- SMARTMONEY MAGAZINE
- SEPTEMBER 16, 2011, 5:51 P.M. ET
Business Travel Tips From a Road Warrior
Radio-free rental cars. No room service. After traveling in good times and bad, our writer shares her tips — and horror stories.
You have to admit, traveling on the company dime has its perks. On one California trip, I found myself in one of the biggest hotel rooms in Sacramento, a sprawling suite overlooking a koi pond, complete with two bathrooms, a wet bar and an Apprentice-style boardroom table for 12. I was recuperating from a long day of meetings, lounging in the plush hotel-issued robe and waiting for my indulgent dinner to arrive. But when the knock finally came, it wasn’t room service carrying a silver-domed steak or lobster tail. Nope — it was the trusty Domino’s guy.
With summer tans long faded, corporate travelers are in the midst of that old fall ritual: the business trip. This year, though, their return is more than business as usual. While experts are still assessing the impact of the recent economic and market news, millions of wheelie-bag toters are booking trips to Cleveland, Detroit and a host of other glamorous destinations. Business travel spending was up in the first half of 2011 and is still projected to rise 7 percent for the year, according to the Global Business Travel Association — not that that’s any consolation when you’re stuck on the tarmac.
After all, does anything ever go smoothly with business travel? Take flying: So far this year, 20 percent of flights operated by the major U.S. airlines arrived behind schedule. But that’s just a minor inconvenience; the same carriers also managed to leave 1,598 planes sitting on the tarmac for two hours or more and received 979,000 mishandled luggage reports. And that’s all before the car-rental company tries to stick you with a minivan or you discover that your hotel room’s not ready for check-in. Then there’s the pressure to travel on the cheap; in a recent survey of business travelers by online travel agency Orbitz for Business, 70 percent reported feeling obligated or “extremely obligated” to save their company money while on the road.
The Cost of Business Travel
(Average, Q1 2011)
- Domestic Airfare: $247
- International Airfare: $1,866
- Domestic Hotel Rate: $150
- International Hotel Rate: $238
Source: American express global business travel
In my case, the Cheesy Bread supper had less to do with saving my boss money and more to do with the fact that the hotel’s room service had shut down for the night at 10 p.m., which, of course, is just when many corporate travelers are arriving. Sit down with any veteran road warrior and you’ll get an earful of travel-disaster tales that will make you laugh — or, if you’re booked on the next flight out, perhaps cry. Working as a travel reporter for this magazine for the past five years has put me squarely within their ranks. By my estimate, I’ve logged about 120 hours queuing up at airports and nearly three days waiting to check in to hotels or pick up rental cars, all in the line of duty. Along the way, I’ve racked up my share of stories — from white-knuckle flights on bathroom-free airplanes to hotels where I seemed to be the only guest over 4 feet tall. (Steer clear of youth hockey tournaments — you’ll thank me.) Ideally, we learn from our mistakes, and with business travel on its way back, I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything my fellow travelers can learn from mine.
Cars? What Cars?
A line is never a good sign — especially when it’s composed of haggard-looking travelers with expressions ranging from “mildly annoyed” to “I will cut you.” But that was the sight that met me when I arrived at the rental-car desk at Los Angeles International Airport, fresh off a cross-country flight. It didn’t take long for the Kafkaesque explanation to make its way, telephone style, back to the end of the queue: The company — the car-rental company, that is — had no cars to rent.
And so, even though I’d made my reservation days earlier, I took a seat on my suitcase and waited. And waited. When, nearly two hours later, an agent finally called my name, I peeled out of the parking lot, rushing to get the precious car onto the freeway before they somehow changed their minds. That’s probably why I didn’t immediately notice that the car had no functioning interior lights (great for reading directions!) and that there was nothing but a sad plastic panel where the radio should have been. Related note: Driving with your iPod headphones on is illegal. Who knew?
Corporate travelers who haven’t been racking up the miles lately might be surprised by how much business travel has changed. Below, a look at a few of the biggest shifts.
With many cities facing budget gaps, travelers are shouldering increasingly hefty tax bills — an average of $70 per three-day trip. In Chicago, the tax on a $55 car rental is now nearly $14, while New York City visitors pay an extra $26 a night on a $150 hotel room.
The app explosion is (literally) putting the power back in road warriors’ hands. Hotel Tonight, for one, allows travelers to book at the last minute — for up to 70 per-cent off. TripIt, which compiles itineraries, maps and more, lets users share those details with fellow travelers or bosses.
Eco-travel is trading tie-dye for pinstripe; one survey found that 28 percent of corporate travel departments now report on carbon emissions. And some Starwood hotels give travelers gift certificates or loyalty points for every night they opt out of housecleaning.
Loathe lines? Hotel brand Aloft is testing a radio-frequency chip that turns guests’ loyalty-program cards into virtual keys. The hotel texts travelers their room number so they can skip the front desk.
In the world of car rentals, it pays to attach some mental air quotes to the word reservation. In fact, rental-car companies are often caught off guard when everyone who has reserved a vehicle actually shows up. That’s because, unlike airlines or hotels, which penalize people for blowing them off, rental companies don’t charge for no-shows, says Michael Kane, president of car-industry consultancy VRCG. And because some travelers make multiple reservations, companies often play a little loose with the number of cars they have available at any given time. It doesn’t help that agencies dramatically cut fleets during the recession; Abrams Consulting Group, which specializes in the car-rental industry, estimates that the number of available rentals has shrunk about 25 percent since 2006. As a result, says Kane, “they don’t have a lot of cars lying around right now.”
Is there a solution? Check your wallet. While struggling airlines and hotel companies have been chipping away at their loyalty programs (think fees to redeem rewards and swelling blackout periods), car-rental companies have largely left theirs intact. Even people without a zillion rentals under their belts can take advantage of perks like skipping the check-in line, and just the act of sticking with a single company should help bump you ahead of less-frequent renters when the pickings get slim. “They know where their bread is buttered,” says Kane.
Nickel-and-Dime Me, Please
Nothing works vacationers into a frenzy of rage faster than mentioning the airlines — and, specifically, the extra charges they’ve tacked on for everything from bags to pillows. But here’s a dirty little secret: Some of those add-ons are this business traveler’s best friend. After all, when I’m booking a trip, my corporate travel system will approve only the most fiscally responsible travel options — often prodding me to sign on for 5 a.m. departures or three-hour layovers, and always, it goes without saying, in coach. But once I’ve left the office, I’m free of the tyranny of the travel overlords. None of those midtrip purchases need preapprovals and, these days, a little plastic can go a long way. After all, on a single flight you can buy not only a better seat ($35) but also a decent meal ($8), Wi-Fi ($13) and a movie ($6). The corporate card still can’t control everything — if only you could buy an on-time arrival! — but in today’s world of air-travel torture, every little bit helps.
I doubt I’m the only traveler feeling the effects of the corporate travel crackdown. In a recent study by Expedia’s corporate travel service, Egencia, nearly half of North American firms said they were enforcing their travel policies more rigorously, while a survey Egencia conducted with the National Business Travel Association reports only 9 percent of firms that have revised their travel policies in the past two years now let travelers upgrade to first or business class on domestic flights. Sound familiar? Well, cheer up — it could be worse: You could be one of the 10 percent of corporate travelers who recently told Orbitz for Business that they’ve shared (or were encouraged to share) a hotel room on a work trip.
Analysts say companies, already coping with rising airfares, would like to bundle those extra fees into the bulk deals they negotiate with the airlines but that, so far, they haven’t had much luck. While a few corporations have told their employees exactly which fees they will and won’t cover, most are still sorting out how to cope with these charges, says Joel Wartgow, senior director at travel-management firm Carlson Wagonlit Travel, often leaving travelers to make the call. One of the most popular perks is Wi-Fi, and there, at least, we have some good news: In-flight Internet might be one of the few areas where extra costs are actually falling. According to research company In-Stat, airline wireless fees are projected to drop 24 percent by 2014.
Glamour and PowerPoint Make Strange Bedfellows
After years of staying in places whose idea of style is paisley carpet and sailboat paintings, I was thrilled when my company agreed to put me up in Los Angeles’s flashy Mondrian hotel. Sure enough, you do get starstruck by the beautiful people lounging in the lobby and the all-white room that looks like a particularly glamorous psych ward. But it didn’t take long for my practical side to start poking holes in the hotel’s glossy facade. First, it took ages to check in, with no DIY kiosk to be seen. Then, just getting my rental car out of valet parking was a half-hour ordeal. The final straw: The riotous late-night crowds at Skybar, the hotel’s trendy open-air bar, located directly outside my window. (Mondrian declined to comment on my stay, saying the property has since “relaunched.”)
There’s a reason those boring midpriced hotels did so well in the downturn. Sure, they’re cheaper, but it’s more than that. While trendier properties were still trying to woo travelers with their swanky bars and restaurants — none of which were getting much play on postcrash expense reports — more-basic hotels were doling out road warrior essentials like free Wi-Fi and breakfast. What’s more, experts say, during the boom years, some boutique hotels earned a reputation for prioritizing cool furniture and comely staff over traveler convenience, driving many business folks into the beds of more practical competitors.
But thanks to a lodging market that’s still lagging behind other aspects of the travel industry, even the most cutting-edge hotels are now catering to the suits. No hotel can survive without weekday (read: business) guests, says Jan Freitag, VP of global development for hotel-research company STR, forcing even the coolest properties to realize that “you have to be functional.” Indeed, a handful of new “lifestyle” hotels, including brands from the Virgin empire and from boutique-hotel godfather Ian Schrager, are specifically targeting no-nonsense road warriors with amenities like gratis Wi-Fi, 24-hour business centers, and laptop- and iPad-lending programs.
Alas, that all comes too late to save my stay at the Mondrian. After a night of Skybar-fueled nightmares, I checked out and moved into a nearby DoubleTree. Beige wallpaper never looked so good.