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You may not have control of how many time zones you're traveling to, but expense reports will be easier the fewer cards you use.

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Now that you’ve got your mind right about your impending business trip, it is time to start booking flights, reserving hotel rooms, and sorting out your transportation requirements. Fret not, rookie business traveler; this is, in many ways, the easiest part of traveling. Here are a few tips to put your mind at ease.

Know the Rules

This should be a given. It is not. Many travelers (including yours truly) have blazed right past them due to excitement. Travel Rules: Part 1 was the Travel & Expense policy we already covered that includes corporate policies regarding reimbursement, fare classes, hotel costs, etc. Travel Rules: Part 2 is the Onboarding Guide, a document specific to the project. This usually means it supersedes the corporate policy. (Note: This series of travel tips is geared toward travelers embarking on long-term travel for work, e.g. weekly trips between your home city and the same business location.)

The Onboarding Guide will cover some of the same ground in much more detail relative to the specific client or project for which you will be traveling. Prescribed travel restrictions therein may include: use of a travel agency, holidays, vacation guidelines, ground transportation restrictions, specific hotel(s) for lodging, days on-site, on-site arrival and departure times (i.e., your butt in your desk chair by and until), per diem vs. actual expenses, frequency of return trips home, and much, much more. These restrictions are typically less flexible than corporate requirements, which is why you often need to “phone a friend.”

Discuss project travel with a peer and then with the project manager. Your peer should be able to offer hints about ways to be creative with the rules. Wrangle these hints into questions for your conversation with the project manager to get a feel for validity. The most important question to ask is this: Is travel to an alternative destination (not your home location) approved and reimbursable?

Spend Like It’s Your Money

All companies are increasingly diligent about expenses, particularly travel expenses—especially for consultants. Be sensitive to that, and choose options that you would choose if you were footing the bill yourself. Your client will appreciate it. You will build trust, and money not spend on insane expenses may be spent on more billable hours.

Use the Corporate Card

Your employer has issued you a credit card. Your favorite hotel chain, airline, restaurant, etc. all have branded cards with points programs. Which one should you use? Use the one mandated by whomever is reimbursing your expenses (usually your corporate card) until you have enough seniority to test rules or make your own rules. Then, explore the chess game that is credit card loyalty programs. #ProTip: Expense reports will be easier the fewer cards you use.

Reserve Your Hotel ASAP

You should reserve lodging as soon as you have received direction on where to stay. In most cases, projects have reserved blocks of rooms at specific rates. Additionally, some destinations tend to always be sold out during certain seasons, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, rodeo time in Houston, and basically every day in Silicon Valley. Once those preferred-rate rooms run out, you could end up staying at a lower star hotel in order to get a similar rate. Said another way: Act quickly to stay at Kickass Plush Hotel for $100/night or drag your feet to stay at Room Door Opens Onto Humidity Motel for the same rate.

Book weekly reservations based on the days you are required to be on-site. Create calendar entries for each check-in date, include the confirmation number, and schedule at least one reminder within free cancellation period. For example: Set a reminder for March 21st when check-in is March 25th and the penalty-free grace period is three days prior. You did remember to list your loyalty program number on each reservation, right?

Wait to Book Flights

Your project manager will give you the green light to book your initial flight. Do not jump the gun as you will likely be booking a non-refundable fare. In layman’s terms, non-refundable equates to a low-cost fare which may be canceled and applied to a new flight after a cancellation fee (that is usually as much as the initial fare) is withdrawn.

Assuming a traveling work week of a Monday morning arrival and a Thursday afternoon / evening return; a home location of Houston; and a work location of New York, follow these guidelines when it is time to book air travel:

  • If you have flexibility, pick your preferred airline after considering the following: direct flights and number of flights for the route; mileage program; travel distance between the departure airport & home and arrival airport & work location.
  • Book your first ticket as a round trip departing on your first Monday on-site and returning on your forecasted last day on the project.* For example, you are scheduled to start Monday, July 10, 2017, and roll-off on Friday, December 15, 2017.  Use those dates when booking your first ticket. Not only should the fare be lower due to a Saturday stayover, but it also sets you up for a reverse commute and alternative travel.
  • Book subsequent travel as reverse commutes. A reverse commute uses the work location as the trip origination point and your home location as the destination thereby making every flight a Saturday stayover and lower fare. If you live in Houston (IAH) and your work location is New York (LGA), then your reverse commute is LGA to IAH.

* Some airlines, like Southwest, price airfare by the leg, and do not offer round trip discounts. Book one-way fares on these carriers for greater flexibility. Review the fine print and clarify restrictions.

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