Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Seven Rules Road Warriors Should Never Break
October 6, 2016 -- The guy who used to drive me to the airport from my distant riverfront aerie had an unbreakable routine. The moment I was settled into the back seat and before he started the engine, he'd look into the rear-view mirror and chirp: "Got your passport? Got your tickets? Turn off the coffeemaker?"
And I had a standard reply: "Richie, nobody has tickets anymore. And every coffeemaker turns itself off now."
Richie is out of the driving game, but not because he didn't adjust to electronic tickets and smart home electronics, yet he's a constant reminder that business travel is in a constant state of flux. The next disruptive innovation is just around the proverbial corner. Business travel always changes.
Except when it doesn't. There are immutable rules that have never changed in the nearly 40 years I've been on the road. Here are seven crucial ones you should never break.
1. Never be clubless
This is the Prime Directive of business travel: Never be without club access at an airport. Lavish or merely serviceable, an airport club is the key to your comfort and productivity on the road.
In the days when one in three domestic flights ran late, club lounges were necessary refuges as you waited out the inevitable delayed departure or blown connection. Flights run better now — only about one in five is tardy — but today we need lounges to smooth out the vagaries of security checkpoints.
Then or today, clubs remain a comparative haven from the madness of the milling throngs at boarding gates. Yes, sometimes clubs, especially at hub airports, are overcrowded and loud. But they're still better than being in genpop.
2. Nonstops are always the better option
So many things can go wrong with flights; why double your chances of a foul-up by choosing a connecting itinerary when a nonstop option is available? To save a few bucks? Absurd.
Connections are a false economy. "Gee," you might think, "if I just change planes in Hubville instead of flying nonstop, I'll save enough money to fill-in-the-blank here." But that assumes nothing will go wrong. Something always goes wrong, and there you are shelling out for a dreary airport hotel in Hubville because your connection cancelled. Try reconciling your budget after you've lost one day on a two-day business trip.
Honor the value of your time. It's your most precious commodity.
3. Know your options
If you're a savvy businessperson, you always have a Plan B. You studiously prepare options for everything from sales calls to budgets. Why go on the road defenseless without a Plan B?
Yes, smartphones are secular miracles. They'll find a backup flight or a hotel option instantly. They'll call an Uber and pull up reviews of an unfamiliar restaurant. And what did we do before Google Maps and Waze showed us the way?
But better to know before you go. Always prep alternatives if your flight cancels or your car rental doesn't materialize or the hotel you picked is across the street from a 24/7 construction site. Life on the road is less harried if you're in command of your options and you're armed with better information.
4. The early flier catches the breaks
Two things never change about airlines: They run better earlier in the day and you're always at highest risk when you book the last flight of the day.
Look at the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, the Transportation Department's monthly compilation of airline and airport operations. It'll tell you the same thing that it told you 30 years ago: Airports operate most efficiently in the morning, and delays pile up as the business day progresses. That's because domestic aircraft routinely fly several segments a day. Delays accumulate as planes move from point to point.
The "last flight" rule? That's just common sense. If you push your schedule to its breaking point and book the final flight of the night, what happens if it cancels? You're stuck. Airlines work hard to get their last flights out because they want aircraft properly positioned for the first departure the next day, but they can recover if they must dump the last flight. Your schedule? Not so much.
5. Buy only as much lodging as you need
My clunky metaphor about life on the road is that airlines drive the bus. We spend so much time adjusting our schedules to theirs that we often pay too little attention to lodging options. That's a costly and often uncomfortable mistake.
The lodging industry has done what we contend we want the airlines to do: Give us the options we want at the prices we want to pay. Our lodging options are endless. There's a brand and a hotel concept every few dollars along the pricing spectrum. A generation ago, our choice was "hotel" or "motel." Now, there are all-suites hotels, extended-stay properties, numerous flavors of full-service operations and a dazzling array of what the industry calls "focused service" options.
No business traveler should stay exclusively in one type of lodging on the road. That's bad tactical planning. Book each trip according to your needs. Some journeys will require the full-on traditional hotel complete with bellmen, in-house restaurants and extensive meeting space. Other, longer trips call for more residential-style lodging with kitchens and hang-out space. Still others may require only a good bed, a strong shower and a quick breakfast the next morning. Buy exactly as much lodging as you need for each trip. It's better for your budget and your physical and mental well-being.
6. Don't play if you're paying interest
Frequency programs stopped being about airline and hotel loyalty years ago. The vast majority of points and miles — upwards of two-thirds, in fact — are now generated by other activities. And the vast majority of those credits, perhaps 90 percent, are created by credit card spending.
Playing your cards right is key to maximizing your ability to turn your business travel into free flights and free hotel rooms. But if you roll over your credit card balances each month and pay interest, you shouldn't use airline and hotel cards. It's financial suicide.
In common scenarios, your rate of return on airline and hotel credit cards is 3 or 4 percent. If you're smart and savvy (and lucky), the payout can reach 6 or 8 percent. But the average interest rate that credit cards charge is north of 15 percent. Airline and hotel card rate are frequently higher. If you carry balances, concentrate on finding cards with the lowest possible interest rate, not miles or points.
7. Tip better and tip often
We're all business people, so what part of tipping don't you understand? The better you tip and the more frequently you do it, the better service you'll receive from everyone: underpaid maids at your hotel, basement-dwelling baristas at your favorite airport coffee bar, the shoeshine guy, even the FedEx or UPS delivery person dumping packages on your desk while you're gone.
You're on the road for business. Business runs on money. Why do you think service people in travel do what they do? And it's guaranteed that you make more money than almost all of them. A few extra bucks won't dent your budget, but it will surely mean a lot to them. And you reap the by-product of your well-considered generosity: better, faster and more attentive service.