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?

  • People I never thought I’d be

    I spent the first part of this week in Tampa for work. I had not yet unpacked my suitcase from the LAST business trip I was on (Minnesota) before I had to pack for this one. It was my third business trip in about 8 weeks. I felt – as I went through the well practiced shoes-laptop-liquids process – like a jaded road warrior.

    Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota
    Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota

    I remember my first few times flying – Boston to Seattle in college – when I stared horrified a the people blowing off the whole “in case of emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device” speech. Didn’t these people care about their lives? I pitied them their calcified ways – eyes on the Harvard Business Review as this remarkable patchwork of humanity is exposed below them. Do they not know that their flight represents the wildest fantasy – never to be obtained – of generations of humanity? How can they so casually close the window and catnap?

    Yeah. During the safety notification, I check to see which is my nearest exit. I wonder if there is anyone, anywhere who doesn’t know how to buckle their seatbelt. Then I open Harvard Business Review (ok, actually it’s usually a fashion magazine for a Technically Pretty fashion magazine review). I still like the window seat, and I still try to spot my house/college/guess-the-big-city as I fly, but the magic is indeed gone.

    The training I took was on Pragmatic Marketing. Why I needed this training was a story for another day. It was excellent training – well delivered, thought-provoking, very educational. But there were a lot of identity-crisis moments for me in it. Here was I: liberal arts major, lover of medieval literature, classical musician, backpacker, mother, role-playing-gamer-who-wishes-she-could-talk-her-gaming-group-into-dungeons-and-dragons, baseball-lover, programmer, technical architect… in a marketing class. The word marchitecture was extensively and non-ironically used.

    I learned a lot of extremely interesting things I had never previously imagined knowing, but wondered to find myself in such a place under such circumstances.

    I am – at this moment – sitting at Chuck E Cheese. I know – I’m breaking form. Usually my now-weekly posts are written at the YMCA during basketball practice. But today Grey and Lincoln have a video game playdate, which would not be nearly as fun if the “little brother” was present. So I told the little brother type person to name his entertainment, and for two hours it would be his. He picked the rathole.

    I’m lurking on a local wifi network (seriously, Chuck E, how can you not have wifi). I have a GREAT idea for a new type of business… imagine a big central play area for kids from 3 – 10 years of age. A big, bouncy-housed arcade. Imagine seating around the sides – maybe raised – with great visibility of the play areas. Maybe there would even be closed circuit cameras covering the blind spots. Then imagine this seating around the edge was a mix of 4 – 6 person tables and one to two person locations. There would be a light appetizers and drink service to the grownup section. There would be great wifi, tons of power, comfortable seats, lower noise (low enough that a phone call would be plausible) and someone at the door (like they have at Chuck E’s) to make sure there are no small person escapees.

    Work-from-home parents and folks like me would come with our laptops, offer our kids some great exercise/fun (maybe with their friends). We could either catch up on our work/personal digital lives, or come with our friends (who are increasingly the parents of our children’s friends) and catch up on the latest together. It would be awesome. Maybe there could be a per hour (or per day) fee, or you could sign up for a monthly membership. Maybe they’d even mix in some enrichment activities, like sports/activities.

    They’d rake it in, I tell you.

    I find the process of being no longer young continues to surprise me on a regular basis. My latest “get off my lawn!” moment happened last weekend. I was making some pies. Now, you must understand that I know how to make pie. I was running some quick calculations in my head, and I figure I’ve made between 100 – 120 pies in my lifetime. Every single one of those pies was made with the same recipe, inherited from my grandmother, which is hard to make but deliciously flaky.

    Then, a few years ago, Crisco changed its recipe in response to the backlash against transfats. As far as I can tell, Crisco was all trans fats. This pie crust recipe that my grandmother passed down to me is entirely made of Crisco. It took me a while to eat through the old pie starter and Crisco I had. But then I started having trouble. I blamed it on all sorts of things: not enough flour on the pastry crust, too much shortening in the pie starter, not cold enough, too much water, not enough water. Finally though, very tired on a Friday night and working on pie 2 of 6, I finally realized that it just. Wasn’t. Working. For the first time ever, I actually got a pie crust so bad I couldn’t make it work and I had to throw it out. (That was a pie crust that ACTUALLY didn’t have enough water.) Dawning realization hit: it wasn’t me. I wasn’t making a mistake. It was the pie crust. It was unworkable. Crisco ruined my recipe.

    Depressed, I turned to America’s Test Kitchen and made a shortening-and-butter crust that came out much, much better. But I had that “Why do they go “improving” perfectly good things and ruining the way I’ve always done them?” I mean, in this case I understood. Transfats = bad for health. But a tie that went back to the early 20th century, and my bright-eyed great-grandmother, was just severed. I mourn its loss. As I move from youth to middle age, I better see the costs – not just the benefits – of the inexorable march of progress. I know how things once were (through the rosy tinted spectacles of youth, of course) and lament their loss. My sons will never learn to roll a pie crust using Grandma Finley’s recipe (unless some enterprising entrepreneur brings back the classic formulation – you never know.)

    My grandma’s caramel corn recipe requires corn syrup and brown sugar. Perhaps I’d better make it while I can!

    The dawn is breaking, it’s early morn

    The Acela express in New London

    I was up at 4:45 this morning, in the wee small hours of the morning, to get ready to leave my family for a few days. When I went to the bathroom, the heated tile floor was frigid in its mid-night settings, and the house was cold and still and dark. No trace of morning touched the Eastern sky, and no sounds emerged from the rooms where my morning-glory sons slept. Now I am sitting on the Acela Express, just entering Providence as the gray glimmers of dawn give way to sunless light.

    My brother wrote recently about the contemplative and communicative nature of traveling. And I feel it too. But traveling for business is odd. So often, when you travel for work, you are going to a place but you will never see it. You are most likely to be exchanging one faceless conference room for another faceless conference room. You’re lucky if there are windows. Your personal comfort and desires are set carefully to the side. Perhaps your work-hosts will take good care of you and ensure you have water and food throughout the day (and, God willing, coffee). Or perhaps not. If not, you must be tough and not complain until later.

    I don’t think of myself as someone who travels a lot for work. I have high standards to compare myself to, I suppose. I had one boss who flew over 100,000 miles in a year. My friend John travels 100 days of the year. But, gazing out the window, as I thought of my past trips, I have traveled for work. Let’s see… I have gone to New York for conferences (twice), DC to give a report to a client (that project reported to congress – exciting!), Las Vegas for another conference (my entire company went and we spent about 3 hours at the conference and the rest of the time “teambuilding” which I never would have done on my own but thoroughly enjoyed). I’ve visited clients in Dayton Ohio. I did training in Chicago. I implemented a client in Oregon, traveling there five or six times while pregnant with Thane, and extending my trips to weekends so I could spend some time with my folks. I went to San Diego, and drove past road blocks near the border to our offices in Temecula. The very best trip I have taken for business was a week long trip to Amsterdam and the Alsace region of France. The food on that trip was unbelievable, and I loved the gentle hills and ancient airs of the border towns.

    And I have a hunch I’m forgetting a trip or two in there.

    There are two layers of clouds in the sky now. The bottom layer is printed in grayscale, a lumpy tissued dressing protecting the sky from the ground. But in the narrow gaps I can see above to pinked clouds and blue sky, past the blight of the storage facilities and junkyards surrounding the tracks.

    I have not often taken the train. The ability to (comfortably) blog while traveling is a rather enjoyable novelty. I have traveled this stretch of road many times, and to see what usually takes me about and hour and a half fly by in 18 minutes gives a sense of surreality. In a few moments, we’ll whirr past the fading city where my alma mater sits high on the hill. Then on to New York – the city I only go to when other people are paying for my hotel rooms. (Seriously. Ugh.) Once there, I will find my colleagues, travel to the client, and attend hours of meetings in yet another nameless conference room, ignoring the miracles of time, place and travel required to get me there.

    Do you travel for work? Do you like it or hate it? What places have you glimpsed out of conference room windows that you wish you could walk in your real skin? What was the best work trip you have taken? What the worst?

    Celebrations of a jet-lagged mother

    Smiles in sunshine
    Smiles in sunshine

    I still owe you some summaries of my trip to Europe. It was really a neat experience. Basically, we’d spent about 10 hours in a windowless conference room discussing projects. This does not merit blogging upon, except to touch on the fact I must be doing ok at the new job since they gave me a second high profile, big-deal project to manage. Not code, manage. Since that’s the direction I wanted to go, I’m trying very hard not to go into actual-coding withdrawal. Anyway, after 10 or so hours of complete senescence, we’d rise in order to drive to that night’s restaurant. And then we’d spend three or four hours eating. OH MY GOODNESS. I actually did gain 3 pounds in a week — a combination of lack of activity and 3 to 4 hour French dinners. I had beef, duck, white asparagus & rabbit. Yum!!!
    My hotel in Obernai - from the back

    On our way home, we flew about 50 miles north of the volcano. I watched the ash plume and the southward streamers heading to disrupt other planes. It was a quite a sight to watch.

    When I got home, 100% of the human males were running temperatures. Thane scored triple medication during the week: otic eardrops with antibiotics, oral antibiotics & an antifungal cream for a diaper rash. Poor kid. Grey had gotten sent home with a 101 degree fever, which would’ve been worse if my husband hadn’t come home with a fever feeling terrible. So deeply jetlagged as I was, I was still in the best shape. Yesterday, we mostly vegged. There was lots of tv. And Wii. And computer games. Because really? There are times when it is appropriate to do your best lump-impression, and a rainy, stormy day when the entire family is sick counts as a good lump-day.

    But today, against my more realistic expectations, everyone seemed fine. Great even! Amazing the impact that two naps can have on a body. So we went to church. It was a really awesome service. The kids are just an overwhelming force in the sanctuary. We were doing this Genesis creation play we’ve done before. There are about 20 elements of the play that the kids wave over their heads. We ran out.

    And it was good
    And it was good

    Then after the service I got to chat with a new family who was visiting the church. It warms the cockles of the heart to see the congregation grow and thrive, and to watch those joyful and energetic young faces! I’d also like to say on the record that we don’t pay our preschool Sunday School teachers nearly enough. (Side note: I’ve discovered that our young adults are usually surprised and shocked to learn that the position of Sunday School teacher is an unpaid one.)
    Thane and I at the top of the hill
    Thane and I at the top of the hill

    After service, I figured the kids would start wilting, but they were doing quite well, actually. My heart had been longing to go to the Arnold Arboretum for their annual lilac festival that happens on Sunday of Mother’s day. I had thought yesterday it was out of the question, but at the last minute on a whim (as you could tell by my inappropriate garb) we decided to go. We had a ball. There were the Morris dancers (I love Morris dancers). The sun was bright, but it was cool and windy. There was ice cream. There was wandering. We wandered through scads of fragrant lilacs. Grey rolled down a grassy hill about 10 times. You might hear rumors that I rolled down — in my Sunday dress. Mere rumors, I assure you. I’m far to dignified and well-socialized for such tomfoolery.

    Of course, the remainder of the day was dinner and cleaning and grocery shopping and antibiotic dosing, etc. But you know what? I’ll take it. My Grey is so super snuggly and affectionate. I love this age, and I love who he is. He is so loving towards me, and the rest of the family. Today he made up a song about how much he loved Thane. And he gives me such great kisses and hugs — I wish I could bottle them against future adolescent dignity.

    And now the Red Sox are actually winning a game against the Yankees (wonder of wonders!) and we have tickets for tomorrow (look for us in the Bleachers) and life is just good.