I was 31 years old when I started traveling for a living. I had just taken a promotion to be a Regional Training Manager with Cricket Wireless, and I was supposed to be covering a fairly small territory of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. I had a very young family—my son was barely two, and my daughter was not yet born—and although the travel would be tough on them, the increase in pay was too much to turn town.
Plus, I was finally escaping retail! I know that the prevailing theory on the internet is that the Baruths are silver spoon brats who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but, boy, nothing could be further from the truth. I worked in wireless retail stores for a decade, with Verizon, T-Mobile, and then Cricket. And none of those motherfuckers on Twitter who claim I’ve had it easy could have survived a month doing what I did, much less a decade.
I had a gun in my face twice. I had a guy show up with a gas can and a blowtorch, trying to burn the store down. I had multiple people pull down their pants and take shits in the middle of my stores. I discovered child pornography on phones and was told I couldn’t report it. I was the first manager on the scene when a customer was shot dead in a store. I worked 60-70 hours over at least six days a week for that entire time, and I don’t think I actually took a real vacation once—partially because I couldn’t afford to, and partially because I just couldn’t be gone that long.
So when I was given the chance to get out of the stores, I probably would have done just about anything else to do so. But I was getting to do something I really loved, and that was coaching and training salespeople. I had taken multiple stores to top ten rankings at T-Mobile, and then took my market at Cricket to the top spot in the country. Whenever people across the company asked how I did it, I replied with a simple answer:
“I coach my people.”
And it was true. I somehow had a nose for identifying talent, hiring, and coaching people, and I was convinced that I could teach others how to do it, too. And ever since 2010, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. I switched to the automotive industry in 2012, becoming a sales trainer at AutoTrader.com (now Cox Automotive) and then other automotive tech companies.
But anyway, back to the original subject of this post, which was effective business travel recommendations. I’m not talking about the type of business travel that automotive writers do—that shit is easy. Somebody else books your flight and your accommodations, and you just show up and ride buses from the hotel to the restaurant and the “track” (which is really a low-speed autocross course with an instructor sitting shotgun).
No, I’m talking about real business travel, the kind where you’re sitting in the bowels of O’Hare airport at 1:43 in the morning on a Thursday, thanks to the combination of inclement weather and a missing light bulb in the bathroom of the CRJ-200 that you and 49 other weary travelers are about to be shoved into against your will, only to find out that your pilots have timed out—but don’t worry, they’re rolling out carts of mattresses for you to sleep on until 6:00 am. That flight is completely full, so you’ll be on standby, and we’ll call your name out very quietly at the same time that three other announcements are being made, so make sure that you absolutely do NOT miss it or else you’ll be here until Tuesday. Oh yeah, here’s a $10 restaurant voucher for your trouble, but all of the restaurants in this terminal are closed.
Here’s Bark’s list for minimizing headaches when traveling, and maybe even enjoying yourself a bit.
- Pick one airline, one hotel chain, and one rental car company, and stick with them religiously. You are screwing yourself out of points (we’ll discuss that more later) and upgrades (that too) by simply going with whatever is cheapest or most convenient. Yes, you might avoid a connection or find a hotel that’s ten minutes closer, but you’ll kick yourself when you’re always flying economy and staying in the double bed room near the elevator.
- There is really only one decent airline in the United States, and that is Delta. However, you may find yourself living in Baltimore, Chicago, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, or another city that has a non-Delta hub in it, and you might be thinking that it’s better to fly on United/American/Southwest because of that. You would be wrong. Delta has newer equipment, better hubs, and better staff and customer service than all of the other airlines.
- There is only one decent rental car company in America, and that is National. Emerald Aisle is an absolute must. I always get at least 1-2 car classes higher than I’ve booked, and plus I get to pick what I drive. It’s a small comfort, but who wouldn’t rather drive a Camaro SS than a Nissan Altima?
- There is only one decent hotel chain in America, and that is Marriott. Hilton has taken a huge nosedive in the last few years—I used to be a Hilton Diamond loyalist, but no longer. Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood means that I have at least four or five decent options in every major city in America, and two or three in smaller cities. I will take a brand new TownePlace Suites over a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express every single time. I really hate what IHG has done to Kimpton. I was Inner Circle with Kimpton for five years, but no longer.
- Direct flights are convenient, but you’re hurting your status by taking them. I can often fly directly to a city out of Cincinnati, since it used to be a Delta hub and still has direct flights to LAX, LAS, NYC, SFO, and most of Florida. But then I only get credit for two segments—one there, and one back. If I fly out of Lexington, I can connect through Atlanta or Detroit and get credit for four segments, which means I achieve status twice as fast. I have reached Diamond status with Delta multiple times on segments, not miles. Yes, that does mean I took 140+ flights in a year. This is a good trick, especially if most or all of your flights are domestic.
- Points are king. Do not do something if it doesn’t help your points. I have the American Express Delta Reserve Card and the American Express Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Black Card. Everything I buy goes on one of these cards, and especially if it is a travel purchase. You get three times the points on Delta flights if you use the Amex Delta Reserve. You get six times the points on hotel stays if you pay with the Amex Marriott. SIX TIMES. If you use these cards correctly, you will never, ever pay for a personal vacation again. I have done stupid vacations, like 10 days in Hawaii, or 10 days in Disney World, and haven’t paid for a single cent of the airfare or hotels.
- Formatting on WordPress sucks, but this is just more info on those cards. Yes, those two cards together cost $1000 a year. But the Delta card allows you a free companion certificate every year on any domestic travel, including first class. If you buy one first class ticket a year for yourself, you can bring your wife/girlfriend/domestic partner/carbon rod for free. That alone more than pays for the membership fee. You also get Delta Sky Club and Centurion Lounge access at airports, which is $500 a year and DEFINITELY worth it. You’ll be glad that you have free drinks, a comfortable chair, and reliable wi-fi when your flights are inevitably delayed. The Centurion Lounge at DFW even has free massages and manicures. They will put you at the very top of the upgrade list, meaning you’ll get more first class upgrades every year, which is worth its weight in gold. They have special offers that you can get statement credits for (right now, for example, I can get $200 off any $750 Hodinkee purchase). You also get status boosts for every $30,000 you spend in a calendar year—that sounds like a lot, but if you’re a business traveler, that’s probably 4-6 months of just business travel, not to mention your personal spend. It goes without saying that you need to pay off your balances in full every month, or the interest rates will eat away at your bonuses. Don’t worry if your company says you “have to use corporate credit cards for travel.” I get my hand smacked every month, but who cares? You will probably need at least a 690 credit score to qualify for these, or you might be able to get away with a lower score if you have higher verifiable income.
- They’ll also give you statement credit for Global Entry/TSA Pre. This is a must. I do not understand why anybody who flies more than once a decade doesn’t have TSA Pre. You absolutely need it. It will save you hours and hours and hours and needless aggravation. You can keep your shoes on, keep your jacket on, leave your laptop in your bag, and just walk through the metal detector and get on with your life. When I travel with people without it, I will inevitably be waiting anywhere from 15-60 minutes for them on the other side of security. It’s a non-negotiable.
- Sell your soul for status. There have been years where I was a few flights or hotel nights short of the next status tier, so I did what’s called a “mileage run.” That’s where you buy a flight specifically for the purpose of getting to the next status. One year, I was six segments short of Platinum on Delta, so I bought a six-segment flight to Philadelphia for $197. I flew from LEX-MSP-DTW-PHL on the way there, and PHL-ATL-DTW-LEX on the way back. I stayed one night at the Hotel Monaco in Philly, thanks to a free night I had earned through the now-defunct Kimpton Karma program (man, do I miss that program). That boosted me from Gold to Platinum, which basically earned me another 30 first class upgrades the following year and another 40,000 Skymiles. Worth it.
- Speaking of which, always carry two high-limit credit cards with you at all times. I have had situations where one of my credit cards was compromised when I was traveling, which led to it being blocked and replaced. This can be a real problem if you’re away from home and depending on that card to pay for your hotel stay and your meals. If you’re in a higher crime area, put one credit card in your hotel safe and keep one on your person. Make sure that both cards have enough available credit to pay for your hotel bill, your meals, and your airport parking—sounds like common sense, but a week of hotel in NYC can easily hit $2500. I always have my corporate AMEX, which has no limit, with me as well, just in case. I hate using it, because I don’t get any of the points, but it has saved me.
- Do the same thing with your identification. I carry my drivers license and my passport with me on all trips, and I keep them separate—my DL is normally in my wallet and my passport is in my laptop bag. I learned this trick after losing my DL in New York once, and going through the hell of trying to board a flight without identification—it involved a taxi trip to a Queens Police Department and a three-hour police report.
- Buy a really good laptop bag and carry-on suitcase. And then never check a bag. Ever. I have a Shinola Messenger Bag for my laptop and a Samsonite hard-sided carry-on that fits in the compartment of even a Canadair Regional Jet. Between these two, I have everything I need for up to a week. And if I need more than that, I do laundry—most higher end hotels will even do it for you. Checking a bag will cost you at least an hour of your life every time you travel, and that’s assuming everything goes to plan. More often than you’d think, it doesn’t.
- Don’t ever let anybody else book your travel. I don’t care that you have an assistant. Do not let him or her book your travel. You know what you like. You know how quickly you can navigate from E terminal to A terminal in ATL. You know what parts of town are terrible. Handle your own travel and your own reservations.
- Download all of the apps and use them. I live by the Marriott Bonvoy and Delta apps. They will notify you of changes before anybody else does. Having the Delta app will let you know of gate changes and delays sometimes as much as 5-10 minutes early—that’s critical if you have to switch terminals and you’ve got a 35 minute connection. The Marriott app will allow you to use Mobile Check In and go directly to your room upon arrival with a Mobile Key. That’s a lifesaver when you’re checking into the Marriott Biscayne Bay with 40 vacation travelers who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.
- Also use Kayak, Yelp, and OpenTable. I have discovered absolute gems of restaurants thanks to Yelp. Kayak is invaluable for booking hotels—if they have a cheaper rate, Marriott and Hilton will both price match AND give you and extra 25 percent off. They don’t publicize this, for obvious reasons. I just got Conrad Las Vegas for $66 a night because it was $88 on Kayak. It was $172 on the Hilton website. They price matched, reluctantly. OpenTable is great for making reservations in other cities before you get there, which you’ll need more often than you’d think—it’s hard to get a table for 8 on a whim at a decent restaurant in most major cities.
- Make your connections based on the seasons. Connect through Detroit in the summer and Atlanta in the winter. Otherwise, you risk weather issues.
- Know your connecting hubs and your regular airports like the back of your hand. I know exactly how long it takes to get from any gate in ATL or DTW from any other gate. I know where all of the good restaurants are and how long it takes to get food from them. I know where the SkyClubs are. I know where the clean public restrooms are. I know where the vending machines are. I know how long it will take to get through security.
- Never book the last flight of the night. It will get canceled or delayed more often than not. Also, Red-eyes are cheap for a reason—don’t do it. It will always seem like a good idea to take a 12:30 AM flight from Seattle to Detroit. It is always a bad idea. Always. You won’t get any sleep, and you’ll ruin the next two days.
- Carry extras of everything. Make sure you have at least two phone chargers with you, two laptop power cords, extra USB dongles and connectors, batteries for your clicker—something will fail, and it will fail at the worst time. Don’t trust a million dollar sale to one USB cable. Have two.
- Have a routine and stick to it. I learned this from a Canadian colleague a couple of years ago, and it has saved me multiple times. Put your wallet, passport, phone, briefcase in the same place every time. Workout at the same time every morning. Eat dinner at the same time if you can. Keep it as normal as possible. You don’t want to be getting off the plane and realizing that you’ve left your phone, your wallet, or your tablet in the pocket of the seat in front of you—I’ve done all three, including a wallet with over $3,000 in cash in it on my way back from Las Vegas (and yes, some unbelievably good person did turn it in and did NOT take a single dollar from it).
Here’s a bonus one: pack your clothing based on flexibility. For a three day trip, I bring two suits, three button down shirts that work with both suits, three ties that work with all three shirts, one pair of jeans, two t-shirts, a reversible belt, one pair of brown shoes and one pair of black shoes, three workout outfits, one pair of workout shoes, and one pair of casual shoes. And yes, that does all fit in a carry on.
I hope I see you at a SkyClub soon.