Culture Shifts and Work Travel Learnings

I’ve seen a few Twitter threads recently about learning to live with the sudden plenty of working for tech companies. If you didn’t grow up that way, the adjustment takes time. It made me think about a few things I’ve learnt about corporate travel, and mistakes I’ve made along the way. People who grew in the corporate world instinctively know stuff I had to learn. Here’s some of the mistakes, and learnings:

Sudden Change of Scene

There’s been a few threads recently on Twitter related to the concept of “growing up poor, and learning how to adapt to working in well-paid industries.”

Here’s an example thread:

Read the thread - there’s some gems in there. Stuff like these hit home for me:

I didn’t grow up poor, but we weren’t rich. My father was self-employed. My first job was working in a supermarket. I had no exposure to the business world and company travel, and there was so much I didn’t know.

Early Business Travel: Mistakes I’ve made

My first business trip was to Australia. I was 22 years old, and it was my first time leaving the country. It was only my 2nd or 3rd ever flight. I had been a university student, and had been living in debt for years, scrimping to get by.

My flight departed at 8AM, on a Sunday. Mistake #1: Don’t let someone else book your flights. 8AM international flight means you need to be at the airport at 6AM. On a Sunday.

I lived in the central city. For some reason I decided to take the airport bus to get to the airport, because it was much cheaper than a taxi. Due to timetables, this meant getting up at 4AM. Moron. Mistake #2: Travel by whichever means is the best combination of speed & convenience. Don’t skimp to save a few $$. In the context of a company trip, a few dollars is irrelevant. Take a taxi or Lyft, or public transport if that’s faster (e.g. the Arlanda Express).

The flight had a mechanical issue shortly after take-off, and we returned to our departure airport. We ended up with something like an 8-hour delay, and this was years before I ever got lounge access. I was very relieved when the airline gave us $10 vouchers to buy lunch. Otherwise I would have gone hungry. The thought of spending company money on overpriced airport food didn’t even occur to me. Mistake #3: When you’re traveling for work, your boss pays for every meal, every coffee, every snack. Don’t even think about it, put it on the corporate card.

I would often book trips from New Zealand -> Australia leaving on Sunday afternoon, returning home at midnight Friday night. All so that I could be at the client site the full business week. Mistake #4: You don’t have to give up your own personal time for work travel. Wherever possible, try to travel during the business week. Get the Monday morning flight, come home Friday afternoon rather than Friday night. Don’t justify it to anyone else, instead be clear: this is when I will be on site. There’s no way I would do this when I was younger. But people will take advantage of you if you let them. They don’t need you there at 9AM on Monday.

I would often choose to buy my own food from a supermarket, feeling bad about going to a restaurant for every meal. I had spent the previous few years spending $30 on food. The thought of spending $30 on a hotel breakfast seemed completely outrageous. So I’d buy cheaper meals, try to keep my costs under control. I thought I was splashing out by buying the organic food from the supermarket.

I thought that people would be paying attention to my expense claims, looking at how much I was spending. I wondered what would happen if I bought a second beer at dinner.

Things I’ve Learned

I was so wrong. No-one gave a shit. One night I was in Sydney on some work trip or another when I ran into the company CFO at the bar. I was paying for my own beer, then realized he was drinking decent wine on the company credit card. At that point I stopped caring about perception. As long as you toe the line with company policies, no-one cares. You can also get away with a lot more than the official policy, but that takes time to figure out.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned:

1/ Policies: This is the most important thing. Your company will have an official travel policy. I strongly urge you to read this. The policy will tell you exactly what you can spend per day on food without anyone caring. Don’t think twice about spending anything up to that limit.

2/ Company Time, Company Dime: From the time you leave home, until you get home again, you are traveling for work, not pleasure. Put aside your usual cheap ways, the habits you follow when taking a long trip on your own dime. Every meal or snack is now paid for by the company. Optimize for time, not cost when selecting travel options.

3/ Make your own bookings: Do not rely on someone else to select flights for you. Use an agent if it makes life easier to handle the mechanics, but be specific: tell them exactly what times you want to travel. Travel at times that are convenient for you. Don’t get the 6AM flights. Know the policies: you may be able to book something other than steerage under very specific circumstances. The travel agent won’t tell you this, you need to tell them what you want.

4/ Hotels: Book for interest, not company convenience. Don’t book the hotel closest to the office or client site. Book hotels down town. Talk to the regional sales teams - they will know the most interesting hotels. Knowledge of policies helps: you don’t have to book the ‘official’ hotels if you stay below the city limit. Your corporate travel agent is not your friend here, they get kickbacks if you book from their ‘official’ list.

5/ Personal Travel: Going to a city you’ve never been to before? Stay a few days before or after. Pay for your own hotels & food during that time, no-one cares. There is an exception to this - if you’re traveling long haul economy, get flights arriving a few days early. Play tourist, and charge all your expenses during that time to the company. If they want you to get somewhere and work, then either you travel business class, or they pay for recovery time.

Work Travel Sucks: Minimize the Pain

There’s a lot of stuff about the well-paid business world that I didn’t get exposed to growing up. But I’ve learnt a few things along the way, some things from watching others, some things from taking the time to read up on policies. Make sure you do the same: if you don’t, your boss isn’t going to tell you to spend more money.