Business Travel Basics

Business travel can be a major treat or a drawback. It depends on where you are going, for how long, what your personal obligations and wants are at home, and how your organization treats travelers. There is an art to traveling well. If you do it often enough, you will develop routines and shortcuts. Here are some tips.

Enroll in trusted traveler programs

These programs make travel far better. In the United States, Global Entry, TSA Precheck, Nexus, and others are continually being expanded and integrated. They enable you to skip lines and go through security with minimal hassle. Join any that you can. Once I landed in the U.S. after a long-haul flight from Asia and no one was allowed to leave the plane for over an hour because of long customs lines backing up traffic inside the airport- except for me. When I showed the flight attendants my Global Entry card, I exited immediately and breezed passed the lines to the kiosk machine.

Checklists

Make a handful of packing checklists for yourself. Apparel, accessories, electronics (chargers, devices), essentials (passport, medicine), and other categories for items you will usually want with you. For example, apparel might include suits, trouser socks, flats, heels, overcoat, workout clothes, and more. You can print copies of the checklists or slip a copy into a plastic cover and use an erasable marker to reuse it for each trip. You can create different versions: domestic short trip, foreign long trip, weekend car trip, trip with child, and more. It saves time by increasing efficiency. It decreases stress, as you will know you are not forgetting anything critical. Leave a few blanks in the template so you can add in trip-specific items as needed. Find a sample checklist here.

Packing

For women, a great shortcut is to buy doubles of things you would need to pack, such as makeup, your favorite razor, face lotion, and other daily essentials. Keep them in your travel cosmetics bag-no packing needed. Refill your little containers after each trip. I use several contact lens cases for eye makeup remover, hair serum and other liquids I need small amounts of. They are available at drugstores for a few dollars or less. They are watertight, tiny and do not break like small plastic bottles do. Having go-to trip clothes also helps a lot, as discussed below. Bring a few extra shirts. Short-sleeved silk or synthetic tops take up very little room or weight and come in handy when you need a change of attire during transit or between activities. I keep a top and fresh socks in my carry-on tote; changing just those items is refreshing after many hours of travel.

On the plane

Try to get some rest as well as stretch every few hours. Minimize alcohol consumption. Drinking wine with dinner or having a first cocktail is nice; having a drink every time it is offered can cause headaches and dehydration. You can pack hydration tablets or packets such as Nuun brand to drop into water. Some airlines are offering electrolyte water on board now, a welcome development. If you will be working, be sure to have a privacy screen for your device both to keep your information discrete and to minimize glare.

Jet lag

It is a universal yet personal experience. Some people are barely impacted. Others struggle. It changes as you age, and it changes per location, direction, and individual exhaustion level. Observe what works for you. Some people swear by going into the sun as soon as they arrive, if it is daylight. Others take medicines or use other remedies. There is plenty of information online about jet lag, but the techniques that work for you will be determined through trial and error.

Eating right

Healthy eating can be hard on business travel. You are often dependent on what is offered, or on group or client meal settings that were not your choice. You may be offered large buffets and frequent unhealthy snack stations, which are hard to resist. You may be in a place with limited choices or limited ability to understand the language. For buffets and large meals, commit to eating only what amount is a normal meal for yourself. You can bring healthy nonperishable snacks, such as nuts. On longer trips, you can try to find a local healthy foods store and pick up a few nutritious foods. If you are at a meal with unhealthy options, you can pass up some of it and discreetly snack later. As discussed in the section on special diets, in many hotels you can request to have a mini-fridge brought to the room.
I have often traveled with packets of dry oats and then use the coffee maker to make oatmeal in the mug, with bottled water or tap water depending on the country. If there was no coffee maker, I asked them to bring me one, though the option is becoming less common. This can help to avoid an unhealthy or unsatisfying breakfast, such as arriving at an early pre-meeting over breakfast to find that only sugary pastries are available. As you may need to meet with people over breakfast or just run into them at the hotel restaurant, it can be nice to be at least a bit fed before business interactions. It can also be a late-night snack upon flight arrival or after lengthy business meetings.

Resting enough

It can be hard to get adequate rest on trips. This is not good, either for your performance on the trip or for your stamina when you get home. Analyze ways to carve out time to take care of yourself. Staying at the hotel your business is in is one of the best ways to do this. You will be better able to change and get to a gym quickly or go upstairs for short breaks. You may need to skip the least important session or event to get to a gym, exercise in your room, or rest. Often the time slot just before the transition between daytime meetings and dinner is the most workable time for self-care.

Exercise

Some people are good at getting up early in the morning to work out, but jet lag may make it hard. You may have regular work to do while on the trip. If you must dial into calls, take them in your room so you can do mild stretches, leg lunges, or some physical activity at the same time. There are often not enough hours to do it all, so you will need to cut activities or cut basic self-care. Some hotels will bring you an in-room fitness kit. You may want to skip an evening event occasionally to catch up on exercise or rest. Many times, however, the off-hours events are the most important for relationship-building and business discussions, so look for lower-priority times during the structured schedule to carve out self-time. Ask colleagues to walk to dinner instead of taking a cab, weather and safety permitting. Suggest talking with colleagues while walking through a park rather than sitting at a bar. Small fitness items that can stuff into any bag include stretch bands & yoga socks.

Make the most of travel professionally and personally

Leverage the time you put into travel. If your field or business has a presence in the location, consider setting up a side meeting or site visit in advance. Business trip schedules are often packed to the max, so you may need to ask for others to accommodate you during non-business hours, or extend the trip by an extra half day on the front or back end. It can be worth it to see or engage an additional angle in person. On the personal side, it can be exciting to be in a new place, yet frustrating to not have time to do anything. A smart way to maximize your experience is to research fun or interesting activities in advance, and consider one or two that are doable within the schedule you have. Make an organized plan and suggest that colleagues join you, so that you are doing business and building relationships while seeing a local attraction. I have done and seen the following with colleagues around the edges of meetings, at dawn, and late at night: hiked in a rainforest in Singapore; salsa danced in Mexico; enjoyed a jazz club in Montreal and a riverside beer garden in Germany; seen blooming cherry blossoms at a temple in Japan, as well as ancient ruins in Peru; and walked through Tiananmen Square in China, a medieval church in France, and a spice market in Dubai. Each without spending an extra minute away from home.

Have realistic expectations

I once spent two weeks in Cancun, Mexico, without going to the beach once. It was still a great trip because of the work I was doing and the people I was with. But it was not a vacation in any sense of the word. In general, expect to work hard, enjoy time with colleagues, and see bits of a new place around the edges of your work. Do not expect to see everything in the place, relax, or come back well-rested. Schedule the trip to balance your home obligations-some people like to be gone as little as possible, others want to extend the trip and tour around or reserve time for ad hoc meetings. It will depend on the circumstances in your home and work lives at that time. I view business trips as a great chance to see something I would not otherwise get to see, rather than being frustrated that I am in new places and cannot tour around much. Just looking outside, eating new foods, and taking short walks are more than I would do in that place if I did not travel there at all. A break from the home routine can also be nice. Being on your own, away from the office, with people taking care of you in the hotel and on the flight, amenities such as a fitness center a few steps away, and three meals a day with no cooking or cleanup can be a real treat, even in an unsexy location.

Expensing travel

Processing business travel expenses can be so burdensome that it can deter you from wanting to go on trips. Some employers require that you itemize every single penny by spending hours filling out and refilling out expense reports until currencies and receipts line up to auditors’ exacting rules. Deviations such as missing receipts or policy violations can require multiple approval levels and cumbersome procedures. If you work for an employer that imposes inefficient practices, try to find ways to stay organized throughout your trip to minimize time spent later. Track spending as you go. Keep a folder with you to stash receipts as they come in. Find someone at the office who is familiar with the travel systems and ask her for help when you need it rather than wasting more time than necessary. I do not understand why employers use practices that waste so much employee productivity time rather than using per diem amounts and extending some trust. The labor costs spent on so many hours processing expenses is often more than the amounts in question. As a manager, I once spent three months trying to resolve an amount less than one dollar for an employee after a car rental company refunded the amount for unknown reasons. The travel system and foreign auditors would not approve it. For a 67-cent credit, four levels of management, administrative staff, and auditors each spent time filling out forms and explaining why there was an extra credit (answer: we did not know). The organization would have been better off with a policy that allowed exceptions under a small amount to be approved with less process.

Use policies smartly

Do what is easiest for you within the policies. Maximize your time and energy. The organization benefits if you are at your most effective. Example: You fly into Washington, D.C., for a meeting the following day. Your flight gets in at 9:30 p.m. and dinner was not served on the plane. You take the Metro, because it is inexpensive. You arrive at the hotel after 10 p.m. hungry and tired from flying then hauling luggage on escalators, trains, and sidewalks. You check in and go downstairs to eat, only to find that the restaurant has now closed, so you need to venture out to find food. On your way out, you see a colleague who is also attending the meeting. He is enjoying a cocktail with a key contact you will pitch together at the meeting the next day. He asks where you have been. He took a cab from the airport and arrived an hour earlier. He was able to check in, eat, and network while you were still in transit. Small choices to spend a little bit more can make a big difference in your experience and effectiveness. If you can stay at or very close to the meeting venue, do it. Being able to dash up to your room is extremely efficient and convenient. If you can take a taxi when you need to save time and hassle, do it.