Monday, February 22, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 1

And how to get there without going nuts

I’m not much of a vacation traveler, and I wouldn’t win any prizes as a frequent business-traveler, either. However, for a couple of years when I was a VP for a manufacturer, responsible for folks in offices spread across the country, I did my fair share of traveling. I attended several trade shows, multiple customer site-visits, and met with my people and my company’s partner firms. In about 18 months, I became a Hilton Diamond VIP and racked up enough frequent flyer miles to take my whole family to Orlando. Funny thing with the Hilton program – I hit Diamond VIP level on my very last trip before leaving that company, so I never got to enjoy the diamond-level benefits (whatever they were. I recall being underwhelmed by them, but the membership card I got was a pretty color). So while I’m not one of those road warriors who’s never home, I certainly had ample time to develop and refine my traveling techniques to make my flights as painless as possible. And that’s not easy – sometimes it’s as if the airlines, the government, the weather and your fellow passengers conspire to make your trip as horrific as a stay in a Vietnamese POW camp. And you can figure that Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone aren’t going to come rescue you. They’re up in First Class.

So my thought was to share some of my hard-won travel tips this week. My wife is making her first business trip in almost ten years, so it was fresh in my mind. This advice is all a couple of years old, now, but as far as I can tell it should all remain fairly true.

Topic 1: Flying

A. Choosing your Airline – you’ve got some choices here. Assuming you’re not using a travel agent (which I almost never did – I preferred to do it myself to be sure I got it just how I wanted it), your first choice will need to be a combination of where to buy your tickets and what airline to fly. This is a choice because one decision affects the other. If you prefer to fly a particular airline, then you may want or need to buy your tickets right on their website. If you prefer instead to buy through a particular website (perhaps or one of those other online travel sites), then you’ll have to see what airlines come up. Some factors to consider:

- Not all airlines are available on all travel sites. For instance, JetBlue is a personal favorite of mine, but not all online travel sites will necessarily show JetBlue rates. At one time I believe that none of them did, but a quick check of showed that they did, in fact, come up with JetBlue as an option. Still, your mileage may (literally) vary from site to site and airline to airline.

- Travel Bundles may sap some of your control. My other experience with online travel sites, and a reason I didn’t use them, was that their bundled fare+hotel tended to be a pain to use – I just couldn’t get the same granular level of control over my trip that I could if I went straight through the individual airline or hotel websites. Again, they may have gotten better at that (they’re certainly incented to do so), but since getting the rock-bottom cheapest rate wasn’t a concern for me as a business traveler, sacrificing control for a (possible) discount didn’t work for me.

- Different planes allow different options. For instance, I preferred to fly jets rather than turboprops. They’re bigger, so the seats tend to be larger and have more legroom. They also fly higher, so there’s (usually) less turbulence. There’s also more room inside the plane for your carry-on and such.

- Make that connection! I liked to arrange my connection so it was far enough from my first flight’s arrival to allow for some delays, but not so far that I spent overmuch time sitting around the airport.

- Not all airlines are created equal. If you’re going to fly once a year, then loyalty doesn’t add up to much. Pick whatever works best for you on that trip. But frequent travelers can accumulate “frequent flyer” miles that can add up to upgrades, free flights, and other amenities. Just getting preferential boarding can be a nice plus. Also, some airlines are just nicer to fly – their planes may be bigger or their terminal might be more convenient for you.

To digress, I’ll cite my own choice to switch from USAirways to JetBlue. I was making a trip from Syracuse to my Vegas office something like once every two or three months at one point, and that eventually became once every 6-8 weeks (sometimes more). It was a long-ass trip. At first, I flew USAirways because… I think two jobs previously it had been the preferred carrier or somesuch. I don’t remember. I flew them because they were familiar to me.

I had started with a few thousand frequent-flyer miles already on my account, if I remember right. After a few months, I was up around 40,000 or so. But it never did me any good. There were never any first-class upgrades available for me to use my miles on because the first-class section was small and filled up quickly. I didn’t get preferential boarding, nor were there any other nice amenities. On one flight, my seat wouldn’t recline and that was the last straw. It was clear that I was going to be stuck flying coach out to Vegas every time. So I asked myself, if I’m stuck with coach, shouldn’t I fly the nicest coach class I can find?

I switched to JetBlue on my very next trip. The planes were new and in great condition. There was MUCH more legroom, the snacks were nicer, and, best of all, I got to watch TV! Plus, I never got stuck on a crappy turboprop, because they’re JETBlue. They only fly jets! And I even did ultimately earn enough miles for that trip I mentioned above, so it was a decision filled with win. Those are the kinds of thoughts you want to have before you declare loyalty to a particular airline.

Tomorrow - more airline-related stuff.

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