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What I learned on the road this year

At the end of each of the 30-plus years that I’ve been on the road, I come to the same conclusion: It’s been another bizarre 12 months for business travel.
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At the end of each of the 30-plus years that I’ve been on the road, I come to the same conclusion: It’s been another bizarre 12 months for business travel.

The trick to surviving, as I’ve discovered, is to not become too flustered by the ludicrous nature of being a business traveler. It’s much better to learn a lesson or two from what has gone before and adjust your parameters and expectations accordingly. I’ve found it’s best to just keep a low profile and take copious notes. Call it the Zen of business travel if you must. But I’m just a grinder and will make no such high-flown pronouncements.

Here’s some of the useful stuff I’ve learned on the road this year:

Forget progress, carry paper
Airlines around the world are racing to go totally paperless. Electronic tickets are already standard. Paperless boarding passes (think a picture of a boarding pass on your BlackBerry screen) are being tested by Continental Airlines and others. But what carriers want and what makes the world’s airport security apparatchiks happy are entirely different things.

I watched with shock and disbelief this year as a traveling companion was denied entry into an airport terminal because he didn’t have paperwork proving that he was booked on a flight. “But it’s an e-ticket!” my traveling companion protested to the brown-shirted, pistol-toting security officer blocking his path. He allowed me into the terminal because I produced a paper confirmation of my e-ticket. So I sprinted to the ticket counter, convinced an agent to produce a boarding pass for my colleague, and ran it back to the entranceway. Only then did the security agent relent.

Lesson learned: Carry some form of printed proof that you’re booked to fly.

Style doesn’t matter at security
Speaking of security, we still struggle to adapt to the Transportation Security Administration’s 16-month-old rules about liquids and gels. Officially, the T.S.A. says our lotions and potions are fine as long as they are in a three-ounce (or less) container and fit into a one-quart zip-top bag. Unofficially, of course, every screener at a security checkpoint makes his or her own rules and forces us to adapt at a moment’s notice.

More than once this year, I’ve seen a screener hassle a flier because she was traveling with unmarked bottles. This is distressing because an entire cottage industry has sprung up to offer stylish, sturdy toiletry kits that meet the T.S.A.’s so-called 3-1-1 rule. All of these cases include specially designed clear bottles and spray containers that have no labels. It’s unsettling to learn that we’re now considered potential terrorists because we’ve poured a few ounces of Listerine into an unmarked bottle.

Lesson learned: Forget the fancy cases and fly with travel-size toiletries as packaged (and labeled) by commercial suppliers.

Forget human contact
I’ve long urged business travelers to program their mobile phones with the toll-free reservation numbers of their preferred hotel chains and airlines. The theory: When you need a hotel room in a hurry or want to change a ticket quickly, the appropriate number and a helpful human being are at your fingertips. But this year I realized that calling the reservation number is a fool’s errand.

One example: A colleague and I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport after a 16-hour flight. It was the final stop for me, but my fellow traveler was connecting with a flight to San Francisco that was delayed for 15 hours. I pushed a button on my phone to make a reservation for him at the airport hotel. All of a sudden, I found myself drawn into a freakish, 15-minute dialogue with the phone agent. She did everything — demanded my frequent-guest number; required me to recite my address; asked whether I was traveling on business or for pleasure — except take the reservation. Finally, I yelled into the phone, “Look, I’m in the car about two minutes from the hotel.” Her response? “I’m sorry, sir, I have to ask these questions first.” I hung up without making a reservation.

When I subsequently called the chain’s senior vice president of customer care to complain, he said he didn’t believe me — until he found the recording of the call. (Apparently, they really do monitor calls for “quality-assurance purposes”!) His response? The agent was following “normal protocol.”

Lesson learned: The travel industry now assumes callers are just window-shoppers looking for information, and that the real bookers are going to the Web to make their reservations. So I’ve bookmarked the appropriate Web sites in my BlackBerry’s browser, and I’ll handle it all over the Internet next time.

Fees are a fact of life
The airline industry’s pricing strategies have always been byzantine. Now they are also criminal. It has loaded on so many fees, surcharges, and extras that your final price is a crapshoot.

At least three carriers were fined by the U.S. government this year for price-fixing their fuel surcharges. Why do airlines add fuel surcharges rather than raise fares? Because surcharges are exempt from the corporate discounts offered to high-volume customers. Some hotels pile a “resort charge” on top of their nightly rates to cover “essentials” like use of the pool or the health club and the delivery of your “free” newspaper. The Federal Trade Commission pursued Budget Rent A Car for a secret $9.50 fee levied on renters who returned cars after driving fewer than 75 miles. And then there’s American Express. It’s currently promoting Clear as the “credit card with no fees of any kind.” But look at its terms and conditions and you’ll find a 2 percent fee imposed on any overseas transaction.

Lesson learned: Assume that your final price is never the bottom line. Contest any unexpected charge you didn’t agree to pay at the time of your reservation.

The grass is greener ...
The rapid decline of standards in domestic travel sometimes blinds us to a global reality: Travel is often less offensive, less costly, and much more comfortable elsewhere.

Want an example? Two months ago, I flew between Mumbai and Delhi on Kingfisher, one of India’s fast-growing private carriers. When I arrived at the terminal, I was met by red-vested attendants who took my bags and carried them through security. I was escorted to the airline lounge. When it was time to depart, the agents took my carry-on bags, accompanied me to my first-class seat, and placed my bags in the overhead bin. During the two-hour flight, I was served a three-course meal on fine china. A flight attendant came down the aisle to clean the eyeglasses of bespectacled passengers. As we were disembarking, I received a necktie as a parting gift. The one-way fare: Around $400, about half the price of a first-class flight between New York and Chicago.

Lesson learned: Demand more on the road. More can be done, but only if we require it of airlines and hotels. After all, they are merely suppliers — they work for us, not the other way around.

The fine print
Here’s a lesson we have to learn again: Europe is back on strike. After years of relative labor peace, the transport unions and the relevant airline and train companies seem to be at war over everything: salaries, pensions, work rules, staffing. Even as I write this, there are one-day strikes affecting transportation in Italy, Greece, and France. You’ll need to plan accordingly in 2008.