Business Travel: A Guide to Hassle-Free Domestic Trips

Business Travel: A Guide to Hassle-Free Domestic Trips

Making preparations probably constitutes the biggest aggravation of any journey. Even when travel does not cross U.S. borders, entrepreneurs embarking on business trips must tackle a welter of extra details - a process that can render the whole experience a nightmare.

Industry experts say the secret to smooth travel lies in allowing ample time before departure to plan details and to tie up loose ends. Whether turning to the pros for help or opting for a do-it-yourself approach, the following strategies can make business travel a treat.

Travel Arrangements: The Right Agent

The Internet offers many services once exclusive to travel pros, but some business owners may find themselves regretting they haven't used a travel agent. The time needed for booking flights and hotels can interfere with other preparations; and airlines, hotel and itinerary glitches may sap energy and build frustration, undermining the traveler's ability to focus on business.

Agents do charge a commission. On the other hand, they have the capacity to cater to specific needs and preferences, offer money-saving deals beyond what's available via the Internet and are a blessing in emergencies. For companies with employees, an agent also can guarantee that personnel stick to the owner's travel policies.

To find an agent, do a quick Internet search or ask friends, family and colleagues who they've dealt with successfully.

Once you've identified some likely prospects, use these guidelines to make your final choice:

  • Deal only with properly credentialed agents, preferably members of the American Society of Travel Agents (http://www.asta.org), which enrolls more than 20,000 professionals in 140 countries. Another source for qualified personnel, the Association of Retail Travel Agents or ARTA (http://www.arta.travel/) represents small and independent travel agents nationwide.
  • When interviewing agents, ask how long they have been in business, with five years of experience being desirable. Also inquire about:
    • Qualifications. The highest certification for an agent is a Certified Travel Consultant. This designation requires five years of full time travel industry experience and the completion of 12 courses. Other certificates are Certified Travel Associate and Destination Specialist. These credentials demonstrate in-depth industry knowledge and dedication, though they are not mandatory.
    • Booking fees. The agent should be forthcoming about general rates and fees for special services, such as ticket delivery.
    • Specialties. Some agents deal primarily with group travel, while others focus on individual travelers.
    • Availability. An agent should be able to offer on-call round-the-clock emergency assistance.
    • Deals. Top-notch travel agents typically can find ways to save money for regular clients, such as preferred supplier arrangements in the hospitality and airline industries.
  • A good travel agent always puts client needs before sales. During the interview, the agent should inquire about your individual style, preferences and travel habits with the intention of establishing a relationship. If this doesn't happen, move on to the next prospect.
  • Check your own comfort level. You'll likely get better service from an agent when you both "click."
  • When your prospect works out of a larger agency, note how the other agents are treating their clients. If they are pushing people through too quickly, this is a red flag - the same could happen to you.
  • When you make your final decision, never sign a contract until you have thoroughly reviewed the paperwork.

"Do-it-yourself" travel the easy way

While travel agents can be worth the investment, some business owners prefer to make their own trip arrangements. Aside from the time commitment, using the Internet makes the task eminently doable. Sites such as Kayak (http://www.kayak.com) can search hundreds of travel Web sites for the best deals in airfare, lodging, etc., with a few taps of the keyboard.

That said, pundits do suggest some strategies targeting reservations, expenses, safety and other business-travel related issues:

  • When making airline, hotel and car-rental arrangements, check out companies that offer special deals to business owners. Remember that not all travel-oriented businesses advertise savings, so it's always smart to ask.
  • Run online price comparisons using Web sites such as travelocity.com, expedia.com and orbitz.com. These allow price comparisons on airlines, hotels and rental cars, often at rates better than the providers advertise.
  • Check organizations such as AARP (http://www.aarp.org/) for member travel discounts, as well as various auto clubs like AAA (http://www.aaacarolinas.com/), which can also help with itineraries.
  • When booking air travel, make sure there's adequate time in between connecting flights.
  • For travel in the United States, check with the destination cities' chambers of commerce and convention/visitors bureaus for recommendations regarding meeting facilities, lodgings, restaurants and professional networking opportunities.
  • The National Business Travel Association advises that owners set and enforce company wide travel policies; make finding and booking travel quick and easy for employees; aggregate purchasing of travel and related services in order to get the best value; and centralize information on all traveling employees to facilitate rapid response to internal or external crises.
  • Set up a destination list, complete with places you plan to visit. This might include the hotel, convention center, restaurants, etc. Then, enter the address, contact information and a map for each place.

Change Voicemail and E-Mail: Electronic Messages Mean Happy Clients

Extensive travel can mean lost phone messages, ignored e-mails and missed opportunities at home. The trick for avoiding potential catastrophe is simple. Small-business owners must of notify clients and customers of their pending absence - by telephone, e-mail or short written correspondences - at least seven days prior to departure.

Office productivity programs frequently include e-mail management features such as automatic response, an effective way for a computer to shoot back a reply once the owner is out of the office. And virtually all land-line and cellular phone providers offer user options regarding greeting, messaging, call forwarding and other functions. Here are additional tips that can help avoid frustrated clients and staff:

  • Always record a voicemail message detailing departure/return dates, other personnel available for assistance and alternative ways, such as e-mail, to contact you.
  • Designate a key staffer to take client calls and to troubleshoot, as well as to act as a resource for employees. Both clients and personnel should have possession of critical information during your absence.
  • Coordinate a set schedule of conference call times to ensure all staff members are on hand for updates from the road.
  • Don't forget your smartphone - the best tool for on-the-road availability. Wireless functions include calling, secure e-mailing, text messaging, instant messaging, voicemail and Web connections, so there's really no excuse to be out of touch. A notebook or laptop wired for the Internet works well, too, particularly with voice and video chat software, such as Google Talk, installed. This Google app, as well as several similar programs, is free.

Checklists: Before Departure

Even the most organized business travelers can get stranded in airports due to cancelled and delayed flights, or in strange cities minus critical computer files. To forestall these headaches, utilize checklists in the 24-hour period prior to departure. This process may take a bit of time initially, but once the basic format is in place, travelers can return to these "to-do" forms again and again.

The following suggestions will serve as a starting point:

  • Personal luggage: Try to get everything into one carry-on bag to avoid lost luggage, additional charges for checked items and long waits in baggage claim. Make sure to follow TSA regulations regarding carry-on items, too. With tighter security measures that may include pat-downs and AIT screenings, improper packing will add to potential delays.
  • Liquids and gels: U.S. Transportation Security Administration regulations mandate that carry-on liquids and gels be in containers no larger than a 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less by volume, in one clear, 1-quart sized, plastic zip-top bag. Medications, baby formula, baby food and breast milk (for working moms toting children) are allowed in reasonable quantities exceeding three ounces and do not require placement in a zip-top bag. Declare these items for inspection at the checkpoint. Larger containers that are half-full or rolled-up toothpaste tubes are not allowed, nor are gallon-size bags or containers that are not zip-top.
  • Be stringent about packing liquids and carry-ons properly. These regulations are constantly changing, so visit http://www.tsa.gov for updates.
  • Personal items: Include duplicates of sleepwear and toiletries, and pack easy-care, basic clothing to mix and match. Pack non-liquid prescription medications in their original bottles in a carry-on bag.
  • Briefcase: Include a travel folder for files, presentation materials, travel itineraries and other business must-haves. Pack extra notebooks, pens, a calculator, business cards, a mini-stapler and paper clips. A large envelope or zippered pouch for receipts and expense forms is a good idea, too.
  • Computer: Pack an adaptor, extra diskettes and CDs, a flash drive or memory stick, and a system boot disk. Include a note card with emergency repair numbers or Web sites.
  • Remote PC Account. Software such as GoToMyPC (http://www.gotomypc.com/remote_access/remote_access), allows users to securely access an office computer from almost any location via the Internet in a matter of seconds. Remote PC solutions can cost as little as $10 a month and provide an invaluable safety net. Make sure to keep a copy of your Remote PC address and password on hand.
  • Cellphone: Travelers should carry a portable battery pack. Since the lifespan of a battery generally runs anywhere from one to three days, having this backup is extremely important on long-distance travel. Other ways to maximize battery power is to fully charge and discharge the unit at least once every two weeks. Also, do not leave the battery in a charger more than 24 hours as this might result in shortened lifespan.
  • Wallet: Carry separate credit cards for business and personal purchases. Instead of large cash sums, opt for traveler's checks or use an ATM card at your destination.
  • Air travel: Before heading for the airport, hit the Internet to check for flight changes or cancellations. Most airports host sites that offer this information in real time. For electronic purchases of domestic flights, airlines typically allow passengers to print their boarding passes within 24 hours before departure. Once again, check with individual carriers for changes in check-in times and baggage requirements; and always allow extra time for security procedures.
  • Rental cars: Investigate dealerships located off airport property. Usually, these are less expensive and within a short cab or shuttle ride. Take advantage of coupons and special offers, too.

Travel Insurance

Many standard insurance policies cover losses and thefts that occur on the road, but business owners who travel extensively - both in the U.S. and abroad - may find additional insurance useful and comforting. Travel plans typically cover:

  • Trip cancellation. This type of plan covers non-refundable travel expenses, such as airfare, when a family or medical emergency forces you put a trip on hold. This insurance product carries a lot of exclusions and conditions, so may be worth the cost only for long-distance trips.
  • Baggage loss/theft. These policies reimburse the cost of lost, stolen or damaged luggage. Policies differ in valuation protocols and may vary according to the circumstances of loss, damage or theft. Proof of ownership (such as purchase receipts or photos) is standard in the claims process, and reimbursement can take a while.
  • Emergency/accidental medical. Of all the travel insurance products available, this probably is the best buy. When a medical emergency occurs, these policies pay directly to you or provide reimbursement later. There are exclusions, however, such as pre-existing conditions; and for U.S. travel, your health insurance plan may adequately cover you.

Some business insurance plans also provide protection for:

  • Business equipment. Coverage includes computers, hardware, product samples and other items critical to a business trip.
  • Money. Various policies cover large cash amounts against loss or theft.
  • Loss of income. Business travel policies may supplement disability insurance should a medical emergency happen on the road.
  • Personnel. Some plans pay the cost of sending a substitute employee to complete a trip when the insured suffers a medical mishap during travel.

While travel insurance can be useful, it's not for every business owner. Check with your agent for more information on how these products can benefit you.

Places to Work: On the Road, at the Ready

Business travelers usually carry at least some work with them, even on short trips. Fortunately, companies offering administrative support services abound, allowing operations to continue pretty much uninterrupted.

The following high-tech hubs cover a range of key functions, from printing and copying to packaging and Internet access:

  • Commercial business centers. Companies such as Kinko's, which operates under the FedEx umbrella, provide computers with Web access at an hourly rate. Geared in part toward business owners on the move, some centers are open round the clock and offer both Windows and Macintosh workstations. Typically, their in-house computers boast the latest operating systems, software, typefaces and Web browsers, including graphic-intense software and high-resolution scanners.
  • Airport business centers: An increasing number of the nation's airports have opened sections designed specifically for the professional. These centers offer WiFi access, copiers, phones, fax machines and conference rooms. Usually, the wireless services come free of charge, while some airports provide private booths for a minimal fee.
  • Internet cafes: These virtual hangouts have spread from larger metropolitan areas into the smallest cities and towns. Aside from serving up coffee, food and wireless access, many cafes also offer computers with Internet connections, printers, Internet cameras and more.
  • WiFi Parks: Some cities, as well as university campuses, house parks with free high-speed, wireless Internet access. Now, professionals can log on while lounging on a wooden bench rather than in a cubicle.
  • Hotel Business Centers: Most hotel business centers contain at least a couple computers, printers and a fax machine. Some of the bigger chains outsource their business centers to IT or electronics firms, which provide workstations and tech support. Higher-end hotels even break up their business-related amenities into two sections - one that houses equipment for public use and another with better equipment on the club or concierge level.

The Wi-Fi-Free Spot™ Directory http://www.wififreespot.com/) provides a comprehensive list of cafes, airports, RV parks, public facilities, campgrounds and hotels that offer free Wi-Fi. Coverage includes the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Central and South America, Mexico, Caribbean, Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Safety: Traveler Beware

So often, business travelers use all their energy preparing for the basics that they forget about the most important priority: Returning safely. While no one likes to think in terms of "what if," traveling to an unfamiliar city poses some danger. Below are some safety tips:

  • Research: Learn a bit about your destination city before actually stepping out of the hotel room. A simple search on the Internet goes a long way in revealing dangerous areas, as well as recommended places to stay and eat. Always carry a map. In some cases, you might even want to highlight the parts of the region that pose a threat. If possible, stick with a group of people who know the area well.
  • Don't advertise yourself as a tourist: The more you fit into the hustle and bustle of the city, the less likely you become targeted as easy prey. Avoid carrying bulky camera bags, purses, change purses and other valuables. Retailers sell small wallet/passport bags for less than $15. These make the perfect carrying case for important items. By placing the entire bag beneath one's shirt, business travelers reduce the danger of pickpockets. Always walk with confidence, showing passersby that you know exactly where you are heading. If you do get lost and find yourself alone, pull out a cell phone and act as if you're talking to someone nearby.
  • Prep/carry cell phone: Avoid being completely helpless by carrying a cell phone at all times. Also, bring a battery pack or charger to ensure you always have power.
  • Don't fill your wallet with cash: While you want to carry some money, do not overdo it. It's best to have a few bills totaling no more than $30. Most importantly, never count money in public.
  • Protect identification: Don't carry credit cards and ID in a single wallet or purse. Keep a list of credit card numbers and customer service contacts, as well as insurance information, in a separate place should the cards get lost or stolen.
  • Avoid revealing too much information: Don't put a home address on luggage tags; use a business card instead.
  • Be careful accessing online information: No matter the place, Internet security breaches frequently pose a threat - particularly when you are using a PC other than your own. Always be careful about viewing or accessing confidential information.

Staying Healthy: Trimming the Fat

While packing bags goes hand in hand with business travel, unfortunately, so does packing on the pounds. For this reason, it's important to stick to a reasonable diet and exercise regimen. After all, most business owners represent the key person in their company. If they get sick, the operation suffers.

Below are some tips for tightening the belt:

  • Work out in the hotel: Most hotels house gyms. Even facilities at the lower-end of the lodging spectrum usually provide some sort of exercise equipment. Make an effort to set aside at least 20 minutes in the morning to ride the stationary bike while reviewing notes, or walk the treadmill while catching up on the day's news. Such workouts not only get the adrenaline pumping and help you wake up, but clear the mind.
  • Walk, don't drive: When at all possible, choose to walk to destinations. Of course, you do not want to show up at a meeting drenched with sweat; however, a casual stroll to dinner helps to speed up the metabolism.
  • Don't feast: Try to stick to a larger lunch and light dinner. This makes waking up much easier the next day.
  • Take breaks: Mental health is as important as physical health. When possible, take a 10-minute break to relax. If driving a long distance, be sure to pull off at a rest area and walk around a bit to avoid getting fatigued.
  • Keep on a regular schedule: When traveling outside of your time zone, try to stick with your daily routine.

Online Travel Resources

Conducting business out-of-town often proves to be a wearing task, but online resources can reduce the stress. Below are a few helpful services, with many offering smartphone apps:

  • Online mapping services: Web sites such as MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com/) let business travelers chart the best route before heading out of the hotel for a big meeting. These online services provide interactive maps, driving directions, road trip planners, phone number search engines and more. Others providing door-to-door directions are Google Maps (http://maps.google.com/) and Yahoo! Maps (http://maps.yahoo.com/) A few sites also offer business-related solutions, including mapping software and platforms that allow companies to systematize location-based services via Web sites and mobile technology.
  • Weather: Online resources such as the National Weather Service (http://www.weather.gov/) highlight current atmospheric conditions all over the world. This information lets business travelers determine what clothing to pack, how to prepare for potential flight delays and more.
  • Flight status: The Federal Aviation Administration (http://www.fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp) provides up-to-the moment information on general airport status. Using a map of the U.S. and color-coded bullets, the site lets visitors know what airports are experiencing general arrival/departure delays taxi delays, closed airports and more.
  • Food ordering and delivery: Delivery.com (https://www.delivery.com/index.php) provides access to a network of nearly 10,000 restaurants, caterers, grocers and other merchants that provide food delivery services to weary travelers in more than 50 major U.S. cities.
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