I’ve been travelling regularly as part of my job for a good year and a half now. Thanks to work, I’ve been all over Europe, as well as visiting Africa, the Middle East and North America. Today I head off on my first trip of the year to Las Vegas, and 2015 has barely begun!
Travelling as part of my job is something I’ve always aspired to, and now that I do it regularly I’ve discovered that I thrive off of it. When I’m away I’m at my focused and most tenacious. Some of the work I’m most proud of has come out of press trips — out of meeting people and talking to people and overcoming challenges on the ground as and when they arise. It gets the adrenaline pumping through me like nothing else. It makes me feel so lucky.
But I would be lying if I pretended that it is always glamorous or easy. There are times when I’ve landed at Heathrow at 7am and gone straight into the office to do a day’s work, before heading home to unpack, do laundry and repack, before heading back to Heathrow the following morning. Sometimes I feel utterly zombified.
Increasingly I’m getting to grips with the realities of regular business travel, and while I’m still chugging my way up this learning curve, I thought I’d share some of things I’ve learned thus far.
1. Beware the free booze
If a company is taking you abroad, its job might be to look after you, to escort you, to entertain you. That may or may not involve trying to pour as much free alcohol down your neck as possible, but your job is likely to be something different entirely. The best thing to do is to keep in mind your own limits and what you are there for. If you do this, there is no reason you can’t enjoy yourself; just don’t let booze derail your trip!
If you’re flying long haul, also be aware of the effect of alcohol on your sleep pattern. The most difficult place to turn down a free glass of wine or champagne — especially champagne — is on a long flight or in the airport, but it will dehydrate you and will have a knock-on effect on how jetlagged you feel. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always follow this advice myself, but if I know I’ve got work to do when I get off the plane, it’s a rule I really try to stick to.
Speaking of jetlag and sleep, the effects can be minimised. Exercise, fresh air and daylight on arrival all help your body physically adjust, but I think a lot of it is in the mind. Commit to your new timezone and be proactive about helping your body overcome jetlag — there are some great tips out there.
Also recognise that you if you are there to work, your performance will be affected if you are tired, so while it may be tempting to stay up late working, try and resist. Make sure you get sleep if your body is craving it.
Panicking over not getting the sleep I need is something I struggle with on business trips — particularly on planes and even in business class. The more wound up I get about being tired, the less likely I am to drop off. The irony of this is that when I’m off on holiday I conk out before takeoff and only come to when the plane touches down again on the tarmac.
I recommend regulating your body temperature using layers and continually adjusting the air con blaster. I’m usually too hot before takeoff and too cold in the air. My other solution is to use the Buddhify app, which has special meditations designed for travelling and times when you can’t get to sleep. This should help you get you comfy and relaxed, which will optimise your chances of drifting off.
3. Airport lounges and room service are a godsend
I used to think lounges and room services were luxuries. Now I understand why they are so important for business travellers. Sometimes I’m so busy that if I didn’t order room service I wouldn’t eat.
Similarly, at airports I often have to finish off work, and to do that I need a plug socket and Wi-Fi. I need them to be quickly accessible and preferably free. I am used to curling up on the floor next to power points at conferences, and once in order to get power I even unplugged a billboard in Addis Ababa airport, but this situation is not ideal, that’s for sure.
Also appreciated when I haven’t been fed or watered and am trying to meet a deadline is easy access to food, drink and loos, and a quiet corner to file stories from. Lounges are business bliss and often prove really good value for money.
4. Your time is not your own
The biggest benefit of travelling for work is that it takes you to exciting places that otherwise you might never see. Frequently there are opportunities to extend trips so that you can explore more of a place, but sometimes that will just not be an option and that can be excruciatingly frustrating. You just have to deal with it and hope you will get another chance.
Last December I went to Barcelona, a city I’d never visited before, for 36 hours. It was all so tantalisingly close — the sky outside the window was cloudless and blue as I sped down Las Ramblas in a taxi. But it was not my time. The city and I had unfinished business.
Fortunately I was back in Barcelona in February and had plenty of time to explore, so filled my boots with tapas and Gaudi.
5. Don’t compromise on comfort
A sort-of fashion-related tip. I was recently the only person in business class on an overnight US Airways flight between Philadelphia and Dublin not wearing a suit. I was totally baffled. Why you would do this to yourself I have no idea. I get that there is some indignity involved in having to change on a plane or in the airport, but you wouldn’t normally spend the night ahead of a meeting sleeping in a suit, so give yourself and your clothes the best chance of looking decent by planning an outfit switcheroo in advance. When you’re in the air you’ll be so pleased that you bothered to make yourself comfy.
When returning from Rwanda last year, I went from interviewing President Kagame straight to the airport. I slipped into the toilet cubicle and changed into my comfy travelling clothes. Two Ethiopian Airlines flights (avoid! avoid!) with a long layover would have been tough going in full business garb.
6. Double check itineraries
Sometimes I get to book my own business travel, and because I am fastidious when it comes to travel planning, I am fully confident in every arrangement I make.
I got stung earlier this year though, when my trip had been booked externally. I arrived at the airport on the day of my scheduled departure only to find that my return flight to London had been booked for the day before. I learned a valuable lesson that day — always double check your itinerary against the booking.
7. Sign up to frequent flyer programmes and loyalty schemes
I feel like an idiot admitting it, but it took me a while to catch onto quite how lucrative frequent flyer schemes can be. I tend to fly with British Airways most of the time, and I can’t quite believe the speed at which I’m climbing the ranks of the airline’s Executive Club and collecting Avios.
It’s definitely worth signing up to frequent flyer programmes and other loyalty schemes like the one run by Hilton. I also use Hotels.com Welcome Rewards, which gives you one free night in a hotel for every ten you pay for. I recently used this to go to Cologne for the Christmas markets and am currently six nights away from my next hotel stay!
The thing they don’t tell you about business travel is that it can be lonely. I don’t struggle with this too much as I’m quite a chilled solo traveller and lived in a different country on my own for six months, but I know plenty of people that would hate not having anyone to talk to or run things by when they’re abroad. The best thing you can learn to do is be a confident traveller happy in your own company.
Some business trips are group trips, which can be really fun, but even then, you will spend probably more time alone in your hotel room than you realise of you are working. For solo trips, I find it best to treat yourself in any moments of downtime you have. Speaking of which…
9. Know when to take time out
You could be working through dinner until bedtime and then from dawn through breakfast, in which case if there is a moment to take a breather in the middle of the day, grab it with both hands. You will benefit, your work will benefit and especially on a long trip, it will delay the onset of fatigue.
I worked pretty much every waking moment in Rwanda, but one lunchtime I took a trip to Kigali’s Genocide Memorial and it was the best decision I could have made. It gave me a break from the conference I was covering, as well as real insight into something that had touched every single person in the country I was writing about. It gave me a few moments to reflect and regroup. As you can see below, it also granted me some very literal perspective.
10. Make your time at home count
When you’re travelling a lot and arrive home tired, it means you simply don’t have as much time to hang out with people at home as you would otherwise. Some months are fine, others I find myself going ages without seeing my friends. I’ve yet to get the balance right myself and this is something I need to work on over the next year. I love travel and I love how big a part it plays in my life, but ultimately having supportive people at home is what stops me from getting lonely when I’m away.
One of the obvious answers to this is more travel…
But more important than this is simply being able to appreciate what you have.
For more on my business travel adventures keep your eyes on my Instagram feed and Twitter as I’m heading out to Vegas today (woohoo!), China at the end of the month and I’ll be back in Barcelona in March!