How to Survive a Whirlwind International Business Trip
Traveling can be a great job perk, but surviving transit to another continent while doing your best work is harder than it sounds. While my personal trips are usually all about me, business travel is about attaining success for my organization.
I recently travelled from Washington, DC to Beirut, Lebanon — and back again — in under a week, culminating in about 20 hours of travel each way, for a three-day, high-profile business trip. I departed on a Monday evening, arrived Tuesday evening, and was back home in the United States by Saturday afternoon.
Talk about a whirlwind visit!
Here are my tips to help overcome packing stress, jet lag, and travel woes — while still impressing the boss.
Skip the budget travel and lounge around.
Norwegian Air, WOW Air, and Spirit Airlines are perfect options for personal travel. But, on a business trip, I cannot overemphasize the benefits of more traditional carriers.
If there are delays, the chances of hopping on another flight quickly are greater with larger airlines. And when luggage is lost, they will typically throw it on the next flight to the destination.
I’m willing to carry on snacks on WOW Air, but filling my belly with provided meals and snacks from non-budget airlines allows me to focus on my work ahead.
I also recommend splurging on the airport lounges for layovers. For less than $50 USD, I have relaxed in comfortable lounges around the world. I purchase passes online and swear by my good experiences with Lounge Pass.
On my recent business trip, I had a six hour layover in Frankfurt after a very turbulent transatlantic flight during which many passengers, including me, got sick to our stomachs (Lufthansa’s flight attendants were awesome, for the record). Upon arrival, I was so relieved to unwind in Frankfurt Airport’s Luxx Lounge, where I took a hot shower and caught a nap in a cell phone-free quiet room.
Just don’t forget to read the fine print, find the lounge location, and print out the lounge pass. Many say that visits are limited to three hours, but I’ve never seen this enforced. Internet, food — including alcohol, and showering facilities — are usually included.
Note: Going to these lounges may mean that you’ll have to exit and re-enter security, so allot time accordingly.
After leaving on a 2am flight from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Airport to Charles De Gaulle in Paris, I barely slept. When I arrived bleary eyed at 6am in the Star Alliance Lounge, I was thrilled to have an espresso and breakfast, spacious accommodations, and comfortable chairs with built-in phone chargers (plus free wifi) to relax in. There are also large windows if you’re craving daylight, big flat screen TVs for news junkies to catch the latest international headlines on, and wine and spirits available.
To find the best international lounges, read Yelp, TripAdvisor, Travel+Leisure, and check out bloggers like The Points Guy for reviews. They have ample photos and user comments so that you can pick what’s right for you. You might even be able to include your lounge pass as a business travel expense.
I’m not willing to risk losing a bag on a short international flight, so I keep it to a carry on. First—and most importantly — check the weather at your final destination.
For my latest trip from Washington, DC to Beirut, I left DC (where it was 45° F), transited through freezing, snowy Frankfurt, and arrived in warm Beirut. I decided in advance to forgo my winter coat in favor of my reliable London Fog trench coat. To keep warm during travel, I brought a soft infinity scarf from Primark.
For my outfits on the ground, I used the capsule wardrobe method.
My core tenet was to build off my navy suit — a jacket, skirt, and pants. I needed two office outfits, one formal business outfit, and one special event dress. I mixed and matched easily with two neutral tops in cream and mauve to alternate with my skirt and pants. I also brought a black turtleneck, black skinny jeans, and black flats. In transit, I wore black knee-high boots (my bulkiest shoes) and slipped them off on the plane to be more comfortable.
As a bonus, I limited myself to one evening dress and heels for a special dinner. Jewelry didn’t take up much space, so I was liberal in my earrings and necklace choices, which also spiced up my neutrals.
Do be sure to leave anything very expensive or irreplaceable at home. I also forego luxuries like my blow dryer and curling wand to save space.
These clothing pieces — about 10 items in total — fit easily in my carryon with pajamas and limited makeup. I lay each outfit out before I go, which helps me think about what I’m forgetting. The truth is that no one will remember what you wore, so I lean towards keeping it basic. On this trip, I did wish that I had thrown in one pair of jeans.
Another thing to remember is that it is rare to be in a location that doesn’t have any shopping options for an emergency. Earlier this year, when a one-week trip to Tunis was extended by a whole extra week, I stopped into Zara at a local mall to grab a top and another pair of pants to tide me over, and grabbed staples like extra shampoo at Carrefour.
My personal rule is to unpack my clothing upon arrival. It helps me to see what is too wrinkled to salvage. If it’s not expensive, I send items to be ironed by the hotel right away so that I have them for the next morning. If it’s more economical, I ask for an ironing board the first night so that I’m prepared for the week ahead.
Arrive in the evening and get some sleep.
I always find it best to calculate my arrival for late afternoon or early evening local time.
I fly for work to the Middle East, connecting through Europe. Touching down around 4pm at my final destination is perfect for arriving at the hotel, unpacking my clothes, eating dinner, and getting a good night’s sleep before reporting to the office the next day.
After a long flight, I also sometimes relax by getting a nail polish change in the hotel if there is a salon onsite.
On my most recent trip to Lebanon, to sleep I tried melatonin for the first time, a natural hormone available over the counter. (Always talk to a doctor first, but many people count on melatonin to help them fall asleep when the time zones leave them out of whack.)
I used it the first night, but was also exhausted from my journey. The second night, my sleep was erratic and I can’t say that the melatonin worked. By the third and final night, I tried the melatonin again and did feel drowsy.
Next time, I’ll use a higher dose and see if I have better results. I can’t say that I feel well-rested during most of my trips, but for short visits, I can usually grin and bear it.
Keep alcohol and caffeine in check.
Everyone loves to unwind with coworkers over a glass of wine, but alcohol makes my jet lag feel even worse.
While on the road, I avoid alcohol and coffee, and instead keep it to staples like sparkling water, herbal tea, and fruit juices. I don’t drink alcohol on the plane, but do try to keep as hydrated as I can en route with other beverages. When I arrive, I try to drink a whole bottle of water in my hotel room before bed.
Last year, while on a two-week business trip in Tunisia, I acquired serious food poisoning. One of the things that sustained me until I got back to my doctor in the States was keeping hydrated (along with my ever-present kit of travel medicine).
To get my metabolism going and blood sugar up, I always eat a full breakfast at the hotel around 8am, where I try to drink more water and juice. It can be tempting to load up on coffee, but I find that it makes me jittery by the afternoon, when jetlag often strikes the worst.
As an alternative, I sometimes try to take a short power nap (even in my office), eat a granola bar, and take a brisk walk to refresh my mind and body. It’s even better if I can hit the gym in the morning to get moving. If you can get some natural light, this also helps to reset your internal clock in addition to the exercise.
Be practical and business savvy.
For me, successful business traveling is all about making sure the practical details are confirmed.
First, confirm about six weeks in advance as to whether a tourist or business visa is necessary. If in doubt, call the embassy or consular section directly. Even if you can enter on a tourist visa, the nature of your professional activities on the ground may require a business visa.
I know of two incidents in which coworkers did not think that they needed visas to visit a specific country, when, in fact, they did, resulting in a last minute scramble. Your human resources team and bosses can serve as a guide, but it always pays to be sure.
On electronics, I take a work laptop instead of risking a loss or theft of my own. Research whether or not you will need an adaptor or voltage convertor. For my mobile phone, I bring a battery extender because I am often in conference rooms facilitating events and might not be able to reach an outlet. For a company mobile phone, alert your IT team so that they can notify their carrier. If you foot the bill, definitely rely on wifi and Skype, and compare rates on provider options for travel abroad, for even a limited plan, in case of an emergency.
Finally, do not forget about building connections and relationships.
Working for an organization with offices around the world, I am often the recipient of collegial hospitality and friendship in the form of delicacies such as Russian vodka, Chinese red bean cakes, and Lebanese dates and cookies. When I visit colleagues abroad, I bring something edible from my country to leave in the break area for everyone to enjoy, like a bag of chocolates.
If it feels right to bring personalized gifts, check out museum gift stores, where I have found distinctly local gifts for friends abroad.
Bring business cards for networking and tuck them into a purse for easy access. (Don’t have them? Get them!) Work travel has given me contacts who I regularly keep in touch with because we exchanged cards and I followed up after our initial meeting with an email.
Be aware of etiquette around business cards: Americans and Europeans can be very lax about looking at them, shoving them in a briefcase or binder. In Asia, however, handling the business card respectfully and reading it carefully is a way to acknowledge the seriousness of the professional relationship. Keep in mind that these new connections can be some of the highest yield deliverables for you and your company after a trip, so chat it up!
Seize the opportunity.
Traveling for work can be overwhelming, but it’s a great opportunity to meet with international colleagues, observe an organization’s global structure, and visit a new country.
I’ve found it to be a great bonding experience with my coworkers and, with careful planning, stress can be minimized. And, with any luck, you may even have a free night or two to try new restaurants or tourist sites.