM) to Istanbul (IST) via Turkish Airlines
  • Istanbul – 3 nights – Stayed at Hotel Erboy (I highly recommend this hotel)
  • Istanbul – Kayseri (airport for Goreme – Cappadocia) via Anadolu Airlines
  • Goreme – 3 nights – Stayed at the Divan Cave House (They have an excellent breakfast)
  • Kayseri – Istanbul via Anadolu Airlines
  • Istanbul – 2 nights – Stayed again at Hotel Erboy
  • IST to BOM via Turkish Airlines

Visa to Turkey
If you are an Indian citizen and hold a valid US, UK or Schengen visa, you can get your Turkish Visa online or on arrival. If you do not have either of these, you will need to get a Turkish Visa earlier via the normal route (I am not sure if this has changed since then – please let me know if this has)
Pritika and I both had US Visas and that was the reason for us to go to Turkey in the first place.
We got the Visa online via: https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ which you can download and print for $20 per head (I think). You have to carry this print out with you. I recommend this as the Visa on arrival counter can get quite busy in the morning and you may have to wait for 30 – 40 minutes.
Currency in Turkey
The primary currency is Turkish Lira – but they also accept dollars and Euros.
I carried a few dollars for emergency – but right outside the airport, I went to the ATM and got some lira which we used. I mostly paid by my Amex card (food, hotels, etc) which was accepted mostly everywhere – except at a couple of places in Goreme which took only Visa / Mastercard. So you will need to carry a backup Visa / Mastercard as well if you have an Amex.
Banks, ATM & Conversion charges
Don’t try to pay via USD or EUR because the conversion rate the folks give you are horrible. Also – you will find money changers at every location – avoid those as well as I have seen really poor conversion rates. My bank charges me 3.5% for international transactions which was quite acceptable if I was withdrawing more than INR 11,000 per withdrawal.
Staying Connected
For this trip, I just got a SIM card which works in 40 odd countries from Matrix cellular. Get the prepaid card (500 bucks for the card + top up). They will try to sell you the post paid – avoid that like the plague!
I put in 1,000 bucks in the pre-paid top up – and had over 800 bucks left when we got back. So you may be better off recharging for lesser. Only drawback with the prepaid card is that you don’t have internet – but I made sure all the places we stayed at had free WiFi.
Since then, I have bought a One Sim Card which I would highly recommend.
Internal travel
Istanbul has an awesome public transport system. Unlike the US where you have a fixed rate no matter where you get on or get off, here you need to pay by the distance. You can buy an Istanbul kart and load it from the Airport when you get there which you can use for all public transport in Istanbul (metro / ferry / etc).
The Istanbul cart works like a credit card – so multiple people can use the same card. So you need to buy only one of these.
The metro can get crowded – but people are nice and friendly and it was fun traveling via the Metro.
Travel Light
We took 2 x small suitcases which we carried into the plane (no check-in) as domestic airlines inside Turkey will charge you for check in baggage. This was great and also let us use public transport everywhere as we did not have to fight our luggage.
Staying at Istanbul
Initially, we decided to AirBnb our stay and even booked a room in the Taksim area of Istanbul for something like INR 800 per day – but when the riots broke out exactly there, we figured a hotel would be safer to stay in and the nice folks at Trip Advisor advised that it would be safer to stay in the old / touristy city (Sultanhamet) rather than the new part.
It was a great decision and I was happy choosing Erboy because everything was walking distance and we could come back in the middle of the day and rest at the hotel rather than sit somewhere random.
What to do in Istanbul?
Istanbul is an awesome city and it has a LOT of things to offer. Even after spending 5 days there, we felt we could have stayed for a week more and not seen everything.
Museum tours can get boring (and expensive) quickly if you are not the history buff. We did a couple – but decided to leave out the rest. Instead, I would highly recommend the following experiences while in Istanbul:

  1. The Hagiya Sofiya / The Blue Mosque
    This is probably the most iconic landmark in Istanbul and a ten minute walk from our hotel. It is truly breath taking and a definite visit.
  2. Gulhane Park
    Brilliant park. They have a small cafe there. Nice place to sit, chill out for a bit and have awesome apple Turkish tea 🙂
  3. Hafiz Mustafa 1864
    This is an awesome, awesome eatery – again within 15 minutes walking from our hotel which we turned up at every evening for coffee and awesome pastries and baklava.
  4. Baklava
    Eat lots of them!
  5. The Bosphorus Cruise and visit to the Prince Islands
    We almost did not do this but were so happy that we did. It was one of the highlights of our Istanbul stay.
    Get the government ferry which takes you to the Prince Islands. Hop off on one of them and get some lunch and hop back on again. It is truly beautiful – the cruise.
    I remember getting that auto GPS guide which was a total waste (audio was bad and not in sync). Avoid that. We went all the way to Büyükada – which is the last island and had lunch there and walked about. It was excellent! The ferry takes an hour to get there and an hour back with a couple of hours loitering about – so it was a good half a day excursion.
    PLEASE DO NOT TAKE ANY PRIVATE FERRIES / CRUISES.They are expensive and I have found loads of reports of people getting swindled and even mugged. The government one is excellent, cheap and has a food place inside the boat in which you can buy tea, coffee and snacks.
  6. The Grand Bazaar
    This one is a must do.
    Don’t plan to buy a lot of things there though because you cannot get a good bargain with these guys anyways (they are professionals) and you’ll feel you overpaid no matter what discount you received 🙂 (high chance of buyers regret). But it is a must-see. Prepare to get lost quite a bit as it is quite huge.
  7. The Museum of Archaeology
    This was again decent – lots of walking around but they have an awesome garden restaurant where we sat for a bit and had excellent Turkish tea.
  8. The Arasta Market
    This was a nice, quiet market to walk around in. If you are looking to buy towels, soaps and the like, good place to check out.
  9. Rooftop Restaurants
    Our hotel had a rooftop restaurant for drinks which we went to one evening and it was breath taking. The Istanbul skyline is just amazing. Try and do this one of the evenings while the sun is setting.
  10. Topkapi Palace
    This is again a very huge tourist attraction. It was interesting and pretty – but in hindsight, we could have given it a miss as we are not really history buffs.  But if you have a choice between a museum and a this place, you could do this instead.

Entrance Fees
These things add up quite fast and is something that we did not anticipate in our budget and planning. Paying 25 EUR per head per attraction is not uncommon. So keep this in mind if you are planning this trip on a budget.
Getting to Cappadocia
Cappadocia is actually a big region and there are smaller towns where you need to stay at – depending on what you want to do. We wanted to basically do the balloon ride – and hence decided to stay at a place called Goreme – which is about an hour’s drive from the Kayseri airport.
Note that Istanbul has 2 airports – the main international one (Ataturk) and a second airport (Sabiha Gokcen) which are quite far apart. To catch the plane for Kayseri – you have to go to the Sabiha airport (the second one) which is about an hour / 90 minutes drive from Sultanhamet.
There is a Havatas shuttle which offers an affordable service to and fro from the airport – which your hotel can arrange for you.
We stayed at the Divan Cave house in Goreme – which was good but not brilliant. Our first and second choices were all booked at Goreme.
Things to do at Goreme

  1. Get the Balloon Ride
    This is the primary reason you are here, aren’t you?
    I would highly recommend getting it from a reputed company – we went via Butterfly Balloons and were super happy with them. They will pick you up from your hotel at around 4:30ish AM, get you some light breakfast, take you on the ride and drop you back off.They are extremely professional and our captain seemed to know what he was doing. The entire ride lasts 1 hour – 1 hour 20 min and is worth every penny (We paid something around 300 – 350 EUR for 2 people).
    On landing, they have wine and cake and give you a certificate of flight after which they drop you back at your hotel by 9ish.
    Remember to take your camera and have the panoramic setting on your phone.
  2. Derinkuyu Underground City
    I would highly recommend doing this. We took a local bus toDerinkuyu and back. Your hotel should be able to explain to you how to do this.
    However, if you and tire easily, are asthmatic or have 0ther heart / stress related illness, you can give this a miss as it is quite strenuous.
    There is a LOT of climbing and the passages can be very narrow and claustrophobic.
    We did not initially hire a guide to save some money (they are decently expensive) – which I think was a bad decision as you can get lost quite easily. However, one of the guards inside came up to us and offered to show us around for half the price. Another wandering couple joined us and his price dropped even lower. I am not sure if you will be able to find guards willing to take you around now (check out TA) but that saved our trip.
    He was not as thorough as a guide probably would be, but we did not feel we missed out on anything. A guide will be able to give you a better narrative which is extremely important for a place like this.Truly amazing and wonderful.
  3. The Goreme Open air museum
    This again is a fun place but visit only if you have time.  You can easily give this a miss as it involves a decent bit of walking and is on the outskirts of the main town center. It took about 30 mins of walking to get there which was a bad idea while coming back in the hot sun (I don’t think there is any public transport in Goreme). You can rent out a scooter or a car if you are adventurous.

Scams in Turkey
Being one of the top 5  tourist destinations, Turkey has it’s share of scams and tourist traps. Please be aware of them and avoid them. Whenever in doubt, pay a little more and go to a more reputed business rather than a cheaper, shady one. Trip Advisor is your friend.
This is a good resource – though I hadn’t seen this at the time: http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Middle_East/Turkey/Tourist_Traps-Turkey-TG-C-1.html
We had watched this episode of Scam City: Istanbul which was quite helpful: http://watch-series-tv.to/episode/scam_city_s1_e7.html
Istanbul Trip Advisor Page
The Istanbul TA pages and forums were super helpful. Considering there were riots happening then – the locals in the TA community was super helpful in alleviating our fears. So if you have any specific questions, please check them out here:

If you have any questions or comments, shoot them and I’ll try my best to answer them.
Picture time!

How to disable the data usage flash messages on the Idea Network

If you are on an IDEA network and have a post paid number, you’ll notice these highly annoying data usage flash messages everytime your phone disconnects an active connection.
To get rid of this, simply dial:


To activate this again, dial:


If you simply want to check your data usage, you can dial:


This will show you your current limits but will not enable the messages again.
Hopefully this information is useful to some folks.

How to get your child’s passport in India in 3 days flat!

UPDATE (09-Aug-2016)
It has been a year and a half since I wrote this post and since I got my child’s passport and as you can imagine, a lot of things have changed. A few lucky breaks that happened to us may not apply any more.
I think after reading the blog, you should head down and read the latest comments as those would be more helpful and would paint a more realistic picture of what to expect in today’s date.

UPDATE (04-Mar-2019)
I just read a news article that walk-ins have been stopped for minors and senior citizens in all PSKs. Tried digging in the online PSK website but did not find any information on walk-ins.

As such, I think the news article is still valid and if you need a passport urgently, you would need to get a Tatkaal done. Let me know if your experience has been otherwise.

Indian Express article is here:

I recently applied for the passport of my 10 month old on the Thursday (1st Jan 2015) and had it in my hand on Saturday (3rd of Jan 2015). If you are wondering how this was done, here is my story.
If you are expecting any hacks or cool tips, I am sorry to disappoint, but it was a boring, straight-forward process.
My wife and I both have valid Indian passports and are living in the same city from which we got our original passports issued. So your mileage may vary depending on where you are staying and whether both of you have passports. You may require additional documents if you do not fall under this category.
Other happy notes:

  1. Wife’s name on passport before marriage
    The name on my wife’s passport is the one before marriage and on the birth certificate of my child, the name is from after marriage (change in surname). We were afraid that this would be an issue and we would first have to change her passport and then apply for my child’s passport. Fortunately, this did not matter. The name on my child’s passport under the mother’s name column was entered from the birth certificate and they did not trouble us on this front.
  2. Spouse Name Endorsement
    If you go through the FAQ section of the Passport Office and if you even call their customer support (I did), they will insist that you first endorse your names on each other’s passports. Otherwise you cannot apply for your child’s passport. (On the last page of your passport, there is a line which says “Spouse Name”. You are supposed to do this after your marriage. Both of us basically felt this was quite stupid and we did not bother doing this.) 

    I was quite sure that they would send us back due to this. However, fortunately, they did not bother and did not even bring it up. If you haven’t gotten your names endorsed, don’t worry. Didn’t matter for us.
  3. Walk In Interviews
    When you fill up the form online for the passport and get an interview date – you’ll generally get something after 30-40 days. I applied on 20th Dec and got a date for 30th Jan. However, if it is for your child, it does not matter. You can simply walk-in to the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) the next day (you need to wait for 1 day after filling in the form). The timings for walk-ins are between 9am – 10:30am in Pune. Though this could be different for the PSK you visit. So please check.

What I took:

  1. My passport (original)
  2. My wife’s passport (original)
  3. My child’s birth certificate (original)
  4. Photocopy of my passport (first and last page) – attested by me
  5. Photocopy of my wife’s passport (first and last page) – attested by me
  6. Photocopy of my child’s birth certificate – attested by me
  7. Print out of the Online Application Form Receipt – 1 copy
  8. Annexure H (http://passportindia.gov.in/AppOnlineProject/pdf/AnnexureH.pdf)
  9. A recent passport photograph of my child (3.5 cm x 4.5 cm) because she is less than 4 years old.

What I paid:

  1. Rs. 1,000/- online for the normal passport application process (don’t bother with tatkaal)
  2. Rs. 35/- in cash at the PSK for the SMS registration facility (if you want SMS updates for your passport process)

The Process:

  1. Make sure you have the birth certificate for your child. In our case, this was the only document they scrutinized and I don’t think it may be possible to apply for a passport without it.
  2. Create a username and password on the Indian Passport Site: http://passportindia.gov.in/
  3. Apply for a new passport and fill up the form the best you can.
  4. Pay the required fees (in my case, it was Rs. 1,000.00)
  5. Wait for a day.
  6. Look at the documents you require to carry with you. They have quite a handy document advisor here:
  7. Go to the PSK at 9am. There wasn’t much of a rush for us and we moved along quickly.
    We actually entered at 9:30am and were out by 10:20am

What happens at the PSK:

  1. Tell the guard outside that you are there for your child – so this is a walk-in. He will let you in. Yes. Your child needs to be with you. Both parents can accompany the child.
  2. Go to the Token counter and hand over all the documents from #4 to #8 listed above.
  3. The guy will make a file for you and give you a token print out.
  4. You then will be asked to go to Counter A.
    In Pune, there are approximately 30 counters for the A Counter and our number came up within 30 seconds of us getting the token. (It will be shown on a screen).
  5. Meet with a friendly guy (probably on TCS roll) who will do the data entry for your documents and scan all your original documents along with the notary approved copies and translations and the passport photo of your child.
  6. He will also take your child’s thumb print via ink pad.
  7. He will also verify your details on your application by looking at the original documents and make the necessary changes.
  8. Once everything is done, you have to go to a waiting room and wait for your token to show up for Counter B.
  9. Counters B and C are Government counters and people won’t be as friendly as from Counter A.
  10. This takes about 5 minutes. Your number will be shown on a screen. There are about 10 counters for Counter B.
  11. The junior officer will verify the documents and sign at a place in your file.
  12. You then have to move to counter C (about 6 counters for C). Wait for your token to show on the screen. Takes again about 5 – 10 minutes.
  13. The senior officer or Granting officer takes the final call on your file and will choose to grant your passport.
  14. He will keep your file with him.
  15. You return your token at a window on your way out.
    In Pune, they compulsorily make you fill the feedback form behind the token.
  16. If your passport is granted, you will probably write happy things.
  17. Exit the building.

Next Steps (via SMS & email updates):

  • Thu: Passport sent for printing
  • Thu: Passport printed
  • Fri: Passport dispatched via Speed Post
  • Sat: Passport arrives at home.

I hope this post was helpful. Please leave your comments below of experiences that you’ve had with the passport office.
If you have any particular question, please add it in the comments and I’ll try my best to address it as well.
Update 01: 29-Oct-2015
As per a comment from Madhuri (see below this post), if you submit only one parent’s passport, your child’s application gets put in for police verification and is not as quick as it can be. Hence, it is recommended to submit passports of both parents (if available) to expedite the process and skip police verification.

CFLs vs LEDs vs Incandescent Bulbs

If you have noticed, LED bulbs are all the rage suddenly. They are all over the place – the Philip bulb ads on TV, the Syska LED ads on radio and everywhere else. They have been around for quite sometime – but suddenly have burst into the scene.

So, with incandescent bulbs blowing up around my house, I decided to do a full review and bought a bunch of lights to see which ones stack up.

Here are the contestants:

All types of lights tested

My Setup

So, in my house, we have all yellow lights – which are mostly bulbs and few CFLS. Hence, my test involves LED bulbs and CFLs in the “Warm White” colour – which gives off a nice yellowish, intimate light. But before we go ahead, I present to you a little information researched on various types of bulbs.

This will help you understand why CFLs are more efficient than bulbs and why LEDs are more efficient than CFLs.

It all starts with Lumen

Lumen is a unit to measure the amount of light. If you are interested in the textbook definition, please see here.

In India, we tend to estimate the amount of light given by the wattage of a particular bulb. Hence, most of us probably have a fair bit of an idea on the light given out by 40W bulbs (incandescent) – useful for lamps, etc., 60W bulbs for regular, home lighting and 100W bulbs for outdoor / brighter lighting.

“Watts” or (W) is the unit of electricity consumed.

Incandescent bulbs give us light by passing electricity through a filament which heats up and emits light. In fact, 95% of the energy in these bulbs is lost to heat and only 5% is what produces light (ref). Hence, incandescent bulbs produce only 16 lumens / watt.

CFLs in the way they are built are more efficient and can give us between 50-70 lumens / watt (atleast 3 times more than incandescent bulbs)

LED bulbs on the other hand, can output upto 100 lumens / watt – which make them one of the most efficient sources of lighting. I drew up some numbers to compare these which are in the table below.

How do these compare?

[table id=1 /]

Quality of Light

Artificial lighting sources like bulbs, tubes, etc. are also rated on their ability to reproduce colour. The standard light against which these sources are compared is sunlight and companies like Phillips claim 90 – 95% colour reproduction for even their base models. Because most of us (especially yours truly) cannot make out this difference, I have decided to skip this and instead focus on how the light “looks” to me.

As I have already mentioned, all light fixtures in my house are lamps or wall mounts of some sort. We do not have naked tube lights or bulbs anywhere.

As such, I found the LED bulbs to be quite directional. They are known to not offer the omni-directional light that incandescent bulbs offer – but it was quite apparent to me without making much effort. The light was quite ‘harsh’ for our needs and we decided to not use the bulbs for our lamps.

As a matter of fact, I found the Tornado CFLs to give the best light distribution.

40W Incandescent bulb vs 8W CFL vs 5 LED

40W Incandescent bulb vs 8W CFL vs 5 LED (click for larger image)

As you can see, the incandescent bulb gives the best light distribution – but if you had to compare the CFL vs LED, the CFL (Tornado in this case), creates a much more distributed environment and is not as harsh as the LED.

Which LED bulb should I buy?

There are a couple of bulbs available in the market. I bought and tried the Phillips LED ones and the Alva LED which is an Indian company – and it costs half of what Phillips cost. In my opinion, LED bulbs are quite overpriced at the moment.

However, if you MUST get LEDs, I would recommend Phillips over Alva as I was quite disappointed with the Alva offering.

I bought candle lights from them and this is the light that I got from them:

Comparison of the Alva 4W LED to 40W Incandescent Bulb

The light that the Alva bulbs were casting was quite disappointing – even for use as spotlights (which I did not intend to use them as) – they look quite dirty.

In Conclusion

For me, I have decided to replace all the incandescent lights in my house with CFLs at the moment. There are some fixtures which the CFL form factors do not support (especially the small fixtures with the E14 sockets) – which I am going to continue using bulbs on.

LED bulbs – though exciting – don’t offer the kind of light that I am looking for. Plus the super expensive price point puts me off.

What do you guys think? Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Further Reading / Links

  1. Different types of sockets. Don’t get the wrong type of bulb for your fixture.
  2. Phillips LED bulbs on Amazon
  3. Cheaper LED Bulbs on Snapdeal
  4. Myths vs Facts on LED and CFL lighting (especially about mercury content in CFL bulbs)