8 ways to make air travel less grueling

By Anne Fisher

Dear Annie: I graduated from college in May and was hired in July as a trainee with a major consulting firm. This is a great opportunity and I’m really excited about it, with one reservation: Starting soon, I’m going to be traveling — always with a senior associate, in the beginning — about three weeks out of every month. I’ve never flown for a job before, only for vacations, and my new boss told me I should watch the movie Up in the Air to get an idea of what he calls “the road warrior subculture,” even though, unlike George Clooney, I won’t be firing anybody. Anyway, I’m just wondering, do you and your readers have any suggestions on how to make constant air travel less of a hassle? –Junior Birdman

Dear J.B.: It’s a good thing you’ll be accompanied by a seasoned traveler until you learn the ropes. That senior associate will no doubt fill you in on plenty of important details on managing your new, peripatetic lifestyle, much in the same way George Clooney’s character in the movie coaches Anna Kendrick’s.

I put your question to Jeanniey Mullen, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Zinio.com, a service that delivers books and magazine subscriptions online. Mullen is based in New York City but has traveled about 40 weeks of the year for the past decade, first as an ad executive and now in her current job. Here are a few of her tried-and-true tips:

1. Pick flights with WiFi. Some airlines now offer WiFi, or wireless Internet access, on all flights, but others don’t, so check before you head to the airport. WiFi-equipped flights are generally marked as such on airlines’ web sites, or you can specify that you need this when speaking with your company’s travel service.

Mullen says that WiFi is essential so you’re accessible in transit. “You can not only respond to email, you can host a whole video conference if you want to.” Instead of having to rush to the airport at the crack of dawn or take a red-eye to make sure you’re reachable during business hours, “you can travel at more reasonable times,” Mullen says. “It’s much less tiring, and makes you a lot more productive.”

2. Never fly on a Sunday or early on Monday morning. “Sunday is family travel day, so there are lots of hold-ups at security from people who don’t fly often,” says Mullen. “And Monday morning, especially around 6:45, is for hard-core road warriors only. Unless you’re one of them, you won’t get the best seat assignments, or the flights will be so overbooked that you won’t get on at all.” Try to fly a little later on Mondays if you can.

3. Get advance notice of delays. Even if your flights are booked through a corporate travel office, you can sign up on airline websites for delay notifications. “They’ll call you or text you if your flight is delayed,” says Mullen. “The drawback is, these days, you have to get to the airport so far in advance to get through security that, by the time they notify you, you may already be at the gate.” In this regard, road warriors who travel often to the same city or cities have an edge, she adds: “If you ask, airline staffers can often tell you which flights are usually late so you can plan accordingly.”

4. Never check a bag. Mullen’s record so far for the most days’ clothing packed in one carry-on suitcase: 16. “You never know when you may have to get on a different plane than the one you expected to take, and you do want your luggage to arrive when you do,” she notes. “Besides, checking and then claiming a bag costs you an extra hour, which you can’t spare.”

5. Bring extra batteries for your mobile devices. “You need back-up power if you get caught by a long delay somewhere,” Mullen says — partly for work, and partly for entertainment: “Some airlines now charge you an extra fee to watch TV in-flight, so the most frequent travelers bring Kindles and iPads to download reading material without adding extra weight.”

6. Don’t eat airline food. “Unless you’re in first class or at least business class, anything the airline serves you is either overpriced or just bad, or both,” says Mullen. “Try to eat before you get on the plane or wait until you get off.” For those occasions when a plane is stuck on a runway or circling in the sky for indeterminate periods, Mullen packs an emergency stash of chocolate and pretzels. “I’ve tried packing fruit, but it always got smushed going through security.”

7. Always have a Plan B and C. To get to your destination on time, you may need to be flexible. One time, Mullen needed to be in Des Moines for an 8 a.m. meeting. She and a colleague got to Newark Airport with plenty of time for a 1 p.m. flight the day before the meeting, but it ended up getting delayed for 7 hours and then cancelled. “The weather was so bad, the only flight we could get was to Omaha,” Mullen says. “We made some phone calls and found out you can drive from Omaha to Des Moines in an hour and a half, so we flew there and rented a car.” By the time they got to Des Moines, it was 4 a.m., but they made their 8 a.m. meeting. Which brings us to Mullen’s last tip, arguably the most important of all…

8. Keep your attitude upbeat. This isn’t always easy, but it may save your sanity — and your career. “Driving through Iowa, we passed James Dean’s birthplace and the area where they filmed The Bridges of Madison County,” says Mullen. “The whole trip was exhausting, of course, but it was also kind of interesting and fun.”

The point, she says, is that “if you look at business travel as a burdensome chore, it will wear you down and make you sick.” People who spend a lot of time on planes are prone to sinus infections, especially if their morale is low. By contrast, “there is nothing better for your career than building a network of strong relationships, and nothing is better than face-to-face contact for doing that,” Mullen says. “So try to see travel as an essential tool for your success. And hold on to your sense of humor.” You’ll probably need it.

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