Get savvy advice from getting a free upgrade to business class to staying productive
By Heinz Bulos
Frequent business flyers are some of the savviest bunch when it comes to travel. Whether you’re a newbie or even just an occasional tourist, you can learn a thing or two to save money and get the most out of your trip:
1. Get cheap fares
Never pay full fare for your airline ticket. Airlines practice dynamic pricing – fares change depending on many factors such as number of empty seats, day of the week, time of day, when you book, etc. And of course, different airlines charge different rates.
WHERE You need to do two things. One is to compare fares online by checking out the Web sites of airlines that have routes to your destination. You will surely find wide discrepancies across competing airlines. Of course, low-cost carriers offer better deals but may not fly to your destination.
But the Internet is not always the cheapest place to buy a ticket. So the second thing to do is call a travel agent – whether it’s your company’s accredited agency or, if you’re booking your trip yourself, one of the handful that you should shortlist. Often, the bigger players get access to special deals and volume discounts not available online. “I usually call travel agents but I also search the Web,” shares Karen Batungbacal. As president of the Philippine operations of the global BPO firm ICT Group, Karen is a veteran business traveler who already knows a lot of the ins and outs of traveling.
WHEN Fares vary also depending on the day and time. Jojo Uligan, executive director of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines, travels worldwide for trade missions and conferences. He says, “Check several travel agents and dates of your travel. Sometimes depending on your travel dates, tickets are a bit cheaper. Better to have a flexible date of travel to save some dollars unless you need to leave on a certain day. You may want to check online as well for some promos of several airlines.”
Don’t book a flight on a weekend, which is the day favored by business travelers and tourists alike. Experts say for the best fares, book your flight on a Wednesday, though no one can explain thoroughly why. As for the time, the earliest and latest flights are often the cheapest, since they’re the most inconvenient and therefore least preferred. However, try not to get the last flight as you might end up spending the night in the airport if your flight is cancelled (get the earliest or second to the last flight instead).
The other time factor is how advanced or late you should book. Some say book as far in advance as possible. Many airlines offer lower fares for flights if you book 21 days in advance. Other experts believe book at the last minute and take advantage of empty seats during an unpopular day, time, and season, for a last-minute sale. Only do this if you can afford to wait a day or two of course and not in a rush to attend a conference or meet an overseas client.
HOW Get a connecting flight, which is usually cheaper than flying non-stop. This will extend your travel time and add a little hassle but for long distances, consider this a relief. You can also opt for a Saturday night stayover, which is not popular among business travelers and therefore you can possibly nab a cheaper fare. And sometimes, a one-way ticket can cost more than a round-trip ticket, as some systems might charge more thinking you’re a big spender. So some travelers purchase two sets of roundtrip tickets but use only half of each, called back-to-back ticketing.
2. Get good seats
HOW Get a better coach seat as a perfect alternative to business class. A great seat can offer wider leg room and more peace and quiet. Some international long-haul carriers like Singapore Airlines and British Airways offer premium economy seats, which are wider and more spacious. You pay a little more than regular coach sets but certainly a lot less than business class.
WHERE Nowadays, you can pick your seat through online booking. Many airlines allow passengers to choose their preferred seat on their Web site, usually 24 hours before the flight. So go online as soon as you can to get the best seat. You can also check out seatguru.com for flights to the US. As to which seats are best, it’s usually those beside the exit rows in front or at the back where there’s more space. Karen likes aisle seats “so I have full mobility around the cabin. I also try to stay in the middle portion of the section I am in, if business or first class, to ensure distance from the lavatories or galley area which tend to be high traffic and noisy.”
Jojo prefers the first cabin wherein you have so much space and only 12 to 14 of you are there. “I prefer an aisle seat with no one in front of me like the first row or the bulk seat. Row 1C or 1F, row 4 middle seats in front of the food,” he chuckles.
3. Upgrade for free
HOW Before you use your frequent flyer miles to upgrade, always ask for the lowest heavily discounted business-class fares. Sometimes you can get it cheaper than upgrading from economy and using your hard-earned miles.
Jojo shares, “If you are a frequent flyer member with gold or platinum level you have a better chance to be upgraded provided the flight is full. You have to ask the person in the check at counter if there’s a possibility of upgrade always. You have to be nice to them. Another way of getting a free upgrade is to use your mileage or travel upgrade certificate given by the airlines.”
Pay full-economy fares. OK, that may be contradictory to our first tip, but if want to upgrade to business class, some airlines like Asiana and Malaysia airlines offer free upgrades to such ticket-holders. That’s still a lot cheaper than buying a business seat outright.
4. Maximize frequent flyer miles
In many cases, the only way to get an upgrade is to use your air miles. As a loyal customer, you can enjoy a lot of privileges including access to airport lounges and elite status at hotels. But for most, free trips and free upgrades are the primary draw.
HOW Stick to one program. If you collect miles from several programs, you’re not maximizing them. To speed up your air miles, focus your efforts on just one to achieve elite status. Karen says, “I try to stick to two mileage programs with a primary one so that I accumulate the mileage and get elite status on the programs that are important to me and my family. As a platinum elite [member] on the program, I have been selected for free upgrades on some flights. And just last week, my son was upgraded from Europe to New York also due to his platinum elite membership.” She adds, “I try and book most of my flights around a core mileage program and all its partner affiliates. I also have a secondary program that I go to if I cannot find the route I want on my primary program. This way I consolidate the miles and achieve elite status quicker, with all the attendant perks.”
Also, be selective in accumulating points. There are many ways to collect points, like checking in at an affiliated hotel, but it’s by flying frequently that you get qualifying miles. Jojo points out, “Get as many free flights and upgrades. That’s the best way to use your miles.”
You have to balance collecting miles with paying the best fares. You should still compare fares across other airlines outside your frequent-flyer program for the best deals. Don’t book blindly just so you can rack up your points.
5. Pack light
HOW As they say, travel light. As a business traveler, that should be easier as your trip is usually just for a few days. Don’t take everything you think you’ll need and then some. If you can pack everything in a carry-on, do so. Not checking in your luggage and claiming them after should cut your waiting time at the airport.
6. Don’t pay the rack rate
HOW Don’t pay the rack rate for your hotel room. Just like airlines, hotels have published rates and they have actual rates, depending on how full they are, what day of the week it is, etc. So you need to check the Internet for deals. “Check online for cheap hotel rates at Expedia.com, Hotel.com, Orbitz, etc. There are several sites selling cheap hotel room rates,” Jojo says.
Or go directly to the hotel’s site, which often offers a best rate guarantee. Check with your travel agent or airline also for package deals, which can be cheaper than paying for the fare and room separately.
WHERE Stay at a business hotel. Hotels classified as such are located near meeting places. They are often full during the work week, but often drop their prices on weekends. Jojo argues that a hotel is just “a place for you to sleep, take a shower, and for storage”. So he says you should consider hotels with 3 stars rather than a 4- or 5-star hotel, “but always look at the location and the reviews.”
7. Get a good room
WHERE Buy directly from the hotel’s Web site. You think you got a great hotel room deal from a discount travel site? Well, you may end up in the worst room. Naturally, hotels will keep the better rooms for their Web customers. Karen says she checks deals online. Although it’s hard to totally avoid getting a bad room, Karen says, “If I stayed in that hotel previously, I request the room I liked during the previous stay or a similar one. Otherwise, I will not accept a room they give me until I do a check around it, unless of course the hotel is fully booked.”
Jojo jests, “Don’t let your secretary do the booking. Always see for yourself if that’s OK and check with your friends for feedback.” He cautions booking at a hotel you don’t know or checked online for reviews. And once you’re at a destination you think you’d come back to, he adds, “Always check or visit hotels nearby so that you have options the next time you travel.”
8. Avoid extra charges
HOW Always check before you use. Many of us know to stay away from the minibar, which is stacked with beverages and knick-knacks that are overpriced. You can get away with opening a soda or two and then replacing them with the same item you buy from a grocery or convenience store. But some actually have sensors that can detect this.
Don’t use a hotel phone, since they’re often marked up by 100% or more. Just use your cell phone or buy a phone card and use the public phone. Also don’t order room service, which adds a service charge of between 10% and 15%. If you need to have your clothes washed, don’t use the hotel’s laundry service; do it yourself or go outside for a cheaper laundry service.
On the other hand, there are ways you can get more from your hotel than the other way around. Complimentary breakfast buffets are a great deal; plus you can skip a second meal by eating brunch. Many offer free shuttle buses round the clock to major city points. And of course, you can get some exercise at the fitness club and pool for free.
9. Follow company T&E policies
HOW If your company is paying for your trip, be sure you know the Travel and Entertainment (T&E) policies. Otherwise, you may end up coughing up for some expenses out of your own pocket. Keep good records, including receipts, and make sure you account for your expenses thoroughly.
10. Get in touch
HOW Go online. You can stay connected with colleagues and family through e-mail, online chat, and voice-over-IP services. Use Skype or a similar service for free calls over the Internet. Karen shares, “I text more often and to countries I frequently visit, I usually get a prepaid phone service. I also use Skype once I am in my hotel room.”
To avoid expensive roaming charges, Jojo’s advice is to “get a local prepaid card for local and international calls. Limit your calls by texting and let them call you instead, which is much cheaper than if you call them.”
11. Stay productive
HOW Flying involves a lot of waiting – waiting in the airport, sitting for hours during the flight, riding on a cab – that your productivity can easily drop. Make the most of your waiting time by working.
“Work on the plane or while waiting in the lounge. Always check your e-mail and reply to as many e-mails or text messages as you can. Better yet get a BlackBerry or PDA,” Jojo says.
If you’re not up to hard-core work, use the time for less-intensive activities. Karen uses her down time to catch up with news. She also says her executive assistant is key – “She knows what work to feed me via e-mail, phone texts, or faxes to the hotels if necessary.”
And if you don’t feel like working, you can fill up your time with more relaxing activities. Jojo says, “Read books and try to relax a little bit. Travelling eats up a lot of time and energy so during downtimes, relax, enjoy, and prepare for the next working day.”
12. Minimize jet lag
HOW There are many ways you can minimize jet lag. For one, you should set your watch to your destination’s time zone and adjust your sleep time to the local time. Experts also suggest you get a little sunlight and exercise by taking a walk, which should help rest your natural circadian rhythm. Jojo says, “Stay up when you arrive in your destination. As must a possible, do a lot of activities. Drink lots of water and change your sleeping hours while on the plane.”
“For short trips abroad, I don’t bother trying to beat jet lag as I will be in and out in a few days. I just rest when I can and eat healthily,” Karen explains.
13. Stay healthy
HOW Drink lots of water. On the plane, you need to keep hydrated. Some say avoid caffeine and alcohol but others suggest champagne to help you get a good doze on board. Karen avoids carbonated drinks and alcohol. “I also avoid over-indulging in salty food and food in general. I also walk around the plane every couple of hours and drink lots of water,” she explains.
To lower your stress levels, give yourself ample time so you’re not always in a rush. Bring along noice-canceling headphones to tune out noise during your flight as well as an eye mask to help you sleep.
Keep yourself in good shape by packing healthy snacks and getting some exercise at your hotel or jog outside with the locals.
14. Make the most of it
HOW Combine business and leisure. While you’re away, you might as well use the time to take a mini-vacation by extending your trip. After all, your fare has already been paid for. Just add a little extra for short trips and you can make the most of your business trip. In fact, consider bringing your significant other or family along. Of course, you pay for their fare and other incidentals, but you get your hotel room for free (at least for the official duration of the business trip). Just make sure your company is informed.
Have some fun. If you’re attending a conference or meeting a client, you usually would have an extra day or so for yourself. Use that time to check out the local neighborhood. Check out favorite local restaurants, bars, and cafés. Visit a museum or the local theater. It turns an otherwise humdrum business trip to a more fun – or at least less stressful – experience.
15. Consider alternatives to travel
HOW Before you even think about traveling, ask yourself (and whoever else is involved): Is your trip really necessary? With the advent of technologies like video conferencing and online collaboration tools, it might make more sense to meet virtually. But of course, if your physical presence is really important, just think of the bright side: more air miles and a subsidized mini-vacation.