Travel is a fact of life for most consultants. Many spend 45 weeks on the road every year, and some say they wouldn't want it any other way.
We know one married couple where both are traveling consultants. They often joke that they should write a book called "Marriage on Three Days a Week" because they only see each other from Thursday night to Sunday night most weeks. Of course, they take great vacations with all the frequent flier miles and hotel points, and neither one is left at home to manage the household while the other dines in restaurants every night and comes home expecting all the chores to be done.
Like many others, they have learned how to be comfortable on the road so that their travel schedules are a source of new experiences and great stories instead of a hardship. If you learn how to be comfortable in your environment, you'll do better work and last longer in this demanding field.
There are two types of consulting roles, from a travel schedule perspective. One type of consultant is the real Road Warrior who is in a different city each week, often visiting two or three different clients and staying only a couple of days each place. The other type travels to the same destination every week to work on a long-term engagement over several months. Which type of travel schedule you end up with depends as much on your personality as on your skill set.
No matter which type of travel schedule you have, there are some seemingly small things you can do to make yourself significantly more comfortable on the road.
Enroll in every frequent flier and hotel points program you can. The biggest perks in business travel come when you get a free family vacation later. All those trips to Pittsburgh might buy you a trip to Honolulu or Prague or wherever your heart leads you.
Whenever possible, use the same airline and hotel chain for every city. This helps you rack up the points faster, and it also establishes a level of comfort and familiarity for you from the moment you arrive in the city. Not every Marriott is exactly like every other Marriott, but there are enough similarities between them that you will begin to feel at home quickly.
Packing for Travel
Develop a routine for packing. Make a checklist that includes everything that you know you'll need for any trip, including items like toothbrush and cell-phone charger. Go over the checklist every single time you pack a suitcase.
If you don't follow this advice, you will eventually end up spending $200 on a "charge everything" device and using a hotel toothbrush that will rip your gums out.
- Always assume you will have to carry your luggage yourself. If you aren't sure you will need it, don't take it. You can always buy one there. (Don't accept engagements in locations that don't have stores.)
- Pack something comfortable to wear in your hotel room and clothes you can wear to work out.
- Plan to sleep in something you don't mind being seen wearing in public. In the event of a fire, hotels will evacuate two floors above and two floors below, even if it's just a small fire in a trash basket. That's what that loudspeaker above the bed is for.
- All luggage looks alike. Make your bag easy to spot on the carousel and less likely to be stolen with a few strategically placed strips of duct tape or a big pink bow.
- The military knows that rolled clothing does not wrinkle. Don't fold it, roll it. Turn jackets inside out, fold the collar up and press one shoulder inside the other.
- Think about what you pack from the perspective of Customs and Airport Security. For example, many airlines will not allow you to carry steel-tipped darts in your carry-on luggage. (Yes, one of us learned this the hard way. Not the one you think.) Carry all medication in the original packages, particularly prescription medication.
- Purchase two of everything you use daily, like cosmetics, razors, toothbrush, etc. Leave one set at home. Pack toiletries once and leave them packed. This way, you don't have to worry that you forgot something essential and will not notice until the middle of the night in a strange hotel room. When you run out of something on the road, replace it. (This is easier if you use common brands that are sold nationally.)
After only a few weeks of travel, you'll know exactly what you need to pack and what you don't.
If you are traveling to the same city every week, pick a hotel that you are comfortable in and make friends with the people at the front desk and in Housekeeping. If you can commit to a certain number of weeks, they might even give you a break on the room rate, which is also good for your customer.
Once you've tried two or three different rooms in different parts of the hotel, you'll begin to identify specific things you like or dislike. Within a few weeks, you'll probably have a favorite room. Don't be afraid to ask for it every week. Staying in the same room every week can increase your sense of comfort and it's easier to remember what room you are in. Every one of us has been frustrated at least once by trying to open a hotel room door, only to realize that the key doesn't work because this is the room we were in last week, and we have no idea what room we have been assigned this week.
If you followed our instructions for packing and bought duplicates of all your toiletries and travel needs, you can check a suitcase with the bellman over the weekend instead of carrying it home with you. Leave your laundry with a dry cleaner over the weekend and come back on Monday to a fresh wardrobe without carrying a bag with you to the airport. That's freedom!
Make friends with the people who have control of the food. If you are eating all your meals off the Room Service menu, you will soon get bored with the choices. Encourage the person who answers the Room Service line to give you suggestions.
When Christine was working in one city where it wasn't considered safe to leave the hotel and wander around at night, she called the Room Service number one night and said, in the most pitiful voice she could muster, "I'm hungry and nothing on the menu looks good tonight. Help me!"
The Room Service voice laughed and said, "Miss Lambden, don't you worry. After all these months, I know what you like. Let me surprise you."
In addition to the best steak and the freshest salad ever served by Room Service, the waiter brought a glass of red wine and said, "The chef said to tell you that he knows you don't like red wine, but this is special. Try it with the steak. Alternate one bite of steak with one sip of wine."
She still talks about that steak. After that night, she never had to look at the Room Service menu again. When she called, she would say, "Maybe a fish tonight?" or "I'm in the mood for something chocolate."
Remember, if you are tired of the hotel menu, just imagine how the chef feels.
Since you can't eat all the time, here are some other ways to fill an evening in a hotel room:
- Call your mother.
- Go to a movie.
- College libraries are often open late. Learn something.
- Work out. Remember the Freshman Fifteen in college? The life of a consultant includes too many meals in restaurants and too few long walks in the park.
If you exercise at home, try to exercise the same way when you are traveling. Find out if it's safe to walk/run outside near the hotel. This is also a great way to find the neighborhood restaurants and pubs that the travel books don't know about.
If you exercise in a gym at home, stay in a hotel with a gym and use it. If there is no gym available in the hotel, remember that many national chains have memberships that allow you to work out in any city. Like national hotel and restaurant chains, gyms are a great way to find familiar surroundings in an unfamiliar place.
Exploring new cities is a great way to get exercise and enjoy your time on the road. See the sights. Shop. Ask the people at the hotel and at work what you should be sure to see while you are in town.
We know one consultant who managed, in one year, to see Niagara Falls (working in Buffalo), the Arch in St. Louis, the Napa Valley wine country, six shows on Broadway, and Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break.
Did you know that Kansas City is the City of Fountains? In the winter, the city slowly freezes some of the fountains so you see frozen ice where water flows in the summer. Just beautiful.
Did you know that you can visit the Budweiser Clydesdales at Grant's Farm in St. Louis? If you think they are fun to watch on Super Bowl commercials, just imagine how magnificent they are up close.
These opportunities may not present themselves again. Don't spend every evening in your hotel room.
Every city has something unique to offer and the people who live there will be happy to help you discover what is wonderful about their hometown.
Single Life on the Road
The constant-travel lifestyle is often more appealing to single people who do not have a family at home waiting for them each week. For these consultants, the only challenge is finding a way to maintain a home when you aren't there during the week.
Here are some tips:
- Ask a friend or neighbor to pick up your mail once or twice during the week.
- Install automatic light timers in your house. Install motion sensor lights outside. This makes it look like someone is home and protects your stuff. (It also makes bats and possums find another yard to live in, but that might just be an Austin thing.)
- Hide valuables. Burglars know all about looking in the freezer for your jewelry, but would they think to look in that bag of potting soil in the garage? Hint: Tell someone you trust where you hid them…you'll remember all the great spots you considered, and you'll forget the one you picked.
- Splurge a little with all that money you are making as a consultant and hire a maid service to come in and clean your house while you are gone. If you have a lawn, hire a yard service, too. The last thing you are going to feel like doing when you finally get home is housework, and you'll be happier in this job if you don't feel that you are neglecting chores.
- If possible, have a trusted house-sitter stay in your house. Then you won't have to worry at all.
In addition to maintaining your house, a single person on the road has to maintain a social life. When you are out of town all week, it's easy to find yourself excluded from your friends' conversations about plans for the weekend. You have to work harder to maintain those friendships at home, especially if you are also forming new friendships in the city where you are working.
It's not totally unheard of for consultants assigned to the same client week after week to form friendships, or even romantic attachments, in the city where they work. Having bonds with people all over the country can be a huge advantage professionally because your network is expanded to include all of their colleagues, as well.
Don't date someone in the client company. This can get messy. (Yeah, we know. Your situation is different. You'll handle it like grownups. We'd like to believe this, but in our experience it rarely works out that way. Even so, this is still good advice for everyone else.)
Married With Children
Life on the road is harder for those who have a family at home. You miss them and you feel guilty about leaving them behind, and even more guilty when you're having fun without them.
The same tourist attractions that enliven a single person's travel can make you miss your family even more. You find yourself thinking, "The kids would love this," or "Niagara Falls by myself? I don't think so!"
Here are some tips for making travel easier when you miss your family:
- Write long letters saying all the stuff you would have said if you were at home. Buy a fax machine for the house so you can send them before you go to bed and the family can read them with breakfast. (We know. Email works just as well. Except it doesn't. Handwritten letters mean more. They just do.)
- Give the hotel's fax number to your family or set up a personal e-fax number. Encourage letters from home. Also drawings and report cards and anything else that will make you feel closer. Almost all children could benefit from the occasional writing exercise, and most of them already know how to operate a computer.
- Buy a small digital camera or use your cell phone to take pictures and make a "Day in the Life" slide show for the kids. Take pictures of your day from the time you wake up to the time you prepare for bed – pictures of your hotel room, your breakfast plate, your cubicle and co-workers, the bookstore you stop at after work, the restaurants you like – everything! (Trust us, they'll love it.)
Driving in Strange (translation: "New To You") Places
Weather conditions and driver courtesy rules vary from city to city. In some cities, driving is a brutal competition, and it's considered rude or suicidal to slow down for a yellow light. Someone will honk at you or run into you. In others, you'll get dirty looks if you don't yield and let a waiting car merge in front of you. On most country roads, failure to wave at passing drivers marks you as an outsider.
No matter where you are, these tips will help lessen the impact of driving during your travels:
- Get a map when you arrive. If you know where you are going, you are much less likely to end up in the wrong place.
- If you rear-end a car on the freeway, your first move should be to hang up the phone. Better yet, go hands-free when you are driving. Best of all, hang up and drive.
- Rent your car from the same agency every week and be extra nice. Usually, the same agents are on duty every Monday morning, so eventually they'll know you and may offer you the cool convertible or the Jag for a week at no extra charge.
- Not every state or city has a "right on red" law. Check with the car rental agency or look for a "No right on red" sign before you assume it's legal in any intersection where you are.
- If you are stopped for speeding, running a red light, driving the wrong way, or, worst of all, hitting something, be very polite to everyone involved. Of course, this is true when you aren't traveling, too, but you have a better chance of making your meeting or flight if you deal with the situation nicely.
In New York or Boston (or London or Beijing), take a cab or public transportation. Some warnings say "Don't try this at home." With regard to driving in these places, the rule is "Don't try this on the road." In other words, ask someone at your destination or consult a travel guide to find out whether it's advisable to drive yourself around.
If you are facing your first winter in a snowy climate, ask someone to teach you how to drive in icy conditions before the first blizzard. You may feel foolish, and they will definitely laugh at you, but the first time you feel your car start to slide, you'll be glad you did.
For us, just saying "I'm from Texas" is often enough to have our clients offer free driving lessons, icy conditions or not.
Air Travel Tips
Since 9/11, keeping track of the rules for air travel and getting through Security checkpoints has become more of a challenge, but the airlines have made a sincere effort to help.
Every airline and airport website has information about security requirements and how much time will be required to get to your gate. Experienced travelers quickly learn to avoid the busiest times of the day and week. In fact, we don't know a single traveling consulting who would consider flying on the day before Thanksgiving under any circumstances.
Airport websites will also give you information about other amenities that are available in the terminals. For instance, did you know that the Hong Kong airport has showers and rooms where you can take a nap? After a long flight across the Pacific ocean, a shower is a wonderful way to spend your three-hour layover between connecting flights.
The airport in Portland, Oregon, has a great mall. You can get all your Christmas shopping done between flights and have the items you bought shipped home. Oh, and did we mention that Oregon doesn't have sales tax?
The San Francisco airport has twenty different museum galleries that rotate art, culture and science exhibitions on a regular schedule. At SFO, you can't avoid being entertained and educated while you travel.
Here are some other tips for making air travel easier:
- When you make your reservations, ask for a seat near the front of the plane. Airlines assign seats back-to-front and families traveling with children tend to plan further ahead than business travelers, so the shrieking three year-olds are usually in the back of the plane.
- Always request the Exit Row. Children aren't permitted, and you get more legroom.
- Wear earplugs or invest in some good noise-canceling headphones if you plan to sleep. People talk louder on airplanes.
- Planes have only 3% humidity, so you get dehydrated quickly. Carry a bottle of water on board. (This will also keep your feet from swelling.) To keep costs and carryon weight low, carry an empty bottle and ask the flight attendant to fill it for you. On international flights, there is usually a water fountain available for passengers to serve themselves.
- When they say, "Limit two carry-on bags," assume they really mean it and be prepared to check everything but your purse, briefcase and laptop. A good alternative if you are in a hurry is to "gate check" your bags. Especially with smaller commuter flights, this means you get your bags immediately when you get off the plane with no stop at baggage claim.
- Pay attention to the safety speech every once in a while. Like washing your car to make it rain, it's just good karma. We've asked, and yes, most flight attendants feel just as silly giving the speech as you do listening to it, but the fact that no one is listening just makes their job harder.
- To prevent a stiff neck from sleeping on a plane, ask the flight attendant for a blanket, roll it up and wrap it around your neck before you fall asleep. Your head won't roll from side-to-side, you won't snore and you won't look nearly as ridiculous as those people drooling on their neighbor's shoulder. They make C-shaped pillows that do this, but that's just one more thing to carry with you. We prefer to travel light.
While you are traveling, do everything you can to make your life easier. When you are enjoying yourself, you are better prepared to perform at work, and you'll be more successful.
Cubicles and conference rooms are the same everywhere. The work won't change, but taking the time to make friends with the people around you, at work and at the hotel, will make all the difference in the world to how well you do it.