A Road Warrior's Guide to Smart Travel
The plane hasn’t even left its gate, and the businesswoman already feels defeated by another harried day of travel. She hit every red traffic light on the way to the airport, waited in a slow, frustrating line to check herself in for the flight, and went through the usual hassle (and occasional humiliation) required to get through security. To make matters worse, she has just learned the flight has been delayed for at least another hour—time she’ll spend worrying that she won’t make her meeting and feeling totally useless because she knows she has a mountain of work on her plate that isn’t getting done.
For Americans who travel regularly for business, this scenario is probably all too familiar. Airports, delays, and forced downtime are the bane of the road warrior’s existence, because they usually mean people are getting even farther behind on their constantly expanding to-do list. According to Jason Womack, though, when people travel smart, they can continue to make huge strides with whatever they want to accomplish (even when they’re stuck at an airport gate)—they just have to use the right tactics.
"When you spend the whole day just traveling, you have to catch up on e-mails, reports, phone calls, and other tasks when you reach your destination," says Womack, a workplace-performance expert, executive coach and author of the new book Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, February 2012). "Plus, the knowledge of what you have to do later stresses you out all day long. But when you work and travel smart, you’ll have time to explore the city you’re in after checking into the hotel…or to enjoy a hot bath and a glass of wine once you finally make it home.
"I want to stress that I’m not advocating becoming a productivity nut who’s constantly trying to do more, more, more," he says. "You make these changes to the way you travel so that you can do what you have to do while you’re waiting on that plane to take off or while you’re in your cab on your way to the hotel, so that you can do what you want to do later."
Tips for the anti-packrat
Luggage is a necessary evil for most road warriors. After all, nobody really likes packing, lugging around a suitcase, and living out of one. Luckily, there are simple tactics to prevent needless luggage-related stress.
Become a packing minimalist
How much time do you spend packing and unpacking before and after each trip? And when was the last time you really evaluated the contents of your suitcase? If you’re like many frequent travelers, says Womack, you probably tend to prepare for a trip on autopilot, and you include items that you never use or wear.
"Before the next trip, carefully examine what you pack and eliminate anything that isn’t necessary," he suggests. "I know it sounds overly simple, but I promise you’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to find what you need when you’re on the road. Plus, the next time you have to pack, the task will go a lot more quickly. To save yourself some last-minute stress, I suggest repacking your travel bag the second everything is washed, dried and folded."
Invest in important duplicates for travel
All road warriors have experienced the sinking feeling that hits the moment they realize they’ve forgotten their phone charger, or even their hairbrush. Womack says it’s worth investing in a duplicate set of power chargers for the phone, laptop, and other tech devices, as well as a duplicate set of toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, grooming products, etc.). Always keep these duplicates in the travel bag. This way, you’ll never have to worry about forgetting something, and you’ll save time because you won’t have to unplug your office setup and raid your bathroom before every trip.
Create a checklist of "power" items with which you travel and get into the habit of reviewing that list the night before each trip in order to make sure each device is charging.
"I have one place in my home office where I always charge my travel must-haves," Womack says. "Conveniently, it’s on the same counter as my keys and wallet, so I’m sure to grab my charging items before I head off to the airport. Be sure to do the same thing in your hotel room the night before traveling back home, too. And again, buy extra charging cords that always stay in your carry-on bag."
Pack workout gear
Taking advantage of the hotel’s gym, even if it’s only for 20 minutes, can relieve travel stress, keep people energized, and help with jet lag. Womack says always carry a set of workout clothes in case you get a chance to use them, and lay them out when you arrive at your hotel room so that you won’t have to dig through your luggage first thing in the morning.
Be medically prepared
Always travel with a first-aid kit that includes pain relievers, adhesive bandages, cold medicine, etc. Having to stop to find a pharmacy can be time-consuming and expensive.
Keep important extras close
Women should put an extra pair of pantyhose in a purse. Men might want to put a back-up tie in their briefcase. Having such items on hand can reduce stress.
Tips for Smooth Traveling
A successful trip is not defined only by being as productive as possible; it’s also about staying healthy mentally so that you can actually enjoy what you’re doing. That’s why Womack recommends reducing anxiety in whatever ways you can.
Always leave early
Always leave earlier than necessary for flights and meetings, and allow more time than you think is necessary to get to the airport. Womack says it’s surprising how many people don’t do so. "Missing a flight because you wanted an extra 20 minutes of sleep doesn’t make any sense," he says. "Plus, if you show up early, you can use that bonus time to work on something else. And if you run into a problem en route to your destination, you won’t have to stress about being on time."
Make sure all travel itinerary info is entered into your cellphone
Don’t underestimate the value of having easy access to confirmation numbers for hotel, rental car, flight, etc., as well as phone numbers for each of those agencies. Sooner or later, plans will change when on the go, and having all of the pertinent information at your fingertips can change the game. Also, it’s nice to be able to check your flight status without having to dig through your briefcase to find your flight-confirmation printout.
Take a (great) seat
If you’ve ever watched "The Amazing Race," you know that contestants on the show are always jockeying for seats at the front of the plane so they can be the first ones off. While businesspeople might not need to be as strategic with their seating as those racers, keep in mind that the aisle seat does have its advantages. It allows you, if necessary, to easily get the items you need out of the overhead bin. (Be sure to plan what you’ll need during the flight before the plane takes off, so you won’t have to keep opening and closing the overhead bin.) Also, Womack says, having a seat in the exit row and on the aisle makes it easy to get up if you have to use the lavatory. (Drinking lots of water is one of the best ways to stay healthy while traveling.)
Become a preferred customer
Having preferred-customer status with car-rental companies, airlines, hotels and other key travel vendors can be a big help if you have more than a handful of business trips a year. If something goes wrong, preferred status can often mean that a company’s employees will help you resolve a situation more quickly. For example, if you’re a preferred customer with an airline, you’ll get to board the plane early.
"Early-boarding privileges in particular pay off every time, because they ensure you’ll have overhead-bin space for your carry-on," Womack says. "These days, people avoid baggage charges by bringing larger carry-ons, so the overhead bins often aren’t large enough to accommodate everyone. No pressed-for-time traveler wants to have a bag gate-checked and then stand in line waiting for it after the plane lands."
Invest in a club membership with the airline of your choice
If you can, also invest in a club membership with an airline you frequently fly. You’ll gain access to that airline’s club space, so when you’re waiting on your next flight you’ll have a calmer, more comfortable place to be your best productive self. And perhaps most importantly, the space will be quiet enough for you to make calls to clients or colleagues without airport announcements blaring in the background.
Always carry cash
You never know when a problem with your bank or credit-card company will cause a card to be denied. People should always travel with cash so that they won’t be left stranded without a way to pay a cab driver or without money for lunch.
Carefully plan where to stay
Even if it’s tempting, try to avoid touristy hotels or those in very busy areas. Often, the hassle of a busy lobby, overcrowded parking deck and perpetual traffic just isn’t worth it. Once people do choose a home away from home, it’s a good idea to call the concierge ahead of time to find out what restaurants, entertainment venues, etc. are in the area and to get feedback on how best to get to meetings while in the city. (Being a preferred customer with a hotel is a great way to be given timesaving advantages like no-wait check-ins, better rates, more-involved service from hotel employees, etc.)
From the airport to the destination city to the journey home, people have to eat. Do a little thinking about where and what you’re going to eat before you even leave your house.
"On short trips I always make sure to have a Balance Bar or a bag of nuts from Trader Joe’s," Womack says. "For flights longer than five hours, I make sure to include time in my schedule to grab a sandwich, a salad and a bottle of water at the airport. I also recommend figuring out where you’re going to eat at your destination before you begin your journey, if possible.
The day before you travel, call the concierge at the hotel where you’ll be staying. Ask for lunch and dinner options within walking distance or a short car ride from your hotel. This will not only save you time searching for food once you arrive, but it will also help you ensure you go to quality restaurants while on your trip."
Know in advance how you’re going to get from place to place
Getting lost can be a huge time waster once you actually arrive at your destination. Plus, it can make you feel anxious, frustrated, or downright panicked. Prior to leaving for your trip, plan your routes and how you’ll travel. Are your meeting locations within walking distance of your hotel? If so, what’s the quickest route? If not, is it best to take a cab, or should you consider some other form of transportation? If you already know you’ll be driving yourself, make sure your rental comes with GPS or be sure to have your own device ready with a map or written directions as a backup.
Avoid traveling during the busiest times of day
If you can, avoid planning meetings, arrivals and departures during the busiest travel times of the day. For example, in New York City, taxi drivers change shifts around 3 p.m., so getting a cab to a meeting that’s scheduled for mid-afternoon can be difficult and time-consuming. The same goes for traveling to and from the airport (or anywhere) during rush hour in any big city. It can be difficult to get a cab during those times, and if you’re driving, you could end up wasting time waiting in traffic.
Get to know people where you travel
Especially if you frequently travel to the same locations, get to know the locals. They’ll often be able to tell you the best places (restaurants, entertainment venues, etc.) to go that might be off the beaten path. They can also recommend better routes to use while traveling or put you in contact with other locals whom you might benefit from meeting. And it’s always nice to have a friendly face to see wherever you go.
Learn to master the tech you use
Far too many of us today have the latest gadgets…but no idea how to use them most productively. Learn about the features of your smartphone, laptop and tablet, and make sure you’re using them to their full advantage. The apps and software available can save you tons of time in your work flow and in how you use your travel time. For example, apps can help you find great places to eat or visit in your destination city, and they can also help you to check in for your flight while you’re waiting for a meeting to start or in the cab line at the hotel. Your phone’s alarm can even remind you to stop shopping in the airport bookstore and get to your gate.
Womack points out that a cellphone’s camera provides several timesaving options that you’ve probably never considered before:
Tips for productivity
- Use it to take notes. Instead of digging around looking for a pen and paper, simply snap a shot of books and items you want to buy or price-check online, restaurants you want to visit, billboards of shows you want to see, etc.
- Use it to remember your parking spot. Take a picture of your parking lot space number and parking structure floor. Travel days are stressed and rushed. For most people remembering where you left your car a week later can be a challenge.
- Use it to remember your rental car. Take a picture of your rental car and license plate. Save time you’d otherwise spend wandering around a parking lot looking for a car you can’t remember.
- Use it to remember your room number. Take a picture of your hotel room number, especially if you’re traveling to several cities or traveling very frequently. After awhile, especially if you’re in a different hotel every night, they all start to look the same.
Your travels will be sprinkled with 15-plus-minute periods of "bonus time" via flight delays, late clients, or other unexpected agenda disruptions that will be wasted if you aren’t prepared to make the most of them.
Always be ready
These three words should become your travel mantra. When you follow them, you can maximize your travel time, delays and all. Whether you’re on a 20-minute cab ride or waiting to board a flight, you can reply to an e-mail, make a phone call, amend a meeting agenda, catch up on reading, make changes to an ongoing product, confirm appointments and more. The trick is that you have to "always be ready" with what you need to attack those tasks. So make sure you have the materials you need handy in your briefcase.
"I like to write at least one thank-you card each and every travel day," Womack says. "Between the time the gate agent closes the aircraft door—meaning that I have to power down my electronics—and the time the plane reaches over 10,000 feet, I can generally write two to four cards. Of course, I have to make sure that I’m always ready with notecards, pen, envelopes and stamps."
Be sure to have pens and a notepad at all times
Even if you’re a fast typist, sometimes your most productive work sessions come from "splashing ink."
"This is what I call brainstorming, mindmapping, or idea-ating," Womack says. "I travel with a medium-size Moleskine journal, and it’s always out while I’m flying…just in case I need to write something down."
Use pre- and post-airport time wisely
If you’ll be traveling in a cab to and from the airport, keep a list of people you need to call handy and give them a ring while you’re riding. Or use the ride to brainstorm what you’ll be discussing with the client you’ll be meeting with on the trip or to plan out another upcoming meeting. If you’ll be driving, queue up a podcast you’ve been meaning to listen to so that you can cross it off your to-do list after your drive.
Organize travel workspace
Make sure you have a sensible carry-on that allows you easy access to the things you need, and take time the day before you travel to organize its contents for your trip. Make sure your bag or briefcase is stocked with extra pens, your brainstorming journal, any magazines or articles you’ve been meaning to read, thank-you notes to write, etc. This way, you’ll be ready to work when 15-minute bonus periods come up.
Develop a system for managing receipts
Whether it’s a special compartment in your briefcase or an envelope you keep in your wallet or purse, create a system for storing and managing your receipts. When you have to compile your expense report, you don’t want to waste time digging through bags, pockets, and papers searching for errant receipts.
Let your contacts know where you are
Don’t keep your travel schedule to yourself. Share with clients and contacts the basics of where you’ll be going and when. You may find out, for example, that a prospective customer is going to be in the same city with you, or that a layover destination matches a client’s home base. When you know these things ahead of time, you may be able to plan an extra meeting or build in some valuable face time with a person you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
Use the airport
The airport isn’t just a travel hub—believe it or not, it can also be a valuable meeting space. Often, you can rent conference rooms at various airlines’ clubs, even if you’re not a priority member (though in this case, you might have to pay a slightly higher fee). These conference rooms are private and reasonably priced, and if it’s convenient for the other party as well, the location can save you time, stress and hassle.
Have a business card handy
Traveling offers many opportunities to network…if people are ready to take advantage of them.
"Spend one or more hours sitting next to me on a plane, and I’m bound to meet you," Womack says. "Sometimes it’s a short, ‘Hi there…heading out or going home?’ But many times, a greeting turns into a longer conversation. Whenever I meet new people, I’m listening for the kinds of things they are interested in, and how I can learn and gain from that conversation. If they recommend a book, a website, or a speaker, I like to follow up with them after I’ve taken some actions. Always be ready—there’s that phrase again!with a business card so that when you meet someone new you can use the opportunity to build your professional network."
Learn something new
You can’t focus on work all the time. Taking an occasional break will keep you sharper and more productive when you are focused on work. Womack suggests keeping in your carry-on a folder of magazine or newspaper articles that you’ve been wanting to read. That way, you can reach for one if you need a "work" break while on your flight. You could also use break time to queue up a video tutorial for a new software program, say, or just read a good book.
"When I’m taking a break from work, I like to catch up on inspiration," Womack says. "I download TED talks or other educational or informational podcasts. You can find mine here. The important thing is to use what time you can expanding your knowledge, motivation, and inspiration. You can even pass on things you believe might interest a client or colleague—it’s a great way to connect.
"As you incorporate these strategies into your travel routine and they become second nature, you’ll find a work flow that allows you to feel accomplished even when you’ve spent most of your day on an airplane," Womack says. "More importantly, you’ll find that you have more time and energy (and mental peace) to devote to your meetings, tasks, and exploring the places you’re visiting."
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