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A Survival Guide for Holiday Business Travel

If you have to travel for work this crazy time of year, this guide may help smooth the ride.
Journalist, freelance writer
November 30, 2015

Business travel is rarely easy, even on a good day. But it can be especially hard between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, particularly during the few days before and after holidays, like Christmas. It isn't just a few business travelers and tourists in the airports, train stations and rental car offices.

"Never, ever, ever, ever travel [for business] during Thanksgiving week. Ever. Unless you're completely insane," advises Louis Altman, owner of GlobaFone, a global satellite phone and service provider in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The one exception, Altman says, is if you're traveling overseas for business during Thanksgiving week—provided you don't have any layovers in a U.S. city. That's because traveling directly overseas where they don't care about Thanksgiving, Altman says, is a snap.

If you're not able to avoid traveling during the holidays, here are 10 suggestions from business travelers that may make your journey go a little more smoothly:

1. Take the unbeaten path.

"The most efficient route may not be the best route during the holidays," says Jean-Francois Fourcroy, a Los Angeles-based international business development consultant who's traveled to dozens of countries for business. " This takes you out of the main hubs and can seriously reduce price, time and stress." Fourcroy also says that in his experience, trains seem to be less traveled during the holidays, though it depends on which route you're taking. 

2. Use your loyalty program.

The holidays are a particularly good time to cash in your rewards, says Mike Kelly, CEO of On Call International, a company that offers emergency travel assistance. "During the holiday season, seats on a flight are a hot commodity, and with more people flocking to the airport than usual, business travelers often get stuck in unfavorable seats," he says. "Using the frequent flyer or loyalty program points that you've accumulated all year to select your seat is a good way to ensure the business travel that you're used to."

3. Put technology to work for you.

With so many mobile apps out there to make your life easier, you might not be familiar with some of the lesser-known apps that can give you a leg up when it comes to traveling. Try JetSmarter, if you're interested in finding a private flight. Or use PackPoint, which, after you type in some general information about where you're traveling and for how long, will give you ideas on what you should be packing.

Bobby Harris, CEO of Riverview, Florida-based BlueGrace Logistics, a transportation management company, swears by WorldMate, an app that specializes in creating business travel itineraries. "I can just forward my confirmations for flights, hotels, car services and rentals directly to the app, and it auto-populates my itinerary," Harris says. "This is very convenient when I'm trying to make sure all my reservations are lined up and successfully booked."

Another tech tip from Harris, who's a frequent business traveler: "Have a mophie or other phone battery backup available at all times," he advises. "Combine that with extra-length chargers you can buy online, and you shouldn't miss any critical calls ever."

The most efficient route may not be the best route during the holidays. I'll sometimes fly to a city nearby, then use the train or rent a car to get to my destination.

4. Check in online.

That way, Fourcroy says, "You skip check-in lines and baggage drop-off lines, which can be a real time saver. Your average traveler won't necessarily be as efficient."

5. Pack lightly.

Some airlines are cracking down with fees for using the overhead baggage bin—so it may not be worth it to try to get away with bringing odd-sized or too much baggage on the plane. Still, if you can easily and cheaply carry it with you, there are benefits for carrying your luggage on board. "In the event of a flight delay or cancellation, it's easier to reschedule a flight knowing that you have all your personal items with you and that they aren't stowed away under a plane for hours," Kelly points out.

6. Ship some of your stuff.

If you're bringing samples of your work, ship them, suggests Susie Erjavec Parker, who owns SPARKER Strategy Group, a social media and public relations agency in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "If you have expo or presentation materials you'll need for your trip, ship them," she says. "Do not try to travel with them. FedEx or UPS these materials to the intended location, and travel light and easy without the stress of worrying."

Fourcroy agrees. "If need be, send them by courier to your hotel or to the place you're meeting people," he suggests. He says he learned the value of this tip at a trade fair when one of his competitors had a stand that was half empty the first day. "The person who was supposed to bring their samples missed the flight as he'd totally underestimated holiday road traffic and airport queues. The next flight was the next day, so they spent a day with photos rather than [actual] samples."

You could even ship your regular luggage. That's what Kevin Meany, CEO of BFG Communications, a brand marketing agency in Hilton Head, South Carolina, often does. "Never check a bag with the airline, especially if connections are involved," he advises. "I often FedEx clothing to my location—it's more reliable, often cheaper and always quicker because I don't have to wait a ridiculous amount of time for my bag to round the carousel. When you're done with your trip, instead of dragging a large bag to the airport, simply ship it back home. Most, if not all, hotels have regular FedEx and UPS pickups."

7. Carry cash.

This can be especially critical during the holiday travel season. "Always have cash on hand," Meany says. "Nothing gets things moving quicker than a bit of green, and when the credit card system or wire is down and credit cards can't be accepted, you're still in business."

8. Stay sharp.

Look for potential bottlenecks that could make your business trip more difficult. "Unfortunately, during the holiday season, there are many travelers who aren't used to the rules and regulations, which can pose a delay for the frequent travelers," Kelly says. If he sees a security line that is filled with "families with children, passengers with wrapped holiday gifts or confused-looking travelers," Kelly tries to pick another line.

9. Expect problems—and plan for them.

Meany, who flies a lot, says that if you take a look at the average on-time performance ratings for airlines, you'll find you're going to be late about 25 percent of the time and cancelled about 5 percent of the time.

Some specific routes are particularly unpredictable, Meany notes. But travel these routes during the holiday season, and you may be pushing your luck.

"This means you should always have a back-up plan," Meany says. For instance, he encourages business travelers to take the most flexible hotel option that you can find. "It may cost you a bit more," he explains, "but if you're canceled or miss a trip altogether, you'll probably get stuck with the entire bill, even if you don't show up."

10. Look on the bright side.

Traveling during the holidays isn't all doom and gloom—you'll see a lot of happy reunions at the baggage carousel, assuming you do have to pick up your luggage. During the holidays, there's a kind of excitement in the air, even if it's frenzied, that you might find uplifting. And if work is keeping you so busy you can barely manage to see family members during this festive time of year, holiday travel could work in your favor.

"For the past 13 years, I've flown from MHT to BWI on Christmas morning to get to my wife's family holiday celebration," Altman says, referring to the Manchester-Boston Regional and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports. "Road traffic is non-existent, airport traffic is light, and people are festive," he says, adding that he even brings little gifts for the flight crew since they're sacrificing their holiday for his travels.

Read more articles on travel.

This article was originally published on November 25, 2014.

Photo: iStockphoto