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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Travisa Outsourcing-- Why I Would Have Canceled My Trip To India And Gone Somewhere Else

Imagine what kind of intestinal fortitude it took, historically, to go on an international voyage... like before airplanes. There were so many considerations conspiring to keep all but the most dauntless travelers at home-- probability of violence, disease, inability to communicate, bizarre lifestyles, time constraints, being just a few. Even when I first started visiting Asia and Africa in the late 1960s, one had to pause for some semi-serious contemplation before plunging forward to overcome the inevitable roadblocks.

In 1969, for example, I drove a brand new VW van I purchased in Wiesbaden, Germany across Asia. Although I was more than excited to visit Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, my real destination was India. Problem-- aside from how far it was and all the shots you had to take and the bandits and bad roads, was that importing cars was heavily discouraged. In fact, it was so discouraged that you had to post a bond at the border for the full value of the car.

I had sold a lot of hash in New York to buy that van on a special students-only plan in Germany ($2,500 if you picked it up at the factory) and I didn't have any more money. I mean none. I would pick up hitch-hikers to get money for gas. Arrested in Afghanistan for trying to smuggle a couple hundred pounds of hash out of the country-- through the Soviet Union-- I was lucky enough to meet an American consular official who explained that he could give me a carnet de passage which would allow me to drive the van (without the hash) into India and without leaving a deposit at the border. Problem solved.

These days, it's much easier to travel almost anywhere, and certainly to India. In fact, I've been back to India at least half a dozen times since that first trip, sometimes on business, sometimes for pleasure. This time we planned the trip out and bought our non-refundable tickets and paid our special non-refundable rates for a hotel in Delhi and a house in Kerala. And then something horrifying happened. We learned that India no longer grants visas from their consulates and embassies. The only way to get in is to get a visa from an outfit called Travisa Outsourcing.

Travisa, which as an absolute monopoly on Indian visas, has a horrendous reputation. But you have no choice. The reality of dealing with Travisa is far worse than the reputation implies. I stopped counting the endless hours on hold after it reached 24 hours-- one full day of my life wasted to listening to their cheery, sensible, pointless on-hold messages. It will probably be hard for you to believe all this. I mean, 24 hours on hold is impossible, right? So try it. Their number is 415-644-0149.

You dial. It rings and rings and rings. An automated system grabs you and asks automated questions. You punch them in. You're on hold. Hold on this first round sometimes was just half an hour... but that was rare. Usually it was an hour or more. Eventually someone answers from a headquarters in Chicago I think. No matter how many times you call or for how many weeks, each time is starting from scratch. No one knows anything. This is the most clueless and incompetent organization I have ever run into in any country and in my entire life. They can't help you, of course, but they eventually route you back through the original number you called, in my case, San Francisco. This is where the real wait time comes into it. The shortest wait I had was an hour, but that was practically a godsend compared to some of the waits. The worst, of course-- and this happened three times-- you're waiting a couple of hours on hold (after you already waited to get through to the Chicago branch) and someone picks up and disconnects the phone. Imagine what Kafka could do with his!

Once you get them on the phone, they're relatively polite, but entirely useless. No one knows anything. Early in the saga, a guy picked up and swore he was holding my money order ($176) in his hand but that the policy is they can't open it for 30 hours so I would have to wait. It was never seen again. Several times I had a sympathetic voice tell me they would update my information online by 4pm that day "for sure," which never happened, or "I promise I'll call you back before the end of the day," which also never happened. It went on for almost two excruciating weeks.

There is no doubt that I would have canceled our trip to India this year and gone to Indonesia instead-- where I wanted to go all along and which grants visas-on-arrival at the airport-- had I not already paid for the air flights and hotels. So I was stuck. I bet hundreds of people give up and just don't go to India because of Travisa. I'm a member of the Century Club. That means I've been to at least 100 countries. I've gotten a lot of visas-- including a lot for India-- but this was the first time it's ever been a real problem. Well, the second time-- the first time was to go to Brazil, but that was national policy, slowing down American visas to match the way the U.S. under Bush was treating Brazilian visa applicants who wanted to travel to the U.S.

Eventually, I just made a deal with the Travisa agent to pay for everything again-- another $176 by credit card. Fine. I got the visa. They stole my money. How can I be sure? Well, I had the money order receipt and, more important, I had the paperwork for FedEx when they delivered the money order. I sent that to Western Union and reported that someone at Travisa was stealing the money orders. There were several complaints I heard from others that that had happened to as well. Western Union refunded the $176 (minus $15 as a fee).

Travisa specializes in "facilitating" visa applications for Americans who want to travel to China, Brazil, Russia, India, Australia, Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania. I believe India is the only country that makes it mandatory to use them. Travisa Outsourcing handles all the India visa requests from inside the United States as a private contractor to the Indian Embassy and Consulates. "We have revolutionized the way people get their visas," said Jan Dvorak, President of Travisa Outsourcing." Yes, they have.

They claim their "online process along with the Indian Visa Application ensures a streamlined experience with fewer mistakes. In addition, real time passport tracking provides confidence that your passport is handled safely and efficiently. If applying by mail, we will keep you notified by email as your visa is processed." That's unrelated to reality. Nothing works the way it was designed to work. Every single step of the way is fraught with breakdowns and problems.

Once while I was on hold for a few hours, I tweeted I was on hold for Travisa and going insane. Immediately I started getting random tweets from people who had had the same experiences as I had had. There's even a Yelp page devoted to how horrible the service is. I don't know that there's a moral to this story. There's no way around Travisa. And India is pretty amazing. But this will certainly be my last trip there.

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