Tips For Travelers

Business Travel Advice
Christopher Rath
2007-10-01

Before You Travel

Loyalty Programmes

For better or for worse, the travel industry provides service in two tiers. The industry generally refers to these tiers in terms of how often you travel (for example, "frequent flyer miles"), but the truth is that these programs also have a loyalty element that is more important than simply travel frequency. To summarise my point another way: the more frequently you are a customer of a particular travel company, the higher the quality of service that company will provide you in exchange for each dollar you spend on service.

Whether or not the travel industry is right in tieing service to customer loyalty and travel frequency is not a question that is worth spending any time pondering; instead---since there is nothing morally wrong with this practice---we are much better served playing the game to ensure we extract the best service we can in exchange for the travel dollars we spend.

In choosing a travel service provider and associated loyalty programmes take the following factors into account:

My implementation advice:

  1. Examine your travel pattern and choose your preferred travel companies based upon the travel companies who you will be able to most frequently use; in addition to the companies you personally prefer (for example, the I very much prefer Fairmont's luxury hotels, but my clients won't pay those rates, I cannot afford to personally pay them, and most cities I travel to do not offer a Fairmont hotel; so I don't make Fairmont one of my preferred travel providers---but I do belong to their programme and my very few stays in their hotels are tracked by them).
  2. As much as possible, always fly with the same airline, always rent from the same rental car company, and always stay in the same hotel chain.
  3. Always enrol in a company's frequent customer programme (even if you don't normally use that company's services and you think this might be the only time you give this company your custom). This allows the company to track your use of their services and then allows them to offer you preferential service based upon the frequency of your use of their services.

After handing out advice about loyalty programmes, I thought it would be only fair that I disclose my personal choices; so, in each section I've included a short commentary on my own travel service experiences that explains what choices I have made, and why. Keep in mind that these are my personal choices and their listing here is not an endorsement of any kind that these selections will also be preferred by anyone else: it is very important that you evaluate your own requirements and available options, and then make your own decisions about which travel services to consume.

Airline Programmes

Choose an airline and stick with it. Priority seating, seat upgrades, access to lounges, and other perks are only available (for free) when you accumulate status (counted in terms of flight segments and miles) with a particular airline.

This loyalty advice goes for car rental and hotel stays too; but, in my opinion, airline loyalty is most important: when weather or mechanical failures disrupt your travel, getting to your destination as close to the scheduled time as possible is directly proportional to your airline status. On Thursday night when I'm on my way home, my family (even more than my clients or employer) counts on me keeping my arrival time commitment; however, when a flight is cancelled, the only way I can positively influence getting a seat on the next flight home is by having a high status rating with the airline.

Another airline loyalty programme subtlety to consider is that airline alliances do not create a level playing field for consumers; for example, while United Airlines and Air Canada are both part of the Star Alliance, the two airlines give their own flyers preferential treatment. This preferred treatment means that while there is reciprocal treatment of "Gold" status flyers, higher and lower tiers of status are not reciprocally served. Thus, is you are a Canadian who primarily travels in the USA, your best frequent flyer programme choice is with a US-based carrier. So, as a Canadian, since I only occasionally need to fly within Canada, I belong to United Airline's loyalty programme; which ensures that I have access to upgrades and preferred treatment in the situations I most need them.

Airline Lounges

If you are just beginning a cycle of frequent travel, purchase an airline business class lounge membership. In all likelihood, your company will not reimburse you for its cost, and a membership typically costs $200–$300 dollars, but it is a real bargain if you are often on the road. Once you've accumulated sufficient status, some airlines grant a free lounge pass (or offer you one at a discounted rate). I find the lounge to be an excellent place to sit, find an electrical outlook, and work in comfortable surroundings while waiting for a flight.

Airlines and Air Travel

While all of the airline previous material on this web page has been focussed upon loyalty programmes and service, it is important that you do not overlook air travel's other factors: for example, on time departure and arrival rates, cabin comfort, the service provided by the cabin crew, seat pitch, etc.  Of the various factors, the most important to me is seat pitch; that is, the space between the seats. 

When I spend time on an airplane it is vital that I am able to open my laptop and get some work done. If the seats are close together (like on almost every North American airline) I am not able to open my laptop and work.  So, choice of an airline is very dependent upon seat pitch. The only North American airline that provides sufficient room for me (an average sized 170 pound, 5 foot 10 inch male) to work on a Dell Latitude 620 laptop is United Airlines, and then only in their Economy Plus seating if the person in front of me does not recline.  I find that in United's business class I am still not able to comfortably work on my laptop if the passenger in the seat forward of me fully reclines their seat.

My personal experience with working and seats reclining in front of me has shown me that the airline industry's advertised "seat pitch" measurements are meaningless when the person in front of you reclines.  If the industry wanted to be truthful about seat pitch they would disclose the abysmally small amount of space afforded passengers in situations where the seat in front of you is fully reclined. It is important to note that reclining your own seat doesn't make your situation any better---as far as working on a laptop is concerned; since using a laptop from a partially reclined position is not comfortable.

The airline could solve this problem by changing to seats such as many trains use: reclining your seat causes the bottom cushion part of your seat to slide forward; constraining your own personal space but not affecting the passenger behind you. As a paying customer, I do not want to have the passenger in front of me utilise some of the space I have paid for. Again, like many other aspects of travel service, the airline industry doesn't get the fact that their customers want to receive fair value for the dollar they spend.

Christopher's Airline Experience

This list of airlines is in alphabetic order.

Air Canada
I despise Air Canada. In 20+ years of business travel, even though Air Canada has never been my preferred air carrier, Air Canada has stranded me more often than any other airline. Air Canada once even had security board an aircraft I was sitting in an remove me to make room for one of their own statused flyers. I only use this airline when there is no other choice. Air Canada was Government owned for many years and as a result they have no inherent corporate service culture. Another strike against Air Canada is that they will not route you on another airline if you misconnect or are stranded. My advice to you is that whenever possible you avoid Air Canada.
American Airlines
When Canadian Airlines still existed, I often flew American Airlines on my US segments. I have nothing bad to say about them. They have served me well when I have flown them.
United Airlines
United is my preferred airline at this time. The best thing about United Airlines is their Economy Plus seating (seating in the front half of the plane that has extra space between the seats). A United Airlines Economy Plus seat allows me to open my laptop and work; something that no other North American allows me to do when I'm sitting in the Economy cabin. In addition, United Airlines will route misconnected and stranded passengers on another airline's flights; something that not all North American air carriers still do.
US Airways
In my experience, US Air has the best customer service in North America. US Air was my preferred airline until Fall 2004 when they discontinued Pittsburgh as a hub. It then became very difficult for me to fly US Air to the cities I typically travel to and so I switched to United.

Hotel Programmes

Hotel programmes are pretty straightforward. Some hotel-specific factors to consider include:

Christopher's Hotel Experience

Starwood
I like their hotels, but their hotel density is very low in the cities I typically frequent. Some of my North American-based colleagues go out of their way to stay at Starwood hotels because they like to spend their Starwood points in Europe and Asia; where Starwood has some very, very nice hotels. The Starwood loyalty programme is competitively structured: you don't require an inordinate number of stays or nights to either attain status or obtain nights for free. I do occasionally stay in a Starwood hotel, where I rely on my AMEX Platinum card to get me Gold status treatment.
Hilton
Until a couple of years ago I made Hilton my primary hotel chain, but when it was time to take the family on vacation I always found it difficult to obtain hotel rooms on points; even with Diamond status. So, I no longer maintain Hilton status. Another problem with Hilton was that even with Diamond status it was often impossible to obtain a hotel room on short notice.
Marriott
Marriott is my preferred hotel chain. Many years ago (more than a decade), a Marriott hotel denied me access to a non-smoking room. That experience caused me to shun the Marriott chain for quite a while. Since that time, Marriott has changed their stand on non-smoking reservations, and very recently they made their chain completely non-smoking. So, I switched back. When I need a room on points, I never have trouble getting a room. Also, with Platinum status it is possible to get a hotel room in almost any circumstance.

Planning Your Route

To be completed.

Booking Your Trip

To be completed.

On The Road

To be completed.

Basic Good Advice

Miscellaneous Tips

Renting a car is often cheaper than taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel/work-site.

Your Corporation's travel policy may allow business class travel trips between North America and Europe (and some other travel routes too). When arriving in and departing from London, business class travelers (on British Airways and some other airlines) have access to “fast-track” gates, which bypass the long lines (during busy hours). The business class lounges are also very handy on a long, transatlantic, trip; and, in my opinion, are well worth the extra ticket price.

When traveling between time zones, plan your personal schedule for getting your body clock onto local time as part of your trip. This will mean only sleeping on the aircraft when that is part of your plan for getting onto the new local time. It may also mean making some change to your sleep schedule before you travel; to make it easier after you arrive. For example, when traveling from the EST time zone to the GMT time zone, I get up an hour or two early for a several days before traveling.

During periods of poor weather (e.g., during the winter) be sure to allow extra travel time. For example, when flying from Ottawa to Raleigh it is possible to leave Ottawa on the first flight out to Toronto, and then connect to an 0830h. flight to Raleigh; getting you into Raleigh for 1030h. If de-icing is required in Ottawa, you may well miss your connection in Toronto. Hence, if it is imperative that you be in Raleigh for noon-time, fly to Toronto on the last flight of the previous evening and stay at a hotel very near the Airport. This will give you plenty of time to make your Toronto-Raleigh flight and will not add any extra cost to your air travel (although you will have to expense an additional night in a hotel).

When booking flights that involve a connection through a hub, there are sometimes unpublished routings that can be booked (even though they are not officially published). For example, Miami to Ottawa can be routed through Toronto on a flight that arrives in Toronto at 2245h; you may then take one of the first couple of flights out to Ottawa the next morning. This layover does not increase the price of the air travel, and often does not add any extra accommodation costs either (in the case where you were being told by the travel agent that you would not be able to return to Ottawa until the next morning). You can “discover” these unpublished routes by looking at the individual timetables between the hub and the two connecting cities. Then choose the pair of flights that best suits you.

If you arrive early for a flight, and as a result you are in time to catch the earlier flight, go to the gate and ask the agent if there is room on the flight. If seats are available (in the same class of service you are ticketed for), most airlines will allow you to catch the earlier flight and will not levy any charges. The airlines are motivated to get you to your destination now, instead of waiting to send you later (at which time you might be on an over sold flight, the flight could be cancelled, etc.).

At least one airline (US Air) will now only waitlist you for a flight if you pay a fee. The fee is paid and there is no guaranty that you will receive a seat on the flight. This is a senseless and stupid policy that in my experience is only sporadically applied by airline gate personnel. If you do encounter a gate agent who is a member of Pareto's Unthinking Populace, don't despair. My experience with US Air has been that once the airplane has been fully boarded, if there are still open seats the gate agent will generally seat you without levying any charges. This isn't quite as convenient for you, but it does get you onto an earlier flight without incurring the senseless waitlist charge.

Expense Vouchering

Get receipts for everything, even when you don't believe you really need a receipt. It's much easier to throw extra receipts away at the end of your trip, than to try and make do without them when filling in your expense voucher.

To double-check your Expense Voucher data entry, produce a grand total of all the individual amounts for the entire voucher, without regard for what currencies were used, based on a printout from the voucher system. Then go through all your receipts and total the amounts from each receipt (again, don't worry about currencies). The two grand totals should match; if they don't then you have made a numeric data entry error.

Keep a small slip of paper handy where all non-receipted expenses can be written down, as they occur. Then, during your trip, if you inadvertently forget to obtain a receipt or if you incur an expense for which no receipt is possible (like buying a can of soda from a machine), immediately write the expense down on the slip of paper (along with the date and a short description of the expense). At the end of your trip, include this slip in your expense voucher.

Multiple currency expense reporting can be a challenge, and--in my experience--corporate expense systems do not do a good job handling such reports.  So, I use an Excel expense report of my own to track my expenses; which I then use as the source for copying into the corporate system.  You may download a copy of my expense workbook here (only available for Excel 2007 and above): Expense Report (Multicurrency) v14.1.zip

Traveling Between Locations

When traveling between North America and London, England, I find that the following travel options work best (in terms of allowing my body to make the time zone adjustment):

North America to London

First preference—fly during the day and do not sleep on the flight; leave North America in the morning, which puts you into London in the early evening. I find that I am tired enough after a full day of travel that I am able to sleep at midnight London time; putting me immediately on local time.
Second preference—fly late-evening; leave North America as close to midnight as possible. Once the plane is up in the air, inform the flight crew that you will do not wish to be disturbed; then put on eye shades and ear plugs, and sleep. I find it difficult to sleep on a flight; however, this option leaves me tired enough that I am able to sleep for 3 or 4 hours onboard. When I awaken, I ask the flight crew for a snack. When you arrive in London, do not sleep; instead, go to work and plan to bed down at normal London time.
London to North America Only preference—fly at the end of the work day and do not sleep on the flight. This puts you back in North America near midnight. If necessary, lay over for the night when you first arrive in North America (e.g., to change planes), and then complete your journey the next morning. This puts your body clock back on North American time ASAP.

When traveling from North America to the European Continent, or even to Ireland, if you find that you will have a lay-over in London, be sure to stop by the business class lounge for a shower and shave before continuing on. There is no cost for this service (assuming you flew business class), and the lounge will even supply all the amenities required to shower and shave. Do leave the attendant a tip. By the way, this “shower” service is also available when your final destination is London.

When getting directions from someone, be careful how you phrase your question. Typically, when I've asked someone how I should travel to a specific place, I've ended up getting poor instructions; however, when I ask someone how they travel to that destination when they go there, I get a very different (and much more useful) answer. For example, when I asked my London, England-based colleagues how I should travel from London to Paignton, they said, “the train;” however, when I asked them how they, themselves make this trip they admitted that they always drive their cars.

The following table lists the best method I have found to travel between certain destinations.

Recommended Travel Methods

From To How Duration
Belfast Galway Car, drive via Enniskillen 5.5 hours
Calgary Edmonton Fly 1 hour
London Paignton Car, drive via Bristol 4 hours
Train can be alright, but you must be careful to choose a high-speed, direct route or the trip takes all day 4 hours
Ottawa Dallas Fly 5.5 hours
Ottawa Montréal Train (be sure to book 1st class) 2 hours
Ottawa Raleigh Fly 4 hours
Ottawa Toronto Fly; although if you have the time, 1st class on the train is cheaper and more enjoyable than flying 1 hour

The Cynic's View

Of the Travel Industry

The airline industry has become focused on volume; moving lots of passengers. To restate this another way, airlines are no longer concerned with customer service, rather they are in the business of crowd control. Keep this in mind when dealing with them: remember, it is the airline's job to lie to you and deny you service, and it's your job to know your rights and get the service to which you are entitled.

The best example of this is the case where your flight is going to be delayed. The ground crew will tell you everything is on-time, up until the departure time has passed. They will then revise their departure time to yet another unachievable hour, repeating this cycle until an aircraft somehow miraculously appears or the airport closes for the night.

When the airline causes your flight delay, demand a pass for the business class lounge. If you are delayed overnight (for causes other than weather), demand a hotel voucher; do this early on in the evening instead of waiting until well past mid-night when the airline would like to hand them out. Do demand meal vouchers when you have been unduly delayed over a mealtime. Don't volunteer to be bumped off an aircraft until they have come around with their second or third call for volunteers; each time they come around they will offer larger amounts of travel vouchers as compensation.

Of Corporate Culture

Not everyone is aware that local policy will sometimes differ from Corporate policy. New entrants to big-company Corporate culture generally assume that rules are rules; however, this is not always the case. Large companies make a point of posting their Corporate policies in a central location—become aware of these policies so that when local management create rules which override the policies above them, you are completely aware of what is going on.

A couple of common examples are Corporate policy which allows for business class travel under certain circumstances being disallowed by local management, and local managers who will not reimburse the cost of alcohol consumed (either with or without meals) while Corporate rules do not exclude it from being expensed.


©Copyright 2001, 2007, Christopher Rath
Telephone: 613-824-4584
Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
Last updated: 2011/08/13 @ 09:07:35 ( )