Sunday, April 10, 2011

Your Classic Delhi Travel Agent Scam. Or Not?


It started just like the guidebook said it would.  We got off the subway at Connaught Place looking for the Air India office.  Chatting about the upcoming month in India we were surprised when a man in a suit begged our pardon and asked "are you talking to me?".   Obviously we we were not, but that is how the scam starts.  And I played right into his hand when I replied "no, not unless you know where the Air India office is.”  And right by the script he knew exactly where the  Air India office is, or rather, was.  Seamlessly falling into lock-step with us, he told us how he worked in the area for years (he was a banker) and the stand-alone Air India office had just closed.  But my friends, he purred, this is no problem, because Air India now operates out of the Government's "India Tourism Development Corporation,” and would you believe it, that office was right around the corner.  In fact, the agency was on the way to his office, and he would happily show us the way.  Supremely skeptical (we had read about this very scam that morning), we nonetheless decided to walk with him and get some information.  Pointing to a ramshackle, concrete building, with a temporary vinyl ITDC banner he  wished us luck.  He, of course, had to get back to his office.  And as quickly as he appeared he was gone.  Walking into the ramshackle office it was immediately apparent that this was not any sort of Government undertaking, or Air India office for that matter, but we figured if this agent quoted us a good fare (better than the website), we would buy a flight from him.

The next version will detail how they all work
at a prestigious international bank.
When we revealed our plans, a tour of Rajasthan by rail, and the agent's pitch began in earnest: “Sir, you cannot take the train through Rajasthan.  You will surely miss the best and most important sites!  Sir, the train runs on the rails, it is not possibel to enjoy Rajasthan by train.  You must must must take car & driver…”.  The thing was, it was not a hard sell, he seemed genuinely concerned that we, his newest, best clients, would miss so much if we traveled by rail.  Having come so far (“You are from England?  Australia? America?  Oh, America very good very good”), it was imperative that we see Rajasthan by road.  And he had the perfect driver for us.  We took the price of his car and driver, thanked him for his time and told him we would be in touch.

We listened to his pitch because we had received numerous trustworthy recommendations to tour Rajasthan with a car and driver, so the travel agent’s suggestions were not totally foreign to us.  Rajasthan is really big, approximately 130,000 sq miles (two and a half times as large as New York state!), and the freedom and flexibility of a car and driver was attractive to us.*

India Tourism Delhi?
India Tourism Delhi - Regional Office?
India Tourism Delhi Corporation?
Oh my.
So we left the first ITDC office less sure of our plan to do Rajasthan by train.  As we wandered around, mulling over our options, another man, in another suit, swept us into a conversation about our visiting India, and then immediately into his family, our families, and the fact that we did not yet have kids (after 3 years of marriage, gasp!).  Confident that we would not be suckered into buying anything we did not want (having survived our first encounter), and enjoying the suave sales-pitches, we told him how we were planning to tour Rajasthan and had just left the ITDC.  Our new friend stopped abruptly.  He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and with the most serious and solemn tone told us the travel agency office we just left was not an appropriate agency for our needs.  In fact, that ITDC office was only for Delhi.  He had never been more certain in his whole life.  No, no, no, what we needed was the official all-India agency.  And how could we find this all-India agency?  Well, like our previous good-samaritan, this man was also on the way back to his office – another bank - and lo and behold the official all-India travel agency happened to be right on his way.  It would be no problem, no problem at all, his pleasure in fact, for him to show us the way, before, you know, he got back to doing high-finance.  Wishing us well and continuing on his way (presumably to the next set of tourists), we were dropped off at United India Tours & Travel, which was presumably related to the ITDC in some way (though likely only to the extent it posted those letters in a large font on its front window).  Walking in a bit tired and a bit unsure of how to do Rajasthan we met Ashok Kumar, surely the softest-speaking travel agent all Delhi.

Tthe official All-India Tourism Delhi Corporation has blacked-out windows?
Of course it does. 
Our first request for Ashok was to price out a flight.  Our second request, for curiosity's sake, was the price of two-week tour of Rajasthan.  Within minutes Ashok presented us with an attractive package of a car, driver, and hotels. It sounded good but we were skeptical.  Highly skeptical.  We knew there are reputable travel agents who do good work, but we also know there are many cheats and cons – and it is nearly impossible to tell one from the other.

The meeting took a stranger turn when Ashok mentioned that any minute now another western couple who had just done a similar trip through Rajasthan would be coming by the shop to collect their luggage (which was sitting next to Ashook's desk) and tickets for a tour of Kashmir.  The coincidences were alarming.  But then, as we sat there a British woman and Canadian man came into the shop, gave Ashok a great big hello and started raving about their recent Rajasthan road-trip.

We remained highly skeptical – could Ashok execute a scam this involved, with well-timed westerners coming into the shop to rave about the very tour we were considering?  Could this Indian travel agent afford to have these two westerners at the ready to drop-in at a moment’s notice?  Our travel instincts were honed, and everything about this suggested we high-tail it out of there.

Sensing our reservations, Ashok gave us all the info about the tour and invited us upstairs to use his computer and discuss our options in private (and review each hotel on Tripadvisor).  He also sent up lunch and while Jesse was way too stressed out to eat, I devoured the entire thali (hey, if he was going to cheat us, at least we’d get lunch out of it).  The hotels he chose looked fine, and the prices were about right, but Jesse  immediately found travel forums were full of people taken in by similar sales pitches only to get subpar services.  This was unsurprising.  The first sentence in the Delhi section of the Lonely Planet guidebook is do not buy anything from a travel agent that you did not intend to buy when you walked in.

"Don't get talked into something you had no intention of doing prior to the conversation."
Indeed.
Stressed and frantic we needed to clear our heads.  Despite Ashok’s immediate price drop of $300 USD, and his great concern that there was not much time to book the car and driver for the next day, we told him we needed some time to think about everything.  We left (fled, is more like it) and went to a nearby coffee shop. While we were drinking our delicious latte we saw the same British-Canadian couple walk by and we flagged them down. They sat with us and told us more about our trip. Neither of us could shake the feeling that they were employed by the travel agency as part of some complex scam.  We grilled them about their trip, even going so far as explicitly ask whether they worked for Ashok (knowing the answer would be no, but at least they didn’t tell us they worked for a bank!).  After they left we remained unsure.  If this was a scam, it was so well-done that Ashook almost deserved the money for pulling this one off!

Next we turned to Google, deciding that unless we found a credible postivie review of Ashok and his United India Tours & we were on the train.  But, as far as we could tell no one had been cheated by him or his agency and in fact, one woman wrote a blog post just like this one:  Hugely skeptical, eventually trusting, and ultimately pleased with her decision to use Ashok.

We were further reassured when Ashok invited us to pay only 50% up front, and by credit card** and the remaining portion at the end of the tour, and sitting as Ashook's little desk we decided to go for it.  We were so excited we even forgot to further negotiate from Ashok’s initial discount price!  Ugggghh.  So, $650 on the Visa card, and a two-week whirlwind tour of Rajasthan with our newest friend, Pappu.

It was a wild experience, and one that is not necessarily recommened, but as you will see in the next few posts, it was a great decision.  We surely missed some of the classic Indian train travel experiences, but in exchange we made a wonderful friend in our driver, confidant and restaurant picker extradinaire, Pappu, stopped at places that no train could (and no car should) have reached, and had a fantastic two weeks.

Recommendations
We would recommend using Ashok.  His prices were fair, he delivered on the proimised intinerary, and he was available day and night to make sure there were no problems.  In fact, he called us just to check in far more often that we called him. As with all foward looking arrangements be sure you understand what you are purchasing and that you have the agreement in writing.  We are lawyers, what do you want?  The United India Tours and Travel contact information is below:

Ashok Kumar
United India Tours & Travels
89, N.D.M.C. Market, Quter Circle, Connaught Circus,
New Delhi - 110001
India
Tel .: + 91-11-2341-4896
Email : india_toursinformation@hotmail.com
Website : http://www.indiantravels.net/

Pappu (Our Driver)
The driver that we requested, Pappu (who we learned about during our frantic pre-booking research) was fantastic.  He was honest, corteous, and extremely knowledgable.  His 25 years of driving in Rajasthan provided advice and insight during our tour that simply would not be possible had we gone by train.  And perhaps most importantly, we completely trusted Pappu.  When he recommened a shop for its high quality, low prices, or both, we knew it would be.  If he vouched for a "restaurant" that looked questionable (and at times that would be a generous description) we would dive-in to their veg jalfrazi, chana masala and birayanis without reservations.  Travelling with Papu made India a far easier and more pleasant experience, and let us focus on why we were there: J, amazing forts, temples, and palaces; D: food.

Papu can be reached at the following number:
Tel.: 09-868-770352 (Delhi mobile number)


* Unknown to us at that point were the state of the roads in Rajasthan (bad to quite bad) and the state of the suspension and shocks in the Tata Indigos that tourists travel in (bad to quite bad).  I think one takes the product of the state of the roads and the state of the suspension and shocks.  Thus, in Rajasthan one would expect bad to very bad squared, which must be around very very very very bad.

** No one should doubt that I would vigorously dispute any charge if we were cheated in the slightest.

7 comments:

  1. You guys are really brave. I was very nervous just reading this post! I am glad it all worked out.

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  2. hahaha- i knew this had a happy ending- you didn't want to be known as NYC hayseeds!

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  3. erica got anxiety while reading your post, while I just got hungry to order a samosa.

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  4. So the British-Canadian couple weren't really part of the scam? I'm still skeptical.

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  5. @Joanna - Me too. I guess we'll never know.

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