Travel Like a Pro: Insider Tricks for Mastering Business Travel

Travel Like a Pro: Insider Tricks for Mastering Business Travel
Traveling for work can be a fun and exciting life – if you're smart about it.

This post is in partnership with National Car Rental. Be a Control Enthusiast.”

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Time and tide wait for no man, and Boeing 747s aren’t much more patient.

While few careers are as rewarding as those which require travel, there are likewise few more challenging (it’s not all jet-setting and attractive flight attendants). Connections, layovers, the sudden realization that your fellow passenger will probably try using you as a flotation device in case of an emergency – these things can be overwhelming to even the most daring. Fortunately the following tricks, taken from the pros themselves, will help you navigate not only the friendly skies, but the airports, the third world countries, and the long, lonely days in hotel rooms, without breaking a sweat.

Don’t Skimp On Preparation

The brilliant strategist Sun-Tzu once said “The wise warrior wins first, and then goes to war.” Preparation is just as vital in travel as it is in battle (and if you’re trying to change planes at O’Hare, it pretty much comes to the same thing). When your fellow travelers are milling around in a state of bleary, jet-lagged despair, you will be at the gate already, planning your next move.

While you should always be checking (and double-checking) for the cheapest flights, recent studies have shown that they’re typically at their lowest prices 54 days ahead of time (though that number’s much higher for international travel). And of course, that’s only the first cost. Domestic flights typically include a fee for any checked luggage, usually around 25 dollars. Although your employer might provide you with a travel budget, that’s still going to start adding up fast, so strategic packing is key. Clothes (let’s face it) will need to be worn more than once to save space. Try to include a set of “casual wear” for around the hotel and during your free time to save your business wear from any unnecessary use.

And don’t forget that what you pack is just as important as what you pack it in.

Carry-ons and checked luggage with wheels is a necessity here. That guy desperately fumbling for his tickets while his half-zipped backpack scatters dirty socks across Terminal B? Yeah, that’s not you. A four-wheeled rolling case is not only infinitely easier to handle, but tends to be a bit more durable as well.

Steve Cole who flew over 80,000 miles for work last year advises not getting too attached to your shiny ding-free luggage. “I go through a new piece of luggage every year. Don’t expect to have nice luggage. If you travel a lot your luggage is going to be a wreck. I buy the higher end stuff, and it still just won’t hold up. Your luggage is going to be whipped around on a plane like a UPS guy learning to throw a disc.”

Don’t Get Waylaid At The Airport

Airports can be hectic places, and the only way to save time is to give yourself time. Get to the airport 90 minutes ahead of departure – 2 hours, if you’re flying internationally. As security measures become more and more strict, it’s vital that you give yourself some wiggle-room. Understand the TSA choreography ahead of time and you’ll spare yourself (and everyone else) plenty of hassle.

There’s a secret to choosing which security line you aim for, and it isn’t the shortest. “Look for the line with the most business travelers, it doesn’t matter if it’s longer,” Cole says. They’ll have the drill down to muscle memory – they get in, and get out.  “Avoid lines with families. Someone always forgets to take something out of a stroller or a water bottle out of diaper bag and it holds everything up.”

Once you’re in line with the pro’s perform like one too. While you’re waiting in line for the metal detectors, already be prepping:

  1. Shoes and jackets are going to have to come off (you should avoid wearing a belt) and you’re going to want to be putting these through first (along with liquids, keys, phone, and anything you might have in your pockets).
  2. Your laptop and electronics are going to be scanned separately from the bag they’re carried in, so be unpacking those and send them through second.
  3. While you’re waiting for them on the other side you’ll have time to get your shoes back on, and only have to scoop your electronics back into your carry-ons before moving on confidently and (above all else) swiftly.

It’s bad enough to be scrambling to get yourself together, but you definitely don’t want to be the reason someone else misses their flight.

That is, of course, if you want to bother with security lines at all. Some simple paperwork and a mere 85 dollar fee will get you a five year membership in the TSA’s Pre-Check system (Global Entry, the international version, is fifteen dollars more). At its core, this is an expedited security check specially designed to ease the lives of frequent flyers. Shoes, belt, and jacket can all stay on, your laptop can stay in its bag, and, above all else, the lines are infinitely shorter. Time is money, and that little investment in the here-and-now will pay for itself a hundred times over.

work travel for beginners

Of course, having too much time can be just as much of a hassle as not enough. Getting stuck inside the terminal can be maddening (there’s only so many times you can browse through the bookstore). While there are some airports that offer complimentary WI-FI, these are still few and far between. And though some will allow you to purchase their wireless connection, these can be insecure and often require a separate fee for each device you want to connect.

The seasoned traveler, however, will know to use a USB hotspot or enable tethering to turn the simple smartphone into a wireless connection for his computer and other devices. This is going to be eating data and your mobile’s energy, but it’s nothing a solid phone plan and power cord can’t handle.

Belkin surge protectorGet yourself an outlet-splitter like the Belkin mini-travel surge protector with 3 outlets and 2 USB ports, an essential tool of the frequent airport dweller. An unclaimed airport outlet can be more elusive than Sasquatch, and an outlet splitter will let you charge multiple devices at once (sparing you the “battery life low” message’s mocking chime and the anxiety of going off the grid). These also come in handy in hotel rooms and cafes along your way.

If your work isn’t reimbursing you for your expenses, hotel wifi can be a huge unavoidable budget-buster. Eric Friedlander, whose job requires him to travel upwards of 50,000 miles a year, always packs a long cat-5 ethernet cable for free (and faster) hotel internet.

Don’t Sweat The Ride

If you’re flying internationally the bulk of your travel is going to be on the plane itself and, once again, careful planning is going to be required. For maximum comfort, be sure to wear something light and breathable. There’s nothing worse than being stuck on a plane (or worse, in an airport) in uncomfortable clothes. Many novice business travelers wear their A-Game to the airport – sure, sipping a martini in a three-piece at the flight bar might look nice, but after six or more hours of cramped quarters it’ll be crumpled, sweat stained, and covered in peanut dust (or pretzels, depending on the airline). And as mentioned earlier, you’ll likely be wearing these items multiple times over the course of your trip. Save the suit for your big presentation and the celebratory drinks afterwards.

Article quote inset - Many novice business travelers wear their A-game to the airport

Be Ready For International Differences

The only thing better than getting paid to travel is getting paid to travel overseas. How many people will ever get to sip coffee in the Latin Quarter or ride a bamboo raft down the Mekong River? If you’re going to be a real globetrotter, you’re going to need to keep a few things in mind.

Language barriers can get you into a world of trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing. While English is increasingly common, you’re still going to need a back-up plan to prevent you from getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, arguing with a tuk tuk driver who only speaks Thai (trust me, I’ve been there and it isn’t pretty). You can save yourself plenty of headaches by printing out the name of your hotel in the local language; most folks are willing to help, so long as they can understand what you need. Even just skimming Wikipedia on local customs and culture will protect you from more egregious mistakes. In some parts of the world using your left hand is tantamount to giving someone the finger. In other parts, you’ll be expected to refuse something two or three times before you’re taken seriously. In this Information Age there’s really no excuse for being an “Ugly American”.

“Don’t drink the water” is a common ethos for travelers, but where can you and where can’t you? The Center for Disease Control has an online utility to discover safety information and warnings for wherever you’re traveling to. But Cole recommends to still always pack medicine for the runs or constipation – you don’t want to have to find a pharmacy in a foreign country when dealing with either of those. “You never know how your body is going to react to local food and water especially after major time changes.”

Of course, that’s not the only thing to watch out for. A common stumbling block for first-time travelers is electrical wiring, which differs wildly from country to country. Without the right conversion equipment you might very well find yourself without power (or worse, frying your equipment). Eric Friedlander has this to recommend:

“I bought an Edison to 4 USB splitter that I could plug in to the wall. Second time I plugged it in in Tokyo it started smoking and it caught fire. What’s the line voltage and outlet type for the country you’re going to? Some of the adaptors you can buy are straight adapters and others are converters. If you try to plug something into just an adaptor like a beard trimmer that needs 120 into 240 you’ll be completely SOL.”

Most nations have outlets with circular holes rather than slits (check out WorldStandards for a comprehensive guide on which nations use what).

Home Away from Home

Another key to survival is making your hotel room feel as much like home as possible after a long day, and as with so much in life, it all comes down to the little things. Stow an HDMI cable to stream video from your computer directly to the room’s TV. Pack some snacks so you have something to eat when you get back to your room and the kitchen is closed. You may not be able to do your full-on workout routine but you must set aside time to exercise, whether that’s in a hotel fitness room, a day pass at a local gym, or bodyweight exercises and cardio. Unlike a vacation, this isn’t a time-out from life, this IS your life. Your goals and discipline can’t fly out the cabin door on takeoff.

Article quote inset - Your goals can\'t fly out the door on takeoff

Staying in not your style? Then take as much advantage as you can of whatever travel expenses are afforded to you – try out the local delicacy, soak in the culture, go exploring. There’s simply no better time to expand your horizons than when you’re literally expanding your horizons, even if it means doing so on your own budget (Hipmunk is a great place discover decent and cheap lodging). The popular sights are always fun, but don’t be afraid to experience your surroundings like a local. Get friendly with your waiters and servers, Cole suggests, “Don’t ask them where the locals hang out, ask them where they hang out after work.” You’ll get a taste for the culture that tourist traps will never be able to offer.

Frequent flyer forums can also be a great way to discover your destination’s best-kept secrets (why stay at the Hilton when you can get that gorgeous ocean-view B&B for a tenth of the price?). Though still relatively new in some locales, services like Uber and Lyft can be great alternatives to expensive cabs – reliable, easy to document (for those dreaded expense reports), and using simple card payments instead of cash.

Now Do It A Hundred Times More

While it might sound exciting at first, any kind of travel is going to take its toll, and it’s this, more than anything, which throws folks off their guard. Eric reminds us:

“I’ve flown the back row of a 747 up against the bathroom for 12 hours. It sucks. So there’s definitely a psychological aspect. Everyone at the office says ‘you get to travel, it must be so nice,’ it can be nice it can also be draining. Be ready. You’re going to be sad. Lonely. Confused.  You’re going to have the Lost in Translation moment where you’re sitting there while everything is happening around you and wonder ‘what the hell am I doing.’ That movie wasn’t as far off as I would’ve liked.”

Hectic airports, delays, a blur of different cities – all these things have a way of wearing on the soul like nothing else (though a great app like TripIt can help bring order to the chaos). If this is going to be your life (for the foreseeable future, anyways) then make it your life. VIP airport lounges and clubs are going to make all the difference in the world when you’re waiting on your 2nd transpacific flight this month. How’s it work? Well, instead of those plastic torture devices being passed off as benches, imagine a bright, airy room filled with sprawling cushioned chairs and couches, free internet, a bar, and sometimes complimentary snacks and fruit or even omelets. While the prices might seem formidable at first (about $500 a year) you can also gain access through simply being part of a frequent flyer program, or through a rewards credit card. You can even trade in flyer-miles for access. One way or another, the comfort and haven that these places can provide from all the sound and fury will be indispensable in keeping your sanity.

Though all of that is sure to help it’s still not going to completely solve the problem. It’s here where you’re going to need to look to folks who know exactly what you’re going through. There are plenty of forums full of seasoned veterans more than happy to offer sage advice when it comes to making the most of this line of work (check out FlyerTalk).

So find your gate and grab yourself a seat. Kick back with that one paperback you’ve been swearing you’ll finally finish. Dashing from gate to gate in a state of panic is for amateurs. Use these tricks, learn from the pros, and you’ll be soaring alongside ‘em before you know it.


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Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.