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Travel Advice from a Business Traveler

Posted: September 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: | 35 Comments »

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Travel Tips – Total read time:  12 minutes
Everyone wants the tips and tricks to making travel go smooth.  Well I’m here to give it to you.  Why am I the business travel guru?  I’ve spent the last 5 years on the road as a full time consultant.  But I was not just any consultant, I was a consultant for a small but national firm with clients in the middle of absofuckinglutely nowhere.  I’ve had more canceled flights, food poisoning, and time spent next to 4 foot wide guys in 2 foot wide seats than most other humans on this earth, even those who also travel full time. 

The most important rule – Know what your time is worth!
Everything you do from before the moment you book a flight until you arrive home should be based on one simple principle, your time is worth a lot of money.  For consultants this is easy.  You’re billable rate is a nice number to start with.  For everyone else, just imagine a dollar amount you would be willing to accept to sit in the middle of the Atlanta airport after not sleeping for 30 hours.

Why is this important?  As you navigate the nightmare that is modern travel you will be faced with several choices.  Each of these choices has a corresponding price, level of pain, and time penalty.  When you put your time in dollars, some very expensive travel options become very cheap and cheap options become very expensive.  Saving a hundred dollars on a flight that’s only an hour longer is a no brainer for your billing department/boss, but when that flight involves an extra hop and a 50% likelihood of getting canceled it becomes completely insane.  $400 limo rides can be the best money you ever spend in the right circumstances (ie. avoiding an extra rental car for 1 week, a $250 5 point out of state speeding ticket, or driving to a hotel you can’t find at 2:00 AM…wasted).  If you do pick up an out of state speeding ticket, call an attorney immediately, for a hundred bucks you can almost always avoid points.  In New York for example, a speeding ticket is the equivalent to a DUI.

Before you go
So you’ve picked your flight that isn’t retarded (direct is worth it’s weight in gold).  Now you look at your wife and she has 12 suitcases ready to go.  The first step to packing is realizing that every bag you check is a bag full of stuff you’ll never see again.  At best “throwers” will search your bags and take your valuables (reality is worse than the rumors).  At worst they just lose your bag.  If I can pack a weeks worth of formal business attire in a carry-on you can get your vacation gear in there just fine.  First, everything you need can be bought at walmart, CVS, or Walgreens for $15.  All consumables are generally liquid or sharp and they’ll only slow you down at the airport.  Bring some stick deodorant if you’re freaking out.  As much as I hated it, I threw away a life time supply of toothpaste on the road.

Do not bring that thing you think you might need.  Bring only what you have to wear and what you already wear on a daily basis.  Ooo..I might wear this hat or I might need this fur coat while in Hawaii.  Dress in layers and plan on wearing a pair of pants more than once.  Doing laundry on the road is not difficult and often isn’t necessary.  Get some fancy exofficio underwear and some merino shirts.  Don’t be afraid to wash your shirts and underwear in the sink or just have your hotel send your stuff out (90% of the time it comes back).  If you are traveling some place two weeks for business.  Drop your clothes off at the local dry cleaner on Friday and pick them up on Monday.  Go some place cool over the weekend with just your computer bag and a change of clothes instead of going home.  Show your boss that flights to vegas + hotel are cheaper than flying home (vacation spots have cheap flights/hotel).  In fact an entire vacation to cancun can be done for less than a last minute return flight home if you’re already in the south.  Just takes a little planning.  Nothing says roadwarrier like taking a shower in the airport restroom sink after a red eye back from clubbing in LA.

Get a standard carry-on sized suitcase or backpack.  Shoes go heals out in the corners of the suitcase.  Roll your underwear, pants, and shirts individually and stack them in the center.  This conserves a lot of space.  Everything will be wrinkled no matter what you do.  Get over it.  You can then lay suits flat over all your stacked stuff.  You can steam your clothes with some success in the bathroom with the hot shower on (put a kleenex over the air vent that pulls air out).  If you do choose to bring liquids, these go inside a ziplock bag, but more importantly they do not go inside the main compartment of your suitcase. They go in the outer pocket.  First, this provides easier access when you’re holding up the line in security.  Second liquid stuff will leak at some point.  It can leak into the outer part of your bag, or leak on your suits.  Not a tough choice.

When you pick out a suitcase there are a couple things to look at.  Generally good suitcases will have a very heavy plastic piping around the corners.  They are made of heavy nylon material that will stand up to abrasive damage for a long time.  Look at the zippers.  Are they tight, large, heavy?  Check out the wheels.  You want wheels that look like they are off of roller blades with heavy bearings, not simple black plastic.  Finally, good suitcases are bright pink in color.  What?  The most important feature of a suitcase is that it looks nothing like anyone else’s suitcase and it’s bright enough to spot from across a busy airport.  Don’t even think about black, dark green, navy blue, or even red.  I carried the affectionately coined “barbie” bag for about a year before my retirement.  Not only could I find this bag anywhere, on numerous occasions when I had to drag my flaming pink bag to the back of the plane before returning to the front to sit down, some girl would bring my bag back for me as we were getting off, because she remembered me and thought it was funny, saving a trip fighting the flow of traffic back to get my bag.

Being polite
In the world of business travel there are generally two strategies to getting problems fixed; being an asshole, or being super nice.  I’m not here to tell you that being an asshole isn’t effective, because often it is.  The thing you have to remember is that the people who work in the Atlanta airport or the Hampton Inn, in God knows where, have dealt with people far more intimidating than you and they dealt with that person today.  Additionally, you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.  “But I’m a mega diamond platinum member!”  Well, so are the other 100 people staying at this hotel.  An example:  Someone forgot to book hotel for me and my associate.  This happened to be immediately after Katrina and hotel space was pretty scarce.  My associate proceeds to flip the fuck out on this poor (and hot) hotel clerk because he did not have a room.  He informs her that we have stayed at this hotel for the past 4 weeks straight and that she better fix this immediately.  He then yells “WRONG ANSWER!” every time he says anything other than “here’s your room key.”  This is actually hilarious, but not very productive.  My approach:  “Sorry if you had to deal with Mr. Aimes, our travel probably forgot to book our rooms, can you see if you can find something?”  I also proceeded to apologize to anyone who recognized that I’m traveling with Mr. Aimes on this trip.  Result:  I’m in a nonsmoking suite with like 5 tv’s and he’s in smoking queen double.

There’s always a solution
Smooth travel is simply a matter of solving a series of problems brought on by the nature of herding thousands of people across vast distances.  It is important to remember that there are really very few rules.  “I can’t do that,” usually means “I don’t know how to do that.”  Flight attendants and ticket agents have massive amounts of freedom to change flights, issue credits, pay for taxis, etc.  Often the first person you talk to doesn’t know how to do this.  The key is to politely keep asking for what you want in different ways.  First response will be “we don’t do that.”  Then, “we don’t do that at this airport.”  We only do that for “diamond/platinum/medallion members.”  Finally “There is a fee.”  Do ask to see a manager, ask if there is anyone who knows a way to do X.  Simply not moving will get you a long way.  They want people out of there, you are holding up the line.  Also if you are late, going to miss a flight, or something is screwed up, do not hesitate to grab a random employee and tell them you are on flight whatever.  They’ll take you to the front.  When in doubt yell your questions from the back or the side of the line.  Or just run to the front.

Flight attendants are also your friends.  They’ve got some random places to stash your stuff up front, ask for help if you can’t find space for your overstuffed bag.  Also note that flight attendants love being hit on my slightly wasted over-weight middle-aged bald men who smell like carry out and bad cologne.

Always remember there are lots of options.  Driving is always an option.  One way rentals aren’t that expensive (hertz is usually cheapest for one way).  Get home at 1:00 AM Saturday morning instead of 1:00 Sunday morning.  You can drive in shifts with coworkers.  Just because you paid for a flight doesn’t mean you have to take it, don’t hesitate to jump on another if it works in your interest.

What to do when you get there
You can read online about the greatest restaurants and fun stuff to do, but the best way to find cool places is to ask the people who live there.  All the popular tourist places are going to suck.  They’re full of tourists.  The best seafood is always the place that everyone goes to at 5:15 on a weekday.  Famous places are usually disappointing, because they can be.  An unknown dump will only survive if it’s really good.  Take your clients and coworkers out.  You’ll hate them less if you get to know them outside of work.  Also be sure the people you ask for advice are in your demographic.  Ask some old people what’s cool in Sacramento….old town (nick nacks and corn cob pipes).  Ask the young Asian bar tender in old town were to go and he send you to an awesome place called the monkey bar, full of college students and good music.  Remember, you’ll never remember the nights spent eating pizza in your hotel room, but you might just have the time of your life at 4:00 AM the night before a 9:00 AM exit meeting (best exit meeting I ever had).

Airline and hotel and points
The airline industry is a caste system.  While a large portion of the people you are traveling with are also super mega platinum and therefore you are not that important, if you don’t have some sort of status or at least a membership into their programs you will end up lower than the stowaways in the boiler room of the titanic.  On multiple occasions my very low ranking delta status has gotten people pulled off an overbooked airplane so I could get a seat.  I also ended up in first class quite a bit when flying to smaller cities.

Another example:  my friend needs a hotel room refunded because of some fiasco.  He calls the main Hilton number and waits on hold for 15 minutes before giving up.  I pull out my card and call the diamond number.  Someone picks up and answers immediately.  I tell her to fix my coworkers problem and hand the phone to him.   Problem solved.

My flight is canceled – oh noes!
When someone announces that your flight has been canceled, jump up and get to the counter either at the gate or at check-in, and do it faster than everyone else.  Most likely you’ll end up in a long line and only the people in the front will get seats on the other flight out.  So while you’re on the way to the counter pull out your cellphone and call the airline (usually found on your airline programs card) or your travel agent.  Nine times out of 10 you’ll end up getting a seat before anyone else and you’ll have more time to discuss options with the operator who isn’t in a hurry.  The key to making this work however, is you still need to go get your ticket at the counter as often the lady at the counter has ultimate control over the tickets.  If you wait until boarding they’ll occasionally miss you and you’ve got no seat.  Also make sure they assign you an actual seat, not just put you on the (soon to be over-booked) flight.

The same technique works for booking hotels when the Detroit Airport Westin decides to gouge people on prices.  At 1:00 AM an empty hotel should not be charging $250 a night.  When the manager won’t lower the price call the 800 number right in front of him and book it.  I think I got some employee discount, but the point is someone will do what you want, you just have to find them.

Staying fat on the road
The key to packing on the pounds while on the road is to fully utilize your expense account.  If you’re not on an expense account just try and spend at least a hundred a day on food.

“Sir would you like desert?”
“How about the cheesecake.  It says here that I can get ice cream on that.”
“Yes, yes you can.”
“hmm…if you can find me some hot fudge to go on that too, we have a deal.”  Notice my use of a “firm offer.”
“Right away sir.”  – true story

If you are not looking to bulk up here are some tips for you:

Don’t eat hotel breakfast food.  It’s universally terrible, even the stuff that’s supposed to be good for you.  Instead spend Monday night at the local grocery.  Get some breakfast food, fruit, nuts.  In a pinch one of those cheap Styrofoam coolers and a bunch of ice can keep your lactose free milk cold for the day, if you swap the ice before you leave and before you go to bed.  Expense accounts allow you to get desert, but they also allow you to buy better quality food.  Don’t stuff your self on rolls and desert.  Get some lean protein.  We used to stop by a gym on the way to our client each day for a protein shake in the morning.

Working out on the road
Even the most hick towns in the country usually have a tolerable gym someplace close by.  Some small towns have exceptionally nice gyms.  Most are $5-10 max for a day pass.  The most I’ve ever paid was in the Hamptons for $20.  You can do overhead squats with your suitcase full of stuff as well as body weight exercises.  When in doubt bring your running shoes and go for a jog.  If you’re not a runner there’s no substitue for a pair of properly fit running shoes.  Take up swimming while your at it.  It’s fantastic once you learn the mechanics If you want to get really crazy get a folding bike and check it.  This is great for beach towns.  If you can talk a couple coworkers into going to the gym with you it will keep your motivation up.

Stuff to bring or buy on the road

  • Swimming trunks – there’s no substitue for complaining about your job with coworkers in a casino jacuzzi full of old ladies and babies in diapers.
  • Earplugs – reliable when your headphones crap out (crying babies for 3 hours, no way!)
  • Disposable cameras – take pictures of even the places you don’t like, later you’ll find them entertaining
  • Pick up a good book or dump a book on cd on your ipod – you can spend a life time waiting around in airports, make your life better in the mean time, learn a foreigh language.  In a few months you won’t remember who was on the cover of the magazine you bought, but you might remember some french.  Planning to work on an airplane?  Might as well just kill yourself instead.
  • Sterio jack mini cable to run your ipod to rental car

Travel doesn’t have to suck…as much, if you are prepared.  What are your favorite travel tips?

35 Comments on “Travel Advice from a Business Traveler”

  1. 1 AC said at 10:54 am on September 10th, 2009:

    Favorite travel tip – don’t let a coworker to hang out in a hot tub in Biloxi Mississippi with old people and babies in diapers.

    Also, when shopping with said coworker in Beverly Hills, tell everyone that you are coworkers and you are not vacationing together.

  2. 2 joab jackson (joabj) 's status on Monday, 14-Sep-09 23:49:28 UTC - said at 4:49 pm on September 14th, 2009:

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