The ultimate guide to work travel

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For many, the very idea of business travel seems glamorous. You’re exploring the world, wining and dining over fancy dinners, and racking up your airline miles.

But ask any travel for work veteran, and they’ll quickly admit that while there are plenty of perks, the reality isn’t always alluring. Often you’re sprinting through airports, cramming into airline seats, forgetting what time zone you’re in, and drinking watery hotel room coffee.

However, traveling for work is necessary for many working professionals. It’s estimated that Americans took more than 470 million business trips in 2018 alone.

Unfortunately, we can’t make airplane seats bigger, but we can dish out some helpful advice. So, we connected with a couple of experts to create this guide for you.

Before you leave

 1. Choose an airline and stick with them

It’s tempting to hop around from airline to airline in an effort to score the best prices. But, both of the experts agree that tactic often backfires.

“Choose one airline to go all in on,” Castellow says. “You want the status, and you’ll actually get rewarded quite a bit.” She also mentions that, while she’s not a big proponent of having tons of different credit cards, she thinks it’s worth it to get that airline’s credit card to add to your status and get points back for purchases.

2. Pack the necessities (and then some)

There are a few items that the experts say they always have with them. These include:

Earplugs
Eye mask
Sanitizing wipes
Zinc tablets
Extra pair of socks and underwear

“I always find it difficult to sleep in hotels, so I strongly recommend an eye mask and earplugs,” Pacchione says, mentioning that the Manta Sleep Mask is his personal favorite.

It’s also no secret that airplanes and even hotel rooms can be literal petri dishes of bacteria. For that reason, Castellow says she loves sanitizing wipes for wiping down airplane trays and armrests. She’ll also use the wipes in the hotel room for sanitizing commonly-touched items that aren’t a standard part of the cleaning rotation – like lamps, curtain rods, and the television remote.

Even with those precautions, frequent travel can still take a toll. So, Castellow always has zinc tablets in her bag. “Just the stress of travel means my immune system is low, so every time I feel an itch in the back of my throat or something, I’ll take one of those,” she says.

When it comes to the extra pair of…umm…undergarments? “You will never feel smarter than when you get stranded in a city an extra night and you thought to pack those,” Pacchione says. “I always have an extra pair of underwear, socks, and even an extra tube of toothpaste in my computer bag, just in case.”

3. Download your hotel and rental car app

Even if you were conscientious about your flight times, problems still happen – and we’re all familiar with that feeling of panic when the flight is cancelled or overbooked, and we realize that we might need to sleep in a booth at the airport’s McDonald’s.

“As soon as your flight cancels and there are 200 people looking for a hotel room for a night, you have a huge advantage if you can get on your phone and do that quickly – rather than having to call,” Pacchione says.

Similarly with rental cars, Pacchione says having those apps has been hugely helpful when a flight is delayed or canceled. It ends up being faster for him to rent a car and drive to his destination, without having to jockey in line with a bunch of fellow frustrated travelers.

4. Get your hotel game on lock

Seasoned work travelers aren’t shy about making special requests. Castellow joins the rewards programs at select hotel chains as well – which makes it easier for her to request specific rooms when she’s booking a hotel. “For example, I always stay in the same room at a hotel in San Francisco,” she says.

Pacchione says that even if he’s not a rewards member, sometimes he’ll request a specific room number – usually the same one he’s been using at previous hotels. “It’s easier on my brain to not have to remember a new number every night,” he explains.

At the airport

1. Get your flight timing right

Booking a flight for work travel seems simple enough, right? You pick a flight time that works well with your schedule (and isn’t unreasonably priced) and claim your ticket.

Not so fast. Pacchione warns that giving some thought to the timing of your flight can be positive for combating delays and also increasing your chances of landing an upgrade.

“Do not take the last flight out,” warns Pacchione. “Take the second to last one instead. That way, if you get rebooked, you still have an option to get out that same day.”

What about the upgrade game? Securing airline upgrades has become increasingly challenging – but it’s next to impossible during popular flight times. “Don’t take the flights that someone working a nine-to-five day would take,” Pacchione adds. Instead, you should aim for off times. “I used to take the Portland to San Jose flight that left at 10:40AM, and that was always an automatic upgrade,” he says.

2. Know the security rules ahead of time

Chances are, anyone who’s traveling frequently for business within the United States has already signed up for TSA Precheck. If you haven’t already done so, it’s well worth it. “It’s going to save you so much time getting through the airports,” shares Castellow.

But things can get a little trickier when traveling internationally, which is why Pacchione advises travelers to familiarize themselves with the security regulations of international airport (things like how to deal with electronics and liquids) – before they get there.

“I held up the line for a solid 20 minutes at Heathrow because I assumed they had the same rules that America does,” Pacchione says.

So, save yourself (and everybody else) some time and headaches by doing some research beforehand. A simple Google search for “security rules [airport name] airport” should turn up the information you need.

3. Don’t check your bag

Packing your bag can inspire plenty of stress – but that anxiety is only compounded if you check your luggage and it ends up lost in some random airport.

That’s why Castellow says she packs exclusively in a carry-on. She recognizes that it can feel impossible, but she managed a three-week trip to Europe in only a carry-on bag – so a business trip should be more than doable.

How does she make it work? She uses a hard shell suitcase, which she says accommodates more than one that’s soft-sided. She also loves packing cubes, which she picks up on Amazon. “You can get twice as much in as you would by folding and laying down your clothes,” she says. 

Any woman (and many men) knows that a big challenge with carry-on luggage is figuring out the toiletry situation. It’s tough to fit what you need in that miniscule plastic bag.

That’s why Castellow says a makeup store (specifically Sephora) should be your best friend. “Every time you go into Sephora, you can get up to nine samples,” she says. “Three for skincare, three for makeup, and three for hair products. You can also ask for small samples with every purchase that you make.”

Finally, when it comes to getting everything into a carry-on bag, Castellow says the most encouraging thing is to remind yourself that you can always buy something you weren’t able to bring. “That helps me avoid stressing about getting too much in there,” she says.

4. Got a layover? Head to the lounge

Another thing that makes airport life a little more comfortable is to invest in a lounge pass for your preferred airline.

“It seems expensive, but you get free food, drinks, magazines, newspapers, coffee, and everything,” Castellow adds.

“If you’re picking up a coffee and a snack every time you fly anyway, this more than pays for itself if you’re going to be in the airport a lot.”

Once you’ve landed

1. Leave yourself a note

Pacchione admits that when he first started traveling for work, he was convinced there was no way he’d ever forget where he was. But soon, he was away from home 40 weeks out of every year, and it became increasingly difficult to remember exactly where he was located that week.

That’s when he decided to implement a tip that his father-in-law recommended: leaving a post-it note on the nightstand to remind him what city he was in. That way, as soon as he rolled over in the morning, he was able to immediately orient himself.

“When I first heard it, I thought it was ridiculous. But there have been a couple of times when it was actually really helpful to see that note that said, ‘You are in New York’ or ‘You are in Seattle,’” Pacchione says.

2. Develop a system for staying healthy

Frequent travel can really take a toll on your personal health, which is why it’s important that you figure out ways to stay on top of your diet and exercise. How you choose to do this is up to you, but there are a few tips that can be helpful.

For example, Castellow has ClassPass and a few other memberships so that she can squeeze in a workout every day. “That gives me that sense of normalcy and I don’t feel as sluggish as I would from the extra food and late nights,” she says.

Speaking of food, your diet is admittedly tough to monitor when you’re eating so many meals out, and Pacchione admits that he never wants to totally limit himself – there are only so many salads one person can eat.

His hack for indulging without regret? Only eating half of the portion that’s served to him. He can still enjoy something that tastes good, without overdoing it.

3. Make time to connect with others

You’re traveling with the purpose of meeting, working, and networking with other people – whether it’s co-workers, clients, vendors, or other industry peers. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking that will happen simply because you’re in the same geographic location.

Be proactive about getting some time on the calendar when you can connect. That could mean lunch, a coffee date, or even a co-working or brainstorming session.

While you can get these scheduled once you get there, it’s actually smartest to book some of those commitments ahead of time. Not only does that help you punctuate your travel days, but it also ensures you’re making the absolute most of your time there.

Lost and found: No socks left behind

1. Pack as you go

Especially if you’re in a hotel room for a few days, it doesn’t take long for your own stuff to start blending in. That means you’re that much more likely to forget some of your items there.

Castellow resists the temptation to scatter her own belongings everywhere and instead uses a simple system to make sure she remembers to take everything with her: packing as she goes.

Once she’s in a hotel room, the first thing she does is unpack her suitcase. Then as she wears things or finishes using items, she’ll place them neatly back in her luggage. Not only does it keep all of her stuff centralized, but it also saves her a lot of time and hassle when it’s time to actually pack up and leave.

2. Take your phone charger with you

What item gets forgotten the most? Yep, phone chargers. In an article for the Wall Street Journal the Fairmont San Jose in California admits to ending up with about 250 of them each year – and that’s just one hotel in one city.

Pacchione says he’s one of the guilty ones who’d repeatedly leave his phone cord behind, until he implemented this tip. “Right when I wake up in the morning, I unplug the whole thing,” he says. “I don’t just take the phone off the charger, I unplug the whole thing from the wall.”

It’s a seemingly small change, but Pacchione says it’s been undeniably helpful in remembering to toss his charger into his bag. Happy work travels!