Business Travel: Quick Tips for Hassle Reduction

I do not travel for work nearly as much as some of my friends do or as much as my father did while I was growing up, but I have been on a plane roughly once a month for the last 6 months and am good for 1-2 work-related trips a year (at one time it was 5-6) (added to personal travel). Traveling for work is not as glamorous as one may think but despite Skype and Teams and lighting fast WiFi sometimes you just need to be there in person. With that in mind, here’s a set of useful tips culled from my personal experience and from my coworkers and friends.

Airport Strategy

To check bags or not to check bags? That is the question. Before your trip assess which airport(s) you’re flying in and out of and then see what their reputation is online — for example, CDG in Paris has a reputation for losing luggage, one that I found well-deserved (I got my bags about a day and a half after I arrived). If you don’t want to risk it make sure your carry on fits carrier guidelines (many carriers have *reduced* the size of acceptable carry ons) and be prepared to not use that space under the seat in front of you for your feet — because if you’re in a later boarding group there may not be overhead bin space. Also, take advantage of YouTube packing videos.  You can get a lot of stuff in a small case.

Inversely, if you do choose to check, weight your bag before you get to the airport — and maybe pack a smaller lightweight bag or backpack in it. This is because if your bag is over 50lbs they usually charge $100 instead of a $25 or $30 bag fee, and having 2 checked bags is still cheaper than one overweight charge.  If you travel a lot and you have a carrier Visa card, that usually comes with free bag check. Finally: add some unique item to your handle, even if it’s just a strip of novelty duck tape. You would not believe how many identical black Samsonite bags are out there.

Get TSA Pre Check.

If you aren’t thrilled with an airplane loo — and who is? — and find yourself needing to go as you exit the plane: use the facilities closest to (and just before) the security exit. That is, you get off the plane, you  head down the concourse to the main hub, and you get to that part where it says “after you go through here you can’t go back” — and find the restroom right before that security exit.  This is because it will be less crowded than all of the ones you just passed (because everyone else got off the plane and will happily stand in line) and is likely to be less busy.

Hotel Strategy

Hotels often have more amenities than are listed on their site. For example, mine has a free shuttle to the conference I’m attending — even though it’s a half hour away. It wasn’t advertised and I came across it by accident (while trying to schedule a Lyft) so it’s good to ask at the front desk if there is a shuttle service to your location of interest.

The gym at a hotel can be resplendent with fresh towels and water bottles and a wide assortment of machines/weights or it can be one dilapidated bosu ball and a sketchy elliptical trainer. Check TripAdvisor or Yelp hotel reviews to see what the gym actually has and also when it is open.

It’s nice when they hand you your room keys in that little paper fold and it’s a pain to carry that around. If you travel a lot room numbers kinda blur, so take a pic of your room number (at the door) to remember it without having to keep track of little foldy bits of paper. This strategy also works with remembering parking space/stall numbers.

Hotel toiletries are unreliable (in terms that some hotels offer a selection of toiletries and others offer the inherently suspicious bottle of 3 in one shampoo/conditioner/body wash).  Get reusable travel-size bottles and fill up with your stuff from home. Bonus: keep them all together in a quart size Ziploc – you’ll need it for security, anyway.

Conference Strategy

Ever notice how conferences are usually in a hot-weather area during the hottest time of year? It’s because it’s cheaper (it’s during their off-season) for the conference provider and usually for the attendee. Case in point: Grace Hopper (where I’m at right now) in Houston, or an analytics conference I attended in July. In Las Vegas.  You’ll be tempted to wear a super-lightweight top and pants or a skirt, but don’t forget a light jacket or scarf — because as soon as you get into the Convention Center or Hotel Ballroom, the AC will be jacked up and you will freeze.  As much as you’d like to think that will help you focus on the material, it won’t, and you’ll end up drinking too much coffee in an effort to keep warm.

Speaking of coffee: the coffee shop or stand *at* the convention center or hotel may sound like a good idea, but it will be slammed.  Go around the corner or even two blocks away, or leverage pre-ordering apps like the one offered by Starbucks.  Bonus points if your hotel has a mini-market or quick options like muffins or fruit, but you’ll want to put thought into your breakfast strategy *before* the morning of.  This is because when you get up, you will be thinking about your deliverables and schedule, and just hoping to run into food. So are the other thousands of attendees.

Seating strategy is also important – you’re in a room with 300, 400, 500 other people? Figure out if you need to exit early (for a conference call or because you’re dubious on the content) — and sit closer to the door so you don’t feel like a horrible human being when you do get up to leave.  Do you need to take notes during the presentation and you’ve got a laptop? Look for carpet cutouts in the floor –– typically power outlets are stashed there (or sit along the walls).  Poor eyesight or you like to ask questions? Sit towards the front *or* near the mic stand.

Most conferences have some sort of expo or booth-laden enterprise where you go learn about new things and acquire swag. Don’t acquire swag to acquire swag. It’s more stuff to pack into your suitcase for dubious benefit. If you’re interested in the company or its offerings, grab your cell phone and take a picture of the business card or product info – doesn’t get lost, takes up no space, and you have all the information nearly instantly.

Finally — Conference WiFi (and any publicly available WiFi) is open — so remember to use a VPN to keep your electronic traffic safe. If you need super-reliable WiFi, don’t rely on conference WiFi — they can easily underestimate traffic — see if you can tether to your mobile or get a mobile card if it’s an absolute must.

Beijing Airport

If you’re going to be stuck in an airport longer than you expected, Beijing Terminal 3 isn’t all that bad.

I arrived 3 hours early courtesy of my reliance on the calendar set by corporate travel booking. It turns out when you have a 4pm flight, your corporate travel team books a calendar for 1pm, because they figure that’s when you need to be leaving your hotel to go to the airport. My jetlagged insomniac brain saw that my flight left at 1pm, and I got here (courtesy of no-traffic Saturday morning) at 9:30am. Oh well.

Air Canada (my carrier) would not let me check in until 1pm, so that meant I had some serious time on my hands before I could get to the gate. Fortunately, there’s a variety of eateries, gift shops, and services *before* security, so I’ve spent some time (and some yuan) while waiting. I cruised the gift shops, of which there are about 10 (of varying degree of price: there’s a Chinese Gold jewelry shop and there’s the local equivalent of a drugstore, and everything in between). These are the kind of airport gift shops where if you wanted to score a dust collector or a silk scarf or a set of chopsticks or a stuffed panda bear, you’re set.

If you go upstairs from the ticketing gates you will find not only a Burger King (no thank you), but also a tea house/massage service. You can get a foot massage, a back massage, and/or tea. I opted for all 3 (again, plenty of time to kill). With my complete lack of Mandarin I pointed to the English Words saying Foot Massage and was beckoned by a nice lady in a uniform down a hallway, another hallway, and into a wood paneled alcove. There we turned through a maze of a hallway past individual wood-paneled massage rooms, until we got to mine. I was beckoned to sit, and then I was brought a cup of sweet water. As part of the foot massage they soak your feet in hot water, and I do mean hot: it’s the kind of hot where you have to convince yourself they couldn’t possibly have expected you to put your feet in something that would scald you.

There I sat, while my feet turned an impressive shade of scarlet, and a man came in.

Oh, there’s another cultural shift.

For me, massage has usually meant women for women, and women/men for men. Or at least, I’d be asked. There was no asking here, but then again there was no nakedness (even for back massage). They drape a light towel across your neck and shoulders and go to town. If you have a knot when you walk in, you do not have a knot when you walk out. You can wince and gasp all you want, too. The nice man with the scorpion tattooed on the inside of his wrist does not care, and he will take care of it.

By this time I had a roommate, a nice lady who never got off her phone the entire time she was in the room. I figured I should suck it up for her benefit, too.

The foot massage part was even more robust; there were pain points and more pain points, and something that felt not unpleasantly like they were cracking your toe knuckles. I don’t know a better way to put it than that. After a while I gave up and got my phone out too; Sudoku and foot massage ftw.

Then I had tea.

They have a special tea here in Beijing, called Pu-er tea. It looks like black tea but is not as strong, and has purported healthful properties. As part of tea service they give you a little plate of sunflower seeds and plastic-wrapped biscuits, neither of which really interested me, and then they make the tea in front of you, leaving you with a tiny cup and a glass teapot to pour from. That’s where I’m at right now, typing away on the local free wifi, waiting for my airline to open.

Some other travel tips for you:

  • Local hotels will tell you it costs about 600Yuan to get from their hotel to the airport (especially if you’re in the “Silicon Valley” district). The cab is less than 200Yuan, but it’s cash only (they can give you a receipt).
  • Not all of the toilets are the standard Western variety. There’s a few squat-style ones, but they’re usually marked on the outside of the door so you can tell before venturing into the stall. This is true not only for the airport but for restaurants as well.
  • You get a better conversion rate if you use your credit card or cash, than if you use USD in the airport. Exchange rate in the airport gift shops is 6Yuan to 1USD, for cards and otherwise you get 6.2Yuan to 1USD. Best to get your Yuan stateside and come prepared.
  • Most restaurants will take credit cards, but small shops and smaller eateries will not. Also, not all US credit cards are accepted, and we had a devil of a time using our Corporate Amex in anything but our hotel and very large, established restaurants.
  • American branded food (e.g., Burger King, Hagen Daaz) is more expensive than local fare and way more expensive than back home. You’re in Beijing, you don’t need ice cream.
  • Almost everyone knows some basic (and I do mean basic) English: hello, this way, please, etc. However for the most part service staff know these words as symbols and are expecting a set of standard responses. For example, I was asked this morning, “Would you like some more coffee?” To which I replied, “Sure, I’d like a little more coffee.”  Because I didn’t say “yes” and instead used “sure”, and because I added “a little” in there, the look I received in response was nonplussed. I switched it to “yes” and that sorted things out. The service staff’s accent is usually very light for these practiced phrases, and you will be lulled into thinking you can have more robust conversations with them (e.g., “Do the biscuits have nuts?” never got a real response because I couldn’t make myself understood). (I didn’t eat the biscuits).
  • Most hotels can arrange a tour of the sights (which I did). However in retrospect if I had spent a little time planning (if I had had it) with a subway map and done some research on the sights, I could’ve easily seen it without going with my little group. I would not have got the educational bits from the tour guide, but I could have read those in advance, as well.
  • The air does indeed get smoggy. I was fortunate to come in after a rain so my first 3 days were gorgeous, clear, and blue. By the fifth day it looks like we’re in a cloud. Drinking tea helps the throat soreness you get from this.
  • If you love your toiletries – especially deodorant – bring them and do not count on buying them here. I ran low on deodorant while here and thought I’d just pick up another one to be covered (no pun intended) – good luck with that. The local 7-11 had toothpaste, etc. but no deodorant. A bing search for “Is there deodorant in China” will get you humorous and informative results.
  • Don’t eat the street food (at least, we were cautioned by our local friends not to do so). DO eat with an open mind. I have had several different kinds of critter and a variety of vegetables, and it was all great.
  • At the airport you need to fill out a little yellow and cream colored card, usually available on tables right before you walk up to customs and immigration. If you miss it and get all the way up to the person on the other end of the glass, they’ll send you back to get one and fill it out and then get back in line… which is usually long. So, read all of the signs and look for the little cards.
  • Once you’ve passed security (on your way out from Beijing) the shops are predominantly duty-free, and high-end souvenir. There are a few places to eat and, if you really want one, there is a Starbucks.

I have another post, in which I’ll go through my “tourist” day here in Beijing, but it’s now 1:10 and I can finally check in. Woo hoo!