Making the most of business travel
June 6, 2015 7:53 PM   Subscribe

It looks like I'm going to be moved onto a work project that will involve some significant travel, something like one week a month. I know that the real road warriors in the audience will scoff at that amount, but this will be the first time I've traveled consistently enough that it seems worth it to figure out the details of the various rewards programs and make them work for me. So tell, me what are the best deals out there? Credit card rewards? Mileage programs? Hotel chain loyalty programs? Details inside.

Lots of the details are still fuzzy (I'll be traveling to client sites in a consulting capacity, which means that details like what's reimbursable are governed by the client's travel policy, not my company's), but here's what I know so far:

-Travel will be within the US, repeatedly to the same two or three major cities.
-I may be renting a car for at least some of the trips.
-Unclear how much control I will have over which hotel I stay at.
-I currently have a 1% cash back credit card that I use for everyday expenses, but it seems like I ought to be able to do better than that with some sort of travel rewards.
-I read this previous AskMe but it's a couple years old and my situation is different enough that I'd be interested to hear what suggestions people have.
-Beyond rewards programs, are there any extra perks or pitfalls I should be aware of while traveling on a Fortune 500 company's dime? The last time I traveled for business, it was for a non-profit that was famous for its stinginess in a stingy industry. I'm looking forward to business travel that doesn't involve couch-surfing with colleagues.
posted by firechicago to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a recent related question: Self care for the work traveller. In it, I tell people how much learning yoga has helped my back pain when travelling. Dozens of other good answers in that thread as well.
posted by seasparrow at 8:39 PM on June 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Which airline you fly will probably be determined by the routes you need. Once you've determined that, when possible I strongly suggest picking an airline and sticking with it as much as possible. None of them are perfect, they all suck in their own ways, but business travel is much nicer if you can earn elite status, and that's a lot easier if you stick to one airline (or alliance at least). For example, most of the carriers have a section of economy that has more legroom. As an elite member, you'll get access to those seats for free. Otherwise you have to pay. Status also gives you first class upgrades (though unless you're top tier or flying weird times/routes, upgrades can be few and far between), better priority for standby and seats when irregular operations happen, etc. Depending on the airports you spend time at, it may also be worth getting a lounge membership. Most airlines have a credit card that will get you into their lounge. The American Express centurion lounges are way nicer than the airline lounges (you get access to those with Amex platinum or centurion), but the airline lounges have the advantage of having airline employees who can help you when flights are canceled or delayed (as they surely will be at times). I find the lounge membership to be invaluable.

I'm on my phone so it's hard to type more but here's another answer I recently posted with some more tips:
posted by primethyme at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2015

Oh, also. Hotel status is nice as well, but in my experience less valuable than airline status. I'm currently gold with Starwood, diamond with hilton, and gold with Marriott. Occasional upgrades are nice but not life changing. I'm also presidents circle with hertz and as far as I can tell, it's worthless. I have little loyalty in hotels and none in rental cars.
posted by primethyme at 8:43 PM on June 6, 2015

The Starwood Amex is still considered a very good option, though you'll find people complaining that it's not as good as it once was (like so many things).

Fly the same airline if you can, and sign up for its frequent flyer scheme. If you can get work to pay for lounge access before you get status, do it. (Or sign up for a card that offers lounge access at a fee.) What you're buying there, most of all, is quiet. Skip the snacks and bar, charge your electronics and enjoy the silence.

Sign up for all the hotel loyalty schemes, even if you're not sure whether you'll use the same group every time you travel: being a member can sometimes signal that you are SRS BSNS TRVL as opposed to an occasional customer and that may grease some wheels if things aren't as you'd like.

Self-care matters. You'll find some of the hardcore FlyerTalkers who contort their entire business travel lives to earn/redeem points even if that means some shitty choices, particularly with diet. If work offers a per diem for meals, try to find options that are light and nutritious even if they're a little distance away from your work hotel.
posted by holgate at 8:47 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Most hotel rooms come with at least a minifridge; some of them come with a fridge with a freezer and a microwave. Otherwise, there's a microwave generally available at some sort of snack/food location.

To save my per diem, I tend to stop by a grocery store early during my trip for cheap meal options so I have food in my room and am not forced to use the vending machines or other overpriced convenience options. I either pocket the per diem or go out to a really nice restaurant.

Will you be travelling with a group or by yourself mostly?
posted by bookdragoness at 9:44 PM on June 6, 2015

I have been flying for work 2+ times a month for almost 20 years. I put energy into making sure my travel works for me rather than soley for the companies I pay my money to. I try to keep my travel more organized than anything else in my life and try to avoid travel hassels of any kind like the plague.

For me the most important factor in choosing an Airline is how they are able to help me when things go wrong (and they will.) This year I switched most of my travel from United which has become very customer unfriendly to JetBlue which is not. Two great things about JetBlue are that you can get their elite Mosaic status by spending about $7500 and this enables you to change tickets with them with no change fees. They also have free in-flight internet.They don't go everywhere I need to go so the rest of my travel is booked through Kayak and goes to lowest priced carrier with non-stop flights. I used to have lounge membership, but most lounges are crowded and noisy with bad food, so I now forgoe them. The Amex Centurion Lounges may be an exception but I am not ready to part with $500 to get an Amex Platinum card. Sign up for the TSA's Precheck immediately or better yet Global Entry. Waiting in line is a complete waste of time. Never check bags unless you absolutely have to.

I use the Chase Sapphire Preferred card which offers 2 points for all travel related spending and transfers to several different airline programs. I have the Starwood Amex card as a back-up. The point offers for credit card sign-up are important in determining which card to get. I've heard that the Amex Gold Card may have a good offer soon and may sign-up for it when it comes out. Applying for one new card a year actually helps with your credit score.

I tend to like Boutique type hotels and none of the chains really offer them except the Hyatt Andaz brand which is pricy. Starwood is probably the best bet for someone with your 1 trip a month travel profile. They have a variety of hotel brands and you can use/tranfer their Starwood points to transfer to just about any travel entity except their competitors. As said above, hotel upgrades are overrated but staying at the same place regularly and having someone know your face and travel needs can be invaluable when things go wrong. Never accept a room near the elevator. Hyatt and Starwood offer free internet to their elite customers.

I have been renting from Hertz for the last 15 years. I use their points for free leisure/non business rentals. I do not transfer the auto points to my airline account. Hertz is a bit more expensive than others but makes up for it, in my book, by the ease of picking up and dropping off cars. I will not rent from anyplace I have to sign something or take 5 minutes of time going aroiund the car with an agent and checking it for damage. I decline everything and use my Chase Preffered card as my primary insurance carrier.

My biggest challenge is still finding decent healthy places to eat.Yelp and AroundMe are invaluable. I also buy take out alot from Whole Foods and eat in the hotel room. Hotel breakfast buffets except at the very high end I find to be dreadful.

Take care of yourself, it's a jungle out there. It also can be alot of fun though you have to work very hard to keep it interesting and hassle free. Good luck.
posted by Xurando at 10:05 PM on June 6, 2015

Here are my recommendations:

The ultimate goal is to minimize the amount of time it takes to travel. You'll get sick of traveling. That said:
- Figure out which airline you need to sign on to for frequent flyer miles. This will be, as mentioned above, determined by what route you'll be flying. You'll want to find flights that are direct, or minimize the total amount of time in the air. If you need to make a connection, find one with a reasonable layover: nothing too short that might cause you to miss a flight, and nothing too long where you'll wish you were doing something else. You'll learn to feel comfortable with shorter layovers the more you travel and become familiar with your airports' layout of terminals.
- Pack light. Avoid checking bags. It just adds to your time in the airport. If necessary, bring a second bag that you can gate check. That's where you can bring your bag to the gate, get a small paper tag, have it loaded onto the plane directly and unloaded such that you can pick it up after you land, at your destination gate. It's free. It's more pleasant than hunting for overhead bin space.
- Get a pair of noise-canceling headphones/earbuds. This is the only time I'm gonna admit that Bose makes quality stuff. They do. Go for either their big headphones or go pro and lightweight with their earbuds.
- Get TSA Pre-Check. It's worth it. I recently read that TSA is going to become more strict with travelers going through Pre-Check in that people must be enrolled in the program, and not just shuttled through due to airline frequent flyer status. Note: you can get Pre-Check for free if you get Global Entry as well.
- If you've a pick of airlines that go direct, or can't choose which program to sign up for, select the main airline that serves your airport of origin. eg: If you live in Chicago and fly out of ORD, sign up for United. Blammo! Now you can use your points toward more flights going out of your city.
- Pack light. Learn how to pack. And learn how to change your appearance and give the illusion of having pack an entire closet by changing out one article of visible clothing: shirt, pants, tie, skirt, etc.
- Familiarize yourself with your frequent flyer program perks, as well as how to qualify for and keep status. You can find more info at FlyerTalk's Airline Program forums. Don't lose out on qualifying for status by missing it by a couple hundred points, or losing status by the same route!

Nothing beats American Express Platinum, in my opinion. Sure, it's got a hefty annual fee, but it's easily offset by taking advantage of the card's benefits:
- $200 toward airline expenses per year. Don't forget to select which airline you'd like to apply this to when you get the card and at the beginning of every year. This can go toward upgrades, food, drink, checked bags, etc.
- Reimbursement for Global Entry. A $100 value upfront, and immeasurable value in terms of how much time it saves you if you ever do fly back into the US from overseas. You can read about my experience here. Note that getting Global Entry automatically signs you up for Pre-Check, an $85 value!
- Priority Pass Select. Gain free entry into many lounges. Useful when traveling on vacation overseas as well, where the lounges are better and stocked with free booze!
- AmEx Centurion Lounges. Super nice lounges in a handful of US airports, with more (supposedly) to come. Free everything, including fancy drinks and food.
- Automatic status for hotel chains (eg: SPG), and rental car companies (score!). Don't forget to sign up/make an account for these, and to sign up for the status match: just call AmEx and they'll sort it out. Useful for traveling anywhere, and makes renting a car a whole lot easier.
- Insurances of various sorts, including oh-crap-disaster-while-traveling insurance (not that this is used often), rental car insurance (doesn't cover liability, but your auto insurance company might: call them to find out), purchase protection (this doesn't apply to your question, but it's a great, GREAT benefit). Be sure you use your card when making/paying for your car rental.
- Free WiFi through Boingo! In theory this is kind of a crock as it's not very reliable, but it's served in a pinch on more than one occasion for me.
- Platinum benefits abound. The Membership Rewards program is decent, and there are often promotions for point transfers. Their service is top-notch.
- I wouldn't bother going with a specialized AmEx Platinum card for now, eg: AmEx SPG Platinum or Delta. Unless you go through the specialized card and see that there are no downsides/deficits (eg: foreign transaction fees), stick with the basic card. If you do end up staying at a bunch of SPG properties, go for the card. Likewise, if you're going to fly Delta, look into the Delta card.

What used to be painful can be made pleasant. These days, there are so many easy ways to reserve cars, and rental car companies have reasonable frequent-flyer-esque programs. Get status, get easy upgrades and easy check-in/check-out options where you basically show up, present ID, drive off and can just drive in and toss your keys to check out.
- Call your auto insurance company to see what coverage you have for rental cars.
- See above for benefits with AmEx Platinum. Other credit cards may offer similar benefits.
- Don't forget to pack a car charger if you plan on driving, or a spare battery.

- Consider packing a small surge protector. It's a pain in the ass to find outlets in hotels sometimes, especially if you've got to plug in a computer, phone charger, etc.
- As mentioned, a spare battery to charge your phone/tablet/etc. is very handy.
- Don't forget to pack the USB cables you need!
- Consider packing a small stain remover such as Amodex or stain stick.
- Pack light. Pare down on toiletries. Leave room for hotel soap to hoark and bring back.
- Look into travel apps that will make traveling easier. See: TripIt Pro (a lifesaver! Makes things so easy!), various airline mobile apps (check-in from your phone, easily!), FlightTrack (on Android, you can make a cool widget that shows upcoming flight info. This app also hooks up with TripIt!), Priority Pass (find out what lounge you have access to, easily!), Skype/Hangouts/etc. for VOIP (good for international travel!).
- Ask what kind of documentation you need to provide for work. Will they accept photo documentation? Look into any number of various apps you can use to quickly document your expenses.
- Be reasonable: don't try to squeeze every penny out of your company as a goal. It's kind of a pain to try to bring back a whole bunch of random crap that you bought to pad out your meal per diem, like twelve cans of Red Bull.
- That said, don't get stuck footing a bill for a nice meal because you were unclear about what you needed to provide as documentation, or the limits that work has for expenses. Call and find out what you need to do!
- Don't forget that a goal of asking your question should be use of points/status for personal use and adventure! Sign up for programs with an eye toward vacation travel.
- Be nice to everyone, especially if you're going to be traveling to the same destinations, with the same flights and same hotels. It always pays to be nice!

All that said, I've been very happy with AmEx Platinum, United/Star Alliance, and SPG. Platinum for all its benefits and the $200 flight credit, United/Star Alliance for relatively easy status qualification and reasonable points redemptions, and SPG because their points and properties are great. FlyerTalk is my go-to site for travel/points info, and The Points Guy is ok, too, though it feels like the site is shilling for companies for often lately.

posted by herrdoktor at 11:10 PM on June 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Get to know the travel policies of the company's you are consulting for - they may allow for things like business class upgrades for long flights, and expensing hotel laundry.

Apply Right Now for Global Entry or PreCheck - there is an interview process and wait time, so do it as soon as you read this. Global Entry approves you for PreCheck and is only $15 more - and makes clearing US customs at 7am so much nicer.

Folks covered travel and bonus programs well. Amex Platinum is good, but I just switched to United with a status match and found Chases' United Mileage Plus Club Card, which is the same price and includes the United lounge membership (Platinum Amex's club access is dwindling as they've been dropping some routes in some airports, and the lounges might not let you in with some combinations of ticket you have vs who runs the lounge). Pack light, never check the bags (my exception is when I am returning home and want to pack things like fancy booze I can't get elsewhere - if my clothes don't show up for two days that is fine because I am *home*).

For hotel rewards, when I didn't have control over the hotels and just had to book the cheapest, I switched to - they can book in all the major hotels, but also the nice boutique ones, and they have a dead simple rewards program. For every 10 nights you book with them, the average of those 10 nights rates is available as a free night. Since a ton of hotels can be booked through them, you can get that nice private cabin on the lake that isn't part of a Hilton, Marriott or SPG chain also.

For car rentals - get an account an enroll with one (if you can stick with them all the time, great), and you can pre-do all your things like license, waivers, etc. That way when you land you just go to your car, get in car, hand ID to human at the gate as you leave and get a receipt back. If the policy allows it, get the fuel waiver - it seems like a rip off, but having to fill up the tank when you are rushing to the airport is one more thing to make things miserable.

Get a battery pack (this one is awesome)
Get a dual 2A USB charger maybe one for your rental car.
Dedicate a laptop bag just for travel, keep all the car chargers, laptop chargers, portable battery gear, neck pillow, etc in that.

When I was road warrioring heavily I carried a windshield suction cup mount for phone so I could have it already programed with my destination and ready to go with the GPS software I was already familiar with, stick it to the windshield and leave the lot - very useful when landing at 6am from a redeye and trying to get to a 8am meeting.

Use a program like TripIt to track your flights and itineraries, it helps with expenses later if just because you can remember when you were in what city.

For life / sanity aspects I suggest the following:
Keep a routine:
• If I'm in the same hotel for more than two nights, I unpack my suitcase and put things in drawers. I setup a desk, put my stuff in order, setup the bathroom.
• Stay in the same hotel in the same city if you can - you don't have to stick with the first one you find, but if you are going to be a regular there, eventually find a place that works. If you can book AirBNB and grab an entire apartment (sometimes for much, much less) in a hipper part of town, that makes life easier. I got to spend a month in Chicago in a sweet apartment walking distance from the CTA and way more interesting then the downtown business district.
• Find a bar / restaurant / coffee shop in the city you are visiting to become a regular at - again if you find yourself visiting the same three cities, get to know a neighborhood. It makes the loneliness of travel more bearable.
• Throw a meetup - there are MeFites everywhere and are almost always nice affable folks who love an excuse to hang out. This alone has kept me sane on many a crazy week of business trips.
• Find the free weekly / music / shows magazine online and find shows you'd be interested in when you're going to be in a city. Finding things to do besides drinking at the hotel bar will help keep the travel interesting and fun.
• Exercise if you can, traveling to new cities can be fun and exciting and feel like a vacation so you decide to treat yourself, but after the first 10 pounds of travel weight sets in you'll probably want to be more active. Even something as simple as three minutes on a hotels elliptical will help. I found a step counter of some sort helped me stay on top of my activity when traveling (and when home).
• Build a med kit, pack things like fiber pills, melatonin, antacids, antihistamines, cough medicine, etc that you don't want to try to have to find at 2am in a city you've never been in before.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:55 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I travel about 75% of the time, and agree with everything listed above. The one thing I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH - DO NOT CHECK A BAG. This limits your ability to change flights at the last minute if you finish early, if your flight gets cancelled, or delayed and you want to get on different flight same day. Not checking a bag saves you at least a half hour during check in, and saves you another 45 minutes when you get your destination. I easily pack a week's worth of business clothes in a carry on roller bag.

I am a cis woman and present as such, and my travel clothing has been carefully selected to not wrinkle when folded up in a roller bag. I have my "uniforms" which are tried and true outfits for traveling that look professional and don't automatically set off metal detectors in the airport. Never trial run new shoes/clothing during a trip. Everything you pack should be a known. Find a laptop bag that could double as a purse, and use it as such. This way you don't have to smush a purse into your laptop bag to fall in line with the 2 bag rule.

As for selecting airlines for traveling - it is also good to consider which airlines are hubbed out of your local airports. I fly US Airways - not because they're great (they're rewards program is awful now that they merged with American) - but because they are hubbed out of Philly, and if my flight gets cancelled there are almost always 3 other options for me to get home.

Never wear a belt on flying days - it just makes traveling more annoying.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:25 AM on June 7, 2015

Oh - also travel tips -

Clubs are mediocre BUT they do have full gate agents at the desks - so when the mobs of people are trying to get on a flight - you can go straight to the club and get on the next flight out quickly.

If you don't get club access - call the airline and use the Spanish option. The agents will all speak English and the wait times are much shorter
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:29 AM on June 7, 2015

I usually do check a bag (for free, with my airline credit card). I'm often gone for a week or two at a time; for two- or three-day trips, the calculus is different. But the truth is, the first thing that I do when I'm stressed or sleep-deprived is start losing things; I'm perfectly capable of leaving my carry-on in the overhead bin. An extra forty-five minutes of reading Metafilter in the destination airport is totally worth the satisfaction of knowing that anything that happened to my bag is not my fault.
posted by yarntheory at 7:47 AM on June 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Lots of fantastic tips up above, and I'll add that using Expensify has made the hassle of recording receipts, mileage, etc., much easier.
posted by evoque at 10:53 AM on June 7, 2015

There's lot's of practical advice above.
Something you should also consider is that travel time can become dead time. You can spend a lot of time doing nothing. Choose what you do with that dead time. Read, meditate, be creative, be productive, develop a new skill, hone an existing one. Don't look back after 5 years a wish you had done something more.
posted by matholio at 7:26 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here. A few additions:

If your flight gets cancelled or delayed to the point where you'll miss your connection, call your travel agent (if you have one) or the airline's customer service number (which you've programmed into your phone, right?). The phone agent can do everything the desk agent can do, and they're not being mobbed by the hundreds of angry people that were on your flight.

Nthing staying loyal to an airline when you can, and having a "home" hotel if you're staying in the same city repeatedly. It lets you get oriented to good restaurants in the area, and you'll find your perks improve at the hotel once the staff starts to recognize you.

I like the Chase Sapphire Preferred for credit cards, since the points are so easy to transfer to other airlines (United, Southwest, others) and hotels (Hyatt, in particular).

Keep essentials permanently packed in your overnight bag, even when at home. For me, this included a spare set of all of my charging cords, an aux in cord for my phone so I could listen to music in rental cars, sleep mask, toiletries, earplugs, etc.

My kindle and local library with lots of ebooks was a lifesaver. A Netflix streaming subscription was also nice, since I could binge watch shows I was interested in when I needed downtime, rather than watching whatever crappy reality TV show happened to be on at the hotel.

I also liked the Yelp app for finding restaurants that weren't Chili's or TGI Friday's.

If you're traveling to major cities often, consider a loyalty to Kimpton hotels. They're boutique-ey and they have a nice, straightforward loyalty program.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:18 AM on June 8, 2015

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