As a family, we had 8 trips out of India till now, some of them of course before we had our daughter. Planning for most trips for us starts anywhere between 2-4 months in advance, especially if it is a trip where we have lot of sightseeing, multiple city stops, etc. Having gone through this many times now, we started becoming reasonably confident of planning trips - so much so that this time for Trip No 9 - in 2019, we comfortably delayed it.
The trip was once again to be initiated on the same day our daughter finished off with school - right after her birthday - for around 10-12 days. We find this as a shoulder season for most countries and hence are comfortable around this time of the year. We zeroed in on UK after creating itineraries for 3 other countries, only to land up cancelling them either due to cost, festival times (making it very crowded in these places), or some other reasons. London had been on my mind for some time but given the possible expense involved, we perhaps had never gone ahead with it.
As usual I simultaneously researched availability of flights, about the visa, accommodation, etc. Things seemed favorable. One of my ex-colleagues and a very good friend - Rithika Sundaram had also studied in London, so she was obviously our main go-to person for planning the trip.
Planned Trip Dates: 29th March departure; Arrive back on 11th April
Itinerary comprised first 5 nights at London and subsequent 6 nights at Scotland across 3 places.
Till now every Visa process had asked us to show our flight tickets as proof before the Visa was approved. Hence for this too, we went ahead and booked our flight tickets on 19th February on Yatra.com. Carrier - Emirates. Return cost - INR 40k per person - Total INR 1.2 Lakhs.
Post this, we started assorting all documents required for our Visa process. There were 3 different applications involved for me, my wife Resha and our daughter Aashna (yes, there was no concession for children!). In our previous 3 trips to Europe, the Schengen was a process mediated by VFS, the agency which coordinates with embassies and provides Visa for a whole lot of countries. Only now, I realized that in this case, VFS was simply an intermediary and had no role in even informing / advising you whether your submitted documents are correctly provided or not.
- After assorting all documents required, we made 3 applications for Standard Visitor Visa into the wee hours of the night of February 28th - on www.gov.uk. (24 page form! - in which we had to enter the travel history for each of our international trips and other work trips out of India).
- Each of the 3 visas cost us around GBP 95 (approx. INR 8550) - total INR 25650.
- The earliest appointment date we got to visit VFS and submit our biometrics was March 5th.
- Needless to say, as we noticed, the entire process was facilitated in a way such that one would end up shelling out a whole lot of money. To simply take your documents to VFS and get them scanned into the system had a charge of INR 500 per person. Thankfully Gov.UK had introduced a new method of self-uploading one's documents online and that's what we did. Before our appointment on March 5th, we had all our documents uploaded online, under each of 3 separate accounts, with proper file names. Anyone who is reading this and knows me well, would know how much care and precision I would take when doing this. To have the documents checked once, there was a charge of INR 500 per person, for which we paid for Resha and me. We also paid INR 500 per person for getting the visa couriered to our Bangalore address directly, rather than picking it up from the VFS office.
Having read up a lot online, I knew that 15 working days was the standard time to receive this Visa. But none of our Visa applications had taken so long, hence we were chill about it. To note: Taking the so-called Priority (processing time - 5 working days) or Super Priority Visa services (processing time - 1 working day) was out of question given the price at which they were offered :) - Priority was around INR 20k per person and Super Priority was around INR 86k per person.
One important point - I now started noticing that at every place in Gov.uk, the embassy advised the applicants NOT to book flights before receiving the Visa. That was quite odd, since the application check-list of documents did ask for travel plans (flight tickets etc.) It meant that if one did not have the flight tickets booked, but only 'blocked' - that would work. However we ignored this since there was no way one could only 'block' tickets in India.
March 5th: We reached VFS at the scheduled time. Discovered that online document upload option was very new and everyone was pleasantly surprised that we opted for it. Despite this we waited for around 3 hours for our turn with the VFS agent. When our turn came, as I had read, the VFS agent simply checked our main travel document - the passport and our travel history - that's all. He told us that VFS was just a 'coordinator' in this process and could not influence the decision / advise on the documents. He plainly looked into the system and told us that our uploaded documents were received. 15 working days was the standard timeline - which landed somewhere around March 26th. Needless to say, I knew that I simply landing up paying the 'document checking charges' for Resha and me.
The wait: All we had to do now was have some patience . In the meanwhile we had been booked our BnBs for the places we were staying, intermediate flights, etc. I checked up on the normal Visa processing rate in India in recent times and saw that 94% of the Visas were processed within 10 days. (Refer: https://visa-processingtimes.homeoffice.gov.uk/y/bangalore-india/visits-visas/all). We had not applied for the SMS service of VFS (again INR 500 per person) since we were reasonably confident. I also read up online that at every stage of the process, one would normally get an online email informing that the documents were received / a decision was made / passport was dispatched, etc. However of course, no person in the process would know whether the visa was approved or not - until you received the sealed envelope and broke the seal open yourself to see the visa stamp on your passport / read the rejection letter enclosed.
For a week nothing happened. Then on 14th March evening, the three of us received 3 emails (in a span of 1 hour odd) that 'our application was received at the UK embassy'. It mentioned the standard timeline of 15 working days. We were a bit worried, since it took 9 days to get this first email itself. We stopped booking any additional sightseeing trips or other things for the trip as of now and decided to do it only after we got the final confirmation email.
The next communication to us was a surprising one - on 20th March evening I received a call from VFS Bangalore, asking us to resend our documents since they were 'not very clear'. The person on call gave me a standard UK Visa VFS email id for this. Following this, we diligently re-scanned some of our documents (which we thought possibly could be 'not very clear'), assorted them into folders and emailed them to the given IDs within the next 3 hours. I also repeatedly called VFS on the same number I had received a call from, but in vain. The following day, on 21st March evening, we got an email on the same id that our documents had been received and had been forwarded to the UK embassy.
There was only 1 week to go now and we were tense. We decided to reach the UK embassy directly - there were 2 ways to do this as per their website - call / email. Both incurred certain charges. We decided to email first - approx. charge of GBP 6 for the first email. We put in our query in an elaborate format and sent the email. We received a reply in around 3 hours - reply was standard. All 3 applications have been received and are in process. We had mentioned that we have a flight scheduled on 29th March, to which there was no concern shown. It was mentioned 'You are advised not to book your flights or accommodation until your visa gets approved'.
Nothing happened over the subsequent 2 days since it was a weekend.
Week of 24th March
We spent the weekend packing our luggage. Regardless of what happened, we had to be ready in all other areas, we thought. Monday 24th March passed with no sign of any email. We could not resist checking our phones every minute for any email received from VFS / UK Embassy - but there were none.
Resha woke me early morning on Tuesday 25th March. We had received two automated emails sent from VFS - at around midnight - one for my daughter Aashna and one for me - stating that 'our processed visa applications were received at VFS and would be couriered accordingly'. There was no email for Resha though. That morning we decided to make our first call (call charges GBP 1.5 per minute above the standard call rate from India). The agent at the other end told us that 2 applications were processed and the passports would be received within the next 3-4 days. Resha's application however was still under process. I didn't get it - when we applied together as a family and our 3 applications were filed together by the VFS agent on 5th March - why was Resha's application processed separately?
Surprisingly our 2 passports were received on the same day in the afternoon by around 3 15 PM - were sent as expected by Blue Dart from Chennai. That would mean that they were couriered the previous day itself - before we received the automated email from VFS.
Since there was no further sign of Resha's passport, we decided to flood VFS and UK Embassy with emails and calls. I sent a number of emails to VFS (the earlier email id they had shared with us) and also followed up on our email to UK embassy (follow up emails thankfully were not charged). Unfortunately we did not receive a reply to any of the emails. We now started getting crazy thoughts - postponing the holiday, cancelling / rescheduling flights, cancelling accommodation etc. The money loss would potentially be huge!
Wednesday 27th March: In the evening, Resha calls the UK embassy again (same call charges as I stated earlier). She gets a reply saying that 'a decision has been made. Passport should be on the way soon'. This was a small ray of hope for us, and possibly since 2 of our passports had reached us the next day after being couriered, we thought the third one would reach us in a similar manner.
Unfortunately for us, there was no other email we received like the automated one earlier. On Thursday 28th March, we called the UK embassy early morning once again, to only receive a similar reply that the decision was made and that the passport should ideally arrive any moment now. The replies seemed to be in line with all other calls, but there was no sign of the passport. That morning we hence decided to go to the Bangalore VFS office. We weren't really sure whether we would be let in inside the office for this, however we somehow made our way through. The VFS team were cooperative and looked up on our case - but the answer was not very convincing. 'The decision seems to be taken, but the passport is still with the embassy, hence VFS cannot do anything about it. We cannot influence the embassy to send it sooner. Looks like the logistics process - in scan and out scan is taking more time'.
By this time now I had also started looking up on Emirates and trying to build a plan B - of which we had not thought of at all until maybe a day before this. We had to go through Yatra.com to make any changes since that's where we had booked the flights. We called the UK embassy once again in the evening for one last time but it just resulted in a similar answer. We were also closely monitoring Blue Dart since that's where the passports were couriered (Visa Application number could be directly used to trace the passport), but again this was in vain. The night of 28th March - up and until around 2 30 AM on 29th March - was spent talking to Yatra.com on possibilities of cancelling / rescheduling, understanding what does a 'no-show' mean, etc. The agent told us that we had to call Yatra.com for the rescheduling / cancelling process latest by noon on 29th March / around 5-6 hours before the flight departed to do any changes since the process by itself would take an hour or so.
Friday 29 March (read on for the craziest day of our life!)
There was no sign of any email till now. Our luggage was packed and ready in one corner of the house. Resha was off from work. I had to go to work and we had to send Aashna to school. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 8:10 PM.
For one last attempt - we decided to spent the morning in two key places - a visit to the VFS office again and the Blue Dart office nearest to our home in Bellandur, Bangalore - to where we had traced the previous 2 passports from. This was only to satisfy a small corner of our brains which still thought that it would happen.
Now by the clock:
10 30 AM: Resha calls me from the VFS office when I was at work. The answer was the same as what we had received the previous day. Passport was still with the embassy and they 'weren't sure' when it would be back. I ask her to go to Blue Dart and wait there to check whether it comes till noon, but Resha isn't convinced - in fact we both kind of know that our last chance had passed.
11 45 AM: I am in conversation with my office colleagues that we are postponing or cancelling the trip. My colleagues start giving me other ideas on rerouting the flights / checking other options etc. Resha calls to tell me that she has reached home and will begin the rescheduling process with Yatra.com on their Customer Contact number at noon. I have a meeting in office at noon, so we discuss what's to be done before that and wave the existing, planned trip a final goodbye. There have to be some changes now.
1 PM: I am done with my meeting and call Resha again. She is now on the call with Yatra.com and they are looking at flight options. She tells me to also look at other options since there seem to be no Emirates flights available. I get on Hangout chat with Resha and start looking at flight options. All options seem freaking expensive!
1:10 PM - 7 hours to the flight departure: (Kahaani mein twist): I get a call on my cell from a Chennai landline number, surprisingly it is a person from VFS Chennai. He confirms Resha's application details and tells me that her passport will be sent by the evening at 5 PM - & will reach Bangalore next day morning at 11 AM at our house by courier. I heave a sigh of relief - finally - at least there is some communication now! I ask him if it is possible to get it any sooner since our flight is in the evening today - he says not really but mentions that he can try and arrange for it at their office by 2 30 - 3 PM. He asks if it is possible for me to come to Chennai and collect it (while we had suggested this earlier to VFS, this was the first person who said that it is possible).
(I mentally make a note and start searching for flights as I am talking to him - there is a SpiceJet flight at 5 PM from Chennai to Bangalore but there was no flight before that from Bangalore to Chennai - and even if there was one at 2 or 3 PM, it was almost impossible to get to the airport in time before the flight from where my office was located).
I told the VFS guy that it was not possible, and also asked if I can have it collected from someone else in Chennai. He said yes and that I would need to authorize that person by sending an email to VFS / Embassy email IDs (which he later shared with me). He said I would need to get back by 1:30 PM (next 7 min) as the embassy was closing on Friday at that time.
I put the phone down, called Resha and asked her to think of someone who can get the passport. I also asked my team members. But there really was no one we knew who could come at such a short notice. While I was searching, I half composed a draft email in Gmail authorizing a person X to pick up the passport. But since we could not think of anyone by 1 30 PM, I called up the VFS landline number again (our guy was waiting for my call) and told him that it is not possible to send someone and that he can courier the passport at 5 PM in the evening. Having said this, I hung up and resumed my work / finding flights to reschedule (Resha was still with Yatra.com on hold at the other end).
1:45 PM: My team member Santosh Badana walks to me. He says, 'Ashish - you know - I think I have found a person who can collect the passport from Chennai. But it is too late now right - the embassy must be closed'.
I looked at him with disbelief. I didn't waste any further time. Immediately called the Chennai VFS number (our guy was still at the landline!) - asked him if there was still some time and well - he said he can check with his manager and come back. In 2 min the guy came back and told me it is possible and that I will have to send the 2 emails as he had mentioned earlier. This time I took our VFS guy's name - Karthik R.
I asked Santosh to tell the person (his friend's friend) to send me his exact name as per some proof (PAN Card, Driving Licence, etc.) of Government of India. Without the proper name, I was not ready to send his name to VFS. Took a few minutes - I got his friend on my WhatsApp and he sent me his PAN Card snapshot. I took the name and keyed it in the email I had drafted and sent it to the two IDs given by VFS. The name - Roshan Thomas Mathew.
Simultaneously I pinged Resha on Hangouts to cut the Yatra.com call and that we had found someone. (for some good reason the Yatra.com rescheduling process had not yet completed!).
(I really did not know what had gotten into me at this point. There were so many unknown variables in what could happen in the next 3-4 hours, but I think at this juncture we could only hope for the best and take a shot in the direction this was going for us)
2:10 PM: I call up Roshan and we start figuring out Chennai geography. VFS office was in Egmore, an hour away from Roshan's house. I tell Roshan to leave immediately - he will need to get to VFS office, meet Karthik, get the passport and then leave to the airport, which was 45 min from Egmore.
2:15 PM: I start booking Roshan's flights. He preferred a return on the same day. It took me some time to do this too, since some of the websites gave some errors. By 2:30 PM I finally had the flights booked (cost me INR 28k - but well - if we had even thought of cancelling or rescheduling, the cost would have been INR 1.5 lakhs +).
I send the itinerary to Roshan on email, SMS and WhatsApp to be certain. He would come to Bangalore in the same SpiceJet flight I had spotted earlier, reaching Bangalore at 5 45 PM.
2:30 PM: I call Karthik and tell him about the plan and that Roshan would be there at around 3 PM to collect the passport.
2:35 PM: I call Resha and tell her the entire plan. We were jittery, but she decided to keep everything ready till then.
2:45 PM (5.25 hours to the flight departure): I leave from office to home having giving Santosh a big hug! (normally takes me around 45 min to an hour to reach home)
While I was on the way, Resha picked Aashna from school and kept everything ready at home.
I call Roshan thrice on the way (the poor guy must have been bugged with the OCD that I am!). I also call Karthik but this time no one picks up the landline at VFS. I am a bit jittery again.
3:10 PM: Roshan reaches VFS. He calls to tell that it is a big building and to ask where would he need to go. I tell him 'UK Visas', and leave him to figure out the rest. I tell him to keep the phone on and to send me a snapshot of the name on the envelope once he gets it since I don't want him landing in Bangalore with the wrong passport ;). In the next 10 min, Roshan meets Karthik and awaits the passport packet.
3:20 PM: Roshan WhatsApps me the photo of the packet containing the passport with Resha's name. I scream in delight (still driving so control myself somehow!). Roshan messages saying that is already on the way to the airport.
3 30 PM: I reach home and start making remaining arrangements. It was good that we had our luggage packed.
4 PM: I call Roshan, he tells me that he has just entered the airport. I order an Uber for us.
4 20 PM (3 hours 50 min to the flight departure): We leave for the airport.
(On the way, we don't speak much. We are amazed that so much happened in the last few hours but are quite jittery. None of our friends, parents yet know where we are - most of them would by now be thinking that we have postponed or cancelled. We still don't know what will happen - as we might get the passport but there is still a 0.01% chance that the Visa is rejected...)
Roshan messages me at 4 50 PM to tell me that he had boarded the flight.
6 PM: We reach the Bangalore airport. Roshan's flight has landed, but he is still to come out. We wait at Pizza Hut and I call to tell him the same. His WhatsApp had a group photo so we had no idea of his appearance.
6:10 PM (2 hours to the flight departure): Roshan walks out and finally meets us. He hands over the envelope with the passport. Resha breaks it open.
The passport has the UK Visa stamp.
As I embark the Dubai to London flight now after our wait at Dubai, I think of the aftermath. Calls to parents, repeating the story to so many people, etc. Few hours back we could not have even thought that we were going on our holiday - but now we were - with absolutely NO change in our plans. Besides the Almighty of course, I only have 3 people to thank for it:
1: Santosh Badana (my team member, who then went on to manage all office activities in my absence and did a brilliant job)
2: Karthik R (the VFS guy on the phone whom I want to thank, but couldn't reach later. He was one of the few guys who really 'made it happen' despite all processes and roadblocks)
3: Roshan Thomas Mathew (our messenger from God who brought Resha's passport in one piece with the much needed stamp :))
Leaving you guys with a final pic at the Bangalore airport (Mr Mathew in blue) :)
Now looking forward to making the best of our trip! :)