Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Labor Day Business Travel Checklist: 7 Must-Dos
August 25, 2016 -- Quick now: What do presidential election politics and business travel have in common?
If you said "the important stuff only happens after Labor Day," you qualify as a talking-head pundit in both fields. Go on a cable-news show and bloviate to your heart's content.
But I do challenge this accepted, convention wisdom. Many presidential candidates have been indelibly defined before Labor Day — this year, it may be Donald Trump, if you believe pundit Kathleen Parker. As for business travel, I suggest you spend these few days before the Labor Day weekend doing important prep for your autumn on the road.
Here are seven things you should do right now to be ready.
Check your elite status. Unless you're striving for the upper levels of one of the major frequent flyer programs, I suggest you pay less attention than ever before to your elite status on the airlines. Hotels are a different story, however. Their elite levels have considerable perks — free WiFi, breakfast, some room upgrades, later check-out — and you can often acquire entry level status by taking the hotel chain's credit card. When you hit the top levels of programs such as Hyatt Gold Passport and Starwood Preferred Guest, the rewards are exceptional. Contact the program's call center to get current details of any ongoing status match or status challenges. Or watch the ebb and flow of things at a website dedicated to the practice of status matching.
Check your wallet. Nothing is more evanescent than the title "best travel credit card." The competitive balance is always shifting and just this month Chase seized the high ground with two of the first Visa Infinite cards issued in the United States. The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers immense value for high-spending business travelers: annual cash rebates on travel spending, airport club privileges and copious amounts of Ultimate Rewards points on charges. Chase's Ritz-Carlton Visa Infinite is bundled with free nights and Club-level room upgrades at the luxury lodging chain. The annual fees ($450) are high, but so is the acquisition bonus (100,000 points) for taking either card.
Check your security profile. The Transportation Security Administration pulled out all of the stops this summer to avoid a politically embarrassing meltdown. However, if the agency goes back to its traditional slovenliness and arrogance this fall, you need to protect yourself. One way to be sure that the TSA knows who you are and honors your PreCheck "privileges" is to check your airline security profiles. Confirm that it has your Known Traveler number and that your details are correct down to the last letter, comma and period. Also ensure that any third-party travel agents you deal with have exactly the same information.
Check your tech. Poet Robert Browning created the "less is more" meme. Architect Mies van der Rohe practiced it. And both would be shocked by the amount of technological detritus we now schlep. Look in your carry-on bag: Is there a laptop in there? A tablet or two? Book reader? Music player? How many cables and peripherals go with that torrent of tech? It's too much. Most business travelers are far better served by carrying just two devices. Trim down to the basics: an up-to-date smartphone and either a tablet or a laptop. They'll do everything you need. Leave the rest at home.
Check your routings. Airlines are constantly juggling routes in an endless attempt to maximize profit and minimize the number of empty seats. Lately, the airlines have been trimming their service to Europe. This fall, routes such as Newark-Newcastle (England) and Boston-Cologne (Germany) and many others will disappear. It's not always best to search for replacement airline routes to get you where you need to go. Sites such as Rome2Rio and GoEuro offer intermodal travel options. Sometimes you're best airline route is a actually a train ride or even a rental car.
Check your fares. Oil prices remain comparatively low and travel demand relatively weak. That has forced airlines to lower fares. But the price cuts have not been across the board nor even in any rational or predictable fashion. In recent weeks, we're seen transatlantic flights below $300 roundtrip and transpacific itineraries less than $500. Domestic fares, too, have bounced all over the metaphoric map. While many of the traditional rules hold — fly Tuesday and Wednesday and stay over a Saturday for the lowest prices — you should assume nothing. Before booking any flights this fall, run your itinerary through the pricing matrix at ITA Software. You'll be able to look at a month's worth of fares, day by day, route by route, on virtually all airlines.
Check your bags. I don't mean you should hand your baggage over to the airlines rather than carry-on. Quite the opposite. I continue to urge business travelers to find ways to lighten their loads and carry-on. But now, before the busy fall travel season starts, is the time to examine your personal luggage inventory. Weed out the obsolete or unnecessary pieces. Make sure your carry-ons meet the official size restrictions imposed by the carriers you fly most frequently. If you use fabric or nylon bags, check for rips and tears. If you use the newer, lightweight plastics, check for cracks and breaks. Examine the wheels and straps. While you're at it, check your luggage tags, too. Invest in some sturdy, high-quality ones that won't break the first time you put them through a TSA checkpoint. I love the thick, high-quality polycarbonate bodies, sturdy straps and whimsical designs offered by ArTag.