The contest I don’t want to enter is who has the most business travel disaster stories. Although, if I did, I might win. Anyone who has spent time in consulting, sales or a bunch of other “travel required” fields is in the same boat. No one wants to remember the worst stories.
But while we are on the subject, there is one particular trip that I remember well. I had to be in Manhattan for an important Monday morning meeting so was on a red eye flight on a Sunday from San Francisco to New York – start there in the disaster category. Something went afoul in the reservation process and I was re-ticketed to a middle seat in the last row of coach, right next to the bathrooms. I was seated next to a person who was traveling with a cat in a small bag. I am allergic to cats. There was a medical emergency so we landed in Chicago to drop off a passenger meaning we were delayed into New York. Being late, I had to take a “sink shower” at JFK and change into my suit and tie surrounded by others in the lavatory. I took a stressful taxi into the City and arrived just in time to be notified that my client had cancelled the meeting.
There have been many trips like that and after a while one becomes inured to the indignities. But along the way you learn many tricks from fellow road warriors. The experienced business travelers usually don’t want to share secrets of travel, especially with the newbies. I see the newbies searching for electric outlets and overhear them talking about Marriott Reward Points. It is refreshing to see people excited about business travel. It doesn’t last long.
Any frequent traveler knows the one with the most Frequent Flyer miles is not the winner. Those of us who are always on airplanes are conditioned to have low expectations and to deal with what ever is dealt our way. We develop a certain set of instincts that protect us from disappointment and prepare us for the war that is business travel. We can look at a gate agent and know without asking that the flight is delayed or that the hope for an upgrade is useless.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Peculiar travel arrangements are dancing lessons from God.” Every frequent traveler develops a unique dance to deal with the vagaries and challenges the road presents. To help with the dance, here are a few suggestions from the unwritten Guide to Business Travel:
- At security, always get behind the guy in line with the loafers. Or, put another way, get in the line with other road warriors. Avoid the spot behind the family with the strollers.
- Never check a bag, ever. If you have too much stuff for a carry on, dump it out and start all over. It’s not about the fees or the schlep factor, it’s about the flexibility in changing flights. If you want to change flights, which you will, the first question the gate agent will ask is, “Did you check a bag?”
- The “seat pocket in front of you” is not your friend. Anything you place in the handy pocket, like eye glasses, passports, tickets or presentations, will eventually be lost and never retrieved. Airlines are not known for effective Lost and Found Departments.
- Set expectations on upgrades. Being on a list is not the same as having a seat. Flying on Monday mornings or Thursday evenings means having a seat at all is lucky.
- Bring reading material. No matter how much work there is to do, breaks are essential and you never know how long the flight will really take. Bring a book to read, a real one or on a device. People magazine doesn’t count.
- Wear earphones. Nothing says, “I don’t want to talk to you” like a big set of earphones. Plus, the airline earphones are not very good.
- Be alert for bad news. Certain travel words should set the hairs on end in anticipation that things are about to go downward. So finally, for those less traveled, I submit the most dreaded words for the business traveler. These utterances usually come from the cockpit but given technology, can now come in a text or from another weary traveler.
- Good News, Bad News (It’s never really good)
- Shuttle bus
- Talking to maintenance
- Reservation was not guaranteed
- System problems
- The president is in town
- We’ve been notified by ATC
- And the most dreaded of all:
- That bag needs to be checked.
After hearing the words, we sigh resignedly and do what we are told. Sometimes going into the Zen mode is the all there is to do.
Travel shouldn’t be the hard part of the job but sometimes it is. All we want is to get to where we need to be, or most importantly, get home. In between, the work gets done.
Rich Moran is the author of Navigating Tweets, Feats, and Deletes, a book that shares workplace lessons and insights on how to succeed in today’s digitally disrupted workplace.