Life hacks for constant travel
August 30, 2018 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Road warriors of Metafilter, how do you do it? I'm in a job that has degraded over the past year, from occasional travel, to frequent travel, to constantly on-call last-minute worldwide travel. I hate it with a passion and hope to transfer to something less strenuous in the next year (or failing that, quit entirely if I can't find a better option in the next few months) but till then I need coping strategies.

Some things that have (sort of) helped so far:

- Having an organized packing plan so I don't have to scramble to pack everything. Keeping a "go bag" for trips that I can throw clothes in and go.

- Paying for upgrades. My employer (Feds) only allow Economy no matter the flight length. I've spent a large sum on upgrading my flights (in the thousands) - not the most fiscally sound decision but also the only way to get a decent amount of sleep and maintain my sanity.

- Outsourcing domestic work. The wife and I pay for a biweekly cleaning service which is totally worth it.

- Moving all bills and financial services online, and via auto pay when possible.

- Insisting on regular time off. Unfortunately my management has become a bit difficult about this lately due to staffing shortages - our office is operating at 30% staffing, unlikely to change soon due to the painfully slow federal hiring process. I was even told leave for Thanksgiving and Xmas might be cancelled in case they need me to travel. So much for seeing family :(

FWIW my schedule isn't the typical short business trip or even the consultant Mon-Thurs on the road, it's instead highly irregular and prone to frequent last-minute changes and cancellations, which I think is adding to my stress. Most of the flights are very long and the trips are quick (I actually leave for India tomorrow and am dreading it - will only be on the ground for four days)

Any other suggestions on how to make it better or at least bearable? I've given up on getting any sort of real career experience out of this job (its basically glorified tech support for VVIPs - pays surprisingly well but not at all what I want to do) and at this point am just trying to ride it out till I can find something less soul-sucking.
posted by photo guy to Work & Money (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Can you just say "no" and tell them to postpone/cancel/deal with it? If they are that short staffed, you must have all the power... especially if you are thinking you are thinking you could quit entirely anyway. What harm could it do to put your foot down, shut of any technology for a few days, and just say that it's not possible right now?
posted by itsflyable at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2018 [9 favorites]

TSA Precheck or Clear are the obvious ones to ease through the lines.

Having access to premium lounges is great. I fly mostly Delta and having a Platinum AMEX ($395 a year) gets you into most lounges in most airports.

Do you get to keep your miles? I would think your mileage would upgrade you almost every time.
posted by sanka at 12:02 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

To add to my first comment, I'll just say that I deal with last minute, irregular, and somewhat frantic requests all the time. I travel hours for each event, but not flying. I've come to expect that every possible long weekend or even every day or few days, I will be interrupted and have to deal with something. I've finally become so familiar with this "routine" that I realized that I had to take what I needed before someone/something else tried to wrangle me away from any respite, even in my "free" time when I am actually constantly on call.
posted by itsflyable at 12:04 PM on August 30, 2018

Gamify the travel to the extent that you can with frequent flier stuff, if that's a possibility on government travel.

Fancy credit card that lets you get more rewards out of the travel and lounge access, if that's a possibility.

Splurge on the right travel gear, chargers, noise canceling headphones, and a maximum-legal-carryon type bag so you don't have to wait at baggage claim.

If you're ironing now, you do not need to be as modern non iron pants and shirts work really well. And get some fancy underwear like Ex Oficio or Uniqlo Airism, they pack small and are easy to wash and dry in the room.

I realized that I am not trying to impress anyone on travel, just to look professional, so I have a preset kit that I pack, then when I get home I wash and dry it and sweep it back into the bag. It's only got one set of "after work" clothes. After work, I do not look cool on day 1 of my trip, and I do not look cool on day 4 of my trip, and that's just fine.
posted by ftm at 12:07 PM on August 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Make sure you have a frequent flier number with the airlines you use most often. Even better, pick one airline and try to use it as much as possible. If you’re a US federal employee I’m guessing you book through Concur and you can add your frequent flier numbers to your profile so they are automatically applied to your reservations. After a couple of world wide trips you will start getting automatic upgrades.

Same for hotels. I try to only book with Starwood and now have high enough status that I always get an upgrade at check-in.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:53 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Are you in AFGE? Talk to your shop steward. Even if you're not, look at your job description and compare the official duties for the pay grade and step that you are being compensated for vs. what you are "expected" to do. Find a job (or pay grade or step) that does those things and ask for your position to be (presumably) upgraded to that job. If they refuse, then... don't. You likely know how difficult it is to fire someone from the federal government even when they're an actively bad employee -- imagine how difficult it is to do that because someone doesn't want to do things, over and over again, that they weren't hired for.

I know, there's probably "other duties as assigned" somewhere in there -- talk to an employment lawyer with Federal experience about how much they can lean on that.

This kind of thing is why we have government unions and civil service rules and job descriptions. Your bosses planned badly, and it is quite literally not your job to absorb that on their behalf.
posted by Etrigan at 12:58 PM on August 30, 2018 [9 favorites]

Thanks for the suggestions! Lots of good advice. Not to threadsit, but to add a few things:

Can you just say "no" and tell them to postpone/cancel/deal with it?

Unfortunately that's the one bright red line I can't easily cross - it's a highly political environment and I suspect refusing work would get me fast-tracked to a PIP if not fired outright. Almost anything else I could get away with but not showing up will get me canned.

Gamify the travel to the extent that you can with frequent flier stuff, if that's a possibility on government travel.

I've tried, but has been difficult due to GSA city pairs. I have 80,000 miles so far this year split up across 4 different airlines as a result.

Are you in AFGE?

Ha, I wish. I'm in an excepted-service position represented by an employee association. Sort of like a union, except that they are rather weak when it comes to collective bargaining and usually seem to acquiesce to whatever our department leadership wants. They do provide limited legal counsel in the event of a grievance or unlawful HR action at least. Current position is a two-year posting/detail of sorts, so there isn't really a formal position description.
posted by photo guy at 1:18 PM on August 30, 2018

I have been in your exact position - well, not with the feds, but in a job where my travel was unpredictable, often last-minute, and it often wasn't acceptable to decline. A few things that helped me:

- Being strategic about flight times. For domestic trips, I just straight-up refused to do anything other than direct flights. And if there was a direct international flight, I took it. I also made sure that, where I could, I left at a decent hour (after 9 am, so I don't have to wake up before 6 am) and, when traveling a far distance, arrived at night so I could just go right to bed.

- Even for short, last-minute trips, I always tried to book at least a day for sight-seeing or seeing friends or family if I had any in the area. This might sound counter-intuitive because it adds more time away, but it helped the travel feel less like a slog.

- When I was able to take a comp day or just day off after returning from a trip, it made a huge difference.

- One thing I liked to do when I thought of it was to order a grocery delivery to come right around the time I expected to get home. That way I didn't have to face breakfast without coffee and milk, for instance.

- The biggest problem for me was that travel interfered with my life and routines. Things like seeing friends, getting regular exercise, etc. So if you can have an exercise routine you can do anywhere (hotel yoga?), that does make a big difference. And it can be tempting to just hole up at home when you're exhausted from traveling, but you'll be happier in the long run if you're still seeing friends and doing stuff with your wife when you're home.

- Reading actual books (paper or kindle) on long flights was great. I would actually save up books to start on flights and it made me actually look forward to long flights, because it was one of the few times I could just read without interruption for hours on end.

- I did decline some trips. I did some serious thinking about what were the trips I had to go on and what were the ones that would be nice for me to go on but weren't 100% necessary. My management was a bit all over the place (lots of turnover) so I was able to get away with it, but I'd advise you to seriously think about whether or not you can get out of any of these trips. Even skipping one out of 5 helps a lot.

In reality though, nothing helped as much as leaving my job. I left in January and have only flown twice this year, once for fun, and it's amazing how much more energy I have and how much more I enjoy my life now that I'm not traveling all the time. It really is worth it to do whatever you have to to change this.
posted by lunasol at 3:18 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Some things off the top of my head that have made travel easier/nicer:

- Noise canceling headphones make flights almost pleasant
- Grocery store delivery like mentioned above so there's new food around the time I get home so I don't have to go right back out and eat out like I've been doing the past couple of days
- If it's a long flight, I'll pay the $10 or whatever extra out of pocket for a extra legroom. If you can't do that in Concur for policy reasons, sometimes you can just do it at the airport.
- Take advantage of hotel gyms, or if the weather's nice, take a jog/walk after the workday but before figuring out dinner. Sitting for hours on a plane, then hours at work, then hours in the hotel just isn't great for one's mental or physical health. I'd rather check a bag and bring some exercise clothes than not.
- If possible, and often times even if really difficult, explore the area around the hotel on foot to get a sense of place and see if there's any interesting places to eat that aren't the hotel
- Sub above: Find a nearby grocery store to pick up some healthy snacks.
- Also like mentioned above, having wrinkle-free clothes makes things so much easier. Unpack, hang things up in the bathroom and run the hot shower for a little bit and they'll look...decent. It's no starched collar, but it's good enough.

I'll add more later if I think of anything. Best of luck.
posted by General Malaise at 3:32 PM on August 30, 2018

For international travel only traveling with a carry-on is awesome because you can skip ahead of every one waiting for their luggage and be first through customs, and out. Especially good on the return leg when you have citizen privileges and a quicker run through immigration.
Not getting stuck behind people gets you out of the airport quicker.
posted by freethefeet at 4:38 PM on August 30, 2018

are you using the airline lounges? Several credit cards offer memberships (Priority Pass, Amex Centurion, some airline specific) and they help SO much.

A valium for the plane to help you sleep, if you're flying internationally in Economy.

Airlines often have non-obvious partnerships and you can credit your flight miles to a partner. Like (just an example) when I fly Turkish I credit my miles earned to United. It's worth learning how that works so you can earn a pile of usable miles that eventually will be good for upgrades or even just the psychological boost of knowing you're earning yourself a free vacation.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:27 PM on August 30, 2018

Most important for me has been feeding myself proper food and keeping myself hydrated, especially on long flights. I will bring some kind of high-protein snack or vegetable sticks if possible because airline food makes me feel sluggish.

If you're getting off the plane at (say) 6 am, see if you can early check in or get your department to pay for an extra night - that few hours in a comfortable space makes a lot of difference.

Don't stress over getting work done in transit; it won't be high quality work anyway.

I have sleep meds, which makes the flights more bearable. Maybe look into similar OTC options like melatonin.

My backpack is 40L (cabinzero) and lets me pack just a carryon for a week (probably less for menswear).

I tend to land back home and get stressed at how behind I am on the backend admin. I make myself wait til the next morning/ after sleep to deal with anything.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 10:46 PM on August 30, 2018

All of these are great suggestions and I have incorporated many of them since getting a job about a year ago that involves a lot of travel. I have just one thing to add. One of the things I realized is that when I am traveling, the office has no idea what I am doing so I don't do a lot that I don't have to . So, for instance, in the office there is an expectation that you look at your email constantly. I took that same expectation with me when traveling and it was exhausting . So now, I check email once in the morning, once in the evening, and that is it when traveling . They know in an emergency to call me on my cell. If I am delayed in responding to their emails, I say, "Well, I was traveling" and that ends the conversation. Maybe I was in the hotel room all day reading documents. They don't know that. They just know I am traveling and have limited access to email. But they CAN count on me to respond eventually. Bottom line, create new expectations and give yourself a bit of a break when on the road. It is better for everyone in the long run since you are protecting one of their most important assets from burnout.
posted by eleslie at 6:31 AM on August 31, 2018 [8 favorites]

These were all mentioned above, at least in passing, but the biggest helps to me were:

* using the weights at the hotel gym. i'm not a "weightlifter guy" but I feel so much better if I do some lunges and squats with dumbbells.

* choosing flight times that were a little better for me, even if a little worse for the company.

* stopped working _on_ the plane, even if seated in first class. I'll work in the lounge before the flight, but only very rare absolute emergencies get me working _on_ the plane. Instead, I enjoy a book or take a nap.

* do something novel for myself once a week (e.g. sporting event, concert, a nice meal, gallery visit, whatever).

* getting global entry / tsa pre-check, to speed through customs and tsa checkpoints.

I do something like eleslie's email idea, but I _never_ check email constantly. I always check it at start of day, after lunch, and after dinner, and I don't change that schedule when traveling.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 12:06 PM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

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