Monday, December 28, 2009

Being There

With the busier December holidays behind us, I had a little time to reflect on our efforts to book a hotel room and a flight. We learned a few useful facts about India - and travel to India - and I thought I might share them. Now as Shannon would surely warn you, unless you get a kick out of minutiae, think twice before letting me take you on any kind of tour. I love details, the story behind the story, the whys and the wherefores. Tell me something I don't know - please. I'm genuinely interested. The problem is I sometimes forget not everyone feels the same way. Let me prove that to you.....

Before I begin: In retrospect, could we have just written to Amit Kulkarni - the travel agent recommended by Surrogacy India and mentioned by Shannon - and just trust him entirely to find a suitable hotel? You know what, maybe we could have. His prices were very competitive and he's got lots of happy customers. (In fact, if it wasn't for my ability to get corporate rates through my company, Amit's prices were the best we found.) So for anyone else heading to Mumbai, no shame in starting with Amit. That said, you'll feel a lot better doing your own homework as well. Oh, and Amit only handles the hotels. For flights you're on your own.
  1. What time is it in Mumbai? Well, if you're on the East Coast of the US, subtract 90 minutes then flip am/pm. When it's 8am here in Boston, the Mumbaiers (I just made that up) are heading home from work because it's 6:30pm. And it's later there - they celebrate the New Year before we do.
  2. India's currency is the rupee, currently equivalent to a bit more than two US cents; today it's 46.5 rupees to the dollar. The US has a fairly weak currency right now - our English brother-in-law runs around the streets of Boston laughing, British pounds in hand - so even the rupee is relatively strong compared to past history. Why does this matter? Well it means the fantasy of five star hotel rooms at one star prices is just that - a fantasy. It's not as bad as finding an affordable room in New York City either though. And the fun part is you get to refer to daily room rates in the thousands. "My room costs 5000 rupees?!? What, is it covered in gold? Oh, that's only $110 dollars? Never mind...."
  3. Booking a room in a country you've never been to, a city of 15 million people (that's not a typo) with a heavy mix of the have and have-nots is pretty daunting. Where to look? As Shannon touched on, we favored finding someplace 1) relatively near the hospital we'll be frequenting, 2) in a safe neighborhood (if that's meaningful in such a large city), and 3) near a bunch of restaurants with varied cuisine. We settled on the Hotel Novotel, Juhu Beach. This was not some revelation; the area came highly recommended by other SI patients.
  4. Reading up on the experience of other travelers - not just those on surrogacy missions - taught us to subtract a star for all home-grown hotels. (A 3 star would be a 2 star by our standards.) For international chains, on the other hand, expect some consistency. From what we could tell, at least on Juhu Beach, the simplest room at a true four star hotel starts at $175 a night, not including tax.
  5. Little side note that made sense was to reserve the hotel room at a rupee rate, not a US $ rate. Exchange rates change daily so unless you're an arbitrage expert, why gamble and hope the exchange rate doesn't make things more expensive for you?
  6. Internet access is almost never included in the room price. Worse, it's price tag is clearly meant to milk a captive audience. On average, Internet access costs $18 per day. Some hotels do include it, however, but from what we saw, the nicer the hotel, the less likely Internet access was included. Call it the we-cater-to-business-people-with-expense-accounts maneuver. It's certainly possible that rogue, free WIFI signals can be found drifting through your hotel room but one ought not to expect it.
  7. Sometimes taxes are included in a room rate, sometimes they aren't, and either way it's never clear. Amit always quoted prices that included taxes. If you're doing this on your own or working with some other agent, make sure you know the story.
  8. A visa is necessary for entry into India. Think of it this way - a passport identifies who you are, a visa grants you permission to enter a specific country. Traditionally, visa applications were submitted through a country's embassy; India, and a few other countries, now work through a third party, Travisa. There are quite a few different kinds of visas (business, tourist, student, etc.) and validity duration (6 months, 1 year, 5 years, etc.). As a US citizen we could choose from 6 month, 5 year or 10 year tourist visas and settled on the 5 year. That worked out to about $170 per person - not cheap but not negotiable.
  9. There's a whole bunch of routes from the US to Mumbai, some direct and some indirect. As Shannon mentioned, we let price be a guide - turns out this meant a quick hop from Boston to Newark and then a non-stop on Continental from Newark to Mumbai. All told, about $1000 a head. As luck would have it, going direct was our preference anyway even though it does mean sitting in a petri dish for 16 hours straight. (Some folks might prefer a European layover just to break things up.) We did build a long layover in Newark, however, just to be triple sure our luggage and bodies make the connection. Seems the Boston/Newark flight is often quite delayed.
Why be predictable and go to 10? (Or be like an amp and go to 11?) Thanks for letting me get these off my chest and feel free to share questions in the Comments, or email us, if you're hungry for more. And remember, we still haven't set foot in India yet; we hope like hell that after this is all over we can say, huh, we were actually right about that stuff!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Let the Fertility Festivities Begin

Exciting day for us in our household as we kicked off the morning with my FIRST birth control pill in addition to my prenatal vitamin! Watch out hormones!  Next step, IVF shots, which we begin January 13th.

We hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the holiday season.  Here's to an unforgettable 2010 for all!  xo

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Passage to India

A somewhat huge weight has been lifted now that we have our airfare and hotel booked. Next steps - starting the birth control pill and our IVF meds! (Wait a second. What’s my rush? Birth control and IVF meds?!?!)

It turns out there’s not much of a trick to finding the best priced flight. Despite all our efforts, we couldn’t beat travel search engines like Kayak (our favorite), Mobissimo, Expedia, Orbitz, etc. What does make it a bit complicated is choosing between direct flights from the U.S. vs. connections through Europe. Living in Boston as we do, even direct flights require a connection as no airline flies directly to Mumbai from our city. That said, it’s usually a quick hop from Boston to a hub like New York or Newark. The real question is the time. Do we want 16 hours in one plane – from the U.S. to India – or two 8 hour flights (with a possibly long connection) through a variety of European hubs? When all was said and done, Geoff and I allowed price to dictate our preference. Turns out that Continental flies direct to Mumbai from Newark. Combine that with a hop from Boston to Newark and we had the most affordable option. So we are now scheduled to leave on January 26 and arrive in Mumbai on January 27 – yay!

As for the hotels, Geoff and I thoroughly researched and compared prices for eight hotels in Mumbai and we finally decided to go with the Hotel Novotel Mumbai Juhu Beach, a new hotel that had opened this past July. After talking with other intended parents, India surrogacy parents and from what we’d read in other India-based surrogacy forums and blogs, one of the ideal places to stay in Mumbai for Surrogacy India is a place on the west coast of the city named Juhu Beach. (We know you can't swim in the water or even sit on the beach but the idea of being near the coast would remind us of home and seemed tranquil.)

When researching, websites such as, Tripadvisor and Travelocity offered a great deal of information and helpful reviews, while the actual hotel websites offered specific hotel information and more pictures. Amongst a lot of useful resources SI has provided, Dr. Sudhir and Dr. Yash recommended Amit Kulkarni of Explore India Tourism, based in Mumbai, who could help with booking our hotel. (Helpful tidbit, Explore India Tourism only accepts cash payments.) Amit was extremely helpful, professional, friendly and quite responsive. We are doubly thankful because not only were we looking at reasonable rates provided by Amit, but two local friends graciously offered a "friends and family" rate to the JW Marriott and Taj Lands End, which we also considered. Luckily, we found an even better corporate rate for an upgraded room at the Hotel Novotel through Geoff's work.

It was very tough to make a decision as each hotel has a little something we either really liked or disliked and, let's not forget, cost plays a role in the decision when you’re staying for 10 nights. The point is not to stay in an amazing hotel as if we're on vacation - we're there to grow our family - but seeing that I'll be hopped up on meds, we also want to make sure we stay at a hotel that we're comfortable and safe in. And, if the hotel has a couple of restaurants that cater to Westerners in addition to offering Indian food, which the Hotel Novotel appears to do, we'll be very happy! Even better, we’re told the Juhu Beach area is littered with Western style restaurants. How often do people travel to India and come back heavier?!