Summer 2015 Florence Crime Spree And The Tale Of A Seasoned Traveler


Florence, Italy: Out of 15 individuals associated with a major university’s Study Abroad Program in Florence, 4 (27%) have had their ATM cards skimmed or pockets picked on public transportation with over $1,000 stolen during the month of July alone.


A couple of days ago, I told you about two students in the Study Abroad Program who recently had their bank accounts drained after using the ATM machine at the Chiantibanca located in Piazza del Duomo (Florence), Italy. The ATM machine in question is next to the bank at #58.

Then this past Sunday (July 19th), another student had her wallet stolen out of her purse on a Florence bus. She did not leave her purse open or unattended, it was secured around her neck in front of her and the thief had the nerve to unzip it, grab the wallet from inside, and scurry off when the bus reached the next stop. These guys are good and their out in full force!

I, on the other hand, am a seasoned traveler, having visited 41 countries so far and countless large, theft-ridden cities (Naples, Paris, Venice, Sofia, Budapest, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, New York, London, Rome, Ljubljana, Kotor, Dubai, Riyadh … you get the picture) without ever having been robbed, pick-pocketed, or the like. I am always aware of my surroundings and take the necessary precautions, keeping my wallet in my front pocket and so on … until yesterday.

I feel like such a fool, never having thought it would happen to me because of my experience, my diligence … my naïveté. We were on our way to meet friends for dinner, catching the #17 bus from Piazza San Marco in central Florence. The area has several bus stops and was quite busy around 7pm, so as the bus arrived a man carrying two large painter’s canvases (100cm x 100cm) was making it difficult to board the bus. Looking back, he was likely an accomplice causing a choke-point at the door while his comrades slipped their hands into open bags. 

I sometimes carry a borsello, a leather bag (some might call a purse, BUT IT’S NOT, I SWEAR) commonly carried by men in Italy and on this day I did not have it zipped, but my hand was securely clasping the top in anticipation of such an event. But this time I must have been distracted for just a moment, leaving a window open for the thief to dip his hand in, nab my wallet (that I often have trouble locating myself), and slip off into the evening without me even noticing.

It was only when my wife and I started talking about the poor student who had her wallet stolen the day before that I reached into my bag to find … MY WALLET WAS GONE! I knew that I had brought it with me, but could I have left it on the table at home instead? Surely I could not be pick-pocketed. Wrong!

Fortunately, there were only €10 in my wallet and I cancelled my credit and debit cards before they could use them, so it was an inexpensive lesson as well as a poor “take” for the crooks who likely snatched the €10 and threw the rest in the nearest trash can.

The morales to this story are:

1) When in Florence, or anywhere else for that matter, be vigilant. Times are tough and people are desperate FOR YOUR VALUABLES – purses, wallets, cameras, phones, tablets, sunglasses, etc.
2) Avoid crowded places where pickpockets often lurk (buses, trains, stations, popular tourist areas)
3) Diversions are common place among thieves, so if someone bumps into you, trips in front of you, spills something on you, or otherwise creates havoc around you, clutch your valuables and keep your eyes open.
4) If carrying a small wallet, keep it in your front pocket and if carrying a purse (or borsello), wrap the strap around your neck, clutch it in front of you or securely under your arm, zip the zippers, and keep any external pockets next to your body. 
5) Do not think “it can’t happen to me” because it can!

ATM SAFETY: ALWAYS CHECK TO MAKE SURE THAT THE SKIMMING DEVICE, KEYPAD, CAMERA, AND ATM FACE ARE PROPERLY SECURED TO THE WALL BEFORE MAKING A TRANSACTION, COVERING THE KEYPAD WITH YOUR OTHER HAND AND USING YOUR THUMB TO ENTER YOUR PIN (IT IS MORE DIFFICULT FOR THEM TO RECOGNIZE YOUR PIN IF USING YOUR THUMB THAN IT IS YOUR USING YOUR INDEX FINGER)


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Title:  Summer 2015 Florence Crime Spree And The Tale Of A Seasoned Traveler

Key Words: crime, bank, banca, bus, pickpocket, pick, pocket, Florence, Firenze, skimming, skimmer, ATM, scam, criminals, tourist, tourists, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, thief, steal, stolen, police

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DayTripQuip™ – Beautiful And Historic Siena From Florence By Train Or Bus



Piazza del Campo

DayTripQuip™: Take the train (Regionale: 1 hour 28 minutes – €8.80/person each way) from Santa Maria Novella Station to Siena. Trains leave throughout the day from S.M. Novella at 10 minutes after the hour. Another option is the bus (Corse Rapido: 1 hour 15 minutes – bus station is just south of the train station – bus schedules below – €7.60/person each way) which is a little faster than the train, cheaper, and leaves you closer to the center of Siena. The Siena train station is a little over a mile and a 25 minute walk to the historical center of Siena where you will want to go. The Siena bus station is very close to the center (centro storico) and its fabulous piazza, ancient churches, beautiful cathedral, and historic buildings. Siena has restaurants, cafes, bars, and shopping galore if you would like a break from the frenzy of Florence for a few hours.

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 Bus Schedule


More Photos


Title: DayTripQuip™ – Beautiful And Historic Siena From Florence By Train Or Bus


Key Words: Siena, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, piazza, Piazza del Campo, campo, duomo, cathedral, fresco, church, antique, antiques, travel, value, Firenze, Florence, bus, schedule, SITA

Varkala Bus Dancer


Energetic … Infectious … Brilliant!

I wanted to go to a beach a few miles from where I was staying in Varkala, Kerala (India) and as I was waiting at the bus stop, a bus full of students stopped and told me to get on. I though it was a public bus, but they were apparently on a school trip to a beach farther north up the coast.

As the bus started down the road, the music went on and the kids started dancing and singing. They all wanted to take a photo with me as we neared my destination and as I got off the bus I asked who I should pay and how much. They told me “don’t worry” as they drove off into the Kerala sunset waving goodbye as they continued singing. 

Enjoy “Varkala Bus Dancer”! 

— Varkala Beach, Kerala, India


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Title: Varkala Bus Dancer

Key Words: Varkala Bus Dancer, Varkala, bus, dancer, dancing, dances, dance, music, video, Kerala, India, student, trip, road, beach, travel, value, TravelValue

DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort


Taj Mahal and Agra Fort Day Trip

If you want to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, make a day trip out of it rather than staying overnight in Agra. Agra has few redeeming qualities other than these two extremely impressive landmarks in my opinion and spending even one night should be avoided. Let’s face it … Agra is a pit!


There are bus tours available or you can take a train from the main New Delhi station if on a budget, but I would not recommend the train unless you have confirmed reservations both coming and going. If planning a visit to Varanasi by bus, car, or train, another option is to visit Agra on the way as it lies between New Delhi and India’s holiest city. However, by the time you pay for two or more bus tour tickets, you could hire a private cab to take you to Agra, leaving New Delhi at 9AM, visiting both Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stopping for lunch and some shopping, and returning to New Delhi by 9PM.

Agra Fort Exterior

My wife and I hired a taxi for the day at our hotel near the New Delhi train station, charging us 7,500 rupees ($120.00) for the itinerary described earlier. We left around 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning, a good day to go to as traffic is quite a bit lighter in New Delhi on a Sunday morning. It took us about two-and-a-half hours to get to Agra Fort, including a pit stop, traveling on the toll road, which costs a little more than the toll-free route, but shaved an additional two hours off the journey … each way!


A foggy morning, we decided to visit Agra Fort first to let the clouds burn off a bit before we headed over to the nearby Taj Mahal. We picked up our “complimentary tour guide” who briefed us on safety/security details upon arrival where “hawkers” and “pickpockets” reportedly would be waiting for us when we exited the taxi. The hawkers were no worse than any other tourist attraction in India and pickpockets are not a problem as long as you use a little common sense and pay attention to your surroundings.

Agra Fort is beautiful, impressive, and crowded. Entry was 350 rupees ($5.70 each) and we spent about an hour walking through the grounds, snapping photos, and learning about its history from our guide. We may have very well missed something as we found out later that our guide was cutting corners and not totally truthful in order to move us along so we had time to go shopping at a marble factory he was “touting” (“receiving kickback from”, a common practice among taxi drivers and tour guides throughout India and elsewhere).


The Taj Mahal is open every day except Friday from sunrise to sunset, not “6am to 7pm” as advertised by About Travel’s “India Travel Expert” in her Taj Mahal Travel Guide: What to Know Before You Go. There are three gates, but we entered through the East Gate (described as the “VIP gate” by our guide), paying 750 rupees ($12.15) each for entry, jumping on a tram for the short ride to the entrance. The lines were short both to buy tickets and enter the grounds, so this may very well be the best available option.


Once inside, there is a large courtyard to traverse before entering through the “Royal Gate”, an ornate red sandstone arch where the enormous Taj Mahal looms in the background as you enter. Having seen countless photos and heard numerous stories about the Taj Mahal for many years, I was very interested in visiting, but until I actually saw it in person, I had no idea how impressive it actually is.


The long, narrow reflecting pond is cut in half by a raised terrace where “Princess Diana’s Bench” or “Lady Di’s Chair” is located, the location of a famous photo taken of the princess during a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1992. We were told, as were many other tourists apparently, that the bench closest to the “Royal Gate” (on the opposite side of the terrace from the Taj Mahal) was where the photo was actually taken. But I assumed it was actually the other bench (closest to the tomb and, oddly enough, ignored by most tourists even though it offers a much better photo opportunity) where it was taken, a hunch that was confirmed the next day when I checked the internet for the photo.

There is a small museum (free) on the West side of the grounds halfway between the Royal Gate and Taj Mahal that is well worth a visit. I knew it was there and as our guide tried to steer us toward the tomb I asked if we could visit, but he said “it’s closed for renovations”. I could see that people were entering and leaving the building, so I insisted on going over to check. “Oh, they must be letting a small number of people in, you are very lucky” he exclaimed as we walked up to the doorway. The museum has four small rooms with artifacts from the site and other interesting exhibits, so take 30 minutes and visit.

You can read about the Taj Mahal in many places, so I will not elaborate here. I will say that it is absolutely breathtaking and a MUST SEE in your lifetime, this coming from someone who has traveled to 51 countries and having seen many of the most beautiful and famous attractions in the World. Even though the tour guide lied to me about the museum, normally a deal breaker, he took 4+ hours out of his day to show us around Agra, so I gave him a 500 rupee tip ($8.20 – he probably would have gotten 1,000 rupees if he had not lied), a small price to pay for an experience of a lifetime.


CombatCritic Gives The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort 10 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!




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Title: DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort


Key Words: Agra, New Delhi, new, delhi, Taj Mahal, taj, mahal, fort, taxi, bus, train, travel, tour, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, CombatCritic, value

Avoid Himachal Travels (McLeodGanj/Dharamsala) AT ALL COSTS!


Avoid Himachal Travels (McLeodGanj/Dharamsala) AT ALL COSTS!
Himachal Travels
Jogiwara Road (Main Market – Across from Four Seasons Restaurant
McLeodGanj, Dharamsala, H.P. India
I booked my ticket a day early, originally planning on leaving Saturday night (December 13, 2014), because the bus was fully booked for the 12+ hour trip from McLeodGanj (Dharamsala) to Rishikesh, paying 900 rupees ($14.40) in advance. As you can see from the above receipt (ticket), I was assigned seat number 7 when the owner called and made my reservation 33 hours before scheduled departure.

I said all of my goodbyes during the day and was walked to the bus station by three friends, but when I arrived at the Laxmi Holiday Bus #7583 as instructed, my ticket was taken and a long phone call ensued. Ten to fifteen minutes later, the driver told me “you do not have a seat on this bus”, pointing to a seating chart he added “see, someone else has your seat, you cannot go”. 

I threatened to call the police, then contacted the owner of Himachal Travel where I had bought my ticket. He came down to the station and unsuccessfully tried to get me on the bus as I watched my transportation drive off into the sunset with no backup plan. Because I had already vacated my room and had a hotel reservation (paid in advance) in Rishikesh the following night, it was imperative that I get out of Dodge ASAP.

The owner and ticket issuer told me that there was a bus leaving for Dehradun, about an hour away from Rishikesh, at 8PM (about 50 minutes later) and asked if I wanted to take that bus. He told me that it would be a semi-sleeper with chairs that recline, so I said “OK”, understanding that I would be slightly inconvenienced, but comfortable … WRONG!

When the bus hastily arrived, it was NOT a semi-sleeper, but a “local” bus, the kind you take across town, not across the country and a dingy, dirty one at that. There were no reclining seats, only hard, cramped plastic ones and I weighed my options as I considered the 12+ hour journey and its impact on my disabilities. I decided to take my chances rather than wait another two days for the next available bus, paying 535 rupees ($8.60) for the one-way ticket.

I got ZERO SLEEP that night, departing at 8PM and crammed in next to two young girls on an overloaded bus that made stops every 30 miles on a nearly 300 mile journey, and with NO HEAT … I was freezing the entire time!

When I finally arrived in Dehradun at 11:30 AM the next day, I was dropped off on a road with no bus station in sight. Fortunately, there was a very nice Tibetan couple on the bus that took me under their wing, helping me to navigate a route with no English speakers (hey, I thought English was the “national language” in India!) and finding a bus to Rishikesh (51 rupees/83 cents). I had to pee for the last hour and a half, but could not risk relieving myself in Dehradun for fear of missing my connection to Rishikesh, so I sucked it up for the one and a half hour trip (40 miles) … HOOAH!

I finally arrived at my hotel at 1PM, 17 hours after my departure, slightly hypothermic and extremely sleep-deprived, but alive. Oh well, another adventure in the life of CombatCritic!

CombatCritic Gives Himachal Travels 1 Bomb Out Of 10 For Their Failure To Get Me On The Bus I paid For And 16+ Hours Of Torture … More Bombs Are Better!

Key Words: Himachal Travel, Himachal, travel, Himachel, Pradesh, McLeod, Ganj, McLeodGanj, Dharamsala, Rishikesh, Dehradun, bus, sleeper, seat, heat, heater, recline, CombatCritic, value, reservation, ticket, transportation

CombatCritic Q&A: Dehradun Airport to Rishakesh (Transportation)


Dehradun to Rishakesh
29 November 2014, 15:59

Hi,

Can someone tell me the best way to get to Rishikesh from Dehradun airport & approximately cost? Is it easy to share rides?

I’m arriving approx 7pm.

Thanks in advance,

Josie, Melbourne, Australia



Re: Dehradun to Rishakesh
15 December 2014, 09:38


Josie,


I took a bus from Dehradun to Rishikesh just two days ago for 50 rupees that stopped at the airport on the way. Pay 700 rupees to the taxi touts giving advice if you like, but there are other much more reasonable options if price is a concern. 

I’ll be posting (free and objective) reviews on my blog http://www.CombatCritic.com if interested. 

Good luck!

Chris S.
aka CombatCritic

Re: Dehradun to Rishakesh
December 15, 13:32

Since Jollygrant Airport is on the way from Dehradun to Rishikesh, Uttrakhand Roadways has mandated that all buses going from Dehradun to Rishikesh or vice versa has to pass through the airport. So yes ! Bus a cheaper option, but you’ll have to wait for a bus….

K_Yogi, New Delhi


Re: Dehradun to Rishakesh
December 15, 14:33

The trip of OP is already over. He had hired a pre-paid cab at rs. 700/-.

CarLink, Mumbai


Re: Dehradun to Rishakesh
December 15, 17:40

Yes ! I saw that…

But the thread might be read by other people….

K_Yogi, New Delhi



Re: Dehradun to Rishakesh
December 16, 09:04

K_Yogi,

It’s nice to see someone interested in the benefit of the traveler posting honest information and not touting their or friend’s businesses. THANK YOU!

BTW, I’ll be in Dehli next week and have some questions about travel. How can I contact you?

CombatCritic, Lawrence, KS


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Key Words: asana, ashram, ashrams, bus, buses, cab, CombatCritic. TravelValue, Dehradun, dehredun, Ganga, Ganges, India, meditation, rishakesh, Rishikesh, river, taxi, transportation, yoga, 

Dal Lake? More Like A Big, Dirty Pond!


Dal Lake
Adjacent To Upper TCV Complex
Dharamsala Bus Road
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, H.P. India

When I first heard about Dal Lake, I pictured a “sacred” and serene mountain lake as advertized. But when I arrived, what I saw was a large pond contained by concrete, so murky that you cannot see the bottom through six inches of water. 

There are a couple of small “cafés” (shacks that sell instant coffee and tea), but you probably do not want to spend more than a few minutes here. The auto-rickshaw (chuk-chuk) ride from McLeod Ganj Main Square is 90 rupees ($1.45) each way, so I recommend saving your $3 and having a nice lunch instead.

The only reason I gave Dal Lake 2 Bombs (and not 1) is because of the lovely mountain setting, but you can experience that anywhere in the area without spending another 180 rupees.


CombatCritic Gives Dal (Pond) Lake 2 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!



Key Words: Dal Lake, Dal, lake, pond, attraction, TripAdvisor, Yelp, McLeod Ganj, McLeod, Ganj, Dharamsala, Dharamshala, India, Dalai Lama, bus, road, TCV, CombatCritic, travel, value