The Perks (and Pains) of Business Travel
Earlier this year, I left my job working for a 70,000-person “mega corporation,” and joined a 7-person startup. Let me tell you, life is different. On one hand, I work longer hours, I’m more stressed, I went from a 10% 401(k) match to none, and I lost free life insurance, STD and LTD, amongst other things. However, I now have a ton more responsibility and autonomy. Every action I take now directly impacts my company, and I love it. One of the new things I’ve had to get used to is traveling. I went from traveling 3-5 days a year to 50+. It’s definitely something to get used to, and there is a lot that you can gain from doing it.
As a side note, this post include an affiliate link for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. When you join, you can earn 50,000 bonus miles by spending $4,000 in the first 3 months — that’s at least $625 in travel related expenses. This is very easy for any seasoned business traveler, and I highly recommend that you give this card a try.
Business travel. It’s romanticized in countless films and TV shows. Are any of them accurate? Some yes, others no. In reality, business travel is like regular travel, except remove the vacation/sight seeing, and add the stress of work. From booking flights, hotels and rental cars to dealing with jet lag, business travel is really tiring. On the other hand, you get to meet new people and explore a new area.
And the best part? You get to expense everything.
Seriously, you can expense everything related to the work that you are doing (within reason, of course). Walking into a restaurant and ordering a beer, steak dinner, and a dessert, knowing that somebody else is paying for it feels awesome.
The Perks of Business Travel
Culture and Food
For me, the biggest perk of business travel is getting to experience different cultures. I’m a born and raised New Yorker and went to college in Maryland. So I’ve pretty much spent all of my time in the liberal Northeast of America. When you travel for business, you will encounter people that are different from you. Learning about these differences, how they live their lives, is extremely rewarding.
A lot of my travel has been to different cities on the east coast, but I recently completed a 2-week trip to Macau and Hong Kong. Meeting new people from the other side of the world, experiencing how they go through their daily lives, it’s been a ton of culture shock. I didn’t have many expectations going in, but they were wrong nonetheless.
When you get to travel, spend time with “regular people,” eating at “regular restaurants.” Strike up a conversation with people at a bar, learn about who they are. You’ll often be pleasantly surprised.
Speaking of restaurants, food is awesome! Yes, you can start out with the fancier restaurants that are really expensive. The client is paying for it! But start gravitating towards some of the more local, authentic places. You’ll seriously find a bunch.
This is a very cheap $5 lunch from a hole in the wall restaurant in Macau. It is primarily pork and white rice, with a hard boiled egg. I’m not sure what the greens were, but they were good. To be honest, I was afraid to order food at this place. The whole restaurant was about 15 feet wide, and there wasn’t a word of English on any signs. The woman who ran it pulled out a laminated menu with English descriptions of the food, and we just used that to order.
This next dish was something I wasn’t expecting. I saw “noodles” and thought I was getting soup, which this obviously isn’t. The food tasted delicious, and there was a ton of seafood. This would probably have been $15 – $20 in the United States, at least. I walked into the restaurant with my coworker and it took us about 10 minutes to figure out what we wanted.
Then we made the mistake of ordering the food from the takeout counter, and had to explain to them that we wanted to eat at a table, even though I already paid a $1 takeout fee.
What is international dining without some McDonalds? This was probably the weirdest experience to be honest. Most of the people in Macau spoke English or understood a few words. That’s a lot more than can be said of myself, I don’t speak any Cantonese. At least I know enough Spanish to read some of the Portuguese signs. Anyway, they didn’t speak any English in McDonalds, and they also didn’t accept credit cards. At all. So I had to go through my change to pay for this.
It was actually really tasty. It’s basically a spicy fried chicken sandwich, but with a thick pineapple slice on top. At least I think it was pineapple.
Another perk of business travel is that you can take advantage of the fact that your expenses will be reimbursed. My company doesn’t have a travel agency, we do it all ourselves. What that means is I pay for my airfare, hotel, and car rental. Everything, including all meals, goes on my credit card. I pay the bill, and get reimbursed later. So how do I get a financial advantage?
My bread and butter credit card is the Fidelity Visa. It gives me 2% cashback on all purchases. So far, I’ve spent about $5,000 on travel this year, and I’ve gotten a solid $100 in cashback. This isn’t Earth shattering money, but I’ll take an extra $100 any day.
We recently won a contract where I’ll be traveling for 25% of the time. It’s a lot, I know. But I wanted to get more than 2% cashback. I looked through a bunch of travel credit cards, and decided on the Chase Sapphire Preferred. With this card, I’ll get 50,000 miles if I spent $4,000 within the first 3 months, which is a massive bonus. Given how much travel I do, this is easy.
There are also a bunch of other travel-related perks, including:
- No foreign transaction fees
- Primary rental car insurance coverage
- Flight cancellation coverage
- Baggage loss coverage
- Point transfer to other loyalty programs
Basically, these are all things that are nice to have “just in case,” but the 50,000 mile bonus is the real value of the card. For example…
I’m expecting to spend about $2,000 per trip on this new contract. Over the course of 4 trips, I’ll spend a total of $8,000. This will turn into 16,000 points on top of the 50,000 bonus points, for a grand total of 66,000 points.
Since I get reimbursed for all of my travel expenses, I’m basically getting $825 in points for free. Since this credit card has an annual $95 fee, I’ll probably convert it to a free version of the card next year, paying for a credit card is not something that I want to do.
In addition, I always fly Jet Blue domestically if I’m able. I won’t qualify for the really good perks this year, but I almost certainly will next year. Those perks include priority boarding, and probably having enough points for a free flight or two.
One thing that I haven’t started doing is hotel rewards. I’m not part of any membership program, but I need to get on that. Any recommendations?
If you are traveling domestically, you probably end up staying in the Marriott Courtyard. That’s usually where I end up to be honest. They’re all decent hotels with free internet. But you might need to book a hotel on short notice and end up in something really nice. Or you could end up traveling internationally and get a sweet deal.
During my most recent business trip to Macau, our client owns a 5-star hotel. I had the pleasure of staying in this hotel, and it was incredible. I’ve never stayed in a hotel this nice, and it was worth the experience. It definitely helped me deal with the jet lag and being 12 hours away from my family. The bathroom had a walk-in shower and bath tub. There were robes hanging on the walls that were changed daily. Everything was in excellent shape, and very comfortable.
I didn’t notice how nice the sign was until my last day here. I also did a terrible job of taking a decent picture of it.
The hotel rooms start on the 16th floor, so every view is nice. This is from about 7:00am local time. Still a decent amount of smog, but this view was really nice waking up to. I did my best to take an Instagram worthy photo, but I obviously failed. Those big buildings are mostly casinos, by the way.
You might not realize it, but enjoying an apple and a nice view makes a stressful workday that much bearable. Getting this much fruit is definitely the exception, not the rule. Even staying in less expensive hotels can have perks. Having this fruit on my table every morning was awesome, and I did my best to eat it. However, I can’t feasibly eat 10-15 pieces of fruit a day!
Okay, I guess I technically can. But I don’t want to.
Being the Minority
Going from the majority to the minority is an interesting feeling to say the least. I’m basically a white dude (even though I’m Puerto Rican, only other Latinos can tell), and treated as such. While I was shopping in Asia, I was constantly followed by store clerks, making sure I wasn’t going to steal anything.
This has never happened to me before. I know that it happens to minorities in America all the time, but I’ve never experienced it. Seeing what they deal with on a daily basis is eye opening. People were always looking at me. People would take a quick look, avert their eyes, and then put their hand over their mouth and start talking about me.
I obviously don’t understand Cantonese, but sometimes you can just tell when somebody is talking about you.
There are even some scenarios that I didn’t think about, and one of them was pretty funny. I was in Macau, and had to get to the Hong Kong airport. To do this, you take a water ferry. When I bought my ticket at the ferry terminal, I was given a sticker indicating that I was going to the Hong Kong airport, just in case I got lost. Nobody else had one of these, so I snapped a quick photo.
The Cons of Business Travel
Okay, so there are some things about traveling for work that are pretty cool. But some things just suck. The biggest one is being away from my family. While I’m traveling for work, my fiancée is all by herself. We’re often busy at different hours. She gets off at work at 5, and I’m usually with a client then. She’ll go to the gym at 6 and that’s when I have an hour or so of down time. By the time she’s back, I’m eating dinner and then preparing for the next day of work.
When I was in Macau, it was even harder. We were separated by 12 hours, so communication was tough. What worked best was I woke up at 5:30 am and talked to her (she was off work) before and after the gym, but before I needed to be in the office.
In addition, traveling this much is tiring. I was in Macau for 2 weeks in October. Then I commuted to Manhattan for 3 days at the beginning of November, followed by 5 days in Boston. Now I’m preparing for another 2 weeks in Macau, the last week of November and first week of December. Plus there’s the added bonus of having to plan everything out, and you better not make a mistake. Picking the wrong flight or messing up a hotel reservation can have some bad consequences.
Is Business Travel Worth it?
Honestly, this depends on you. If you’re single, go for it! You’ll have the opportunity to meet many people, have some fun, eat tasty food and get a ton of miles. But if you’ve got a family, you need to set boundaries. What is an appropriate amount of travel? Is it 25% (1 week a month)? What is the furthest that you want to be away from your family? How much is too much?
These are things that you need to decide on your own. The important part is to make a decision.
On the other hand, there can be significant benefits to traveling. If you want to go to Germany, find some business there, and you can probably go for free! For me, the perks are I was the lead person that got us this new contract in Macau. The total value is about 1/3 of my company’s revenue. This puts me in a very good position. I could say that my end goal is to maybe negotiate a better salary, but I want to help my company grow. We’re so small, at this point, the more we grow, the more positive impact it has on me.
Who knows, maybe I’ll be a “software architect” by the end of 2018, and have a bigger bonus or even a small percentage ownership in my company. That’s the goal, we’ll see how it goes. But for now, I’ve still got a few things to prep for my next trip.