Five key tips to travel like a pro

The other day I went on a business trip with a young lady who didn’t – as part of her job – go on business trips all the time. She was super excited about the whole thing. The novelty of flying, the eating dinner with the client, the spending the night in a hotel all by herself. Her degree of enthusiasm shocked me regarding my degree of cynicism.

The author, in a random hotel room in…. Philadelphia I think.

Business travel has some similarities to backpacking. People who don’t do it are amazed by the concept. But when I’m actually on the trail (in the airport) I know that I’m still a rookie. Do I travel a lot for business? My “deal” with my husband is that I travel, on average, once a month. I’d say I might be traveling a little more than that these days. Once every three or four weeks I crawl on a plane and go somewhere for a day or two. When they posted a description for my job, it said 50% travel. I have worked with people, though, who spend 3 or more days a week, every week, on the road for work. (That might be listed as 80 – 100% travel – the folks who travel the most are project consultants who will spend ~5 days a week, every week, in a city which is not their own. That’s folks like Accenture & Deloitte. They also tend to work 90 hours in that week and have a massive burnout rate.)

I know I have a ton yet to learn about how travel best, but as I drove from the Richmond International Airport to the corporate business parks in Glen Allen, I thought that maybe you, dear reader, might benefit from what I have learned so far.

Rental Cars
This was probably my biggest rookie mistake. You might have rented a car at an airport once or twice. You take the shuttle to the rental car center, stand in line, answer mysterious questions about levels of insurance coverage and take a bet on whether you’ll have enough time between meeting and boarding to refill the tank. I once got into a situation in Los Angeles with Hertz where it took me almost 2 hours to finally get a car – and that was after a long transcontinental flight, with several hours of driving still in front of me.

But that’s how it works, right?

No. It is not. My dearest business partner, after he got done guffawing and making fun of me for such a rookie mistake, explained. Many rental car companies have a second method – a premier method. I now use National (I’m part of the Emerald Club). I make a reservation ahead of time. Then I walked directly out to a row of cars, decide which one I feel like today, climb in and drive off. I stop at the gate on my way out to give them my license. All the rest of that stuff: gas fillups, insurance etc… is just on record. It takes minutes.

The business partner who laughed at me has upped his game, though. Now he just takes Uber everywhere, and doesn’t bother with pickup or dropoff.

When I travel overnight, I have four things that go into the bins in security: my laptop, my toiletries, my shoes and my wallet. Here are some keys I’ve found to never being slower than the person in front of me:

  • Always, always wear slipoff shoes. Wearing boots or even tennis shoes is a mistake. I prefer to wear slacks with socks so I don’t end up standing barefoot in the security line, but flats will do in a pinch.
  • Don’t keep your toiletries in your Dopp Kit (what my family calls that back you keep your toothbrush and hairbrush in). Keep them in a ziplock bag in the outer zippered pocket of your carryon, so you can just slide it in and out.
  • Don’t bury your laptop under anything else.
  • Pay attention to whether you’re Pre. Increasingly, they’re putting more people through the lines where you don’t have take anything out or off. This only helps you if you’ve noticed in time to skip the long line.
  • No sequins. I have this shirt I like to wear with a peacock feather done in sequins. (Saying that it sounds appalling. I swear it’s not that appalling.) But when I go through the body scan with it, I light it up like Christmas. Patdown time! You need to build a travel wardrobe of clothes that are comfortable, washable, professional, good looking – and don’t have metallic bits. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds. I like Dressbarn for helping me find qualifying outfits.

    Points & Perks
    I avoided signing up for frequent anything miles because I know myself well enough to know that I’ll never get around to figuring out how to use them. The few times, in the past, I’ve tried, my one or two trips a year were laughably short of earning me anything, and definitely not worth the aggravation. But now that I’m travelling all the time, I think it might start to add up to something meaningful. The best programs are the ones that have both points for tomorrow and perks for today.

    In terms of perks, business travels are notoriously not price sensitive. My company pays for my travel, and doesn’t really case as long as I keep it within approved ranges. So offering me $10 off a rental car doesn’t actually encourage me to do much. But offering to make something simple, fast or comfortable counts for a tremendous amount.

    Hotel Loyalty
    There are two kinds of enterprise sales people at my company: Marriott people and Hilton people. (OK, they’re actually all Marriott, and fanatically loyal.) These companies make things better & better for you the more you stay with them. I have both sets of rewards (diluting the value of both – conveniently…) As an example, if you’re a Marriott Gold member, you get invited to the Concierge room. There’s late night snack food there, and a free breakfast in the morning. The non member people are downstairs paying $18 for their omelets. Way faster to zip through the buffet and grab a water on your way out, without having to pay. If you’re a platinum member – a coveted status – the hotel may be full for other people, but not for you.

    Also, just so you know, business travelers never, ever, ever check out of a hotel. (I apparently get laughed at a lot when I travel – this was another moment.) Just leave your key (and your tip!) on the table on the way out. Your receipt was likely under your door in the morning.

    The loyalty programs work together, so you are going to want to see if you can’t line them up. For example, as a Hilton person, I’d have a combo of Jetblue – > National -> Hilton family of hotels. This allows me to earn more points for the travel I’m already doing than if I just mixed and matched.

    I’ll let you know how to claim the points as soon as I figure that part out.

    Consistency & GPS
    If you’ve ever been in an airport and watched a business traveler, they often look extremely confident. They’re walking fast, roller bag trailing behind like a patient puppy, eyes on the horizon. “Wow, they really know this airport well!” you think. Ha. They’ve never been here before. But there are two things that make this possible: consistency & GPS.

    Every airport:

  • Has a bathroom right after you get through security and in baggage claim (business travelers never ever ever ever ever check a bag unless they’ll be gone more than a week)
  • Has ground transport next to baggage claim
  • Has a rental car facility where all the rental companies are (this may either be in the airport, or accessed via shuttles).

    When you get off the plane, you immediately walk in the direction of the sign that says “Baggage Claim”, stopping at the first bathroom you see. When you get closer, you start looking for rental car center. It’s always clearly marked. When you get to the rental car center, you follow the signs for your particular company. The closer you get, the more information on what you need. If you watched me landing in Richmond yesterday, you would have thought I knew exactly where the car was I was going to drive and had been there a thousand times before. It was the first time – I just knew what signs to look for.

    Once in the car, the hard part is trying to figure out how to drive it. (I drove a Prius this time. To my great surprise, I hated it. It beeps when you’re in reverse!) Plug in your phone, pull up the appointment for your meeting, and launch your GPS. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, but I got there in good time.

    So, does it sound glamorous and fun? Is there anything here you’re glad to know? Is there anything here I’m completely missing?

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    Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

    9 thoughts on “Five key tips to travel like a pro”

    1. Packing clothes! I like to wear knit dresses, which never look terrible, no matter what kind of terrible ball they’ve been wadded into. I have one jacket that matches everything I pack, and which I wear or carry on the plane. And I try to coordinate around one pair of shoes so I don’t have to pack those, either.

      There is always an iron in a business-class hotel.
      There is almost always a gym. Take workout clothes (and, sigh, tennies)
      The good hotels have outlets in their lamp bases next to the bed. The pain in the ass ones you need to unplug either the lamp or the alarm clock to charge your phone next to your bed.
      Invest in one of those portable charger batteries. Mine is the size of a lipstick and buys me enough extra phone power to be able to livetweet a full day of conference. Or sustain airport delays.
      There is almost always more than one type of pillow on the bed. Test them all to see which you prefer.
      Airplanes are dehydrating and always give me a headache. I try to take tylenol right before I take off so I arrive less cross.
      All the food delivery options know how to get to your hotel. Don’t confine yourself to roomservice if you are eating dinner in.
      If you are eating out all your meals, just accept that you will waste food. Don’t try to finish it because there’s no place to take it back to.


      1. I think sales travel is an entirely distinct genre of business travel. It’s super time sensitive, you’re always eating with clients, and it’s not unusual for your time on the ground to be only a few hours!


      1. At one point I had it in reverse and I was still in process of buckling my seatbelt and there were two alternating obnoxious beeps. Also, this one had no backup camera. #firstworldproblems


    2. My younger brother works for Deloitte as a consultant, and travels 5 days a week. He loved it when he first got started, but he definitely works those 90 hour weeks. He’s basically planning his own burnout by saving tons of money and building good connections.

      Do you get a per diem? Do you have a business credit card, and how does that work?

      I work for a tiny nonprofit and there is one credit card for the entire organization and we’re strongly encouraged to submit gas receipts, not mileage. The idea of someone else actually letting me make choices for convenience on travel is foreign and glamorous to me. 🙂


      1. We don’t get a per diem. We have an annoyingly precise limit for each meal during the day. (I’d much rather get a per diem.) For the big ticket items (airfare and hotel) we have a central payment account (we use the corporate specific version of Expedia called Egencia), but it’s employee cash up front for rental cars, meals etc. unless you travel enough to merit a corporate credit card. Most folks decline, so they can get the points on their own credit cards, but we’re a software company so folks aren’t usually minding their pennies quite as carefully.


    3. I’m an accountant for a medium-sized civil engineering firm, and I wind up processing a lot of our traveling employee charges. Unless the client has specific rules about meal charges, we go with a per diem; many state government agencies have rules like that. We cover airfare and lodging on the company cards, and senior employees (project managers and up) have their own corporate cards. Engineers and field technicians cover their own car rental and miscellaneous expenses; we reimburse anything with a receipt, even if it’s not billable. If unusual expenses are anticipated (equipment rental, for example), we either arrange beforehand for the corporate office to be invoiced, or we advance payment to the employee. We encourage employees to submit receipts electronically, and are happy to work off scanned images.

      We let the employee generally pick his own flight, with a preference for Southwest; we also allow them to pick their hotel, as long it’s reasonably priced for the market — no Microtels, but we’d raise an eyebrow at a field tech booking into the Four Seasons. If they want, we’ll handle making all the bookings, but if they’d like to do the digging, they’re welcome to.


    4. Pretty comprehensive. I’d add that the first thing you do upon entering the airport, even if you’ve checked in at home, is to swipe your credit card to get a look at the seat assignments. If you’re in a full row and there’s an empty one two back, take it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up next to the only empty middle seat on the plane. It’s no accident!

      Also, frequent travelers should apply for TSA Pre through their favorite airline.I think it costs $100 for five years and it gets you through security without removing anything from your bag or taking off any articles of clothing. Just zip through, no line, and you’re there. It’s even better in Toronto, where it helps you avoid customs.

      My two cents!


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