12 Feb How to: make the most of business trips (a travel addict’s guide)
We’ve all been there – you hear a friend talking about their upcoming business trip to some foreign city or other, and feel a pang of envy before pronouncing the words, “You’re so lucky!”. But the truth of the matter – as anyone who’s ever travelled for work can confirm – is that business trips don’t tend to be anywhere near as fun as they sound.
To an outsider, a conference in Dubai may translate to “emailing from the beach” and a meeting in Paris might conjure images of a quick meeting over a croissant and a café au lait before an afternoon walk around the Louvre, but the reality is often very different.
A recent work trip to Brussels reminded me of all the reasons I love but also hate business travel.
I’m pretty into taking short city breaks (like my latest one to sunny Palermo) so the idea of only seeing a place from inside an office, or whizzing past the window as I travel by taxi from airport to hotel to meeting to hotel to airport again just makes me so unhappy.
“Free” flights, meals, and accommodation go some way to ease the resentment, but I still always feel like I need to make an extra effort to make the most of the places I go, getting a better feel for the place than the average business traveller might.
Here are my top ten top tips for making travelling for work that little bit better.
1. Understand expenses (and for heaven’s sake use them)
A few years ago, I travelled alone for work for the first time. I’d been on a few trips before, but always with my boss, so this was a novelty.
I was so terrified of racking up costs for the company and getting in trouble that I took precisely zero taxis – instead waiting in the cold for trains and buses and spending half my time on grubby public transport – booked the cheapest, crappest place to stay that I could find, and spent so little on my meals (one slice of plain focaccia, please!) that I was actually embarrassed to get reimbursed, and consequently threw away the receipts.
Yeah… don’t do that.
While having bowls of caviar for breakfast would be uncalled for (and also kinda gross), your company knows that you’re only away because of them and – guess what? – they have a budget for this kind of thing. If the journey to your meeting would take an hour and a half on public transport but 15 minutes in a taxi, allowing you a bit more time for a wander beforehand, take the flipping taxi. Pick somewhere comfortable to sleep, in a location which is convenient for you (see #7 for more on this), and find somewhere nice to have your meals – being well rested and well fed will also make you more productive, so steer clear of the Golden Arches and get yourself some nice local grub, and your company will be grateful too.
2. Treat mealtimes as your gateway to local culture
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but companies very rarely send their employees off on expensive work trips for a moment longer than necessary, and this means you’re not going to have as many opportunities to experience the local culture as you would have liked. This is not a holiday, sadly.
One thing you can do to get a better feel for the place is to tuck into some local delicacies at mealtimes. If you’re being taken out for lunch or dinner, ask your host if they can show you somewhere typical, local, and without tourists (they will definitely know somewhere). If you’re choosing for yourself, ask any local you can find (hotel receptionist, taxi driver, your contact in the local office) to recommend somewhere nearby with great food and a nice “local” feel. Be brave and ask the waiter what the typical dish is, then ask for that, whatever it might be.
3. Find out if anyone you know lives/works at your destination (and don’t write off acquaintances)
If you’re going to a relatively big city, it’s quite likely that somebody you know is currently living or working there.
Particularly if you’re going to be travelling alone, try writing a simple status on Facebook or LinkedIn (“I’ll be in [city] on [date] for work, anyone around?” will do the trick) and see who gets back to you. If you find out that a good friend will be there at the same time, super, enjoy your after work drink together! But if the only person who replies is someone you haven’t seen for years and feel a bit awkward about seeing, or someone you’ve only met once or twice, try to organise dinner or a drink with them anyway – they can probably take you somewhere you’d never have found otherwise, you might have a wonderful time, and if you don’t you’ll probably never have to see them again anyway
4. Be an early bird
Ok, I know that if you’ve got a nice comfy hotel bed to sleep in, you probably don’t want to get out of it at 6am, but trust me when I say that the early morning is your friend when you’re travelling for work.
You probably have to start meetings by 9 or 10am, and once your day starts, you usually have no guarantees when it will finish (maybe something urgent will come in via email, or maybe your host will rope you into a tour of their new office or an evening drink with the team) so it’s better to get your main touristing done before breakfast; that way, any extra time for wandering later in the day is a bonus, but if you don’t manage, it’s no big deal. So drag yourself out from under the covers, and have a nice sunrise walk (or even a run, if that’s what you’re into). Not only will you see some of the city, but you’ll be able to do so before all the tourists come out, and will feel fresh and invigorated by the time your morning meeting starts. It’s win-win.
Check out my pics from an extremely cold early morning walk in Brussels at the bottom of this post.
5. Pack light, and pack tactically
Repeat after me: I do not need to pack my entire wardrobe “just in case”.
As I’ve mentioned in point #4, you often don’t have a lot of control over what will happen over the course of your trip, so you may find yourself with free time when you didn’t expect it. If your bag is too heavy or bulky, you’ll be more inclined to stay where you are, or lose time going back to your hotel to drop it off.
Pack as light as you can, remember that backpacks are the least uncomfortable way to lug a heavy laptop around with you (you are travelling for work – stop caring about how nerdy you look), and trust me when I tell you that luggage size/weight is directly proportional to enjoyment of your trip.
6. Be strategic in organising your appointments
Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you’re not the one making the plans, but if the organisation is down to you, make it work to your advantage. If you need to dart around the city to meet different people anyway, plan the order and the timing of the meetings in a way that allows you to see some of the sights as you hop from one venue to another. If you have time to walk from one place to another instead of taking public transport or a taxi, do it – you won’t regret seeing a bit of the city on foot… especially if you’ve taken my advice and packed only the absolute necessities.
7. Consider your priorities
This is a super important one – before you go, think about what you want to get out of this trip (other than being a model employee and smashing all your presentations, obvs).
If you’re anything like me, the answer will be “to see as much of the city as possible”, but maybe there’s one particular museum or art exhibition you’re dying to visit, or perhaps the city you’re visiting has a buzzing nightlife scene that you’d love to check out. Whatever it is, make this priority your focus – 9 times out of 10, you will be able to find a way to do what you want to, even though it might involve sacrifices like getting up at the crack of dawn, skipping lunch in favour of whizzing around a museum, or being extremely tired the next day after a night on the tiles. If you’re able to choose where to stay, pick somewhere in the middle of where you need to go for work, and whatever else you want to see/do – that way, you have a better chance of squeezing more in to your trip.
8. Do a bit of homework before you go
Take the time to find out a bit about the neighbourhood where you’re staying, the area around your meeting points, and other must-see parts of the city. Plan a few routes on Google Maps (on foot, in a taxi, or on public transport) so you know how to get anywhere you’d want to (and back) if a window of free time should crop up, and have a list of restaurants and cafés ready to go (it’ll take you 10 minutes of blog browsing, don’t be lazy).
Also, make sure to find out if there are any no-go areas around you – wandering aimlessly is all well and good, but don’t walk right into a dangerous area in a city you aren’t familiar with, if you can avoid it.
9. Make sure to get some me-time
Maybe you have a packed meeting schedule, maybe you have a clingy co-worker who won’t leave you in peace, or maybe you just have a lot of phonecalls to make in order to stay connected to the office back home. Remember, however, that although you are travelling for work, this does not mean you are obliged to be working 24 hours a day.
When your daily duties are done, don’t feel the need to stay glued to your computer or work phone all night, especially if you’d never dream of doing so back home. Instead, disconnect, go out for an evening wander, or a nice drink (minus clingy co-worker, if possible), hit the hotel gym, or simply have a nice bath in that hotel room of yours. Whatever the activity, make sure you allow yourself to relax and not think about your job, at least for a couple of hours a day.
10. Keep your expectations in check
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is not a holiday. While it can be fun to imagine all the incredible sightseeing you’ll be able to squeeze in to your trip, realistically you aren’t going to manage most of the things you’d like to. Go into this with plenty of planning but absolutely no expectations – that way, if you end up holed up in an office totally indistinguishable from your own for the entire trip, you’ll feel indifferent, and if you do manage an hour’s wander before breakfast, or a whole afternoon of museums and galleries, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.
Whatever you do, enjoy the experience, and be sure to make a mental note about how you can make the next time that little bit better.
I’ll leave you with a couple of snaps from those early bird walks around the beautiful city centre of Brussels – 100% worth the frozen fingers and the sleep deprivation.