No one likes to pay too much to travel. But for entrepreneurs who need to spend their own limited funds to make a crucial business trip, snagging a free airline ticket or a discounted rental car can sometimes mean the difference between making payroll and having a lot of cranky employees.
Sam Hamadeh knows this firsthand. In 1997, the Fresno, Calif., native co-founded Vault.com, a career information Web site. He was 26, fresh out of a J.D./M.B.A. program at the University of Pennsylvania, and faced the task of getting his four-person staff around the country frequently — and on a tight budget.
"For sales, it's a people business at the end of the day. It's important for us to develop personal relationships, and you do really have to go see them," says Hamadeh about the hiring managers he was working with. "Since we were a shoestring startup, it was critical for us to do it cheaply."
So Hamadeh was creative. He cashed in on frequent flier miles, asked employees to take the train or drive their own cars, and used student ID cards (three of the four had just graduated) to wrangle discount fares. It paid off. The company opened its first international office in London last summer, does $15 million a year in sales and has grown to 50 employees. Retail giants like Wal-Mart Stores and Procter & Gamble recruit candidates through Vault.com.
Needless to say, Vault employees are traveling more than ever, but they aren't celebrating with first-class plane tickets. Hamadeh relies on points accrued through his American Express card, which can be translated into air miles and transferred from one employee's account to another. "Fifteen million dollars a year is still small," Hamadeh says. "For those last-minute and same-day-and-back business trips, which cost $1,000 to $1,500 for a coach ticket, using corporate Amex miles saves us a fortune."
According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas-City, Mo.-based organization that promotes education and entrepreneurship, there are approximately 10 million American adults involved in starting a new business at any given time. And it's a safe bet that most of them will have to log a lot of air miles at one point or another. But traveling can be an entrepreneurial catch-22. Whether it's visiting manufacturing plants in China or meeting potential investors on Sand Hill Road, you won't get much accomplished without first shelling out for a plane ticket, a hotel and a rental car, not to mention business cards, language lessons and even the little things like food and laundry that can add up to a big hotel bill.
To help, Forbes.com is introducing a four-part series: the Small Business Owners' Travel Guide. In this, the first installation, we share the secrets of getting there cheaply. (Upcoming stories include ways to stay, eat and conduct business for less while on the road.) In order to get the best "tricks of the trade," we spoke with entrepreneurs and called travel agencies and resources for small-business owners, like Washington state-based YoungEntrepreneur.com, to compile 15 tactics that will get you there and back, bank account intact.
The best part? These tips work as well for the traveling entrepreneur as they do for the entrepreneurial traveler: i.e., anyone looking to go anywhere for cheaper.
"The best way for entrepreneurs to travel for cheap is to start up a travel Web site or blog," says Adam Toren, co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. "Then send a travel request to the resort or airline, let them know that you are planning a review on travel and including their property, and would like to be comped or find out the media rate."
Then comes the hard part: make sure you actually write the review, or your credibility in the industry could be damaged. (Full disclosure: Forbes and Forbes.com do not accept media rates, or complimentary airfare or accommodations, when reporting travel stories.)
Here's another trick: Take advantage of overseas pricing differentials in airplane tickets for a discounted fare. "If you're going back and forth a lot," says Pallavi Shah, founder of New York City-based Our Personal Guest travel agency, "remember that airlines sell tickets for different prices in different countries," even for the same route. Pallavi, who commutes to India several times a year, recently bought a $3,000 Mumbai-New York round-trip ticket, which was less expensive than the $5,000 ticket originating in New York--even though she had to purchase a separate one-way fare to get back home.
If a blog sounds like a lot of work, or you're too busy writing up business plans to buy plane fares overseas, there are simpler ways to save. The LimoLiner, a luxury bus that runs several times a day between New York City and Boston, costs just $79 one way — cheaper than flying (even the Delta shuttle is over $200) or Acela, Amtrak's high-speed train, which can be over $100 each way at peak hours. Plus, the LimoLiner has wireless high-speed Internet and places to plug in your cell phone and laptop. Top that, Amtrak.
Basic savings techniques, like joining AAA (10 percent off select rental cars and hotels) or strategically reaping the benefits of frequent flier miles and credit card rewards programs, made our list too. So read carefully, and then go forth and conquer — frugally, of course.
If we've forgotten your favorite method of saving on airfare, rental cars or trains, please write and let us know.