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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

4 Tough Calls of Business Travel (and How to Handle Them)

The idea of traveling for work always seemed glamorous to me (room service in bed, meetings by the pool, filet mignon on the company dime)—until I was stuck inside a Las Vegas convention center for six days earlier this year.

Responsible for covering a photography convention for the magazine I work for, I quickly learned there are intricacies to business travel that I didn’t consider: The nights were late, the mornings early; the eating was done quickly (usually unhealthily), and the alcohol was plentiful. Plus, with co-workers and clients all wanting to party at the end of the day, alone time was nil.

There are also the issues of sharing a room with a co-worker (or diplomatically refusing to), car rental politics, and how to politely tell a client, “No, I would not like to join you for a tequila shot.”

So, I pulled together some of the lessons I learned from my last few business trips and asked some of my most frequent traveling-for-work friends how they handle the tough calls of business travel.

Tough Call #1: Who Drives?

Assuming you’re traveling in a group, there can be awkwardness in figuring out who rents a car—and drives and assumes responsibility for said car. Should your boss drive? Should you drive so your boss can relax or answer emails? Should whoever is most used to maneuvering a minivan take the wheel?

This may depend on your position. As an account director in advertising, Amy Marinelli considers it her job description is to be “team mom, babysitter, problem solver, and travel planner.” Therefore, she handles all work travel, and driving is part of that role. “I typically assume it is my job to rent the car and figure out directions—otherwise, it doesn't get done,” she says.

If there isn’t one person assigned to drive the rental car, creative design director Alison Matheny says, “It usually depends on who needs it the most, like if one person has a bunch of client meetings, or if one person arrives before everyone else, they usually sign for it.”

In my experience, there’s usually one person who feels the most comfortable behind the wheel, so if all else fails, he or she becomes the driver. Be honest with colleagues and don’t take the driver’s seat if you’re not comfortable weaving through city streets.

Tough Call #2: The Rules of Sharing a Room

Most employers are respectful of privacy, and it’s unusual for them to require you to share a room. But, on the off-chance of budget or room shortages, make sure you pick the colleague with whom you’re closest (or at the very least, most comfortable with).

Then, re-visit your camp days and tough it out: Change in the bathroom to the extent that’s possible (even if you’re comfortable with your own nudity, don’t assume your roommate is). Be respectful, and leave when your colleague needs to change. If snoring is an issue, download a white noise app (I like Sleepy Sounds).

Also, “if it’s more than a day or two of your sharing a room, try not to spend the entire time [on your trip] together as well,” says special events manager Moneer Masih-Tehrani, who has logged Chicago, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City on her business travel list this year. “Even if you don’t know it, you need space and your personal time.”

All this said, keep an open mind and remember that sharing a room can provide surprising benefits.

“There was a room shortage at business conference I attended in ‎Kyrgyzstan, and I ended up sharing a room with a woman from Cyprus who I didn’t even know,” says Kristin Meyer, a study director at UCLA. After working out the shower-and-get-ready schedule, Meyer says, “I ended up having a great week with her. It was a surprising circumstance, but it paid off because she had been to this conference and was an established academic; she made it a point to take me under her wing and introduce me to people there.”

Tough Call #3: Calling it a Night (When Everyone Wants to Drink) 

Sure, sometimes it’s fun to hit the bar after work or an event with your co-workers or clients. But, especially when you’re spending multiple nights with the same people (and trying to get work done on the trip), it can be more fun to hang out in your king-sized hotel bed by yourself.

I’m the queen of being the first one to go to bed: I just wave everyone a quick goodbye—or in the toughest cases, make an Irish exit and text a co-worker to let him or her know I’ve headed to bed. If I need to take a cab by myself, so be it.

But when a client wants to stay out and drink, as Marinelli says, it gets a little trickier: “Finding that balance of being a fun agency person, but also drawing that line of not getting drunk with clients (even if they are and want you to be) can be a challenge,” she says. “Let's just say I've had to drive around hung-over clients and pull over so they didn't throw up in my car. Luckily, I didn't stay out late the night before like they did, but it also limits some of your ‘bonding’ time.”

As much as she hates to do it, Marinelli says that, “sometimes you have to just be the wet blanket and say you're tired or have work to do. If they're drinking, they'll quickly forget.” Plus, you are there because, well, you have work to do.

There’s also no shame in asking the bartender for a faux cocktail, or secretly dumping out a shot when the client isn’t looking (guilty).


Tough Call #4: What Do You Eat?

Let’s just say that business travel is about as unhealthy as eating gets: Think breakfast buffets, fast-food lunches on the go, and afternoon cookies and snacks that seem like a good idea at the time, but are easy to regret.

Before I left for my Las Vegas trip, my editorial director told me to bring a bag of apples from home. As an afterthought, I brought three, and I was so thankful to have them on the afternoons when I didn’t feel like another free pastry or cookie. Meyer does the same, and also packs granola, protein bars, and an empty water bottle, “so I’m not tempted to buy crap in the airport,” she says.

“The main thing I try to pay attention to is staying hydrated,” says Matheny. And, if per diem allows, “I'm a sucker for ordering room service breakfast (or at least coffee) the night before to have delivered the next morning.” In addition to having greater control over what she eats, it’s a perk she definitely doesn’t get at home.

While you may not think you’ll have time for a workout, “if you can squeeze a morning run in there, that helps me, too,” Matheny says. Most hotels have small gyms, so at the very least, bring your tennis shoes and a sports bra. Even if it’s just 20 minutes, it makes a world of difference when you’re body is stiff from inactivity or being stuck in a car or plane for hours.

While there are plenty of other business travel rules to follow (pack lightly so you don’t have to check a bag, know—and stick to—the per diem you’re allotted), knowing about these tough calls in advance will prepare you for anything. If you do it right, work travel can make for some great adventures. What are yours?

Photo of professionals traveling courtesy of Shutterstock.