By Joe Brancatelli
July 28, 2010 -- What happens when you take airlines and airports out of the business-travel equation? Life on the road--and I mean literally on the road--may actually improve.

I've just returned from a 900-mile roundtrip automobile journey, one of several times in recent years when I have driven or taken Amtrak instead of flying. And the more I do it, the more I like not dealing with the airlines, the wacky pricing, the increasingly inconvenient scheduling, the bureaucratic Kabuki of airport security, and the cramped "regional jets" that the carriers use on half of their domestic runs.

Far from being on the leading edge of this trend, I'm more of a follower. There are no statistics, but every bit of anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that more and more frequent flyers are becoming frequent drivers and, where possible, frequent railers. What used to be the business traveler's 200-mile rule—fly on any itinerary longer than that distance—seems to have expanded dramatically.

"Over the last five years, I have adjusted my thinking regarding mode of travel," explains Memphis-based Bill Catlette, the executive coach and author of the Contented Cows series of leadership books. "I've increased the default distance for air travel to 600 miles. Ground transport, for reasonable distances, is less hassle."

Catlette's rationale (more comfort in his own car and lower cost) and concerns (car trips create more pollution per person and driving isn't as safe as flying) are fairly common among business travelers who've decided to drive more and fly less. And the bottom line is a personal one: Only you and your automobile know what's right for you.

But if you've been substituting ground transportation for air travel in recent years—or are thinking about it—allow me to offer some useful observations and practical tips.

Value Your Time, Control Your Schedule
Business travelers became frequent flyers because flying was faster than driving or taking the train. But flying these days simply isn't as efficient as it used to be. When you factor in the drive-time to and from distant airports, the two-hour window travelers now leave to return rental cars and clear security, the time waiting for checked luggage, the increased number of connections required to fly even a short itinerary, the actual flight time, and the inevitable delays, driving stacks up competitively for trips of as long as 500 miles. And driving offers an advantage flying simply can't match: You control your own schedule, travel at your own pace, stop where and if you wish, and leave at your leisure, not at an airline's whim.

The Joy of Packing Heavy
Frequent flyers are masters of traveling light, squeezing the bare essentials into carry-on bags and checking as few bags as possible. But driving allows you to pack heavy and indulge your whims. Have a favorite pillow or a big, plush robe? Take it along. Think you might want to get in a round of golf, a few sets of tennis, or even some kayaking? Pack your gear. Hate the 3-1-1 rule for liquids? Indulge yourself. Throw that 10-ounce tube of toothpaste in your bag! What you carry is limited only by the size of your car and its storage space.

The Web Is Your Navigator
If you're a baby boomer, your summer vacation may have been planned by the AAA. It delivered by mail a TripTik, complete with strip maps and thick blue lines to denote your route. TripTiks are Web-based now, and the AAA does it instantly for all comers. Plus, you have a host of alternatives: Google Maps, Mapquest, and many more. You'll never get lost again—unless you want to, of course. And there is a wonderful new player in the navigation market: the major hotel "families" such as Marriott, Hilton, and InterContinental. Each has literally thousands of hotels, and each offers an advanced "by route" search function that will pinpoint lodging options along any itinerary you select. For my most recent road trip, I used Hilton's "by route" search, and it generated all of the Hampton Inns, Hilton Garden Inns, and Homewood Suites along the way. Hilton not only got all of my business, I padded my Hilton HHonors frequent-guest account nicely.

The New Bed and Breakfast Battle
Statistics tell us that America is over-hoteled—four in 10 rooms are empty on an average night—and anecdotal observations prove it too. Even smaller cities and towns have at least one lodging option sporting the flag of a major chain. And they are all battling over the business-travel basics: better beds, more lavish breakfasts, and good Internet access. The aforementioned big chains—Hilton, Marriott (with Courtyard, Residence, Fairfield, and SpringHill), and Intercontinental (with Holiday Inn and its distinct Holiday Inn Express brand)—dominate the interstates nationwide. But Hyatt is growing fast with its well-regarded Hyatt Place concept. Several smaller chains, most notably Drury and Red Roof, also have their dedicated customers. Other familiar roadside brands—Best Western, LaQuinta, Motel 6, and the myriad of chains controlled by Choice and Wyndham—tend to be less consistent from property to property. The trick is to find the combination of price, location, and free amenities that work for you.

The Coupon Connection
Although I recommend sticking with one chain wherever possible—it'll build your frequent-stay points, and the elite status matters—there's a burgeoning market for hotel discounting via coupons. Operations such as Roomsaver, Travel Coupons, and Hotel Coupons offer special "walk-up" rates if you're willing to travel without reservations or can't plan ahead. There are even road-specific guides such as the Interstate 95 Exit Guide, the Interstate Highway Guide, and I Travel, a service that specializes in displaying interstate-based lodging information on your smartphone.

Travel With the Basics
Road warriors will tell you that the keys to a successful trip are the basics: a good cooler, plenty of ice, and a travel mug. A cooler serves a variety of functions besides keeping beverages cold. It allows you to expand your meal options to the elaborate prepared take-away items available at supermarkets such as Whole Foods and regional competitors such as Wegman's. And since some roadside motels now have in-room microwaves, you can even indulge in the heat-and-eat options those markets offer. (If your stomach won't stomach one more take-out meal, consider options such as Chowhound, where rabid foodies exchange tips about great dining.) Meanwhile, if you have a big, honking travel mug, you can fill up on coffee at your hotel or at a convenience store, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, or a local coffee bar.

Creature Comforts
If you like luxurious towels, bring your own, because roadside lodgings, no matter how good they are, tend to have rather paltry offerings. (By the way, a lot of hotels have guest-accessible washers and dryers.) If you're an eat-in-your-room-while-you-work type, carry your own utensils. Most roadside hotels don't offer room service, so you'll be relying on take-away meals, and carry-out joints specialize in plastic utensils. And always travel with an RJ-45 cable; hotels often have wired Internet in their room and forget to provide the cable.

The Amtrak Option
The fate of nationwide passenger rail was essentially sealed when the Eisenhower administration made interstate highways America's mass-transit option. But for all of its all-too-obvious flaws, Amtrak does have some benefits. Of course, those benefits tend to be concentrated on the coasts. Fourteen of Amtrak's busiest stations are located either along the Boston-Washington corridor or in California. If you are using Amtrak elsewhere, the problem is getting to and from your final destination from the train station. One potential solution: Enterprise Rent-A-Car recently struck a deal with Amtrak to extend the chain's "we'll pick you up" policy to many train stations. It has established a special reservation number (866-836-4091) and also a venture tied to Amtrak's Guest Rewards frequency program.

The Fine Print…
Bus travel as an option for business travelers isn't practical, although Greyhound says one in five of its passengers claim to be riding for business reasons. But there is a luxury bus line called Limoliner that operates between midtown Manhattan and Boston's Back Bay. And a new-wave line called Megabus operates cheap and cheery service between 19 Midwest and 14 Northeast cities.
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 © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.