HOW TO BE A BETTER BUSINESS TRAVELER
By Joe Brancatelli
August 28, 2013 -- An infrequent business traveler I know booked a ticket from Philadelphia to San Francisco last week and then promptly called me to complain.
"They offered me an upgrade to first class for $350. That's ridiculous," she said. "Why can't everyone have a good seat?"
By the time I explained airline economics, disabused her of the notion of in-flight equality and convinced her to spring for the $350 to sit in a quiet and comfortable environment on a six-hour flight, the upgrade was long gone. She ended up sitting in coach--in a middle seat, of course--and was hardly ready to hit the ground running for a late-day meeting in the city by the bay.
Her mistake may have been excusable because she is, after all, an infrequent business traveler. But those of us who live our lives on the road make too many mistakes, too. We can and should train ourselves to be better business travelers. It'll save us time, make us more productive and lessen the wear-and-tear on our hearts, our heads and our bodies.
Here are seven simple tips to make it so.
Ask for the upgrade
As in life, there are times in travel when less is more. But coach seats and tiny hotel rooms are definitely not those times. Unless you're an elite player in their frequent travel plan, airlines and hotels generally don't give away upgrades anymore. But you sometimes can get them cheap just by asking. With the rise of premium-economy seating, more legroom is very often available for a bump of just a few bucks over the price of your coach ticket. And it never hurts to ask at the gate if there are first- or business-class seats available at reasonable prices. Many airlines have an at-the-gate upsell policy. At hotels, the sweet spot for suites is at the front desk. When you arrive, ask if better rooms are available and politely state your bargaining position. You'd be surprised how often a pleasantly uttered "Would $20 more get me a suite tonight?" works.
Tame the technology
Robert Browning, the poet who first phrased the "less is more" meme, and Mies van der Rohe, the architect who practiced it, would both be shocked by the amount of technological detritus we now schlep. Look at your carry-on bag: Is there a laptop in there? A tablet? Ebook 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: a good smartphone and either a tablet or a laptop. They'll do everything you need.
A bag for your carry-on bag
Speaking of carry-ons, carry a few ziplock storage bags with you. That's all it takes to have a more felicitous experience at airport security checkpoints. Instead of dumping the contents of your pockets into those annoying plastic baskets that the TSA uses, take a second to plan before your reach the checkpoint. Gather your pens, coins, keys, wallet, phone and the other contents of your pockets and slip them in one of the ziplocks. Put the bag in an outside pocket of your carry-on. It'll be one less hassle to deal with at the checkpoint. A granular tip: I prefer quart-sized freezer bags for this task, but your mileage may vary.
Have a travel 'go bag'
Disaster-preparation specialists recommend having a pre-packed "go bag" if the worst happens. Parents-to-be have a go bag for when it's time to hustle to the hospital. So why don't more of us business travelers have a pre-packed (or at least partially packed) go bag? Make sure that your carry-on is prepped with the basics: a change of undies, socks and a back-up shirt or blouse; a fully stocked toiletries kit; a tech bag with cords and other gear; and whatever else you know you're always going to take with your. My carry-on bag has internal pockets that are stocked with pens, notepads and a stash of other office supplies; business cards; breath mints; a fold-down umbrella; and back-up eyeglasses and sunglasses. The key to smart go-bag management: Refill and refresh it at the end of each trip. This way, when the next call to fly comes, you're ready to go without fumbling for (or forgetting) the basics.
The more you travel, the more you realize that you're going to get all the points and miles you'll need to score a free holiday. Smarter travelers focus on attaining as much "elite" status as they can manage. Elite status is the fast track to free upgrades, much more personalized service and, frankly, a less-dehumanizing travel experience. Back in the day (which may have only been a decade ago), the travel industry was more selective about who got to be an elite. Today, most will happily match your status in another program to get your business or offer you a fast path to elite. Some will even give it to you as part of a package of perks bundled with their affinity credit card. Get as much elite as you can because you never know when you will need an airline or hotel chain that you otherwise don't patronize.
Say their name
If you think the travel experience is dehumanizing for us, imagine what it is like for underpaid customer-facing employees at airlines, hotels and car-rental firms. The best way to get them engaged and energized to help you is to connect with them on a personal level. And that doesn't take much these days. Simply addressing them kindly and respectfully by name will often do the trick. Want great hotel service? Make sure to catch the name of the person checking you in. Say thank you when you leave the front desk. When you get to your room, call the front desk, ask for them, and thank them again. It works wonders.
Be a big(ger) spender
I've never understood why business travelers--who are, after all, business people first--don't fully embrace the concept of tipping. More specifically, tipping well and often. At some level, we're all in this for the money. The more you spread around, wisely and discreetly, the better service you will receive. Money talks loudly and will be heard even over the day-to-day din of business travel.