Business travel tends to sounds glamorous to outsiders. Yet the reality is often anything but – once you get past the initial adrenaline rush when you represent your company on the road. And the logistics can be overwhelming, especially for first-timers. Let me walk you through the basics of becoming a road warrior, one corporate trip at a time.
In Part 1, we’ll tackle trip planning and booking. Allons-y!
Credit Cards: The Currency of the Road
Don’t have a credit card? For most travel situations, the lack of a credit card is a dealbreaker. There’s a lot of risk in travel, and providers cover their butts by requiring the use of credit cards rather than debit cards for almost all hotel and rental car bookings. Even if you bring cash, you’d be turned away as these vendors need the extra protection the credit card provides if you trash the room or the car and incur additional charges. I’ve seen more than one coworker have to turn down a great opportunity just because they had no credit card.
So what can be done?
Option 1: Get a corporate credit card.
This process can take anywhere from a week to a month, so do it well in advance of your first anticipated travel. Not all companies provide corporate travel cards, either – and not all credit cards are created equal.
Personal Responsibility corporate cards are really just a way to make itemizing your expense reports a little easier. You will be directly responsible for sending the check to the credit card company each month – even if your company hasn’t reimbursed you yet. In my early career at EA, after longer trips I’d literally have to stand in Accounts Payable and refuse to leave until they cut me a check with which I could afford to pay the travel expenses incurred after multiple-week trips.
In other cases, the company credit card will be paid directly by your company, but you won’t be off the hook for submitting expenses. Also, if any of those expenses turn out to be personal and not travel expenses (theme park tickets, clothing, etc.) you may have to pay your employer back.
Either way, make sure you know who’s responsible for paying your corporate card balances, and what qualifies as personal charges.
Option 2: Get your own credit card.
I won’t go into the pluses or minuses, but my preferred travel credit card is Chase Sapphire Reserve (or Preferred, similar benefits). Bonus points on travel and dining, which makes it great for business trips, and I keep all those points – so my business travel is helping me pay for my vacations. Plus lots of great perks, not least of which is zero transaction fees on transactions in foreign currencies. (For contrast, my other bank credit cards will charge a 3% fee for every foreign currency transaction.) There are lots of other travel-related perks too, like reimbursement for lost luggage expenses and trip interruption coverage.
Renting a car on a business trip is fairly straightforward UNLESS you’re under the age of 25. Most agencies will not rent to people 24 or under unless they are traveling with a company who has a standing contract with the rental company. This is how I was able to rent cars from Hertz when I was just out of school doing business travel for EA. As an underage driver, it’s doubly important to make sure you’re booking through your company.
For the rest of us, booking through your company will probably mean that you waive all additional coverage at the counter (CDW, etc) – your company’s probably covered by their contract with the rental car agency OR their own private insurer. That doesn’t mean the rental company won’t be happy to double charge you, so make sure you review your company’s rental insurance policies before heading to the counter.
Frequent Flier Life
If you’re booking flights without a frequent flier number, you’re generally leaving money on the table. The good news is that all frequent flier programs are free to join. The trick is choosing which ones to use.
For example, I have both a Delta SkyMiles account and an Alaska Airlines account. But Alaska flies to more of the places I choose to go in my free time, and covers all of the business routes I need domestically, so I choose to earn miles for Alaska most of the time. And Alaska has treated me very well as an MVP member (plus they’re winning a lot of awards these days, and their inflight wine is now surprisingly good…)
If I were a *frequent* international flier, I’d consider switching to Delta as they have more robust benefits overseas thanks to their Skyteam alliance membership. But for airlines that aren’t partners with either of those two (Virgin, for example) I’ll still join their program the first time I fly with them. You never know where your next trip will take you.
Perks don’t tend to start showing up until you’ve earned around 25,000 miles in a calendar year with a single program. Once you start earning perks, it’s easier to keep the momentum going. Those low-level (silver) benefits on most airlines include early access to seats in the exit rows and near the front of the plane, free checked bags, and early (but not earliest) boarding.
Don’t forget, most hotel chains have frequent traveler programs too, and most come with free perks like Wi-Fi and newspaper delivery. A few seconds up front can make a big difference on your trip. I don’t join every hotel program, though – just the ones with significant free perks on the day of the stay, or hotels I stay at monthly.
TSA Pre-Check is like going back in time to 1996. Leave everything in your bag, including your toiletry baggie, laptop, etc. Don’t remove shoes. It’s very nice, and it’s a must IF you travel frequently OR if you travel infrequently but often cut your airport arrivals too close to call.
You can either buy into the pre-check program directly (at a cost of about $80 for 5 years) OR you can join a more expansive Trusted Traveler program for more benefits including Pre-Check. I signed my husband and myself up for Global Entry. $100 for 5 years of Pre-Check plus expedited customs processing on any air or land entry into the United States. Easily some of the best money I’ve spent.
Note that the fee is an application fee, and you CAN get rejected (though I have met no one who was declined, not even a few people with a few criminal incidents) – plus the process for the bigger programs like Global Entry will take 4-6 weeks.
Once approved, and once your fingerprints, etc. are taken, you’ll be given a Trusted Traveler number. You MUST enter this each time you fly, either at purchase or check-in, to get the Pre-Check clearance on your ticket. The TSA reserves the right to send you back into standard screening at any time, but it’s rare. More likely is that you’ll encounter airports where the Pre-Check lane is closed due to low volume, but at least then the bigger lane won’t usually take more than 15 minutes. Sometimes they’ll let Pre-Check folks keep their shoes on even if the proper lane is closed; it’s very confusing.
(Some frequent fliers get Pre-Check through their airline, but this is also not guaranteed, and only works on the airlines where you have status unless you’ve formally enrolled in the Pre-Check program elsewhere.)
Every company’s corporate travel culture is different. Will you be sharing a room? (unlikely, but possible). Do your coworkers prefer to travel on the same flight? Sit near each other? In some cases, companies forbid more than 4-5 people to take the same flight as a form of risk management. It’s also important to understand your per diem, or what you’re generally allowed to spend per day on food and other incidentals.
If Heading Abroad
Know your destination’s visa policy. Bring introduction letters if needed. Make sure you have cash in the correct denomination for a visa if you don’t have one yet (assuming said country issues visas at the border, not all do.) Business travel without a visa is risky.
Most large companies have contracted with emergency traveler services providers – have their quick reference card handy, usually available on your corporate Intranet.
Some companies, like Microsoft, will extend their insurance coverage on business travelers for a few days (or longer) after business has ended, which is a great benefit if, for example, you’re staying in Africa for a few days to go on safari. Emergencies in other countries are expensive, and having that support goes a long way should things go wrong. Try not to overstay that extra insurance unless you have a backup plan in place.
If you’re a US traveler, register for the SMART program for live updates about conditions for US citizens in your destination. While in Kenya we got updates about changes to the policy for carrying passports – we would have not have known without the update. And register with your company’s security team if they track international travelers, especially in high-risk countries.
The larger your employer, the more ridiculous their online booking tool is likely to be. Most large companies force you to use an intermediate tool (like Carlson Wagonlit in my case) in order to enforce corporate travel spending policies on airfare and hotels. If you too must suffer through these tools, my condolences. They will always be worse than booking directly, and that’s saying something in most cases. It’ll also usually mean all changes must be made by phone, and strangely I often have no way to provide the agency with discount codes I’m entitled to use as a mailing list subscriber for several of these airlines. There aren’t many tips for getting around these systems – just pay close attention, use the right browser, and MAKE SURE YOU FINISH BOOKING as many tools make it easy to accidentally stop short of getting things done.
Part 2 will focus on the actual travel experience – packing, airports, hotel safety, and travel disruptions. Until then, happy planning!