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HOME SWEET HOME
By Joe Brancatelli
December 23, 2009 -- Years from now, when Up in the Air has reached cult status and a social critic decides that George Clooney's Ryan Bingham was an icon of the distracted, disconnected, self-involved first decade of the 21st century, I'll still be harping on this absurdity:

"Last year," the Bingham character says, "I spent 322 days on the road, which means that I had to spend 43 miserable days at home."

Only frequent-flyer wannabes think that. Those of us who really do live our lives on the road cherish our free time at home and back at the office. We're not down in the dumps about not being up in the air. We're thrilled. It gives us time to do the mundane little tasks that we've been unable to accomplish while traveling.

Since our most concentrated off-the-road time comes now, during the Christmas-New Year's holiday, I thought we'd be well served by checking our to-do list. A couple of weeks from now, when we're back up in the air, we'll have either finished our respective lists—or delayed dealing with them for another year.

Clean Your Metaphoric Junk Drawer
Most homes have a "junk drawer" where the detritus and the irreplaceables of daily life seem to live. The laptop bag is the metaphoric junk drawer of a life on the road. It's where we ditch our dried-out highlighters, half-used pads, stray thumb drives, discarded discs, abandoned proposals, and every paper clip we own. Use some of your free time to clean out your bag. Dump the trash, reorganize the good stuff, and leave just a few paper clips at the bottom of the bag. You never know when you'll need to uncurl one and stick one end into the little hole near the eject button of your drive to free a balky disc.

Do You Really Need Mink Oil Body Wash?
While you're in the clean-up mode, edit your toiletries kit. If you're putting your stuff in your carry-on bag, thus following the Transportation Security Administration's 3-1-1 rule, you need all of the space you can make. Time to dump the fancy toiletries you took from hotel rooms or airline amenity kits because you thought you might buy some yourself some day. Get back to the basics: one bottle or tube of anything you consider precious. Everything else goes. And if you have a surfeit of sundries, consider donating them to your local shelter or check with Hospitality for the Homeless.

Surfing for Dollars
Business travelers like to think we know all the discount angles and get the best airfares, room rates, and car-rental prices. But you'd be surprised how much we miss because we're too busy during the year to surf the Web looking for discount and promotional codes. While you've got downtime, make a list of your preferred travel suppliers. Then Google that company's name and the phrases "promotional codes" and "discount codes." There are guaranteed to be dozens of discounts you literally didn't know about. Just this past weekend, for example, I scored 15 percent off the best weekly rental rate I could otherwise negotiate from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. All I did was Google for a promotion, then enter the code in the mysterious little box on the reservation form that said "promo number."

Play Your Cards Right
If you're even modestly creditworthy, your pile of unread snail mail probably has dozens of offers from credit-card issuers promising tens of thousands of bonus points or miles if you'd only take some airline or hotel's newest affinity card. Your end-of-year time at home is the perfect opportunity to reassess the credit and charge cards in your travel wallet and balance them against the newbies on offer. I'm not big on "churning" (taking new cards just for the sign-up bonuses), but you may find that you're ripe for a change in cards. And even if you aren't, now is a great time to call your credit-card company and tell them that you might switch if they don't waive the annual fee. You'll be surprised how many will make the charge disappear for a year as a "courtesy" for a good customer.

The Early Booker Gets the Big Payoff
The first quarter of the year is when the nation's major hotel chains unveil their richest frequent-guest program promotions. Although specifics vary by chain, the basic marketing idea always is the same: Grab a greater percentage of your lodging business by offering lucrative incentives for multiple and repeat bookings. Now is the time to plan your first-quarter lodging strategies to score the best deal. Starwood Preferred Guest and Radisson Goldpoints have already posted details of their first 2010 promotions. Marriott Rewards has contacted many customers with a customized first-quarter promo and Hilton HHonors, Hyatt Gold Passport, and InterContinental Priority Club will unveil their deals in a matter of days. Hotel loyalty plans and the value of their points are difficult to compare objectively, so you'll need the free time to calculate your best combination of points, places, and promotions.

Phone It In
Don't use a smartphone like a BlackBerry or an iPhone? Now that you have a few minutes to think, consider switching from a traditional (and dumb) cell phone. Not only are several mobile firms now offering flat-rate, all-you-can-eat rates for calling, texting, and email, handset prices are at all-time lows. The obvious exception: the iPhone. Apple and AT&T continue to keep prices artificially high while fending off claims from Consumer Reports about spotty call quality and coverage.

Status Seeking
If you've missed your preferred 2010 elite-status level in the frequent-flyer program of your chosen airline, you have two choices. You can do a last-minute "mileage run" by December 31. That entails more flying and another trip to the airport. Of you can call your airline's frequent-flyer program desk and ask what considerations they'll make or what options they offer to allow you to maintain your existing status. I recommend the latter option. Anything the airline asks is probably less painful than schlepping out to the airport for a last-minute trip to nowhere that you really don't want to take. Besides, haven't you flown enough this year already?

The Fine Print…
One final tip: Use the downtime during this holiday season to reexamine your dressing and packing strategies. Pack smarted. Carry less. If you slim down your traveling entourage, you'll have a less stressful 2010.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2009 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.