Recently, I wrote about making use of your travel time to arrive to your destination feeling smarter. As a self-employed consultant, every moment matters; every hour spent smartly while commuting means one free hour later to work on something else or an opportunity to finish work an hour earlier. Optimising your trip planning is another way to make travel less stressful and more enjoyable. Since I need to practice what I preach, here are some of the travel tips I'm putting into action before heading off to SXSW later this week.
Got any tips to contribute? Leave a comment and I'll update the post to reflect your suggestions.
Before you travel
Call your bank to let them know you'll be away: There are few things more embarrassing than your credit card being declined. Banks are very twitchy these days and a flag can be raised for a single "out of the ordinary" transaction. If you're not a frequent traveller, your first purchase abroad is likely to do exactly that so pre-empt that by telling them the dates and location of your trip.
While you're speaking to them, find out whether you'll be charged for using ATMs abroad. If you are, try to get them waived ahead of time.
Check that you're on the best tariff for your mobile: If you intend to use your phone will abroad, call your mobile operator to find out if you're on the best tariff. Sometimes it's free to upgrade to an international tariff, you just need to ask. In other cases, there'll be a small fee but may be worthwhile if it'll save you a significant amount.
Get some currency ahead of time: Airports have the least favourable exchange rate, so try to get a handful of bills in the currency you need ahead of time. You don't need to take out a fortune (and it's best not to carry too much at once in case you lose your wallet) but it's worth having enough for a sandwich, a train ticket or a taxi in case you need it.
Give family and work colleagues a copy of your travel itinerary: Leave printed copies of your flight, hotel and passport details with at least one friend/family member, and with the office manager if you're travelling on business. They'll know where to find you in case of emergency, and you'll be grateful that they have a copy of your passport details if yours gets lost/stolen.
Use a good quality suitcase: Don't underestimate the importance of a solid, well-built and manoeuvrable suitcase. It'll get battered by the careless airline luggage staff, get wheeled through a city (don't even think about having a suitcase without wheels!) and give you a backache if it isn't easy to manage.
Also, pack reasonably. Speaking from experience, two large suitcases and a laptop bag is difficult to control singlehandedly. Add the challenge of rush hour public transportation and the post-travel exhaustion and you'll be swearing like a sailor.
Check the weather as you pack: This might sound obvious, but check it just before you leave as the weather might change. For example, Austin is 31 degrees Celcius at the beginning of this week, but shoots down to 11 degrees on Thursday. While that's still balmy when arriving from the UK, if all I'd packed were flipflops, I'd be rather cold.
If you're travelling for business, no matter how hot the weather outdoors is, assume that the conference centre or office you'll be visiting will have air conditioning (especially if you're going to the US) so bring something warm to cover your shoulders.
Leave plenty of food behind for your significant other: Women, be sure to leave your husbands a generously stacked fridge/freezer. Otherwise you'll return to find out he's eaten at KFC every night ;)
[Update: Nearly forgot this important tip...
Set your out of office before you go: If you use Gmail, use the Canned Response and setup messages letting people know you'll be away. It'll lessen the stress by telling your clients, colleagues and friends not to expect a response from you until your return. If you can afford the time, occasionally skim your emails during your trip. Remember that your friends & colleagues will most likely survive without you if you do not respond, so only reply to the essential ones.]
During your trip
Dealing with jetlag: There are different schools of thought on this, but here are my views. If you arrive early at your destination, a brief nap in the afternoon is fine, but it's important to set an alarm, get up and spend the evening being reasonably active in order to adapt to the new timezone. If you arrive any later than 5-6pm, do not let yourself fall asleep early or you'll be groggy all evening - if you wake up at all - and will take longer to get used to your schedule. Have a shower, do some muscle stretches or do something up
Get basic supplies to your room: If you're staying at a hotel for a few days, you may want to pop by the nearest shop and get some water bottles and a few handy snacks. It'll save you a fortune in minibar bill and be a convenient stop-gap if you're rushed and can't go eat a full meal before your next engagement. If you've got a sensitive stomach, bottled water will also ensure you don't have a negative reaction to the local water.
If you're attending SXSW, the nearest location to the Convention Centre and the nearby hotels is CVS Pharmacy at 500 Congress Avenue (at 5th St).
Have a multivitamin every morning: Travel, whether for business or pleasure, usually involves long, busy days and can take its toll on your body. Rich restaurant meals may also not be as vitamin-packed as usual. I'm packing fizzy Berocca to get my vitamins, but also to force me to have a pint of water to start the day.
Drink water. Then drink more water: The problem with holidays and business trips is that everyone wants to buy you a drink. Between all the alcohol and coffee you're likely to consume, it's important to rehydrate with water to ensure your body and mind don't conk out halfway through your trip. From your flight to your nights out, it's essential.
The pressurised atmosphere within the aircraft causes high levels of dehydration even though you may not feel hot or even feel like you are sweating. The inside of an aircraft at altitude has 5% less humidity than that of a desert. (Source: Travel Rants)
Use the hotel safe: If your hotel room provides a safe, use it for Pete's sake. If you feel that the hotel can be trusted, leave your passport, house keys and flight tickets in the safe. If it fits, leave your laptop or camera in it as well when you don't need it. You'll be happy to travel lighter, and your mind will be at ease. However, if your hotel is slightly shady, you may prefer to keep your passport and other important belongings on your person at all times.
Stay alert when you're out: Avoid flashing your gear; you love your iPhone, your MacBook Pro and your fancy camera, but don't get them out in public unless necessary. Pay attention to where your belongings are at all times, and never leave them unattended. Try not to drink so much that you get sleepy while on the commute back from an evening out or you might find yourself travelling lighter by the time you wake up from your alcohol-induced snooze.
Take time to regroup your thoughts: In an entirely new environment, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Take a moment to breathe and remember why you're on your trip. Remind yourself of your objectives; Are you there to grow your business or party like it's 1999? (Or both?) Don't let your goals out of sight and focus your day around them. Be positive and cheerful, everyone will love you. Of course, be sure to also take in the sights and sounds of the city you're visiting!
When you get home
Download and backup your pictures NOW: If you delay copying photos and video to your computer on your return, you know you'll never bother. While you're still buzzing from your trip, put your images on Flickr, your videos on YouTube and send the link to friends and family. If you're a geek, be sure to tag the photos appropriately so that other attendees to the same event can find your pics.
Sort through your stuff: Whether it's business cards, memorabilia or schwag, just like pictures, sort through them now. Jot down actions, connect with the people you met via LinkedIn and follow up with the interesting people you met. Chris Brogan has a few more tips on what to do after a conference.
Take a breather: SXSW is infamous for the state it leaves its attendees in. Last year, it seemed everyone got ill after getting home. Exhaustion, long travel and lots of handshaking (no doubt swapping colds, flus and the occasional stomach bug) will leave most people drained. If you can, give yourself a buffer of a few days to recharge your batteries before jumping back into real life and you'll feel much more positive about travelling.