Travel tips from the King of Common Sense

In his new book, the International Herald Tribune's business travel columnist shares a few trade secrets.

Published July 21, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

I met Roger Collis once. We were onstage in Amsterdam, Netherlands, before an audience of international businessmen, being interviewed by the talking head of Larry King -- the rest of King happened to be in a New York TV studio.

Collis and I had a drink afterward and agreed it was one of the more surreal things we'd ever done. Then he flew back home to Antibes, France, and I flew back to San Francisco.

After that I began to look for tips and musings in his International Herald Tribune column, "The Frequent Traveler," as well as in his work in the New York Times, and I began to feel like I had a ubiquitous friend who was keeping a lookout on the business travel world while I was looking elsewhere.

And so it was with a kind of nostalgic familiarity that I picked up his new book, "The Survivor's Guide to Business Travel."

The "Survivor's Guide" presents a condensed compilation of Collis' columnar wisdom, and as such it is a treasure, for Collis began writing about biz travel in the misty days of 1984, long before those two words had bonded to form a journalistic niche. He was a genial and engaging guide from the beginning; over 16 years he has developed into a savvy and sage reporter, too. He is -- as this book abundantly illustrates -- the King of Common Sense.

"Survivor's Guide" is divided into three sections: Preparing, Traveling and Arriving. Preparing covers everything from getting the most of your business ticket buck to making sure you're insured when things go wrong. Traveling moves from packing strategies to biological clocks. Arriving explains how to find a hotel that suits your needs and the right present for foreign partners.

Only one quibble here, and it's quite understandable, given that Collis lives in France and writes for a Paris-based newspaper: The anecdotes and lessons can be a bit Eurocentric. (Some are so Eurocentric as to be useless for the non-European reader.)

Here are 10 quibble-free things I learned from Collis' tales and tips:

Make the most of a travel agent: First of all, be clear about what you are being offered and ask for alternatives. Take into account that a "direct" flight may not be nonstop. (If your plane stops somewhere en route to your destination, but you don't change planes, it's considered a direct flight.) Always ask if there are any special deals for hotels or car rentals that you can take advantage of. If you adjust your schedule slightly to travel at a different time, can you get a better fare? How can you maximize your frequent-flier miles or hotel points? Are there penalties if you end up changing your ticket? Can you get a free upgrade? If you take a slightly earlier or later flight, can you improve your chances of getting an open seat beside you?

Using frequent-flier miles: Award seats on most airlines can be booked 320 days in advance. Plan your trip as far in advance as possible, and have several dates and times in mind when you book your flight. You have the best chance of getting the seats you want if you fly midweek; Tuesday and Wednesday are best of all. Avoid major holiday periods. If seats are not available, ask to be put on a waiting list. After that, call the airline once or twice a week to check on your status, and call as early in the morning as possible (when newly available seats are posted to airline computers). If worst comes to worst, try booking a less popular route.

Think about air passes: If you are traveling to three or more locations within Europe or Asia, for example, look into the European air pass or the ASEAN air pass (for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). Most air passes are good for 60 days from the date of first use, and can provide substantial savings if you are traveling extensively within one region.

Malaria: You're traveling by taxi and staying in fancy hotels, so you think you can't get malaria? Think again. Particularly if you're traveling to Africa, South America, Cambodia or the Philippines, you're at risk. You should consult your physician for the most appropriate preventive drugs as far before you leave as possible; if you can, test them at home for possible side effects. Take a supply of emergency treatment for a malarial attack. And take a self-diagnosis kit.

Travel in Eastern Europe: Pre-book and prepay as much as you can before you leave -- from airline tickets and hotels to ballet tickets and sightseeing excursions -- to avoid hassles and black market prices. Try not to change plans on the road. Arrange to be met at the airport -- especially on your first visit -- by a travel agency representative or local business associate who can steer you through the airport procedures. This is especially important if you are a woman, as women business travelers are still rare in Eastern Europe. Don't try to save money or beat the system; safety and reliability should be your prime concerns. Rigorously confirm your onward reservations and leave plenty of extra time for airports; airlines often close flights early, leaving booked passengers stranded on the ground.

General tips for businesswomen: When choosing a hotel, smaller is smarter. You want the staff to be familiar with other guests and with you: The smaller the lobby, the more noticeable the loiterers. When you take a taxi, don't exit until you're sure you've arrived at your destination; pay while still in the vehicle so that you can be sure you've received the proper change. If you place your carry-on bag on the floor when sitting in a restaurant or other public area, put your foot through the strap; don't leave it loose.

Insurance: You should get a comprehensive plan that covers your medical needs ($5 million for complete peace of mind); emergency cash; personal accident; personal liability (at least $3 million for legal expenses or damages for accidental injury to people or damage to property); travel delays, cancellations and curtailments; loss of luggage, personal effects and money; and loss or damage of business goods. Consider also covering the cost of having a business partner or colleague fly out to replace you for a critical meeting or conference.

Checkpoints for problem-prone travelers: Never trust official minimum-connection times; if your connection is crucial, leave twice as much time for changing planes, especially to another carrier. Avoid booking the last flight of the day that connects you to your final destination; if your first plane is late, you may be stuck at the hub overnight. And never hit the rental car desk without a reservation; if you do, you're likely to find that the "only car available" is one at the top of the line.

Saving money on car rentals: Always compare the airport, "off airport" (where you phone to be picked up rather than going to a desk) and downtown rates. These can vary by up to 50 percent. Always compare a corporate discount rate with special, limited-time promotional rates; the latter may turn out to be cheaper.

How to survive a long flight in steerage: If you're stuck in economy class, stretch your legs as often as you can, and take a minute every once in a while to contract and relax your calf muscles, thus pumping blood up through your veins. Turn your feet in circles from the ankles, first in one direction, then the other, and stretch your feet with your toes pointing outward. Drink plenty of water -- at least a pint every three hours -- but avoid alcohol, coffee, tea and chocolate, which promote dehydration.

Of course, heaven forbid you should actually have to fly economy class while on business. But if you should, I hope the gods are smiling -- and you find that Roger Collis is in the seat next to you.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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