How to Travel for Work Without Derailing Your Life

—Amy M. Gardner

“Business travel.”  Two words that can spur thoughts of luxurious hotels, interesting cities, and free meals.  Or, for those who do a lot of business travel, those words can prompt thoughts of suspicious stains in hotel rooms with thin walls next to the ice machine, repetitive conference rooms, and surviving on Southwest pretzels and granola bars eaten while jogging through airports.  

This is a topic I’m asked about a lot, probably because, as a coach and consultant, I travel to deliver trainings for law firms and other employers, and to attend conferences and trainings for my own growth and development.  Even before we founded Apochromatik, I traveled in varying amounts, including two work trips that were each nearly a month long.  In 2018 alone, I traveled for a combined total of 5 months.  I’ve been asked many times how I keep all the plates spinning while I’m traveling, so this week I’m sharing some of the ways I’ve learned to keep going on my own goals and projects when I’m on the road.

Untitled Design.jpg

First, adopt a positive attitude about business travel.  I know that can be easier said than done, but as someone who has almost always been glad to travel for work, I have received opportunities I would not have otherwise.  Even if you view it as drudgery, find something you can find appealing about it, even if that’s just earning points and miles you (and your significant other and/or family) can use for vacations.  

Second, be realistic about what you can accomplish when you’re traveling, which can vary based on the length of your trip and the type of trip.  If you have a goal to work out for an hour every day, that may not work if you’re attending a conference followed by receptions, dinners, and after parties for 14 hours every day.  And remember that the travel itself is work, which means it’s a recipe for disaster to just superimpose travel on top of your normal work.  To start, put an out of office on your email and phone, and don’t set impossible standards you can’t meet.  (If your coworkers view a reply email as an invitation to send 18 more non-urgent questions when they know you’re traveling, consider drafting responses, saving them as draft, and hitting send when you are back online and fully available.)  I aim to always answer client emails as quickly as normal when I’m traveling for work, but to answer other emails within a day.  I always assume that clients shouldn’t be inconvenienced because I’m traveling, but that non-clients are much less likely to need an answer from me on the same day.  

Give yourself some flextime before and after a trip.  An easy way to make this more likely is to pack your bag the weekend before the trip itself.  When I first started trying this, I was sure it would be impossible, but it’s turned out to be doable, particularly with shorter trips.  For the Monday 6:00 a.m. flight I had this week (contrary to my advice below!), I was packed for my four day trip Saturday morning, lessening the chance of forgotten items and making Monday morning less stressful.  

Likewise, don’t fill the days immediately after a trip.  Give yourself time to catch up, to follow up with people you met during your travels, to submit your expenses, etc.  Consider, also, whether your employer has a comp time policy or even just an understanding that if you’ve been on the road, you can work from home the first day back.  Taking advantage of policies like that (or asking to create one) can help you get caught up on both life and work.

Don’t assume that a shorter trip will be easier (or cheaper).  I used to regularly fly in the morning of a speaking engagement and fly out the next morning or even that night.  After three weeks in a row of at least one 4:00 am wake-up for an early flight, I started flying in the day before (where possible) for anything before 2:00 or 3:00 pm.  It has made a huge difference, both in my stress level and in my own ability to schedule more time for travel between appointments, to schedule more time with contacts in the city I’m visiting, and generally feel more like a professional and less like a Tasmanian devil.  It also drastically reduced the time my hosts and I spend worrying about flight delays or cancellations.  (It can actually be cheaper, too, to take an afternoon or evening flight and spend an extra night in a hotel night versus booking an early morning flight.)

Likewise, just because you can take the 10 pm flight back doesn’t mean you should.  Staying until the next morning after a conference gives you time to reflect on what you’ve just learned, catch up on your emails and other tasks before you walk back into the office buzz saw, and have coffee with contacts in the area/who have been attending the conference as well.  And for those with kids, if you can come back not feeling frantic, it can be worth having your partner manage an extra morning solo.    

Create routines to minimize stress and free up time.  Every time I fly out of Midway Airport, I know exactly which TSA-Precheck line is usually shorter.  (And I’m not telling!)  When I fly out of O’Hare, I try to book the same seat on American.  (If you don’t know what seat you like, check seatguru.com.)  After a morning wandering what seemed like the world’s largest parking lot in search of a lost rental car, I also take a photo of my rental car and hotel room number on every trip.  Figure out what routines will remove unnecessary decision making and stress both when planning and when traveling and automate those as much as possible.

Make packing easy.  If you have the same types of trips again and again, save packing lists for different types of trips in Evernote, so whether you’re going to a four day conference, a one week vacation, or a one-day client meeting, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.  If you have specific things you need to carry with you to work on personal goals (workout clothes, a book, etc.), pack them.  On the flip side, don’t pack based on maybes – “maybe I’ll have a 4 hour flight delay and finally learn to knit,” “maybe I’ll finish reading two books and want a third,” “maybe I’ll exercise every day for the first time in a year.”  (I once carried the same book in my suitcase for 24 flights before finally giving up and leaving it at home.  Once it wasn’t glaring at me from the same net pouch in my suitcase, I read it.  At home.)  I also never check a bag.  Really.  The last time I did, I had to wait nearly an hour for my bag, so every time I consider it, I ask myself whether it’s worth an hour of my time standing at a baggage carousel.  Whether you prefer to check and not worry about bin space, or to carry on and be able to get in and out of the airport more quickly, consistency in what and how you pack helps avoid forgotten items, and saves time.

Invest a little time and money to make travel easier on yourself.  Get Global Entry so you have TSA-Precheck and save time at security.  (Consider CLEAR if your airport offers it.)  Get a credit card with a Priority Pass membership so you have access to airport lounges (and credit at airport restaurants) all over the world.  If you fly one airline consistently (a better strategy to consolidate perks), consider a lounge membership if your home airport doesn’t have a Priority Pass lounge or restaurant.  My lounge memberships pay for themselves in the first quarter of every year in the money I save on airport meals and in gained productivity working far from the hordes at the gate.  

Go into trips – and come home – rested.  I make travel easier on myself by trying to avoid flights before 8 am when I can, and trying to avoid overnight flights less than 6 hours.  Research shows that being rested makes you less likely to succumb to the germs you’ll encounter on planes, and it of course makes it easier to handle the inevitable travel hassles you will encounter.  Whatever your own preferences or parameters, stick to them where you can, and you’ll reap the benefits in the way you perform during your business travel and the way you come home.

Have a plan for your travel time.  I used to get on planes stressed and exhausted and fall asleep immediately while I waited to be able to turn on my laptop and work.  Inevitably, I would wake up to discover the person in front of me fully reclined, the internet didn’t work, and/or my laptop wasn’t fully charged, so I was left irritated and frustrated, and needing to do more work when I landed.  Now I board every flight with a plan that assumes I won’t be able to use the internet or my laptop.  That ensures that by the time I land, I’m able to feel I’ve been productive, whether that’s because I planned to sleep or read, or planned to work on a specific task.

Likewise, make a plan for your downtime, and force yourself to take it.  It can be really easy to fill your day with meetings and your evening with drinks and dinner with clients.  Go into every trip with a plan for how you will find time for yourself.  That sometimes means I am up at 5:30 am to exercise, or that I carve out an hour to quickly visit a nearby attraction between the end of the workday and drinks or dinner.  Having the one hour – in even the busiest of days – helps me immeasurably.    

When you do have free evenings, use them thoughtfully.  Of course there are trips where you must pack your evenings with work and then just pass out with mindless TV.  And if you take two trips per year, that may be completely fine.  But if you travel often, it can be helpful (and necessary) to be strategic in how you use your evenings.  On longer trips, I try to be sure that one evening is just for intentional downtime and to work on my own goals.  Again, whatever you do, don’t leave it completely to chance.  If you want to eat better or work out, look up restaurants near your hotel in advance of your trip, pack your workout clothes, and stay at hotels with gyms.  If you’re trying to grow your network or be a better friend, make plans to catch up with a friend in person, or to FaceTime while you’re away.  With a little preparation, when you have downtime, instead of just mindlessly watching TV and wondering where your time went, you can exercise or place your grocery order for when you return (and still watch that mindless TV at the same time).  

Try to fit in something that lets you know where you are.  If all of your meals will be with the client, ask if you can fit in the local specialty.  Or, at the very least, pass up yet another Styrofoam container of orange chicken at the airport and eat from a local restaurant.  

Finally, unpack immediately when you get home.  Doing that enables you to refocus on being home and makes packing easier next time.  

Business travel (and my willingness to do it) has made a difference in my career and the opportunities I’ve had.  But it also wore me out, until I learned the strategies above.  With a few changes, you can still complain about those stains and the thin walls, but will also return to your real life feeling more rested, relaxed, and less like that Tasmanian devil.  

What strategies do you use to make business travel more manageable?