Bonvoy, Mergers & Corporate Culture

One thing I’ve experienced in the course of my business travels is the massive impact to customer service when two large corporations merge. It hit me first when Northwest and Delta merged. I was a Delta Platinum at the time, and the mess that resulted prompted me to do a status match over to United… a change I haven’t regretted once. (not that United is perfect, I’ve seen the unbelievable customer disservice stories, but if you have some priority level with them it’s a pretty good airline… not to mention the United lounge in Tokyo is absolutely amazing). The next time it hit was when I was pulling a regular commute from Palm Springs to San Francisco on Alaska. Then Alaska and Virgin America merged and the nightmare began. It took them close to 2 years to merge that most fundamental of databases… their frequent fliers. So even though (in theory) you were flying “Alaska/Virgin” Virgin treated Alaska’s frequent travelers like ordinary travelers, and vice versa… a fact that pissed off a lot of us who have suffered through too many flights and expected to be treated like the vital Bread & Butter customers we are. At that point, even though I was an MVP with Alaska, I started booking United flights on a smaller regional jet (something I try to avoid), just to be sure I’d get decent customer service. Plus Alaska and Virgin had two separate agreements with the SFO airport, so I literally never knew which terminal I was going to land in or fly out of. It was a trying time.

I finally bypassed that bit of annoyance by moving up to Northern California just outside of the Bay Area. It was a 2-4 hour drive into the office, but still better than all the hassles of air travel. Until, of course, I got laid off – which is just one of the really interesting things that has happened to me this year, in addition to 3 weeks in Spain, 10 days in Chile, a broken ankle, a smash & grab at home, and eye surgery during which I woke up (completely).

What we discovered in our trip to Spain, is that the merger between the hotel giants Marriott and Ritz Carlton (and all their many associated brands), is no different than any other large travel company merger. It’s a mess.

Until staying at a Hotel Hospes (a pre-merger Ritz Carlton brand) and an Aloft (another Ritz Carlton brand) in Seville Spain I hadn’t realized how different the internal cultures of Marriott and Ritz actually are.

You see, Marriott’s culture is built around relationships, especially with people who will stay frequently. The design of the lobbies, the Concierge Lounge privileges, the room layouts, and the general amenities are all designed to make business travelers feel comfortable and special while they’re (frequently) away from home. In this culture, the frequent travelers represent revenue they can rely on regardless of the season and economic conditions. A frequent traveler who is used to being given special treatment when away on business, will also choose the same hotel when traveling for leisure. Why not? They get extra perks and considerations that often translate into savings and fun experiences on their personal trips.

Ritz Carlton’s and its suite of brands were designed to make the occasional pleasure trip feel luxurious. Where Marriott focuses on business amenities and soothing the weary road warrior when they stumble across the threshold, Ritz’s customer base wants to walk in and be wowed. They want every meal eaten at a Ritz property to feel fabulous, and they spend a lot of their time away from the hotel.

While a business traveler wants to be able to get a quick bite to eat from early morning (before heading out to a local meeting or company location) through noon (because… time zones), the leisure traveler wants to sleep in, then go out to explore and find some wonderful brunch place with photo-worthy quiche and lattes with small landscapes done in foam.

While a business traveler wants immediate onsite access to a reasonably priced drink and a decent bite to eat after a long day of planes, trains, Ubers, etc… the leisure traveler wants a quick nap and directions to the best sight seeing destinations, or to head out for some chill time with friends or family in exotic locations. An introvert on a business trip will sit in their room and read a book or work on the latest report. An introvert on a leisure trip will go out for a stroll. This matters when it comes to room sizes and amenities like arm chairs and desks.

These are not just different types of customers, catering to them is inherently a different business model and corporate culture. And this is why Marriott and Ritz are stumbling as they figure out the essential steps of their joint adventure.

Accustomed to squeezing every customer for the maximum dollars per square foot of hotel room, and to handing out maps to local attractions and recommending the most expensive restaurant around, Ritz culture is just not prepared to provide a stiff drink to someone checking in at 2pm or a basic breakfast at 6am. Alcohol is served during what the local staff considers to be “reasonable” hours, as is breakfast and dinner. Lunch isn’t even really a consideration because every tourist is going to want to go out and have new culinary experiences at that hour, or be saving money for a big dinner splurge.

And this is the big takeaway, for now at least. When a Marriott Platinum or Titanium member walks into a Ritz culture, they’re going to be disappointed.

At a Ritz property, status is pretty much irrelevant. If you want to spend more money on a better room, GREAT! A free upgrade? Lips curl in disbelief. They’re thrilled to book you for their in-house “cultural experience”, but the food is mediocre if not outright terrible and the cultural experience can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. You can enjoy a $6 demitasse of coffee and the breakfast buffet will be $27. Because they don’t expect to see you again, your small dissatisfactions with the room or the food or the location, are pretty much irrelevant. Although this is changing, leisure travelers have better things to do than fill out surveys and write reviews. And the Ritz brand knows this… it’s a culture based on highlights, so the sexy lobby decor, the luxurious linens and the high end bath products are always going to overshadow the fact that the in-room refrigerator never worked properly.

And if you do provide feedback on what they could have done better, you can count on someone telling you, condescendingly, that you’re wrong and no hotel ever would have done it differently (because in their mind they are the experts in running a profitable hotel, and you’re an amateur). In my experience at a Ritz property, your business is less important than your check out date – you’re just a tourist after all, a head in a bed.

I am hoping that Marriott’s focus on constant quality improvement and customer relationships will catch on, but for now every Bonvoy property isn’t necessarily going to provide the same experience.

In short, mergers are consistently terrible for customer service. Let’s hope this one gets sorted out quickly.

Observations of a City – Seville Spain

I’m trying to capture some of my impressions of Seville, Spain before we move on in our trip. The Wife and I have wandered around here for almost four days, encountering the people and culture in various settings.

If, like us, you prefer to explore a destination by foot… peering into windows and catching glimpses of forbidden private spaces, Seville will prove as frustrating as most European cities. Space in Europe is constantly at a premium, so the local architecture is designed to ensure privacy and support family time. As a result the coy facades of buildings pressing against one another give the impression of life lived in dark, unwelcoming places. What the average passer-by is not privileged to experience, is the fact that most of these imposing and barren facades are simply the garage door and back gate into large multi-generational communities constructed around 2, 3 and even 5 story courtyards. The center of the space is the heart of the home and a way for the architecture to ensure natural light reaches into every level, and every room.

In most European cities, these “back sides’ of buildings are still a source of some care, embellished with tile, ornate iron work, and occasionally face-lifted with a bumped out sun room hovering lightly off the second story.

In Seville, they are often left untended and unkempt – perhaps to discourage the regular influx of tourists from hanging about. In fact, because the heart of Seville is built and rebuilt upon ancient foundations, streets designed to accommodate a horse and rider or a mule drawn cart, and old muddy foot paths (it’s not alone, you will find this in many older cities in Europe) – it can be positively hazardous to walk the streets. Automobiles thread these narrow passageways, and pedestrians are granted scant inches in many places to step out of the way. Your best bet, while visiting, is to scurry through the constrained blocks of residential buildings surrounding whatever tiny hotel you have found that allows you pedestrian access to the heart of town, to reach one of the larger boulevards. Once there however, it is no small challenge to make your way from one destination to the next… Google Maps for pedestrians notwithstanding. There are no straight routes, and wandering around looking for someplace interesting to explore, photograph, or shop – often leads to frustration and blisters. If you plan to use Google Maps and GPS to get around on foot, make sure to download the offline maps you need before you leave, and practice following the directions in a familiar place.

Another challenge for us was to find a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. Our options ranged wildly, from a healthy breakfast at the hotel for the price of a good bicycle, to tiny restaurants where… if we were lucky, we could buy a cup of coffee and a pastry, or the usual bar menu of beef and pork cuts cooked without much interest in sauces, side dishes, or repeat diners – for less than I’ve spent on a single cocktail in most US cities. It frequently took us an hour to find one that was serving food, taking orders, AND willing to serve us at whatever ungodly hour we chose to appear. Breakfast is hard to find before 10am, lunch doesn’t appear until 2pm, and dinner is best from 9pm to midnight. Nap accordingly.

Every now and then we stumbled onto a neighborhood bar or up-and-coming hipster restaurant where the food was actually enjoyable, if not terribly healthy. We started marking these places on our map to ensure we could find them again. Needless to say, these were not places on our printed map from the friendly hotel concierge.

I am not a native of Seville, and as such I have no business passing judgement. I can only convey my various impressions of the city, which is unusually unkempt and inhospitable for Europe, especially Spain. Construction sounds are everywhere, restaurant staff clang dishes around loudly, narrow sidewalks are covered in suspicious substances, pedestrians shoulder one another aside, over-worked bar / food tenders snarl at potential customers about kitchen delays, and roughly boarded up store-fronts and properties for hire are a frequent part of the landscape.

After bustling Barcelona and tidy Lora del Rio, we were particularly surprised by the impression that business was not thriving in Seville. The sidewalks are awash with fast paced pedestrian traffic, but that same energy did not infect places actually providing services or selling products. Empty store-fronts were not neatly contained and ready for the next tenant. They were, in fact, frequently blocked off with shaggy chunks of cracked marble, poorly constructed brick pillars supporting the upper levels, old construction material, and many seasons of weeds.

Store face lifts often involved painting over historical carved marble and the application of pseudo-historical half-brick facing on top of graffiti-laden ceramic tile. It is difficult to know whether this was a deliberate preservation of history, or a lack of ambition on the part of construction workers. Was this irony, or urban post-post modern design? No se. Painters neatly covered filthy surfaces with a fresh coat of paint, obviously more interested in completing the job than ensuring the durability of their work. No one washed sidewalks, constructed window displays to entice buyers, or attempted to ensure the beauty of building facades. Layers of dirt built upon the residue left from previous generations.

There is a general air of exhaustion about the city. Old town squares and public courtyards are untended, or at best… allocated a desultory smattering of red geraniums and magenta bougainvillea in aging pots – planted hastily and left to survive under the tender mercies of a hot summer sun. During school hours, very young men hauled patched-together wagons full of debris picked from large public trash bins and scrawled desperate tokens of their existence on steel store shutters in the later hours.

You can imagine this city several centuries ago, with a few wealthy families providing protection and employment to many workers who kept vast gardens and large private homes clean and beautiful. That wealth has vanished, the gardens have been turned into open parks, and the city’s tax payers cannot afford to keep the streets and public spaces clean and well-maintained. Although the center of town is filled with commerce and a visual history of grand sculpture and design, most of it is now geared to sustain the tourist trade. While I have no doubt there are artisans, musicians, sculptors, painters and other creative spirits all over Seville, there appears to be little outlet for that artistry in Seville’s day to day life.

We stumbled across a number of places where current inhabitants of this city clearly struggled to reintroduce the idea of public art and civic pride. But the efforts were dying, ignored by a population bent on the struggle to evolve and grow amidst a social emphasis on historical traditions and symbols.

Flamenco, a cultural artifact borrowed from Gypsy tribes, is discovering a resurgence thanks to its arresting visual short-hand and lingering fringe of creative pride. Cynical fashion designers have stuffed the local department store with a section of mass-produced replicas of the Flamenco dance dress – flattering to a small-subset of females of marriageable age, and rather appalling on little girls, mothers, and the occasional grandmother seeking to relive that ‘princess’ moment with silk flower hair decorations, cheap lace shawls and a plethora of ruffles in synthetics so cheap even a proper dry-cleaning cannot give it a patina of sophistication. It’s a bit like Halloween in the US, if the only acceptable “costume” was expected to reflect a once-cool dance style from a hundred and fifty years ago.

Finding a place to stay close to the bulk of the tourist attractions is of particular importance. Although Uber drivers are operating here, you cannot depend on the pricing, and it can be cheaper to take a standard taxi wherever you need to go. Beware the buses – signage and announcements are not reliable and anyone unfamiliar with the city will find it difficult to get around using public transportation. All of the Uber and Taxis we have used were clean and the drivers polite. The advantage of Uber is, of course, the fact that they use GPS to determine their route to your destination, so you can be sure they are taking the best route for the moment. We still aren’t certain that the first taxi driver took us on the shortest route given pricing from other rides, but as strangers to the city, it is impossible to be certain.

Since Spanish wineries are subsidized by the government, there is less motivation to perfect the product than in some countries and locations famous for alcoholic libations. Beware white wines, which are frequently “semi-dulce” (sweet) regardless of their underlying grape varietal. Red wines tend to be dry and high in tannins. That being said, you can get a litre of cheap tinto (red) or blanco (white) to make a Sangria for somewhere around 2 euros, and bottles of slightly better grape for less than 5 euros. Alcohol in general is far cheaper in Spain at the Bar-Restaurants than Americans encounter at our equivalent businesses. The wife enjoyed a double shot of Dewars for 2.5 euros. Of course, the fact that she drinks it neat did impress the bar keep, so that may be part of it. Mine, including half the alcohol because I prefer it with ice, cost the same.

While customer (and tourist)-facing Spaniards in Barcelona often speak more than a smattering of English, you will need to bring a pocket full of Spanish phrases to get around Seville… even in high end hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The gratitude of staff here when I strung together my rough Spanglish was more than a little surprising. Because I did speak some Spanish (un peqeno), they often mistook us for Germans, Swiss, or tourists from other EU countries. This doesn’t say good things about Americans, so for the love of all that is good about the US of A, buy Level 1 Spanish by Pimsleur and play it in the car while you run errands for a few months. I promise you it will come in handy.

Hable Castilliano? Un poco? Si? Do you love Seville? Why? What is your favorite memory? Drop a line in the comments for the rest of us.

The Food of Seville Spain

Food is an interesting way to explore the culture and people of a particular place. You can learn a great deal about the hospitality ideals of a locale from the way the hotels there serve an international client base.

In places where hospitality is a primary consideration, a hotel breakfast bar will convey the welcome in a way nothing else does. Food intended to please everyone from a Japanese salary-man to a family of American tourists, or a European palate, tells you that local management understands their customers. A breakfast menu designed around local dishes and scheduled for local mealtime preferences, tells you another story. These displays are generally unconscious and innocent of intent: but they have a significant impact on travel experiences.

The Seville area has a sunny Mediterranean climate with extended growing seasons that easily sustain olives, citrus, and a broad variety of fresh vegetables. It is also a brief hour away from the ocean. Despite this ready access to a broad range of possible ingredients, the traditional cuisine of the area is largely shaped by historical and cultural norms.

Dishes are meat-heavy, with a brief nod to vegetables in the form of potatoes and olives. Tomato and sweet peppers make their appearance as well, but more as ways to add flavor than as main ingredients. If you love meat and potatoes, Andalusian cuisine will appeal to you.

Breakfast, or desayuno, is generally coffee with hot milk added to your taste (cafe con leche), and various types of heavily toasted bread with meat toppings featuring Iberican smoked meat. Small hard-crusted loaves are split, heated on a hot plate, then softened with olive oil and tomato water. (Imagine dicing up a tomato very finely (think puree), removing the bulk of the tomato solids, and using the remaining liquid to render the hard bread soggy.) The temperatures of the food are also significant with hot bread combining with cold cuts, room temperature olive oil, and refrigerated tomato water… the end result being a lukewarm dish with a consistency suitable to all possible dental arrangements.

While some herbs make their appearance in Andalusian style dishes, they are lightly applied… often to the broth used to cook seafood or the common dish Caracoles (tiny little snails in a salty, herbed broth). If you prefer mild, unseasoned foods, this will appeal to you.

Thus far my favorite dishes have been a salad of fresh tomato chunks, chopped sweet green peppers, large pieces of chewy cooked squid, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the inevitable Caracoles with a broth chaser.

Despite fish being a widely varied fresh ingredient, the locals feel the bounty of the sea should be allowed to shine through without assistance. They will serve a tray of five kinds of seafood, all breaded and cooked the same way with the conviction that this is the best way for the diner to enjoy the beauty of local cuisine. Sadly, my palate lacks the sophistication to appreciate this approach. Some of the fish seemed saltier than others, and the consistency of each allowed me to distinguish between various golden brown chunks, but over all – it was fish. Fresh, nicely cooked, but prepared for local tastes. I wanted to ask for tartar sauce or malt vinegar… but there were ample lemon wedges provided, so it seemed like I might risk insulting the cook. Insulting the cook, especially if you’re going to be around for a few days, is never a smart move. So I ate as much fish as my stomach needed and left the rest. The way things go here in Seville, I may just lose weight.

Are you a fan of Spanish, particularly Andalusian cooking? What should I look for on the menu? I’ve already discovered Secreto Iberico (a juicy cut of beef). What kind of vegetable dishes should I watch for that don’t showcase the humble potato?

The Great Baggage Fee Scam

Sometimes that airplane ticket price IS too good to be true. Depending on which airline you choose, the type of ticket you purchase (economy, economy plus, business class, etc…), and your destination – you can end up paying another $100+ to bring an ordinary 21″ roller bag along with you on your trip.

I believe the theory is that you should be able to live for a week out of a small backpack. To this I say, well… something rude. I’m all for discouraging people from packing a jumbo suitcase for a week. No one needs that much clothing unless they’re samples for your new line of product, or some such thing. But for a trip to visit family on the other coast, or sight see around Hollywood? Nope.

But I’m not talking about a big suitcase. I’m talking about a small suitcase with clothing that has been carefully curated to coordinate and layer. In addition I have a backpack for my camera, Chromebook, and eReader plus sundry charging solutions. A chunk of space is allocated to meds, which anyone over 50 will find consumes more and more space and attention.

But my Vueling ticket (economy) from Barcelona to Spain, does not permit me to carry on my roller bag. Same deal with my flight from the US to Europe on Lufthansa. I had to check my bag since I couldn’t afford to pay about FIVE THOUSAND dollars more for our two tickets. So I check my bag. $60 for the flight to Europe. eu50 (about $54) for the flight from Barcelona to Seville. And then of course, there is the fee for the trip back. So all told, I’m paying another $228… just to bring some clothing along on my 3 week vacation to the European Union. Multiply that by two for a couple. That’s a lot of sight-seeing tickets or massages… or a couple of deluxe meals. All to bring along your undies, some small electronics, basic toiletries, medications and enough clothing to be comfortable in various weather.

Raise your hand if this sounds reasonable to you. Please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you own stock in one or more airlines. Now please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you work for an airline.

Is anyone’s hand still not raised? I seriously doubt it. But this is today’s travel experience. Keep this in mind when you book airlines. Fortunately, Cheap Air tries to keep track of all these fees and baggage limitations across the airline industry. I prefer to be an educated consumer. Mind you, some of these so-called “free” first bags only apply to Business and First Class tickets. You have to go onto each airline’s particular baggage policy for the most current details.

You should also take advantage of any frequent traveler accounts and status you may have. You can save yourself a nice chunk of change just having (as in my case, a Silver status with United’s (Star Alliance) courtesy of my lifetime Titanium status with Marriott’s Bonvoy club. This means that we only had to pay the $60 fee to check my wife’s (small) suitcase. I caught this just in time and the Lufthansa service person had to check with her Supervisor to confirm. I’d like to believe that you could get a refund if you realize after the fact that your bag should have been checked for free. Somehow I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to call your Frequent Flier customer service line and ask.

This practice of charging additional fees for things that really should be included in the purchase price is an increasingly common snake-in-the-grass for travelers. It’s that 2.10 for a small bottle of water or eu30 for a seat closer to the front door of the airplane, or $125 for extra legroom. For a while Ryan Airlines charged a pound to use the bathroom during the flight, a practice initiated in 2010 that gained them a bad reputation with customers which sticks to this day.

What all this boils down to is that sometimes the low cost ticket you are considering, isn’t really as cheap as it looks on Expedia or Travelocity or some other online booking site. Take a moment to check each airline’s baggage and fees policies before making that purchase.

What about you? Encounter any egregious travel fees lately? What really got your ire? Share the experience in the Comments section below!

10 Anti-Theft Tips for Travelers

While there is no way to avoid every possible risk while you’re on the road, there are some things you can do to protect your credit cards, cash, and valuables when traveling for business or pleasure.

  1. Don’t carry all your cash with you
  2. Keep your purse zipped
  3. Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket
  4. Use an RFID blocking wallet or purse
  5. Buy a purse that is slash resistant (strap and body)
  6. Consolidate luggage and keep purses/backpacks in front of you
  7. Watch what you do on a computer, pad, or phone connected to a public network
  8. Don’t take unnecessary valuables on the road
  9. Buy travel insurance for holiday trips
  10. Scan all your documents (itinerary, credit cards, ID, driver’s license, passport, etc…) and upload that to a cloud based storage service that you can access from anywhere (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, DropBox, etc…)

Now all of these tips seem pretty obvious, right? The thing is, you get into habits at home (where you feel safe), that can trip you up when you’re in a less familiar environment. So perhaps the best tip I can offer, is to start practicing safe travel habits before you get on the road.

  1. Don’t carry around more cash than you need for the day’s purposes. Even then, split your cash between your purse (or wallet), and a money belt worn under your shirt. If you have access to a safe that you can set a new combination for, you might want to leave some there as well.
  2. Don’t roam around with your purse gaping open. Trust me. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. It’s just more convenient to reach in and pull out whatever you need at the moment. I get it. I’ll make you a deal. If you try to break this bad habit, I will too.
  3. Ditto for the wallet in the back pocket. Yep. It’s so much easier/comfortable. I get that too. If a wallet in the front pocket won’t work, get a small cross-body bag. There are some darned sexy man-bags on the market. Just saying.
  4. RFID stands for ‘radio frequency identification’ – which means that there is personal (and financial) information available to passing strangers carrying a hidden card reader. Many of the chips on credit cards, IDs, passports are RFIDs. Even some hotel room keys are vulnerable. I’ve been using an RFID blocking wallet for years. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. If you haven’t already done so, invest in one.
  5. Purses, even sturdy leather ones, are vulnerable to the slash and grab. Pick pockets can brush up against you in a crowd, slash the strap with a razor and head off with your purse. Worse, they can slash the bottom of your purse, grab your wallet when it falls out, and you might not even feel it happening. Travelon is a good brand, but not the only one.
  6. If you don’t have a couple of items of luggage that fit together into a neat rolling package, you might want to invest in that. Taking five or six small bags (rather than one carryon suitcase and a large tote that slides over the suitcase handle) means you have to keep your eye on all those bags. Small bags are easier for a stranger to pick up and walk off with when your head is turned. When you’re walking around, it’s better to have a cross-body purse that hangs in front of you. Backpacks are a bad idea because we tend to wear them on our back most of the time, which puts them out of sight. This makes it easy for an expert thief to unzip compartments and pull things out. If you want to use a backpack, try to hold it in front of you in crowds and on public transportation.
  7. It’s easy to drop your guard when you’re sitting in your hotel or AirBnB room. But surfing on a network that isn’t secured (no public use network is secured) means everything you do on your computer is a risk. That means no online shopping, bill pay, or reservations requiring a credit card. In fact, it’s probably best not to use a computer on an unsecured network at any time. Hackers can connect to your computer on the network and plant a tracker program that will send your personal information back to them indefinitely . This is where a personal VPN makes sense whenever you’re away from home or the office. Find one that has a reasonable reputation in terms of bandwidth, reliability, and availability wherever you are planning to go. (I recently signed up for 3 years of NordVPN after trying their 7 day free trial at a total cost of $107 USD and change. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t like all that data privacy so I have to turn it off when I shop.)
  8. I know you want to look all cute and polished, but don’t bring a bunch of expensive jewelry with you unless you don’t mind losing it. You might be safe, especially if you wear it all the time. But a bunch of obviously expensive jewelry will make you a high value target to thieves. Better to be a boring non-target. Similarly, don’t bring extra camera lenses unless you’re a pro and absolutely know you’ll use them on the road. Don’t bring your expensive DSLR unless taking pictures is a major source of pleasure for you when you travel. The cameras on smartphones are pretty terrific these days, and they’re a whole lot lighter. As far as entertainment and connectivity is concerned, don’t bring every Kindle, pad, computer, etc… you own. For one, they’re heavy. For two, you’ll be annoyed if they’re all stolen. Travel insurance has limits. Figure out what you need to keep you entertained, and bring one device to do it all. Two max. It’s better to bring a recharger that holds extra juice than two eReaders or similar devices so you’ll have a backup.
  9. Usually business travel for an employer will come with a certain amount of on-the-road support, so this advice is more for pleasure trips. If you’re flying somewhere, get the trip insurance. It’s not that expensive and it will help if you get sick, if you are robbed, or you lose your phone or wallet.
  10. Having quick access to a digital image of your credit cards and identification can make a theft or loss much less awful. Being able to go into an Embassy and download electronic copies of all your vital documents will expedite the creation of new ones. The telephone numbers on the back of credit cards make it easy to put a hold on the old card number and get new cards over-nighted to your hotel.

I hope I haven’t made you paranoid… just a bit cautious. Every trip should be full of happy memories and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Having your purse or identity stolen should not be one of them. Any war stories of your own to share? Drop them in the comments.

Saving Money on Car Rentals

I work from home most of the time, so we only have one vehicle. That means I rent when I need to drive to a business meeting a couple of hours away. This saves money and miles on our car. It’s also translates into about the same amount of money for my employer since they’d be reimbursing me 53 cents a mile if I drove our car.

I’m saying all this to establish my bona fides. I rent a lot of vehicles.

So I know how the scam works. Sure it’s a special deal of $24.99 a day to rent the car. But don’t you want to pre-pay the gas? That way you don’t have to fill it up before you drop it off.

Generally, no. You don’t want to pre-pay. Only if you know you’re going to use an entire tank of gas do you want to pre-pay. Otherwise, you want to put just enough gas in the car to make up for what you use. Prepaying often means you’re paying for gas you didn’t burn.

Do you want to take the insurance? That depends as well. There are two ways to handle this. First you check with your own auto insurance policy. Does it cover liability or damage to a rental car? Some cover liability but not collision/damage. Some cover both. Find out ahead of time and be prepared to show your insurance card.

Another way to skip the extra insurance is to use a credit card that will cover your costs in the event of damage to the rental car. Check with the credit card company first. If your card doesn’t, shop around for a credit card that does.

Don’t pay for an upgrade. Seriously no. You are purchasing transportation, not an ego boost. Some rental companies have sexy upscale vehicles for you to rent for a premium. A sizeable premium… in the rental fee and in the insurance. Don’t do it. I recently got a (free-ish) upgrade to a BMW for a day. It was a seriously underwhelming experience driving-wise, and even though the “upgrade” was free, I still got charged a couple extra dollars in concession fees, which are based on the value of the vehicle. *sigh*

And finally, watch the mileage costs. Find a rental company that will give you a hefty chunk of miles per day so you won’t be paying per mile for the overage. Better yet, look for the deals with unlimited miles.

So there you are. A few tips that can save you some serious cash. Any tips of your own? Put them in the comments and educate us all!

Expense Reporting from the Road

Business travel is work. It’s part of the job, it’s essential to being effective, and if you don’t manage your travel receipts properly, it can eat a big chunk out of your income.

If you’re a seasoned business traveler, you already know that going paperless is your salvation. Some even invest in portable scanners with internal memory. Not a bad approach, but it is one more piece of equipment to lug along, and I personally am a fan of travelling light.

Your phone is your friend. There are a variety of apps out there for Android and iPhones that will allow you to take a picture of your receipts and upload them automatically to an expense reporting system. If your system doesn’t allow for this, just capturing the receipt for later will help you avoid losing receipts. Lost receipts are an enormous hassle when submitting expense reports, even (or maybe even especially) when you’re using a company credit card.

Make sure to sign up for frequent traveler accounts with all the hotel chains, airlines, and rental car companies you use regularly. Keep your email current and ask them to email you a copy of the invoice. I like to take a look at their hard copy before they email it, just to make sure the charges are accurate, but the final invoice needs to go to my business email. Frequent travel programs are also a good way to grab an invoice you didn’t get before. Because they track how often you stay (in order to reward you appropriately), they have a vested interest in making sure their records are accurate, and available to the customer online.

Also make sure you stay organized. When you or your admin are booking a trip, they should create an expense folder for that trip. As soon as the booking agency sends a confirmation (with details of your airline and booking fees), file that in the trip folder. Start out ahead of the game. If your admin isn’t organized, train him or her to do it properly to avoid headaches all around. Sometimes the expense report won’t go through properly, the attachments are lost, *stuff* happens. Being able to pull up an electronic copy of all your receipts is tremendously helpful.

This is particularly vital for small businesses and sole proprietorships. Come tax season you don’t want to be trawling through your old credit card bills to try to remember what you spent on business trips, and why… or how far you drove. If this is you, make sure to have an app that allows you to track mileage while you’re driving.

If you have a helpful tip or app you find invaluable, post a comment here to benefit your fellow travelers. Thank you for stopping by, and don’t forget to sign up for notifications! Ciao for now. Lindley.

Christmas on the Road – Staying in Touch with Loved Ones

Business travel is hard on relationships, on family solidarity, and it’s hard on the traveler – emotionally and physically. Every minute you spend after work hours away from home is a minute your employer owes you some consideration. Whether that’s comp time, a deluxe vacation package, or other perks, never forget that business travel requires sacrifice.

And that sacrifice is never felt more strongly than during traditional family holidays. If you and your kids stay up late to watch fireworks from the rooftop every Fourth of July, Bastille Day, or Guy Fawkes Day… the urgent negotiation meeting in another city on that date will damage the fabric of your family memories. It is what it is. You may love your job enough, be compensated well enough, or want to escape your spouse enough, to be happy with the trade-off. Or maybe it’s just The Job, and a little part of you is unhappy. Or maybe a large part of you is unhappy. For most business travelers its a little bit… that builds up over time.

So this year you’re spending the week running up to Christmas in someplace less exotic than Topeka, Kansas. You’re missing the parties, the kid’s part as the angel or Joseph… and you have no time to help your spouse bake cookies for the neighbors. You’ve paid a handyman to install the house lights, and you’ve missed the 50% off sale of lighted reindeer at the hardware store.

The trick here is to spend less time feeling sad and more time connecting during your time away. Technology is your friend, as is Amazon and every other online shopping catalog that guarantees delivery dates. You can tap into eCard sites like Hallmark, American Greetings, and Blue Mountain. Plan ahead, ideally the weekend before you are scheduled to leave. I know you’re running around shopping for gifts and trying to do everything you won’t have time to do while you’re gone. Give it up. You’ll have plenty of time for online shopping in the evenings at the hotel. I know you love your coworkers, but they can get by without you.

FIRST – think about how your children and significant other like to connect. Are you a texting family? Does your wife or husband prefer email? Facebook or packages at the door? At least 75% of your contact with each person should leverage how they prefer to communicate. The other 25% should be a surprise. Send a small gift to someone who loves to text. Send a text and an email to someone who spends all their time on Facebook. Send a heart-felt email to someone who loves packages and cards. You should definitely send at least one physical card to each person you want to connect with. This can be done in a batch, but it will inevitably feel like an individual touch. Buy the right card for the right person, and you’re golden. For daily physical gifts, flowers, plants, and chocolate are always a good bet.

SECOND – imagine how they’re feeling when they get your message, text, email, card, gift. Really spend some time trying to sit in their chair. It’s easy to brush this off, but you’re trying to distill a lot of time together into a single touch point. Open yourself, be honest, gift them with what is true and do your best to be authentic in a way that will make the OTHER person feel good. This is not about you, it’s not about assuaging your guilt, it’s not about making you happy. This is about the person you love. Craft your messages from this place of love, compassion, and integrity.

THIRD – Schedule all your touch points so that they arrive on a daily basis. This is an organizational task that you cannot assign to an admin. This is supposed to be about YOU connecting to the people who make your heart feel safe. Do not delegate. Have confidence in yourself. If you can manage life on the road as a significant part of your career, you can do it.

FOURTH – Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Get home sooner if you can. Buy that spectacularly hideous Christmas sweater from Etsy for your daughter-in-law who hosts the annual White Elephant party. Stop in a custom chandler, soap maker, or bundt shop … to buy a hand made gift that you could never find locally.

Think of this as the 12 Days of Christmas… with as many days as you’re gone. – except you want to keep the spirit alive, without breaking the bank or making yourself crazy. It’s perfectly okay to find ways to automate the work, to identify the things you know that work and do them in multiples… as long as it’s you doing the work. That’s what maintains the connection.

So Merry Christmas from LindleyOnTheRoad… where we’re all about making life better for people who travel a lot. Do you have another idea for maintaining connections with loved ones from the road? Drop me a comment!

4 tips for saving money on airline tickets

Plan ahead and save big to fly to your next travel destination

I don’t know about you, but the price of a ticket to fly somewhere fun can often be the sticking point on my vacation plans. With this in mind, I’m going to share the four things you should consider if you want to fly somewhere exotic without complete sticker shock.

  1. Fly out of as large an airport as you can easily reach. Small airports are an extra stop off the beaten track. They don’t have the runways necessary for larger planes to land, so you will probably have to change planes on your way to far destinations. If you are within a couple hours drive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport (ORD), New York City’s JFK, Los Angeles’ LAX, or San Francisco’s SFO airports you are almost certainly better off pricing tickets from that airport to your final destination. This is especially true of trips to other continents. The costs of parking and rental cars are generally far less than the price difference of the ticket.
  2. Be flexible in your dates. In fact, plan your trip around when the cheapest airline tickets are available. It would be great to start out on Saturday, and return on Sunday a week later. Nope. Expensive. Even more expensive are Monday and Friday departures and arrivals because those are business-travel heavy. For vacation, leave in the middle of the week, and return in the middle of the week.
  3. Book separate round trips yourself rather than relying on the travel web sites to calculate it all for you. Fly out of a large airport to a large airport. Then look at the distances and possibilities (rail, rental car, van, Uber, regional flight, etc…) to get to your dream destination. You can sometimes save even more money simply by booking each leg as a separate trip and exploiting the ‘mid week’ bargains. You’re on vacation… this is an extra opportunity to sight see and experience the area. For example, if you want to get to one of the sunny coastal towns near Lisbon, and you’re leaving from California… you book one flight from SFO or LAX to a large European airport like France’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG), London’s Heathrow (LHR), or Spain’s Barcelona (BCN) airport. Book a separate round trip ticket from Paris, London or Barcelona to Lisbon (LIS). Round trip tickets within the European Union are surprisingly cheap. You can even stay in that city for a few days when you arrive, or as you make your way back home.
  4. I’ve said this before, but I’ll throw this in because it’s a big one. Book airplane tickets six to eight weeks out from your departure. Otherwise you’re paying a premium. Often a significant one.

So that’s my public service announcement for the day. Stick with these four tips in 2019 and you’ll save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. You can stay longer, eat better, or get that once in a lifetime souvenir with the extra cash. Or maybe it will just make the difference between going or not going.

Educate me! What about you? What are your money saving tips? Drop me a comment, and don’t forget to subscribe for notice of more travel tips, tricks, and inspirations.

The Best (Airplane) Seats in the House

Anyone who has ever gotten stuck for hours in a seat in the back row of an airplane can relate to the fact that not all airline seats are created equal.  

Or maybe you volunteered, or paid to upgrade to the better legroom found in the exit row. (provided you are willing , and able to help people clamber out of the plane in the event of an unfortunate landing).

There’s usually a seat in the row just ahead of the exit row that doesn’t recline in order to give those two exit rows extra spacing.  

And then there is the first row behind the First Class ‘cabin’, where you have nowhere to stow anything under the seat ahead, because you’re facing a … well, it’s not really a bulkhead, it’s a carpeted divider establishing the fact that people sitting in First Class are luckier than the rest of us. 

The seat you select can make a big difference in how comfortable your flight is going to be.  Frequent fliers will regularly visit the airline’s web site to see if their preferred seats have opened up.  Now that more airlines have begun reconfiguring their planes to give a chunk of the ‘Coach’ fliers more leg room, seat selection has become even more important. 

Yet even in the slightly upgraded Coach seating, there are winners and losers; seats that are right next to the toilet, window seats with no window, seats over a segment of the plane that vibrates noisily, etc…  And the same equipment (plane) can be configured differently by different airlines.  

What to do? 

Check Seat Guru

Seat Guru is a sweet web site geared for regular (and ‘in the know’) travelers who know how a bad seat can affect their productivity and comfort. If you have a flight number and a date, the site will show the actual seating configuration for your flight so you can make an informed selection.  It will highlight seats that aren’t great, and ones that are abysmal.   

They also have a blog about airplanes, airlines, and seat configurations that can come in handy when considering which cheap ticket to grab.  In case you can’t remember the  name of this blog, I’ve included their link on the Resources page as well.  You can find the link to that page at the top of the site (it’s a bit hard to see, but I’m working on beefing up the text). 

If you’re taking a long flight over the ocean, a good seat can make all the difference in your ability to tolerate the trip.  Seat Guru.  Tell them I sent you.  😉

Have you tried Seat Guru?  What was your experience?  Is this a useful tip?  Drop me a comment.