Travel Like a Pro: A Guide to International Work Travel

Today's guest post is written by Sean M.  He is the European Product Manager for an action sports brand and spends 10-12 weeks a year traveling abroad. When he’s not traveling he spends his time in Boston, MA stockpiling dad jokes and trying to retain his Midwest accent. He’s a Michigan State grad who graduated with a degree in Marketing.


Traveling for work in your twenties is often one of the best perks a position can have. If you’re at all like me you live in a beat up apartment that you pay too much for and you’re constantly robbing your grocery budget so you can overcome your alcohol tolerance Friday and Saturday night, and still afford bottomless brunch on Sunday. 

So when you’re manager says “Hey do you want to go to ____?” The first thing you think about, is staying in a nice clean hotel, eating out every meal, and balling on the corporate card - all while getting paid. The icing on the cake is all the Facebook updates from airports you get to make and the artsy pictures you’ll post to Instagram. All those posts will surely remind your cubicle dwelling peers how lousy their jobs are while you jetset around and get to pick any car you please from the Emerald Aisle.

Now the Holy Grail of work travel in your twenties is international work travel. Before we dive into that, let’s cover a few basics that apply to work travel, both domestic and international:

  • Get TSA Precheck. And get it yesterday. Ask your company’s travel coordinator if they will pay for it, some will. Even if they won’t it’s the best money you will ever spend
  • Get Global Entry if you will be traveling internationally often.  Same as TSA Precheck, ask your company’s travel coordinator if they will pay for it
  • Sign up for every travel loyalty program under the sun. I don’t care if it’s a major airline or a small town hotel - get on the program, get those points, get those rewards
    • Airlines
    • Hotels
    • Rental Car Companies
  • Never sit next to your coworkers on flights; you’ll be spending enough time with one another, so take this time to yourself
  • Make sure you fully know your company’s rules for travel and expenses. This Friday at 3:00 when you’re sitting at your desk trying to do anything but work, just read it - it will pay off. Knowing the rules makes sure that you never get in an awkward spot with your manager but also ensures you know just how much you can milk that corporate card for
  • Enjoy eating out and exploring the city with coworkers but watch the alcohol intake. Overly rowdy nights, hookups, and morning pukes were hilarious in college but are fodder for office gossip and will impact how others view you 

All Aboard! We’re Going Abroad!

Congrats, you’re headed off on an international work trip! Regardless of where you’re headed, you’re about to make your mom sick with worry and that girl who swiped right on you last Tuesday swoon with jealousy. 

Before you head off, let’s cover a few packing essentials for international:

  • Passport
  • Physical copies of your travel itineraries and reservation confirmations for Immigration
  • 2 power converters, one for your laptop the other for your phone, tablet, etc. (I recommend this one)
  • Some US cash you can hide in a discrete pocket
  • Copy of your passport, emergency contact info, and your corporate travel service hotline number
  • One roller bag and one personal briefcase or backpack. Feel free to check the roller. Going to be gone for a week or more? Most companies will allow you to expense laundry. 
  • Couple of phone tips as well:
    • Have a corporate phone? Request to add international voice, text and data. If they’re sending you abroad this should be approved. If you don’t have one ask if they will cover the expense on your personal phone. 
    • Download the Google maps data for the area you are traveling to prior to arrival.  This is easy to do on your phone, just follow these directions
    • Download Google Translate and download the local language so you can translate without wifi/data.  This is also easy to do, just follow these directions
    • Yelp is great for finding somewhere to eat
    • Uber works in 75+ countries. I’ve personally used it throughout Europe with no problem at all. 
    • Know the country code of where you will be. For example the US is (+1), the UK is (+44), the Netherlands is (+31). Here’s a complete list
    • Yes, Tinder works abroad...

Alright we’re ready to go, step one, the flight. 

Flying Internationally

Remember those loyalty programs you signed up for? You’re about to get halfway to the next status level in one trip.

Get to the airport two hours early. Missing an international flight is a way bigger deal than a domestic one. They are often less frequent and more expensive.  Plus, it will make you look like a fool to your coworkers that know you’re going on this trip.

Don’t be afraid to check your roller bag, it’s just less of a hassle during boarding and, if you do check the roller bag, you can store liquids greater than 3 oz, which means you don’t need to buy special shampoo bottles.

Beg, bargain, borrow, pillage, do whatever you have to in order to get an aisle or window seat. No one wants to be in a middle seat for an international flight.

You’re most likely going to get a meal or two on the flight. If you’re in economy plan, you’ll likely be utterly disappointed.  Want to avoid this and travel like a pro? Buy yourself a meal that will hold up for a few hours in the terminal and bring it on the plane with you. When your neighbor starts picking at their plate like it’s a biology experiment gone wrong, you’ll be unwrapping a burrito overflowing with carnitas and guac. 

As your landing, start preparing yourself mentally for the battle about to come. You’re about to feel like Jon Snow in his finest hour. As soon as that plane door opens, your sole goal in life is to grab your stuff and get off that cramped, overcrowded plane. It won’t be an easy task, people will be literally sacrificing children to try to get out ahead of you.  Once you battle your way out of that plane, you need to get to immigration as fast as possible before the wave of tourists beats you there. Once you clear immigration, head straight for baggage claim and then look to rendezvous with your coworkers and for transportation. 

JetLag

You’ve made it to your destination, you’re exhausted, you’re ready for a shower and then bed, only one problem: its noon local time. Here’s what you do to shake that jet lag:

  • Check into your hotel as soon as possible
  • Shower
  • If you really have to, take a quick nap. 90 minutes max - set your alarm
  • Force yourself to wake up before local dinner time
  • Eat as much of a normal dinner as you can, skip the alcohol and have a coke or coffee to stay awake
  • Keep yourself up until 10 or 11 PM local time. Do whatever you have to in order to stay awake until a normal bed time. Watch the local version of MTV, plan out some sightseeing, etc. 
  • Set alarms for a normal wake up time- emphasis on the alarms, plural

Boom! You were a champ on day one! You flew like a pro, got through the airport quick and stayed up to a normal bed time. So now you’re synced up to local time on the first full day. You may get a little drowsy in the afternoon but it’s nothing a little coffee can’t cure. 

International Business

Now you’re here for work right? First off, congratulations for being fluent in English. Most people in the international service or business communities speak English, so you should be able to communicate pretty well. Remember, English is often not their first language so speak slowly and use simple, concise sentences. 

Do some research ahead of time on the culture you will be visiting so you can do a correct greeting and understand how they conduct business. The differences between cultures and countries can be quite staggering and the more knowledgeable you are the better interaction you will have.  

Now I don’t know what your job is so my suggestion regarding your business interactions would be to ask your manager, local contacts, or a coworker you traveled with. I usually err on the conservative side when dealing with people from other countries and cultures until I have truly gotten to know them. 

Enjoy Yourself

Once outside of your work responsibilities, try to enjoy yourself and your destination as much as possible. Couple of ideas for you:

  • Take up your business contacts on their offer to take you to dinner at a local hole in the wall
  • Try the local food
  • See the local sights, take all your picture’s you’ll be posting to Instagram
  • Visit a museum
  • Go for a run through the local parks or town square
  • One of my favorite things to do is find a highly rated cocktail bar and just sit and have a local drink- a great way to meet other locals too!

The rule I have with myself is to spend as little time in the hotel room as possible. I want to explore each city and country as much as I can. 

Safety

Unfortunately, the world is a bit of a scary place at times, so here’s a few tips to keep the good times flowing while keeping your mother sane:

  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Let people know what you’re up to during your free time. Even if it’s just mentioning it in passing to a coworker
  • If you’re a guy and you’re walking around the city, especially in some European cities, you will often be offered drugs and/or prostitution. It may be legal there but don’t forget that it’s a slippery slope and most likely not allowed by your company
  • If you’re off exploring and start feeling uneasy or just get a bad vibe trust your instincts and take a hike
  • If something does go wrong on your trip immediately call your travel emergency hotline. They have plans in place to handle almost any situation

Extend your stay

One of the best things you can do when you get sent abroad is to tack some personal time onto the trip. How do you do that? Well you simply ask. Let’s say your meetings wrap up Thursday and the rest of the work group will be traveling back on Friday. Take a look at flights home on Saturday or Sunday instead. Often you’ll be able to find a cheaper option. Tell your manager you don’t have any plans that weekend so you’ll be taking the cheaper flight home on Sunday. 99.9% of the time there will be no objection and often they’ll give you a wink and tell you that you can continue using the corporate card that weekend. Even if you’ll have to cover meals and a night in the hotel by yourself it’s a small price to pay for an extra full day or two of exploring. 

Now if you’re really serious about staying, you’ll see if there are comparably priced flights a few days out from the return date and tell your manager you’re going to tack on a personal vacation. You’ll have to pay for your own accommodations and food but often you’ll be allowed to take that flight at a later date. Meaning you get free round trip air on an international vacation. You just have to ask!

Final Pro Tips

  • Hotel bars are a great place to meet fellow travelers and grab an invite to tag on to their adventure for the night
  • Forgot something? Ask the front desk. They almost always either have what you need or can tell you exactly where to get it
  • If you’re in Europe, leave your passport in your hotel room safe. You don’t need it on your body and it’s a bigger liability to lose when it’s on you than when it’s in your safe
  • Carrying your passport with you? Put it in a discrete pocket along with your wallet. Pick pocketing is a real thing and losing your passport is a worst case scenario.  If you lose it, contact the US Embassy as soon as possible
  • Put a travel warning on all your debit and credit cards
  • Get Chip & Pin credit cards. Call your credit card provider if you do not have one
  • Have some local currency on you. Often the cheapest and easiest way to get local currency is to use your debit card at a local ATM upon arrival  

In summary, do your research beforehand, travel smart, be a professional when you have to, be a tourist when you don’t, be safe, and have a blast!