Business Travel Tips for the Technical Writer

I’m coming at this topic from two (or possibly three) angles. Understand that my parents and many of my family members were airline people (Eastern, to be exact), so I got a lot of advice on, and experience in, how to navigate the commercial aviation system. Also, I worked at Disney, which has a rather high level of expectation when it comes to hotel setup and upkeep. Third, I’ve done a fair bit of traveling for professional and personal reasons, including writing jobs.

I average half a dozen flights a year (three trips, to and from), so I speak travel-ese. If you’re new at this or just tired of fighting the system, perhaps a few of these pointers will help. If you’re already an experienced traveler, you probably don’t need this. But hey, I’m here if you need me. 🙂

Booking Your Flight

  • I can’t stress this enough: if you’re traveling on business, wait until you’ve got official, written permission to do so–usually in the form of work order or other similar form. If you book before the Mother-may-I and then Someone changes their mind, you will not get reimbursed for your flight. Of course this assumes you have to pay your own way and then get reimbursed afterward. Some companies/organizations will pay for the flight/hotel with the corporate card and take you out of the loop entirely–well, almost entirely (you might get some say on your airline seat/hotel room)–more on that in a bullet or two.
  • The organizations I’ve worked for have been pretty flexible about allowing you to book whatever airline you want or whatever airline can get you the best fare. Assume that your company will not pay for first or business-class tickets.
  • If you booked and paid for the travel on your personal card, your employer generally will allow you to keep your frequent flyer miles. If you’re traveling to multiple destinations that require multiple airlines, there’s no harm in signing up for whatever FF programs are available to you. Signing up is usually free, the only trick is that some airlines require you to use/redeem your miles within a certain time frame. If you’re traveling a lot, this won’t be a problem. And while you’re at it, get a credit card with a travel rewards program for your favorite airline.
  • Try to avoid rush-hour departure times. For airlines, that’d be 7-10 a.m. or 4-7 p.m. Monday and Friday. Also try to avoid busy travel days, like the day right before or ON a major holiday, assuming you have to work over one. Give yourself an extra day.
  • Flights are generally cheaper if you stay over a weekend, so staying through Sunday, if it’s an option, might save you or your company a few bucks.
  • Check in online. Airlines now allow you to check in, print out your boarding pass, and even (for those airlines which do so) pay for your baggage fees up to 24 hours in advance of your flight. Yes, you’ll stand in line when you get to the airport, but you really don’t have to show up two hours ahead of timeunless you’re traveling overseas–then, for gosh sakes, listen to them when they say show up early!
  • If your trip is short, learn to pack light and don’t check your bag(s). You’re allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item, such as a laptop case or a purse. I happen to fly out of Huntsville, Alabama, so I’m dealing with a lot of tiny regional jets. Their overhead bins won’t handle even “carry-on” luggage most of the time. You can bring it with you, but they’ll probably make you gate-check the bag and you’ll have to wait for it in the jetway when you arrive at your destination.

Packing/Traveling

  • Pack/wear comfortable shoes for getting around the airport, taxis, etc. If you can do all your logistical travel to/from the airport in short hikes, don’t worry about it and wear the good/work shoes. I can only speak for the male side of the house, but some spats just aren’t good for long-distance hikes/runs through airport concourses, city streets, etc.
  • Again, pack as light as seems reasonable. Give some attention to the Weather Channel or the local TV weather, then pack accordingly. If you’ll be in meetings most of the time, have the good clothes handy in a garment bag. If you’re going to be writing in a “war room” for a few days, you can probably get away with a golf shirt and jeans or the equivalent of business casual. It sounds like a no-duh thing to say, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve screwd this up: don’t pack so light that you don’t have enough clothes to wear on the plane home or that you end up having to do laundry/dry cleaning while you’re there.
  • For extended stays, pack what you can, assume you’ll have to do laundry, and make sure you get some advice before you go on where you can get your clothes cleaned. As a backup, carry along some Febreze clothes freshener or other product.

Booking Your Hotel

  • You might or might not get a choice of which hotel to stay at–some companies have specific hotels where they want you to stay. Another consideration is the local per diem (per day) reimbursement rate. If you’re in a technical- or government-related line of work, your company might reimburse you for hotel and miscellaneous expenses based on the General Services Administration (GSA) per diem rates. That will constrain your hotel stays a bit, but some cities (Washington, DC comes to mind) have remarkably high per diem rates, allowing you to get a reasonably good room near the place you want. The thing about hotel per diem is that you will be reimbursed up to whatever your actual rate is, not the maximum, so you don’t get any benefit from booking below the per diem rate, you just break even.
  • Hotels are pretty good about fulfilling basic room requests, such as getting a king-size bed, non-smoking room (it might be harder to find a smoking room anymore), upper/lower floor, or handicap-accessible bathroom. Resort properties such as Ritz-Carlton and Marriott have good computer-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems that track your habits and make sure your preferences are noted.
  • Another thing about per diem rates…the government sets what it considers a reasonable MI&E (Miscellaneous and Incidental Expense) price for each full day you’re in a particular city or state. Assuming your company follows the per diem rules, you probably won’t have to save all your receipts–check with your travel rules first.
  • Eat light/inexpensively. The MI&E rate is a solid number, regardless of what you eat, so this is an opportunity to come out a little ahead from your trip.
  • Last note on MI&E: on to/from travel days, you only get 75% of the per diem rate for the city you traveled to…your specific destination. If your flight makes a connection on a travel day, you don’t claim the per diem rate for the connecting city as well.

Working on the Road

  • Have a clear plan in your head of what you plan to accomplish while you’re at your destination. This sounds like a given, but it doesn’t always happen that way. If a situation warrants your company spending money to fly you somewhere rather than use a local resource or have you do everything by phone and email, you and your manager/supervisor should certainly have an agenda or list of things you need to accomplish while on travel. They might even send you to Maui, but that doesn’t mean they sent you there to have fun. Coming in with a clear plan also sets the local team at ease because it shows that you’re prepared and ready to make the most of your time.
  • Do your best to make yourself comfortable on the road, especially if you’re on proposal duty, which is often the reason a writer is sent on travel. This includes making sure you eat properly, wear comfortable clothes, wear comfortable shoes, and get a good night’s rest. Boring, my-mother-already-told-me-that stuff, but you’re there to work. If you’re let out for a little relaxation after hours, don’t go crazy. Remember, you’ve got to get up and work again the next day (I know: nag, nag, nag).
  • Do what you can to set your “office space” up with a minimum of friction. You can bring some supplies with you–pens, paper, laptop, mouse, mouse pad, etc.–but also seek out the office assistant supporting your group and see what he or she can do about getting you a place to work that has “the basics” you need to do your job.
  • Again, I’m probably nagging, but trust me on this: be nice to the administrative support team. You should do that where you live anyway, but when you’re traveling out of town, the Administrative Assistant (or whatever their title) can make or break your ability to adjust. You might have had a rotten flight, etc., but there’s no need to take it out on someone who’s there to help.
  • This seems like a given, but apparently it isn’t with some folks: don’t be rude or hostile with the Transportation Security Administration officers at the airport. If you don’t like the policies that created the TSA or you’d prefer to drive, and it’s feasible, do so. Otherwise, a business trip is absolutely the wrongest time to stand on principle and get into a hissing match with the folks in blue. You will be detained. You might be arrested. You will not make your business appointment. If you object to inspections, scans, or pat-downs, the travel time is reasonable, and you’ve got a decent car, negotiate with your employer to drive to your destination. It might be a somewhat unusual arrangement, but if the alternative is an arrest? Well, it’s your job.
  • Drink plenty of water on your flying days. Airplane air systems dehydrate you like nobody’s business. Alcohol on planes, then, probably isn’t a great idea, but they do keep selling the stuff, don’t they?
  • Expect to come home tired, and give yourself a couple days to recover, if your lifestyle allows them. You’ve been navigating in a strange city, traveling in cramped quarters (regional jets are so bad they make MD-80s seem positively roomy), sleeping in a strange bed, working long hours under high pressure to get a job done. Travel has its benefits, but it can also take a lot out of you. These things happen.

Hopefully this blather is worthwhile. Again, if you have specific questions, I’ll try to answer them. Happy and safe travels!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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