After nearly 1,000 nights spent in hotels and hundreds of flights all over the world, I've learned a few tricks that make traveling more pleasant and hassle-free.
1: Make your loyalty pay off
Many regard frequent traveler programs merely as ways to rack up points for a free vacation, and they pay little attention to the programs or which travel providers they use. While the points are nice and can ultimately get you to some exotic location, more important are the benefits loyalty provides when your travel plans go awry. Far more than just a fancy membership card, loyalty status provides an enhanced level of customer support. Others may wind up standing in line to rebook after a cancelled flight. But if you have airline status you can call a special 800 number, jump the long phone queues, and be rebooked and headed home before your broken airplane even returns to the gate.
With hotels, most programs guarantee a room with 48 hours notice for top members, and of course there are nice perks like upgraded seats, rooms, and nicer cars. Be aware that airlines and hotels often have several brands under a shared earnings regime, so you can beef up your American Airlines status while flying British Airlines, for example. A couple hours of study of the programs and a careful decision on how to maximize travel with a limited selection of vendors now can pay off next time you're stranded.
2: Use the information advantage
Occasional travelers rely on their providers for notifications or help in the event of a delay. But savvy travelers use the arsenal of apps and technology available to them to anticipate and proactively react to delays. TripIt, FlightAware, GateGuru, and http://www.fly.faa.gov are some of my favorites, helping you manage your itineraries, identify and track your incoming aircraft, locate food options at airports, and view overall airport traffic in the US.
Seeing a regional delay or discovering that your inbound aircraft is stuck on the tarmac allows you to arm yourself with alternatives. Often, when dealing with a gate agent, it's easier to say, "I noticed there's another flight on United in 20 minutes," which will get you on that flight, rather than letting the agent propose an itinerary that's several hours or connections longer.
3: Don't be a jerk
Frequent travel can be stressful and often brings out the worst in people. It should go unstated, but avoid being rude to the various people whom you encounter in the strange world of business travel. In many cases, simply being polite can get you a bit of extra help from a gate agent or hotel receptionist. In the worst cases I've seen people thrown off planes in handcuffs for little more reason than a bad attitude with an overly sensitive flight attendant. Human courtesy should be a reward in itself, but it also serves a pragmatic benefit when anyone from a pilot to a TSA agent can ultimately prevent you from getting to your destination without any recourse.
4: Streamline your tech
As IT workers, many of us tend to overload on the technology we schlep around with us when we travel. If nothing else, periodically review the items you carry and remove anything from your bag that you haven't used in several months. I have a series of small stuff sacks that I can easily add or subtract for different travel situations—for example, a bag with international power adapters for international trips and a variety of video cables for when I'll be driving a projector.
If you want to go more extreme, adopting lighter technology and leaving some equipment at home reduces your load, and lessens the number of items you need to take out, track, and reassemble when going through security. It may not seem like much, but your back will thank you for going from a 5-pound laptop to a 3-pound travel machine—and a year of spare Ethernet cables, half-consumed chewing gum, and miscellaneous paperwork can really add up.
5: Start running in the morning
IT work is bad enough on one's health, with little movement other than occasionally shuffling a mouse. Travel makes it even worse, stacking our weekends and evenings with hours of sedentary time on airplanes and in cars. Add in a large helping of "road food" and drink, and travel can seriously harm your health. I've tried all manner of fitness regimes over the years, but running is the easiest to maintain on the road. No matter how lackluster (or nonexistent) a hotel gym I'm faced with, I can lace up my sneakers and get a few miles in. Couch to 5K is a great way to get started, and I recommend running in the morning. Not only does it clear your mind and keep your energy level up during the day, but it prevents you from skipping your exercise routine when unplanned dinners or late workdays intrude on the evening.
6: Travel with your passport
General advice to the non-traveler is to keep your passport in secure storage, which might be anything from a disused drawer in your dresser to a bank deposit box. I've had only a few unplanned international business trips when I couldn't make it home first, but I've often had trips get proposed unexpectedly where I needed to get a visa in short order. Always having your passport available makes this process much easier. I've also had my passport stolen in the US, and while painful, it is possible to get a new passport rather quickly in an emergency, so the advice that this document is "irreplaceable" is not entirely accurate.
7: Buy a good suitcase (preferably not a black one)
There are two competing theories on luggage, particularly the workhorse of the business traveler: the rollaboard. The first suggestion is to buy three or four cheap bags and replace them every six to 18 months as they wear out. The second suggestion is to buy a high quality bag that will last around five years with weekly use. Both cost approximately the same amount; however, I've found the better bags are simply nicer to deal with, having stronger fabrics, better zippers, better warranties, and nicer organizational features.
Some also recommend straying from the standard issue rollaboard, and there are duffels and other designs many travelers swear by. But I'd strongly recommend a rollaboard as your basic two- to seven-night suitcase. Ideally, buy one that's not black so you can readily identify it among the sea of black bags that most business travelers purchase.
8: Back up key tools
Life on the road subjects your equipment to some tough conditions, so it's well worth backing up your data and critical equipment. I've never been able to maintain a manual backup procedure. But automated backup tools like Time Machine for Mac and Windows Backup are invaluable since they work seamlessly in the background—n my case backing up to a wireless hard drive array. I'm generally working at home at least one day each week, so in the worst case I can fully recover a five-day old image from my laptop, and all my working documents are backed up to Dropbox. Similar tools exist for mobile devices, allowing you to replace a lost or broken phone with minimal downtime.
Physical redundancy can be just as important. I own two power adapters for my laptop, one that stays at my desk at home and one for my laptop bag, so I avoid the "forgotten power adapter" syndrome. I also highly recommend a portable backup battery with USB ports for your phone and other small devices, which invariably lose power when you need them most.
9: Stock yourself with media
Travel involves extensive downtime, so a cache of music, books, movies, and periodicals can make an hour in the airport, or an otherwise-lonely dinner, a bit more tolerable. I love a tablet for this purpose, but your phone can work just as well. You can also keep informed on global, national, and local news and catch up on your favorite TV show or movie. Be sure you have some media that work when your device is disconnected, so you're not at a complete loss on a flight or other situation where you lack connectivity.
10: Find a "road hobby"
Finding something to do after working hours can be a challenge while traveling. Some sit in their hotel room and continue working all day, every day; others fall victim to the siren's song of expense-able meals and drinks—both activities best enjoyed in moderation. Rather than sequestering yourself in your hotel room or in the nearest bar, use the time away from the distractions of home to engage in some sort of hobby.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.