Ideas for the Academic Traveler
Conference and other work travel always comes with high points and drawbacks. Maximize the high points by adding new dimensions to your planning and by disrupting some conventional ideas about work travel.
Create a trip summary, either by making a personalized itinerary with all your details like confirmation numbers and times in one place, or by using the more relaxed approach and saving your airline, hotel, conference, car or other booking receipts as pdfs and then use the stitching feature to link them all together in one document to email to yourself and save on your phone or device.
After a few years, we all begin to loop through common cities on our travel paths. Create digital bookmarks or analog files about things to see and do in cities you suspect you’ll get back to. Mine include public libraries with great reading spaces, museums with nice gardens, restaurant reviews, and gyms that have features I like.
Personalize ways to keep your packing lean and predictable. On the road routine is a plus. Make a travel checklist for work trips so that you don’t rely on memory to prompt getting the razor or pair of dress shoes packed. Mine is divided into things that can be done (scheduling dog sitters, setting away message) or packed ahead (outfits known to travel well), and things I need to grab or take care of on the way out the door (take a medication, then pack it; separate house keys from car keys). If you average a trip every other month or so, consider keeping duplicates of clothing items (like socks and underwear) and toiletries so that you always have them ready to go. This is a psychological trick – if it feels like less of a hassle to get ready, going also seems like less of a hassle.
On the way:
Find a routine that makes it pleasant for you: a snack you crave but don’t often have, earbuds for music, specific types of reading, inflatable lumbar support pillow, lap blanket, and sleeping from take-off until you have inevitably missed beverage requests.
Consider driving. Even if the drive is three or four hours it can sometimes be a wash given airport security and on-time flight constraints. The time can be redeemed if others come along and you have a plan. Some of my favorite road trips have included trainees – one year one individual went to the meeting by car and a different one returned so we could spend extensive time strategizing about a dissertation proposal and the analysis plan for a publication. Do be sure to check on insurance liability first if you drive trainees. (Our team is still waiting on a conference that lets us take an Amtrak trip through the central US.)
If you have funds from work for travel/professional needs, consider an unlimited data sim card from your carrier. I don’t need lots of wireless until I’m on the road and those are exactly the networks I shouldn’t be using. A personal hotspot or sim card for your iPad is worth the investment.
Ask for two room cards. Put one in the back slot of your namebadge holder and the other in your wallet for safe keeping. The first can set you free from carrying anything else when you’re hanging around the conference center. The second will save you the walk back down to check-in when the magnetic strip functions poorly or you can’t find the other.
Join travel clubs. If you are allowed to keep the points, work travel is a little bit sweeter when it comes with potential flight bonuses and hotel nights for leisure travel. Develop loyalties and the perks add up. A side benefit is hotel loyalty programs allow you to have a profile that includes details like whether you prefer a higher floor or have no preference except away from elevators and ice machines, or want hypoallergenic pillows, or need a refrigerator.
Since a refrigerator isn’t a given anymore, I indicate I need one “for health reasons.” My health reason is so that I can dodge by Trader Joe’s or a local store for healthier, cheaper fresh food for breakfast, snacks, and pre-workout. The walk for supplies is a good way to see territory but take a cab if you need. It still comes out cheaper. Haven’t had grocery receipts declined for reimbursement yet.
Ask in advance for separate checks for meals and alcohol. Wait staff understand. For the hotel receipt too, this saves loads of calculation hassle if you separate the room service Caesar salad from the glass of red wine. Room service, you say? Yes, even if you have to personally eat the cost of the delivery fee or the tip, it can be a good way to make sure that you get something approximating a nutritious meal when you arrive late, can keep working if needed (hopefully not on your slides), or recharge with a bit of downtime if you are an introvert.
Consider if there is anything that can add consistency to all your travel. For some this is a photograph or lap blanket for the flight and the hotel room – yes, a grown-up blankie. For me this is a clean pillow case from my home. I’m not a good sleeper. Having one pillow that feels and smells right makes a difference and it doubles as a laptop cover for my computer that gets packed in carry-on. (See more on good sleep when you travel below.)
Heresy alert. Take time to be a local. Unless you are sworn to attend every session on all days, scope out a time to take a break. One friend of mine hits vintage vinyl stores on every trip, another is a gym tourist using the “drop in” rate at Crossfits around the country, and the DC Zoo and monuments should not be missed if you get there. Pick something; it usually doesn’t take more time than an offsite meal. That said, it is poor form if someone else, like your PI or training grant, is paying to ditch a full day. For longer conferences a little time away can be the difference between conference burn out – that feeling when you hear only Charlie Brown’s teacher – and staying tuned-in at key sessions. If you plan in advance or shortly after on-site registration, you’ll find the time and it adds another facet to look forward to. A group of my peers affectionately call this step “plotting our escape” and it’s a tradition.
Another heresy. Staying with the pack is the path of least resistance and has plenty to commend it – negotiated hotel rates, maximal proximity, bumping into people you know around the hotel. You’re typically not obligated to be at the conference hotel and can still get good networking done if you pick another location and are strategic. So if finances, other factors like bringing along a child and helper, or hotel points (see above) matter, then consider an alternative within a short walking distance. A studio apartment from Airbnb or VRBO may be your ticket and often the cost is similar. If you would be spending more seek approval and offer to cover the difference.
Have a recurring travel requirement like sitting on a study section, monthly board meetings, or a steering committee for a consortium? Consider leaving things behind. You can typically check a reasonable size bag for an indefinite time if they know you will be back (write next reservation date and contact information on tag). Leaving a retired but serviceable laptop and mouse, or sports gear like shoes, swim suit, kickboard, and goggles, or a racket on site can reduce the hassle of traveling with them. It also lessens travel aversion if you can easily do things that make your week “normal.”
Add your favorite travel hacks as comments and enjoy the trip.
Other travel hacks for savvy travelers: