If you travel for work, you’ve likely had this conversation:
Awesome Boss Lady You: “I wish I could, but I’ll be out of the country for work.”
Friendly Friend: “You’re so lucky to get to travel around the world and not have to pay for it.”
Awesome Boss Lady You: “Honestly, it’s not as cool as it sounds. It’s not like a vacation.
I’ll be working the whole time; I won’t even have time to see anything.”
You’re also likely telling the truth! Working on the road can be tough. You feel pressure to represent your company, so it can be difficult to let your hair down. Jet lag can make it difficult to want to do anything other than sleep and you’ll probably also be touching base with your family and colleagues during your down time. Then as you depart whatever exciting land you’ve just “seen,” there’s that all too familiar tinge of regret as you buy your sad little magnet from an airport gift shop.
Everyone’s situation is different, but as someone who travels for work frequently, I’ve picked up a few tricks that might help you milk the company’s dime.
1. Weigh in on your accommodations.
You may feel like you can’t do this, but it never hurts to ask. Reach out to the person in charge of booking your travel and let them know when you prefer to fly and with which airline. Be prepared with your preferred flight numbers. This also helps you consistently fly with the same airline and rack up miles in your name that you can use later for non-work travel! The same goes for hotels. If you prefer to stay in boutique hotels or you know you will be a better version of yourself with a treadmill in the building, speak up. The worst they can say is no. If you know someone who lives in your destination, offer to stay with them in exchange for a bump in per diem or a small bonus for your time away.
2. Master jet lag.
Chug! Chug! Chug! Water that is. Dehydration exacerbates dehydration, so be extra mindful of liquids. Ease your way into the time difference of your destination a few days before you leave. Rely on melatonin and Dream Water to help you sleep, and cardio/b vitamins to help perk you up. Avoid caffeine as it can lead to crashes. If you can’t survive without it, have a cup when you first wake up and another midday, so that you don’t zero out your energy when your day becomes yours again.
3. Eat Outside the Hotel.
Unless your hotel has an amazing, can’t miss breakfast, dine out, and taste the world around you! Avoid room service and lobby restaurants. They’re overpriced and rarely worth it; most importantly, they don’t represent the actual culture of where you’re working. If you have a driver, ask them to take you somewhere the food is almost as good as Grandma makes and buy their meal for them. If you have to take meals with your host, ask if you can switch up the scenery and eat at his or her favorite place. Homework is helpful in all of these situations. It’s easier to satisfy a request for “an amazing pierogi” than it is for your host to take a shot in the dark. There’s also the chance your hosts may try to procure you fare they assume you will like if you don’t speak up. If you find yourself without direction from a local, open up that Yelp app.
4. Rely on Your Host.
Ask your hosts or collaborators, who are locals, what they would do if they only had X amount of time in their city. If they offer to take you around, take them up on it! Make sure to research local social/work etiquette to make sure you don’t ruffle any feathers. You can also depend upon your host to tell you what areas/attractions to avoid, which could not only benefit your entertainment but your safety.
Most importantly: use your down days. If you have weekends or acclimation days, ask your international counterpart to show you around! Never had an acclimation day? Use this phrase in the planning process: “With this being such a pivotal interaction, I should fly in a day earlier to acclimate to the time change and prepare.” Or to visit the seaside town of Malahide and pay your respects to Dublin Castle…
5. Get colleagues onboard.
If you’re traveling with co-workers, you might run into a roadblock, if they tend to stick close to the hotel. Start getting them revved up about your destination before you leave. Send over an email of a temple or a waterfall that you really want to see and then ask them to find a place that they just have to visit! Shopping in Hongdae with a fellow crew member while searching for the best bibimbap in Seoul was one of my favorite experiences I’ve had abroad, and it happened in spite of a 12 hour work day—just because we were both so excited to be in South Korea. This also makes the time you are actually working way more tolerable.
Traveling with a stick in the mud that won’t budge? Leave ‘em! Travel Solo!
6. Be clear about spending BEFORE you leave.
Nervous about whether or not your company will reimburse you for an expense? Save yourself some stress and have a clear conversation before you fly out. If you have a per diem, enjoy your freedom. If you have to turn in receipts or will be using a company card, ask the appropriate source what they expect you to spend per day, per meal, incidentals, etc. What do they feel is appropriate in treating your hosts or purchasing company gifts? Is alcohol covered? If you’re the only one on your team who took the trip then bring a little something back for your colleagues.
7. Ask specific, respectful questions.
If you absolutely have no time to explore, or even if you do, find moments to ask about cultural minutiae. Learn slang you can’t pick up from a language book. Ask the name of the cute blue cat on the packet of gum you picked up. Not only will you come home with fun facts you can’t mine from an Expedia page, you’ll open the door for them to ask you questions about where you’re from as well. These types of conversations build rapport, which is good for business, but they also tend to evolve into conversations about social norms and individual concerns.
If all else fails, relish the opportunity to be out of your typical workplace. Let the different sounds and smells invigorate you and rejuvenate your perspective. Because if you’re being honest with yourself—and Friendly Friend—seeing the world on someone else’s buck is definitely as cool as it sounds, and if you don’t see anything but the airport and the hotel, it’s kind of on you.