The Rookie Road Warriors
Mike: Like you, I have recently started traveling for my job. Since I am still trying to figure things out I thought it might be fun to talk about lessons learned from our first travel experiences. (Ironically, as I type this I am sitting in a conference room in Atlanta waiting for something interesting to happen).
With that said, first question: Did you see yourself as a seasoned traveler before your job sent you on the road?
Jaybird: I don’t know about “seasoned traveler”. I might agree to “seasoned vacationer”, given that I had a long distance relationship back in the 90’s and would fly to Eastern Canada once or twice a year, but that was before the TSA and I was flying to see someone I loved very much and so I saw trips as exciting things that I looked forward to back then. Heck, even after I got married, when I got on a plane, it was because I was flying someplace with Maribou (usually to Eastern Canada) and it was fun to go together. That’s a completely different experience than flying out to Maryland for the job and staying in an Extended Stay Marriott Hotel for a month.
While I might agree to being a seasoned vacationer, I was 100% a noob at the business travel thing. Prior to going out to Maryland for this job, my only previous business travel was driving up to Fort Collins for a week in the year 2000 for some training. (And I was naive enough to consider that to be a long time.)
How about you? How much business travel had you done before this?
Mike: I could also lay claim to ‘seasoned vacationer’. We typically take 2-3 trips per year as a family, usually at least one of which requires flying. But as the kids have gotten older the dynamics are constantly changing. Now the kids pack their own bags, carry their own crap through the airport, and the oldest can even help with the driving. With GPS on our phones and the internet for travel arrangements, most of our pre-trip planning revolves around cool restaurants we want to eat in and cool sights we want to see.
My business travel prior to this trip was some archaeology-related travel a decade ago and a two night trip for my current employer in 2012. These week-long trips once or twice a month are really new territory for me.
What is the biggest thing you have found to be different between traveling for work and traveling for fun (other than the obvious point that the former requires you to work while you are there)?
Jaybird: Well, there’s not only the “work while you are there” issue, but the “what do you do when you’re not working?” issue. When I vacationed with Maribou, generally, our time was entirely eaten up. We have to have dinner with Mom. We have to visit the aunt. We have to visit the besties. We have to go to Cows for ice cream. What do you mean it’s time to go home already?
When I am sent away for a month, the weekend YAWNS before me. I was blessed to have dear friends (some from this very blog!) living nearby and who were generous enough to say “come over for dinner!” on various Friday nights and I had other friends living in New Jersey so, on other weekends, I could drive up there and spend the weekend hanging with dear ones but… man. There were other weekends where I did nothing more interesting than laundry. Maybe I’d see a movie. Maybe I’d play my gameboy. But I had *NOTHING* before me all day long.
Here’s how bad it got: I started going to church. I was told about a nice little Unitarian Universalist church and I started showing up. It was something I looked forward to on Sundays. And then I had the rest of the day before me.
In a nutshell: vacations leave me with zero free time. Business trips left me with oceans of it.
How’s about you?
Mike: For me it usually depends on the project. Most of the time I am part of a team of 3-4 people. That’s when your social skills are tested. We meet for breakfast at 7:30am. Then we drive to where we are working. Then we work together all morning. Lunch together. More work. Back to the hotel. Then happy hour. Then dinner. By the time I get to my room I have just spent 12 hours with them. This happens all week. If you try to do your own thing you feel like a jerk, so when I finally lock the door to my room I don’t come back out until morning. That is a bummer. For example, I love to swim and most hotels have a decent indoor pool. I always take a swimsuit but never go because I can’t bear to go back out there.
It seems like being there for the weekends would change all that. I haven’t had to do that (yet). Do you think it’s better to do 4 weeks in a row or four weeks spread out over a couple of months?
Jaybird: Oh, yeah. That’s a game-changer. When I went out to Maryland, I was alone. (I’m also a pretty solid introvert so my experiences of being alone in a new place are probably very different from an extrovert’s.)
Well, that’s not entirely true. There were a handful of days where a full team from Colorado also flew out there to do some hardware work. On those days, we’d eat breakfast together, eat lunch together, and then eat dinner together, like you said. But that’s only for a couple of days here and there (and they were always gone by Friday night). And, yeah. After I got back to my room on those days, I couldn’t imagine leaving for anything… but those days were usually followed by two or three solitary weeks. I imagine that that makes my perspective on them different.
Now whether it’s better to do 4 weeks in a row? I have a couple of answers to that. When it comes to my marriage? It would have been infinitely better to do a week here, a week there. I mean, it’d be downright trivial for me to go away on a Sunday night and get back on a Friday night. Sure, Maribou would have to do the stuff around the house that I usually do but we have a staggered schedule much of the year anyway so there are weeks where we only see each other an hour or two a day on some days. We get back together on the weekend, though. We run the errands together, or sit and watch our shows together, or, even during the busiest weekends, share meals.
When you’re gone for a month? The days that do the damage are the Saturdays and Sundays. Those are the days that were so very bad.
Now, if we say “apart from that, how was the play?”, then I’d say that 4 weeks has upsides. You have oceans of time and you don’t have anything nagging at you. You don’t need to do any chores, you don’t need to do any errands. Well, okay. Maybe the laundry, maybe visit Target for some meals or something but you do that and you have then done everything you have to do. Your time is yours to waste as you see fit. Drive to another city. Visit a museum. Read a book. See a movie. Take a 2 hour shower. The time is yours and you pretty much *CAN’T* do anything meaningful with it because everything meaningful is a million miles away. That can be good for the soul every once in a while.
I honestly felt like I was getting insight into another life, another possibility. Now, that life was not as good as mine now. But it was interesting to taste that other life for a month or so before returning home.
Have they sent you anywhere by yourself yet?
Mike Dwyer: This week is actually my first ‘solo’ trip. The first thing I was excited about was getting to pick all of the restaurants. I’m also hoping to catch a movie before the week is over or go exploring north of Atlanta. It definitely feels more liberating to not be attached to a group. Next year most of my travel will be solo so I think I’ll enjoy it a bit more.
Jaybird: While my trips away had an element of fun to them for *ME*, they had extra elements of crap for Maribou. Most of the chores that I usually did around the house I didn’t have to do and the ones that I still had to do (like laundry) were halved. Maribou, however, still had to do the chores she usually did *PLUS* stuff like “feed the kitties” (something that, 13 times out of 14 in the average week, is something that I do).
So the good stuff that I had, the oceans of free time that I got, had a cost on Maribou when I was gone. I imagine that this is another reason that me going away for a week would have been mostly not that big of a deal but going away for a month was *HUGE*. Did your wife mention anything similar or were your jaunts short enough that the additional costs were negligible?
Mike: For the most part the additional burden on my wife is minimal for a one-week trip because the division of labor in our house has her doing most of the day-to-day tasks while I handle the one-off items. This time of year for example, she might do several loads of laundry in a week while I clean out the gutters for winter, fix the broken faucet in the bathroom and hang the Christmas lights on the house. So my things can get pushed and I do extra when I am home. The one exception is that I normally do all of the cooking in our house. I have found myself spending a lot of time either making meals ahead that I can freeze for her or buying groceries and writing out recipes before I leave (she can cook, she just doesn’t like meal-planning). That has been both a challenge and also a source of amusement as she tries to put some good food on the table and to hear how the Picky Daughter reacts.
One thing I am really interested in is what kinds of things you have learned about the logistics of travel. Do you travel light or do you bring as much as possible? Has the DS been a lifesaver? What kinds of things make traveling more tolerable for you? Do you have a routine for when you get to the hotel to help you ‘settle in’?
Jaybird: I guess I travel light? Here, you decide… I bring 2 weeks’ worth of socks and undies because you never know. I bring 4 pairs of jeans and 2 pairs of dress slacks. I bring 2 nice shirts and 2 nice ties. I bring 6 or 7 hawaiian/flannel type shirts (depending on the season) and, when I get there, I always say “I FORGOT TO BRING PAJAMA PANTS!” and get a pair from the Target (and I usually see a Hawaiian there that I can’t say “no” to). I bring my DS and about 25 games (of which I will usually play 4). I bring 2 or 3 books, one of which is usually for a certification of some kind. I bring a work laptop. I bring a pair of slippers and a pair of Doc Martens. Um… I think that’s it.
On the day after I get there (I usually get there after sunset), I go to the Target and pick up stuff like caffeine for the fridge, shaving materials, goldfish crackers, and Dove bars or something (hey, sometimes you need a Dove bar).
Since I was there for a month, my boss put me up in a mid-level extended stay hotel. Now, keep in mind: whenever I vacationed anywhere, I never really stayed in the room. Why would you? You’ve got people to see and places to go and the point of the room is to sleep and shower between outings. So, when I vacation, I tend to stay in Chez Raton. When I opened the door to a mid-level business travel hotel? HOLY GUACAMOLE.
Now, for me, the 3DS was a life-saver. I play games to relax when I’m at home under the best of circumstances. On the road? I need a lot more relaxation. (Suggestion #1: the Mario/Luigi games for the DS and 3DS. They’re not *TOO* hard, are pretty funny as these things go, and will engage you for about 15-20 hours each.) I’d play my 3DS right before bed and the pixels helped me go to sleep.
If you’re not particularly inclined to play games when you’re at home, I’m pretty sure that being on the road won’t make you any more inclined. That said, if you find comfort in games the way I do, the 3DS will bring to mind your Super Nintendo and N64 games.
As for other things that make travel more tolerable, Netflix, Netflix, Netflix. I started watching House while in Maryland and, pretty much, as soon as I got home I stopped watching. My advice for others, if they need it, is to find a procedural that they can have on in the background while they do other things like sort receipts or sort laundry. Nothing that demands attention and nothing that is particularly stressful (like, say, Hannibal (sorry, Glyph[/efn_note]. So if you’ve been thinking about whether you should bring your season of Monk with you or your season of True Detective? BRING MONK. SERIOUSLY.
Also, my routines all involved finding restaurants that I didn’t have at home. Not just silly little chains like White Castle or Fuddrucker’s, but little local places. There was a police bar that I found that had the best sandwiches. There was an Italian place that made the best veal piccata. That sort of thing. I tried find one new place every time I went out there. Sometimes you’d find a cruddy meal, other times you’d find something that blew your mind.
Granted, the first time I went out there I *NEEDED* to eat at a Chipotle the first full day I was there. You know, to give me a little something to hold on to. After that, though, the purpose was to find places that would make me want to come back with Maribou and say “here, try this.”
Now, when I get to the hotel itself, I check in and I unpack. I refuse to live out of a suitcase. I, instead, put everything in the appropriate drawers in the dresser and I hang up the appropriate shirts and slacks in the closet. The suitcase then goes somewhere out of sight so I feel like the hotel room is “my” room and not “the hotel room”. So, my advice to you (and to anyone else) is that if you’ve got a longish trip? Unpack. (Now, if I’m there for a week? Heck with that. I live out of the suitcase and throw the dirty clothing into one of the room’s trashcan bags.)
Mike: On vacations I have been known to live out of a suitcase for a week. On business trips I completely unpack regardless of the length of my stay. My company is pretty strict on personal appearance for management and no matter how careful I am there will be a few wrinkles in the items I pack. When I arrive I hang all of my shirts and pants in the bathroom, turn on a hot shower and shut the door for 30 minutes. Whatever wrinkles remain afterwards need to go to the ironing board.. On the first night I always try to arrive at the hotel by 9pm which gives me a couple of hours to do all of this before bedtime. I also agree that you have to treat the room like your home. I have been lucky enough to get suites so it feels like an apartment (it also makes you realize just how little space you really need most of the time). I always request a room with 2 queen-sized beds because it’s nice to have the extra surface for packing and unpacking. I bring snacks and a few ‘luxury’ items like my slippers and my pillow from home. That makes a big difference.
When I went to Connecticut for the first time this fall I tried to watch a couple of DVDs on my laptop on the plane. It was awful. You have to keep the laptop stowed away for 15 minutes on each end of the flight so you lose viewing time, plus it’s just a pain to get it out and turn it on. So I immediately came home and bought a tablet. I now have the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 and it’s perfect for my needs. Before I leave home I rent a couple of movies from Google Play and download them for offline viewing on the plane. I can easily access it whenever I need to while en route. It’s also great for Netflix at the hotel and with the combo of a Google Chromecast it really gives me a lot more options. This week I am trying out Marco Polo. I’m also considering a portable game system (though this isn’t something I can’t live without).
Normally I like the adventure of going to new places but this week, for my last trip of the year, the comfort of Atlanta has been nice. It’s an easy 80 minute direct flight from Louisville verses two flights to Connecticut. The culture here is more familiar. The food in the restaurants feels like home. The free breakfast at the hotel is better (seriously northerners, you are dropping the ball in that department). I’m at one of our company facilities so I get direct access to our network and I don’t need someone to chaperon me wherever I go. Plus everyone here is just so damn friendly. Just what I needed before the holidays. I did find myself sick on Monday though, apparently having caught a cold somewhere. It was an odd experience to be at a hotel alone and under the weather. Not something I have experienced before.
Air travel has certainly gotten a lot less friendly since 9/11. How does a libertarian feel about the TSA when passing through airports?
Jaybird: (You should be able to pick up a used 2DS and a couple of decent games for less than $150. Now that may sound like a great deal to you or it may sound like spending the price of groceries on something you’ll never use.)
As for the TSA, I have a friend who makes me look like a Liberal Statist. He was flying a few years back and got pulled aside for one too many times and he started screaming about Nazis and the Stasi and the Constitution. He got put on the no-fly list. I kept that story close to my heart and did my darnedest to never fly anywhere that I could drive to (we drove to Vegas, for example).
That said, I knew that I was broken one day when I was flying with Maribou and I saw that we’d been pulled aside for additional screening and I thought “oh good, we get to skip the line” and we got to our gate early. By the time I had been sent to Annapolis for the 3rd or 4th time, the TSA guys recognized me and I had a bit of an easier time (like, I got routed into the TSA Pre-Check “don’t have to take your boots off” line).
All that to say: I have sold out. But, man… I miss the days when flying was fun.
Do you have friends or relatives in Georgia? I found that having those things a half hour away were lifesavers.
Mike: As much as I feel like much of it is theater, my policy with the TSA is just to get through it smoothly. I comply with whatever they ask me to do, as politely as possible. My one caveat is that I won’t let them rush me. If they want me to unpack all my crap going in, then they are going to let me pack it up on the other side without hurrying me along. I’ve been debating paying for the pre-check option but so far it’s been smooth sailing in all the airports i have used.
No personal friends or family in Georgia but my company has a big footprint there so everyone travels between Louisville and Atlanta semi-regularly. I’m friendly with enough people in our Atlanta office that I always have someone willing to go to lunch or dinner with me so it’s nice to have the company if i want it.
Last night I got adventurous and drove 30 minutes northeast to Decatur. Cool area, tons of good restaurants. I went to a Peruvian restaurant I had read about and had a great meal. It felt good to explore a little bit. Definitely going to do more of that next time.
Would you say that traveling regularly to the same place is more desirable or would you prefer some variety? I’ve been to Hartford a few times now and next year I will probably spend 6-8 weeks there over a three month period. On vacations I have never been one of these people that like to keep going back to the same place every year but maybe it’s different with work? Maybe that comfort of knowing where everything is and the staff in the hotel knowing you make it feel a little bit like home when you are forced to be away from your family.
Have you ever thought about flying Maribou out to visit with you on your trips? That’s something my wife and i are considering for next year when my project transitions to New Hampshire mid-summer.
Jaybird: Well, the easy answer is “it would depend on the place”. Did I mind being sent out to the same place in Maryland a handful of times? No, not at all. It was downright pleasant to become a familiar face at some of the places I’ve already mentioned… having waitstaff recognize you, knowing your place around town without having to rely on a GPS (OH!!! THE GPS!!! THIS IS ANOTHER ESSENTIAL THING!!!), and being able to do stuff like “find a church that you like”. (Additionally, I was able to hang out with beautiful and wonderful peeps every weekend.)
That said: had I been sent out to Middle Of Nowhere, (insert state least likely to offend here) and asked to spend a month in a township where I knew no one and there were a grand total of three restaurants? Well, that’d mean I would get on a first-name basis with the waitstaff and spend a lot more time in my room.
Actually, the penultimate time I went out there, it was around (during, over) Christmas and I did, in fact, fly Maribou out there. I took her to some of my favorite places, showed her where I worked, and we were able to spend Christmas together. It was pretty awesome. As such: you should totally do that.
Mike: If I was traveling once per month I could probably handle a new locale every time. Traveling 8 weeks in three months? I think I want that familiarity. Right now I am starting to build a good list of go-to restaurants, learning where to find everything in the hotels, the name of the gal at the front desk, etc. That seems pretty handy if I am going to be there a lot.
I am in the market for a good GPS at the moment. The one on my phone is great…when it works. I borrowed one from a friend for this latest trip and it clinched my need to purchase.
We’re definitely looking forward to getting to spend some time together when the situation allows for it. I asked for this project because much of it will be in New England and we loooove New England, so that will be fun. All in all next year will be interesting. So do you have any tricks for extending your food allowance every day? I find myself eating a lot of PB&J for lunch so I have my full allowance for dinner.
Jaybird: The hotels that I stayed at had a breakfast bar (another difference between the places where I stay on my dime vs. the company’s). So *THAT* meal was taken care of. After that, there are two schools of thought about how to use the food allowance. I worked with a guy who did stuff like buy an extra large pizza and take 3 days to eat it, buy a roast chicken and a loaf of bread and make sandwiches, so on and so forth, and make sure that he gets extra money at the end of any given day because it’s a pain to be on the road and he didn’t like the idea of only getting paid his usual rate for his trouble. So if he was able to pocket his food allowance, he’d consider that to be fair.
My school of thought was something to the effect of “I’m a million miles from home” so I tended to see my food allowance as a recommendation. If I wanted to exceed my allowance, dang it, I exceeded it. The benefits to my mental health far exceeded the subsidized price of the steak dinner. (Though I went out of my way to find a place that had a decent steak with decent sides for under $20. That’s good for your mental health, too.)
My experience was that when I was a million miles away from my wife, my home, my cats, and my everything, then time moved a lot differently. All of the things we’ve discussed have pretty much been attempts to mitigate the time dilation.
Mike: When I was an archaeologist we could keep any un-used per diem so we ate bologna and peanut butter and pocketed what we could. Currently if I don’t use it I lose it. So I always make sure I land close to the allowance. If I need to go over I just break up the check.
Anything else related to work travel that you think would be valuable to cover?
Jaybird: Nah, I think we got it all. Do we have a punchy joke to finish with?
Mike: A travelling salesman is going through the country when his car breaks down. He goes to a nearby farmhouse and asks to use the phone.
The farmer tells him, “We ain’t got a phone, but I’m headin’ into town tomorrow an’ you kin spend the night here. O’ course you’ll have to sleep in the same bed as my three sons, here.”
And the salesman says, “Wait a minute. I’m in the wrong joke.
Jaybird: ………….. Maybe we’ll just find a good piece of advice to end on.
Mike: How about this? “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” –Susan Heller”