Business Travel: Planning to Go

Preparing to hit the road probably constitutes the biggest aggravation of most business trips. Even when the journey doesn’t cross national borders, travelers face a welter of details – enough to render the whole experience a nightmare.

Industry experts say the secret to smooth travel is to allow ample time before departure to plan for last minute details and unexpected loose ends. Whether turning to the pros or opting for a do-it-yourself approach, an organized strategy can make the task a whole lot easier.

Travel Arrangements: The Right Agent

The Internet offers many services once available only to travel professionals. Even so, some business owners may find themselves regretting they didn’t hire a travel agent. The time needed for booking flights and hotels can interfere with other preparations – and airlines, hotel, and itinerary glitches may take time from needed business functions and build frustration, undermining the ability to focus on business.

Agents do charge a commission. On the other hand, they have the capacity to cater to specific needs and preferences, offer money-saving deals beyond what’s available via the Internet, and are a blessing in emergencies. For companies with employees, an agent also can guarantee that personnel stick to the business’s travel policies.

To find an agent, do a quick Internet search or ask friends, family, and colleagues who they’ve dealt with successfully.

Once you’ve identified some likely prospects, use these guidelines to make your final choice:

  • Deal only with properly credentialed agents, preferably members of the American Society of Travel Advisors (http://www.asta.org/), which enrolls travel professionals around the world. Another source for qualified personnel, the Association of Retail Travel Agents or ARTA (http://www.arta.travel/), represents small and independent travel agents nationwide. For a fast search, The TravelSense (http://www.travelsense.org) “Find a Travel Agent” tool allows users to search for agents with experience specific to your needs.
  • When interviewing agents, ask how long they have been in business, with five years of experience or more being desirable. Also inquire about:
    • Qualifications. The Travel Institute (http://www.thetravelinstitute.com) offers the most prestigious training programs in the industry. The highest certification for an agent is Certified Travel Counselor, a designation requiring five years of full-time travel industry experience and the completion of 12 courses. Other certificates are Certified Travel Associate and Certified Travel Industry Executive. These credentials demonstrate, in-depth industry knowledge and dedication.
    • Booking fees. The agent should be forthcoming about general rates and fees for special services, such as ticket delivery. Stay away from candidates who evade these issues.
    • Specialties. Some agents deal primarily with group travel, while others focus on individual travelers.
    • Availability. An agent should be able to offer on-call round-the-clock emergency assistance.
    • Deals. Top-notch travel agents typically find ways to save money for regular clients, such as preferred supplier arrangements in the hospitality and airline industries.
  • A good travel agent always puts client needs before sales. During the interview, he or she should inquire about your individual style, preferences, and travel habits with the intention of establishing a relationship. If this doesn’t happen, move on to the next prospect.
  • Check your own comfort level. You’ll likely get better service from an agent when you both “click.”
  • When your candidate works out of a larger agency, note how the other agents are treating their clients. If they are pushing people through too quickly, this is a red flag. The same could happen to you.
  • When you make your final decision, never sign a contract until you have thoroughly reviewed the paperwork.

“Do-It-Yourself” Travel the Easy Way

While travel agents can be worth the investment, some business owners prefer to make their own arrangements. Aside from the time commitment, using the Internet makes the task eminently doable. Sites such as Kayak (http://www.kayak.com) can search hundreds of travel websites for the best deals in airfare, lodging, etc., with a few taps of the mouse and keyboard.

That said, travel industry experts do suggest some strategies targeting reservations, expenses, safety, and other business-travel related issues:

  • When making airline, hotel, and car rental arrangements, investigate companies that offer special deals to business owners. Remember – not all travel-oriented businesses advertise savings, so it’s always smart to ask.
  • Run online price comparisons using websites such as Travelocity (https://www.travelocity.com), Expedia (http://www.expedia.com/) and Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com/).These allow price comparisons on airlines, hotels, and rental cars, often at rates better than the providers advertise.
  • Check organizations such as AARP (http://www.aarp.org/) for member travel discounts, as well as various auto clubs like AAA (http://www.aaa.com/), which can also help with itineraries.
  • When booking air travel, make sure you allow adequate time in between connecting flights. An hour at minimum is usually sufficient, but you may want to build in a little extra time to cover delayed departures or arrivals.
  • For travel in the United States, check with the destination cities’ chambers of commerce and convention/visitor’s bureaus for recommendations regarding meeting facilities, lodging, restaurants, and professional networking opportunities.
  • The Global Business Travel Association (http://www.gbta.org/) advises owners to set and enforce company-wide travel policies; makes finding and booking travel quick and easy for employees; aggregates purchasing of travel and related services in order to get the best value; and centralizes information on all traveling employees to facilitate rapid response to internal or external crises.
  • Set up a destination list, complete with places you plan to visit. This might include the hotel, convention center, restaurants, etc. Then, enter the address, contact information, website and map for each place.

Change Voicemail and Email: Electronic Update Messages Mean Happy Clients

Extensive travel can mean lost phone messages, ignored emails, and missed opportunities. The trick for avoiding potential catastrophe is simple. Small-business owners must notify clients and customers of their pending absence - by telephone, email, or short written correspondences - at least seven days prior to departure.

Office productivity programs frequently include email management features such as automatic response, an effective way for a computer to shoot back a reply once the owner is out of the office. And virtually all land-line and cellular phone providers offer user options regarding greeting, messaging, call forwarding, and other functions. Here are additional tips to help avoid frustrated clients and staff:

  • Always record a voicemail message detailing departure/return dates, other personnel available for assistance and alternative means, such as email, to contact you.
  • Designate a key staffer to take client calls and to troubleshoot, as well as to act as an employee resource. Both clients and personnel should have access to critical information during your absence.
  • Coordinate a set schedule of conference call times to ensure all staff members are on hand for updates from the road.
  • Don’t forget your cellphone – the best tool for on-the-road availability. Wireless functions include calling, secure emailing, text messaging, instant messaging, voicemail and Internet connectivity, so there’s no excuse to be out of touch. A notebook or laptop with Internet capability works well, too, particularly with installed voice and video chat software. Apps such as Google Hangouts, Skype, and other popular programs typically are free of charge.

Checklists: Before Departure

Cancelled and delayed flights can strand even the most organized business travelers in airports or strange cities – minus critical electronic files. To forestall these headaches, put together a checklist in the 24-hour period prior to departure. This process may take a bit of time initially, but once the basic format is in place, travelers can return to these “to-do” forms again and again.

The following suggestions will serve as a starting point:

  • Personal luggage: Try to get everything into one carry-on bag to avoid lost bags, additional charges for checked items, and long waits in baggage claim. Make sure to follow TSA regulations regarding carry-on items, too. With security measures that may include pat-downs and AIT screenings, improper packing will add to potential delays.
  • Liquids and gels: U.S. Transportation Security Administration regulations mandate that carry-on liquids and gels be in containers no larger than a 3.4-ounce (100ml) bottle or less by volume, in one clear, quart sized, plastic zip-top bag. Medications, baby formula, baby food, and breast milk (for working moms toting children) are allowed in reasonable quantities exceeding three ounces and do not require placement in zip-top bags. Declare these items for inspection at the checkpoint. Larger containers that are half-full or rolled-up toothpaste tubes are not allowed, nor are gallon-size bags or containers that are not zip-top.

Be stringent about packing liquids and carry-ons properly. These regulations are constantly changing, so visit http://www.tsa.gov for updates.

  • Hazardous items. The TSA has a lengthy list of materials prohibited in carry-on bags, checked luggage, or both. These include most aerosols, gasoline, liquid bleach, and dozens of others. Check the TSA site for more information
  • Personal items: Include duplicates of sleepwear and toiletries, and pack easy-care, basic clothing to mix and match. Pack non-liquid prescription medications in their original bottles in a carry-on bag.
  • Briefcase: Include a travel folder for files, presentation materials, travel itineraries, and other business must-haves. Pack extra notebooks, pens, and business cards. A large envelope or zippered pouch for receipts and expense forms is a good idea, too.
  • Computer: Pack an adaptor, extra CDs, a flash drive or memory stick, and external back up devices. Include a note card with emergency repair numbers or websites.
  • Remote PC Account. Software such as GoToMyPC (http://www.gotomypc.com/remote_access/remote_access), allows users to securely access an office computer from almost any location via the Internet in a matter of seconds. Remote PC solutions can cost as little as $10 a month and provide an invaluable safety net. Make sure to keep a copy of your Remote PC address and password on hand.
  • Cellphone: Travelers should carry a portable battery pack or charger. Since the lifespan of a battery generally runs anywhere from one to three days, having this backup is extremely important on long-distance travel. Other ways to maximize battery power is to fully charge and discharge the unit at least once every two weeks. Also, do not leave the battery in a charger more than 24 hours as this might result in shortened lifespan.
  • Wallet: Carry separate credit cards for business and personal purchases. Instead of large cash sums, opt for traveler’s checks or use an ATM card at your destination.
  • Air travel: Before heading for the airport, hit the Internet to check for flight changes or cancellations. Most airports host sites that offer this information in real time. For electronic purchases of domestic flights, airlines typically allow passengers to print their boarding passes within 24 hours before departure. Once again, check with individual carriers for changes in check-in times and baggage requirements; and always allow extra time for security procedures.
  • Airport Security: If you regularly fly you may want to look into the TSA Pre✓®. This expedited security screening program allows you to undergo a background check and gain a Known Traveler Number (KTN) that can be inputted at the time of an airline ticket purchase and when you arrive at the airport receive the expedited screening which usually does not require Pre-Check participants to remove shoes, jewelry, belts, and computers. This status does have a nominal fee associated with it, but lasts for 5 years once issued.
  • Rental cars: Investigate dealerships located off airport property. Usually, these are less expensive and within a short cab or shuttle ride. Take advantage of coupons and special offers, too.

Travel Insurance

Many standard insurance policies cover losses and thefts that occur on the road, but business owners who travel extensively - both in the U.S. and abroad - may find additional insurance useful and comforting. Travel plans typically cover:

  • Trip cancellation. This type of plan covers non-refundable travel expenses, such as airfare, when a family or medical emergency forces you to put a trip on hold. This insurance product carries a lot of exclusions and conditions, so may be worth the cost only for long-distance trips.
  • Baggage loss/theft. These policies reimburse the cost of lost, stolen, or damaged luggage. Policies differ in valuation protocols and may vary according to the circumstances of loss, damage, or theft. Proof of ownership (such as purchase receipts or photos) is standard in the claims process, and reimbursement time can vary.
  • Emergency/accidental medical. Of all the travel insurance products available, this probably is the best purchase. When a medical emergency occurs, these policies pay directly to you or provide reimbursement later. There are exclusions, however, such as pre-existing conditions; and for U.S. travel, your health insurance plan may adequately cover you.

Some business insurance plans also provide protection for:

  • Business equipment. Coverage includes computers, hardware, product samples, and other items critical to a business trip.
  • Money. Various policies cover large cash amounts against loss or theft.
  • Loss of income. Business travel policies may supplement disability insurance should a medical emergency happen on the road.
  • Personnel. Some plans pay the cost of sending a substitute employee to complete a trip when the insured suffers a medical mishap during travel.

While travel insurance can be useful, it’s not for every business owner. Check with your agent for more information on how these products can benefit you.