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How to survive business travel

Airport by morberg via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [1]

Most of us, whether we like it or not, have to go on business trips from time to time. When you’re in your twenties, this seems like a glamorous thing, and your partying stamina helps you deal with the adverse effects of air travel, sleep deprivation and bad food at irregular times. When you get to your 40s, though, it’s a different thing altogether. And while I know some people who actually like to go on business trips, I’m not one of those people.

Since you can’t really escape the inevitable, here are the real world tips & tricks I’ve learned over the years—the good, the bad and the ugly.

Packing & Luggage

The most common advice—and the hardest to follow—is to pack less than your instincts tell you to. Don’t pack to have choices, pack to have enough clean clothes to wear while you’re away. Try to pack for the purpose of your trip: how many travel days? How many meeting days? You can wear a no-jacket version of your meeting outfits to dinner, so a ‘social’ change of clothes may not be required.

Luggage by friend JAD via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [2]

For the last several years, I have always made a packing list prior to actually cracking open a suitcase. I use Evernote [3] for this (I like the satisfying little checkboxes) but paper also works. The list helps you not forget things and also acts as insurance against overpacking. Lists can also be reused for multiple trips of the same length (in the same season).

The New York Times has a brilliant photo feature [4] where an airline cabin attendant demonstrates how to pack for a ten-day trip using only a carry-on suitcase. When I tweeted this, many of my friends said that it revolutionized their travel lives. I remain somewhat unconvinced (partly because I think men’s clothes are bulkier than women’s) but it’s certainly a method that resonates with many people.

Whatever you do, take the smallest suitcase you own. If you don’t have a carry-on size suitcase, buy one. The hard shell ones now cost less than $100. Of course, this only applies to shorter trips of up to 3 days, but you save an inordinate amount of time at the airport on both ends if you don’t have to drop off your luggage or wait for it to arrive on the carousel.

Regardless of whether I’m checking luggage or not, I now pretty much always use a large resealable Ziploc bag for my toiletries. I have several refillable Humangear GoToob [5] elastic bottles for shampoo, conditioner and face wash. While they’re a little more expensive, they expand and contract on the plane, which prevents them from exploding and causing a nasty mess in my suitcase. For all other toiletries, I use small containers from Muji [6], the Japanese purveyor of things small and useful (I don’t recommend dollar store or pharmacy containers—they’re cheaply made, cause a mess and don’t last). Wrap your soap carrier into another, smaller clear Ziploc bag inside the first one. I take all my own toiletries rather than buying those ‘travel size’ bottles from the pharmacy (why would I change brands during travel?), and I don’t rely on the stuff at the hotel (no matter how fancy it may look).

Wrap your extra pair of shoes in a plastic bag inside your luggage. Bring an extra plastic bag for dirty laundry on the way back.

Put a luggage tag on every bag. Put your business card inside each bag in case the luggage tag gets ripped off. Don’t put any valuables into your checked luggage. Realistically, be prepared to lose everything you put into your checked bag (if you’re checking one). While luggage doesn’t typically disappear on flights in developed countries, it’s still within the realm of the possible that you could lose yours.

Predictability & Timing

One way or another, corporate travel takes you outside of your regular routines. Regardless of how experienced you are at traveling, being away from home means change and ‘doing without.’ For many of us, change is not necessarily a comfortable thing: I for one work hard at putting a certain amount of predictability into traveling. It helps minimize the feeling of randomness, of being adrift.

Frankfurt Airport

When it comes to timing, for example, I aim to be quite early for everything. I get to the airport early, go through security early, and I’m frequently one of the first people at the gate. I can understand that some people would see this as a waste of time, but I know the intense stress I feel when I’m late (the closer I cut it, the more I am exposed to the risk of interference from outside factors such as traffic or weather). I much prefer to have a stress-free experience, and it doesn’t bother me to have to sit an additional hour or 45 minutes until I get to board the aircraft. To an extent, I think this travel-related risk aversion runs in my family: my aunt tells me that my grandfather suffered from the same affliction. When asked why he would leave so early to get somewhere, apparently he said, “Well, bricks might fall from the sky!” (he was kidding, of course).

Predictability on a business trip (or any trip, for that matter) also includes ensuring that you have the right things with you—and that they’ve been packed in the right spot. I have a reasonably evolved system governing what goes where in my luggage, and this considerably helps reduce anxiety (and surprises). Of course, it’s unreasonable to travel with all the comforts of home, but a certain baseline can be brought along without too much of a luggage penalty. For example, I know some people who travel with their own pillows because they find all hotel pillows uncomfortable. Others bring a certain kind of tea because they can’t stand what’s served in restaurants. If it’s simple enough to bring along and will make all the difference to your comfort, you should definitely consider it. It might just be what gives you a certain moment of serenity while you’re away—or it might provide you with a certain edge during the next day’s meetings (sleeping well really helps in terms of productivity).

Security at the airport

Airport Security by Inha Leex Hale via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [7]

Airport security is probably the single most stressful and irritating thing about travel right now, particularly in North America. Understanding that airport security is largely security theatre [8] is the first step towards dealing with it. Getting upset about it only results in creating additional difficulties for oneself. (This is of course true for many situations in life.) I admit that I find this advice difficult to give for a number of reasons: I strongly believe that invasive airport security measures and racial profiling are violations of our civil liberties. I also believe that most of this screening doesn’t actually work in any practical sense, as evidenced by the frequent stories of guns, knives and explosives smuggled onto aircraft. So to tell you that you should just play along and be serene about it feels somehow complicit in the scheme.

At the same time, there really appears to be no practical way to go about protesting it and still being allowed to travel. If you actually want to go somewhere using air travel right now, you need to take your laptop out of its bag, take off your shoes and walk through the scanner.

Doing this with dignity and a modicum of friendliness towards the (yes, terribly ineffective, underpaid, inflexible) security staff is probably the best advice to give here. Specifically,

I typically also stand and watch my belongings disappear into the scanning conveyor before I step through the body scanner. There have been a number of reports where people’s items were apparently stolen (by airport security agents?) while they were being scanned. Unbelievable though this sounds, one can never be too sure.

Being forced to participate in the security theatre is another reason I like to be at the airport early. If I actually had to question something or lodge a complaint, I would like to have ample time to do so without missing my flight.

Experience shows that a a general preparedness to be kind to others will go a long way at airport security. Keeping it light and friendly makes the line move more quickly for everyone (terrorist jokes are never advised, though). It helps to acknowledge in your mind that airport security agent isn’t exactly a great job, and that these workers are probably enjoying this even less than you are.

Note that I’m not saying that you should allow someone to violate your rights, or that you should idly stand by if you witness a transgression against somebody else. But I do feel that—given the current inevitability of the matter—we could all try and act in a way that leaves ego, aggression and anxieties at the door.

Eating & Drinking

Airline Food by Archangeli via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [9]

I think that food and drink are probably the single most important reasons why we don’t feel quite like ourselves when traveling.

Travelers routinely experience all kinds of health problems after flying. These include a dry, scratchy throat; a light cold; body aches and pains; and various digestive problems, such as being constipated after arrival. These are directly caused by a number of interconnected facts of air travel which we struggle to see in context:

These factors combine to create a ‘perfect storm’ that you can work to counteract by drinking what will seem like an inordinate amount of water during your flight. I recommend that you buy additional bottled water once you’re through airport security and drink it steadily while you’re in the air, in addition to everything that’s offered by the cabin crew. Here’s how much water I think you should drink on flights of different lengths:

Flight length Amount of water
Up to 1.5 hours One 700ml bottle (plus all the water the crew offers)
Up to 5 hours 2 x 700ml bottles (plus all the water the crew offers)
Up to 8 hours At least one 1.5l bottle (plus all the water the crew offers)

This will seem like a lot to most people—and it may well be too much water if you weren’t traveling. It has taken me years to become really hardcore about this and to ‘over-drink’ while flying. The result is that I consistently feel better after I arrive. I also have fewer sleeping and jet lag related problems when I travel to other time zones, and I find myself wondering if these are also helped by how much water I consume while in transit. (As an aside, I have no specific insights to offer into how to deal with jet lag. As far as I’ve been able to determine, nothing works other than letting it run its course. The old adage that it takes one day for every hour of time difference until you’re adjusted feels about right to me.)

In terms of food: try and eat according to the same routine you have at home. If you are used to eating three meals a day, stick to that schedule while you’re away. Travel has an unfortunate way of pushing us up against a ‘food wall’: we’re already not able to eat what we normally eat, and the irregularity of travel (jet lag, the stress of too many meetings compressed into a single day) now also results in meals taken when we’re not used to eating. Either we eat when we’re already starving—or we eat out of boredom while we’re waiting at the airport.

Another food factor you encounter during business travel is the inevitable ‘meeting lunch’ (pizza, sandwiches…)—or worse, the “let me take you out” lunch or dinner. While I completely understand that people feel the need to follow the social conventions of the business relationship, I do try to make excuses where I reasonably can. As a vegetarian who also doesn’t drink alcohol, eating out can be a struggle in the best of situations, and it’s usually a bit of an imposition to request that the whole team go to a vegetarian-friendly place just for my benefit.

Regardless of whether I’m out with company or eat by myself, I also try to eat less whenever I can. Most times, a salad and a piece of bread are enough for dinner (and oftentimes, they are the only vaguely affordable meal that can be ordered from room service anyway!).

Routine & Comfort

Meditation Room by brownpau via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [10]

Business travel tends to confront us with a number of different, contradictory stresses:

I feel completely justified in withdrawing from any socializing when I’ve reached my limits for the day. (My work—especially on business trips—tends to involve talking to people in meetings for about 8 hours a day. I have to be “on” and do not really get breaks in between.) I understand that many people, especially extroverts, are energized by being sociable well into the night, and I encourage them to connect with their extroverted peers and party it up. For me, withdrawing to my hotel room at the end of a long day of meetings is just about the only thing that ensures some sort of readiness for doing it all again the next day. I’m not a party-er at the best of times, and travel is no exception to that rule (if anything, I do less while I’m away).

In every hotel room where I stay, I quickly try to create a set of circumstances and routines that’ll help me get settled (and stay settled) while I’m there. For example:

Years of experience have taught me that having a TV at the foot of my bed can be detrimental to getting a good night’s sleep. I’m too likely to get suckered into some show that I would never watch at home, and—presto—it’s 2am and I’m still no closer to getting any sleep. So I have now decided not to switch on the hotel TV at night anymore, leaving it until the morning (if I turn it on at all). Instead, I bring along a Jambox [11], a small but full-sounding bluetooth speaker that allows me to listen to music while I read. This is a much more ‘gentle’ evening experience than watching CSI: Miami in HD (and I definitely sleep better afterwards).

Another business travel routine I find increasingly important is to take a walk at least once a day. It doesn’t really matter whether I walk to my client’s office in the morning before the meetings start or take a stroll outside in the evening. It seems to me that we’re especially ‘cooped up’ inside when we travel for business: we go from air conditioned environment to air conditioned environment (airport to plane, to taxi, to hotel room, to meeting room, to restaurant), remain mostly sedentary and seated, and only move minimally. This is clearly not healthy. Walking helps to remedy this in more ways than one: in addition to getting us moving, it can also help settle the mind.