As a freelancer and avid world traveler, I travel a lot for pleasure. But only part-time and never for work. So, when looking for some tips on how seasoned business travelers routinely manage constant travel—and work—I turned to some experts and got some advice that we can all benefit from.
I started by talking to power-travel couple Jason and Sarah Reed. Sarah, senior director of events at Zendesk, spends anywhere between one and two weeks traveling each month to scout venues and host global events. Jason, a United States Marine, also travels between 12-24 weeks each year for his position. They also like to travel a few extra weeks each year just for fun. As a follower of Sarah’s Instagram account, I know that there are times where their work travel very occasionally overlaps in various cities and airports around the world. (Insert my own #couplegoals here.)
I also reached out to full-time digital nomad Thalassa van Beek, owner of Freelance Kickstarter, a training site that helps freelancers get their businesses off the ground. Thalassa spends a majority of her time away from “home”— actually, “home” is generally wherever she’s traveling, for whatever duration of time.
Here’s what the professionals had to say.
On packing hacks: Less is more
Packing is the true sign of a roadwarrior; they’ve got it down to a science. Vacationers overpack or get weighed down by things they don’t need.
When it comes to luggage, Sarah and Jason invest in only one brand of suitcase, in varying sizes, so they know exactly what to expect when they grab a suitcase. Also, Sarah only packs in a specific color. “My entire closet is blocked off by color,” she explains. “I take a primary color as my base and then pack around that. So, certain trips are navy blue or black or brown. Then I incorporate bits and pops of color into it. That ensures that every single thing I pack matches with everything else and I only pack one handbag. All my shoes and jewelry are interchangeable. I always pack a trench coat. It’s an investment piece but it matches with everything—it’s waterproof, warm enough, cool enough, and rolls up. It goes everywhere with me.”
Sarah is also a pro when it comes to packing the right toiletries: she buys duplicates of everything and keeps a toiletry kit always stocked. “I bought all travel-worthy make-up, everything is in smaller sizes. I stopped carrying anything in a set, it just doesn’t fit properly. I’m to the point now where I have an extra flat iron, extra brush, it all fits in the kit, and I can just pick it up and go,” she says.
Thalassa takes a different tactic: “I’m not a very stressed packer and often pack very last-minute, thinking that if I forgot something that I really need, I’ll be able to buy it wherever I go.” But like Sarah, she also emphasized that less is more, “The more you travel, the more you realize how little you need. Question each item, whether it’s really essential.”
"The more you travel, the more you realize how little you need. Question each item, whether it's really essential." - Thalassa van Beek
On flying in comfort: Loyalty pays
No matter if you travel frequently or just a couple times a year, you know that airplanes are notoriously uncomfortable. And they seem to just be getting worse: the average airline seat measures just 17 inches wide.
All of our experts were in agreement, loyalty is key here. If you have to travel a lot for work, find an airline you like and stick with it. Building up your loyalty can help you get upgrades and the seat you like.
You also get to know the airplane layouts, which can help you choose the right seat. “I have certain seats that I prefer based on the duration of the flight,” Jason says. “For a domestic flight, I like to be on the aisle of the exit row. I get more leg room and if I want to get up and move a little, I don’t disturb anyone. For international, I look for the seat just behind the business/first class. If it’s an overnight flight, I want the window as to use the wall as a headrest.”
And if you can afford to upgrade, do it. Especially when you’re on your way somewhere for business. The flight home may be less important as you don’t have to arrive fresh and ready to work.
If you have to travel a lot for work, find an airline you like and stick with it. Building up your loyalty can help you get upgrades and the seat you like.
Also, don’t forget your downloads. Thalassa says, “Besides comfortable clothes, I always double-check that I have downloaded everything I may need: books, magazines, games, but also documents and tabs in my internet browser with information I may need if I want to work during the flight.”
If you need to work on your flight, buy the WiFi. If you can get work done, the cost is well worth it, according to Sarah. She also recommends getting to know your seatmate when you sit down. “Have conversations with your seatmates. Set some ground rules. It sounds a little silly, but if you have those conversations right off the bat, you both get what you need. I say, ‘Hey, I know I’m in the middle, but I have to get some work done. So, I apologize now for bumping elbows with you. If I can have the right arm rest, I can type a little more easily.’”
[Also read: How not to be an asshole on an airplane]
On sleeping soundly: Forgo the view for some quiet
New research shows that first-night insomnia is not just in your head. Your first night sleeping in a new location will most likely result in lower-quality sleep because your brain remains half awake to make sure those unknown noises aren’t something dangerous. This leftover remnant of our prehistoric days can be detrimental whether you’ve got a big meeting the next morning and are sleeping in a new hotel, visiting family for the holidays, or even just hoping to get your vacation started with some rest and relaxation.
Again, the experts agree that loyalty can go a long way here, too. Sarah says, “This is the hardest part of traveling for me. I’m a naturally light sleeper. Considering I spend a third of my year in a hotel, this is very important to me. I try to know my hotel or at least my hotel brand well. It helps to have hotel loyalty.” She asks for a quiet room, on a higher floor, away from elevators, and for extra pillows. “Those are all things that mean something to me and my ability to sleep well. If I’m traveling for business, I ask for a business hotel. I’ve given up on quirky, cute boutique hotels as they have thin walls and travelers coming in at odd hours. Those don’t interest me when I need to get a good night’s sleep,” she says.
[Also read: 2018's latest wellness trend: silence]
Jason tries to stay away from the pack. “I will stay near the event, but never at the event hotel,” he explains. “I need some space from the crowds. At events, I am in ‘on’ mode and by the end of the day, I have no more to give. So the escape to my cave helps recovery for the next day’s events.”
He also recommends moving in, hanging shirts and laying out toiletries. “I unpack everything and treat the hotel like my new home,” he says.
Even if you don’t struggle to stay asleep, Thalassa recommends earplugs. Especially if you’re not sure what kind of environment you’ll find at the hotel. You never know when someone’s class reunion will take over the hallway and disturb your sleep.
On staying healthy: Plan ahead
Travel can wreak havoc with your system. From bad airport food and shared air, to jet lag and changes in your fitness routine, travel makes it harder to maintain your health. Harder, but not impossible.
“I always source the gym before I leave,” says Sarah. “I scope it out ahead of time, look up the classes, buy a pass, and reserve a spot. This helps to keep me on task because it’s already on my calendar before I even arrive in the city. This also goes back to packing. If I’m taking room in my suitcase for workout clothes, well hell yes I’m going to use them. I could’ve put other things in that space.”
There’s another option when you can’t get to the gym. “You don’t need all this crazy equipment to get a good workout in. I make an attempt to do 50 push ups, 100 squats, and 100 sit ups every day,” Sarah says. “I break it up in the morning and finish it up when I get back to the room at night. It keeps you feeling a little less sedentary. And, of course, walk wherever you can.”
Health is more than just exercise for Sarah. She keeps Quest bars packed in her carry-on, laptop bag, and suitcase as a quick and easy alternative to airport fare or other quick, and often unhealthy, snack options.
Jason also does some early legwork, especially when it comes to getting to know a location and hotel. By making time in advance to do some recon on a new locale, he’s able to get flights that work best for him and arrives with some ideas about where to eat or to check out, as time allows. “I attempt to do all the legwork for the trip about a month out. I like to eat at locally-known restaurants and if there is a historical site, I will seek it out,” he says.
By making time in advance to do some recon on a new locale, he’s able to get flights that work best for him and arrives with some ideas about where to eat or to check out, as time allows.
[Also read: Tips for staying safe while traveling on business]
On traveling with tech: Pack a power strip
Many of us want or need to work when we’re outside the office—at least to get messages and the news. So whether technology is the distraction as you try to relax or you’ve got to work but don’t want to bring everything, it’s key to be able to find a quiet spot to plug in and get done what you need to. Carrying some technology often feels essential.
Thalassa says, “I travel with a lightweight keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand, which saves my neck! It was quite expensive, but after I bought it I wondered what had taken me so long. It makes such a big difference!”
One of the major issues faced by travelers is making sure their devices are charged. “We like to think the every hotel and airport has gotten better with providing charging stations, but it’s not true,” Sarah says. That’s why her solution is a great one: she carries a power strip. “A power strip means that I just need one place to plug in and I can charge multiple devices. And, if there isn’t an outlet available, I can just ask the person using the outlet to share my power strip with me. It also works super-well on airplanes. Everything gets charged simultaneously.”
On keeping up with email: It’s all about balance
When you’re traveling for work, your job probably expects you to be reachable for at least parts of your trip. Staying connected in a new location means finding WiFi, keeping devices charges, and being ready to return messages on the go.
As a digital nomad, Thalassa says, “Communication is the key factor, because it’s all about managing expectations. All my clients are aware of my lifestyle, but I try to make them notice it as little as possible. So I tend to work ahead of schedule when I know I have a day full of traveling coming up and, once I’m somewhere else, I always take the morning to work and catch up with clients, and then do some more work in the evenings, if needed.” It's not all glitz and glamour, no matter why or how often you travel for work.
“I’m already remote from my team, so I have a lot of experience with this, even when I’m not traveling,” says Sarah. “There’s a lot of flexibility within our team communication, but the advice I give is that you have to be willing to work outside what you think of as normal business hours and working conditions. You have to fit in work when and where you can. I’m a big believer in buying WiFi on a flight. I get so much effective work done, even just on Slack, because I can keep in communication with teams and avoid the flurry of emails when I hit the ground.” She tries to stagger communications out over a few hours and enjoys that there are fewer interruptions and distractions in-flight than in the office. “I also let people know with an out of office signature and Slack message that they might not get the immediacy they’re accustomed to, but that I’ll get back around to them eventually.”
[Also read: Use Slack to make your work life better]
For Jason, getting work done while traveling is easier in some ways. “Work gets more out of me when I travel. I don’t have anywhere to go, no wife, no kid, no dogs, no house chores. I eat a good meal and tuck into a space in a public area of the hotel and start cleaning up my inbox, sending end of the day wrap-ups and keeping the office workload under control. Now, I am not against going out with the team for a meal and drinks, but not every night.”
Travel safely, and well
Being a professional roadwarrior can be exciting, but it also adds up to a lot of time in airports, cabs, alone, and without the comforts of home. It adds its own stress, which these experts have learned to alleviate in big and small ways. So the next time you need to pack up and hit the road, consider these tips... and maybe bring along an extra power strip and a few power bars.