By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/4/2008 10:01:55 AM ET 2008-08-04T14:01:55

A lot of business travelers come off as know-it-alls, moving effortlessly from their towncars to their first-class lounges to the front of the plane, where they’re served mimosas as they recline in their ergonomic leather seats.

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But these so-called “road warriors” aren’t necessarily as smart as they look. If they were, then why would they spend half their lives on the road? After all, travel — and particularly air travel — is the civilian equivalent of waterboarding when you aren’t sitting in first class.

And why would they spend so much money on it? Although business travelers comprise only one-third of airline passenger traffic, they account for more than half the air carriers’ revenue.

Duh.

Truth is, business travelers are often trapped in thankless jobs, and their jetsetting lifestyle only seems glamorous. I know because I not only used to be a business traveler, I also used to cover it as a reporter. Know what? The only thing more unusual than a happy road warrior is a happy columnist who covers business travel.

A few years ago, Microsoft released a survey that suggested two-thirds of business travelers would just as soon spend time in a dentist’s chair as go on their next business trip. Enough said.

But you can learn something from our collective misery. Here are the three biggest sins committed by business travelers.

1. Believing your corporate travel manager is on your side
At a large company, business travel is overseen by a corporate travel manager, who in turn supervises a dedicated on-site travel department. Employees are made to feel as if their travel manager works for them — ensuring they’ll have a safe and productive trip. But that’s not entirely true. Corporate travel managers are primarily there to control costs, and the most experienced road warriors know that. They’re aware of the fact that these mid-level managers are charged with enforcing strict travel policies designed to send a company’s entire business to several preferred airlines or hotels. A survey by the National Business Travel Association leaves no doubt about that. It found that one-third of travel managers reported to the finance department in their companies, “illustrating how strategically important travel management is to a corporation’s overall financial strategy.” Often, the only time company bean counters care about their employees is when they break the rules and book outside of their corporate travel policy.

Lesson learned: As a leisure traveler, this may be a good time to ask if your travel agent is on your side. Are you being steered toward a particular cruise or hotel because it’s the best one for you — or because it’s the best one for your agent? If you have a terrific travel advisor, there will be no doubt about your answer.

2. Thinking frequent flier miles are a reward for your loyalty
Puh-lease! These highly-profitable “reward” programs aren’t set up for the benefit of customers. They’re there to enrich the airline, car rental company or hotel. Business travelers are issued miles that technically don’t even belong to them, are difficult to redeem and expire quickly. A few years ago, frequent fliers admitted to their increasing frustrations with mileage programs, with half the respondents to a survey complaining that cashing their miles for a ticket was more difficult than ever. Travel companies benefit far more from the arrangement. In exchange, they get the irrational loyalty of travelers. Road warriors go out of their way to fly on an airline, even when it costs more, takes longer and is less convenient. Elites may feel special and they may behave like royalty but in the end, they are victims.

Lesson learned: Don’t get hooked. If you understand that these so-called “awards” aren’t there to reward you, and instead are meant to turn you into a mindless customer drone, you can resist the dangerous pull of these programs. Candace Chambers-Belida, a writer from Corona, Calif., wishes she had. Her 21,000 hard-earned American Airlines miles recently expired without warning. “What’s a girl to do?” she wondered.

3. Complaining too much
Most business travelers are get-along kind of folks like Brandon Weber, a managing partner for a technology firm in Brooklyn, Mich., whose philosophy is “grin and bear it.” But some aren’t. Some whine and complain like there’s no tomorrow, even though they have access to special Platinum-only phone lines where they can deal with English-speaking agents and get almost every rule bent for the asking. They complain because they’re miserable and they don’t care if they’re ruining travel for the rest of us. These frequent criers are poisoning the experience, whether you travel by plane, train or automobile. Many of these shrill road warriors are partially responsible for the low morale of the employees who are supposed to be serving them. How can you possibly help someone who is inconsiderate, grumpy and abusive?

Lesson learned: Keep your powder dry for the truly awful customer service, which you will eventually encounter. Being the proverbial squeaky wheel will get you attention in the short term — may even solve your problem — but if you’re a frequent whiner, they’ll catch on to your routine. After a while, it won’t work.

So listen up, leisure travelers. The only person you can rely on when you travel is you. Gimmicky rewards programs are — well, gimmicky. And unless you have a legitimate complaint, keep your opinions to yourself.

If you don’t heed my advice, you could end up like me: one of the pathetic business travel drones who wishes he could just stay home.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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