Technically, my first work trip came 3 months after I started my first job as an assistant. It was a last-minute one-night trip to my home state where I was really just serving as a warm body to look after our company booth at a conference, so I don’t really count it as “work travel.” So my first real work trip came when I was 25 and spent 5 nights in San Diego at an engineering conference. I was still mostly a warm body looking after a booth, but I was the only body looking after it, as well as answering questions, talking about engineering stuff I only pretended to understand, and trying to convince people to write books for me. So that was a real work trip, in my opinion.
In the 3 years since then I’ve taken about 10 more work trips, mostly domestic, some international, many alone, but some with coworkers, so I’ve definitely learned how to survive the work trip.
Why do I say “survive” a work trip? Isn’t travel supposed to be fun? Well, yes, sort of. But work travel presents a whole host of tricky situations and it isn’t really supposed to be fun–it’s supposed to be work. There’s all the awful “would you rather questions”: would you rather dine alone, or spend two hours lingering over dinner with sales reps? Would you rather be exhausted but hit the town after work to see a new place, or experience travel FOMO for staying in and watching tv like you would on a regular work night at home?
Add to all this being away from your family and friends and potentially spending A LOT of time alone, and yeah, work travel isn’t always the best. Luckily, thanks to the internet, you have the ability to draw on a lot of other people’s experiences in order to make your own that much better. Here, for your consideration, is mine, and the tricks I’ve picked up along the way to make work travel less, well, work.
Get Comfortable Being Alone
One of the fundamental tenets of work travel is this: you will have a lot of time alone. Even if you have colleagues coming on the trip with you, there’ll be flights, meals, nights in the hotel where you’ll be by yourself for stretches at a time. If you’re the only one on the work trip, you potentially have days where you’ll be dining alone, commuting alone and filling down time alone. There are very many people who feel uncomfortable being alone, so work travel could be a serious hurdle for them. When I was in San Diego I spent 5 nights eating dinner in restaurants by myself. Luckily, I enjoy the occasional meal alone, have no problem seeing movies or taking tours on my own, and fully support the idea that we should travel alone at some point in our lives (for more on solo travel see here and here). But even for me, someone who fully embraces and requires alone time, five days of solo dining wore really thin. So if you’re someone who hates the thought of going out to dinner alone, you might want to practice before your first trip. Start small, with just getting a coffee and staying in the coffee shop alone to drink it. It’s perfectly fine to bring a book, or be on your phone, or just sit and people watch. Work your way up to a full meal. And remember–even though you’re on a work trip, there’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine at dinner to take the edge off.
Balance Work Travel and Fun Travel In One Trip
Even though you should definitely be prepared to spend some time alone, it’s perfectly acceptable to stay in your hotel and order room service every once in awhile. Through my work travels, I’ve been to quite a few cities I’d never traveled to before–Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans–and some that I might never have a chance to go back to. For me, this was a real conundrum, because I just wanted to spend all of my free time sightseeing around town.
In many cases, that’s fine. I’ve woken up early to go to the San Diego Zoo and the Seattle Space Needle before the start of my conference, and spent evenings walking down Bourbon Street to find dinner instead of going to the restaurant across from my hotel. I’ve had the chance to see so much more than I would have by now if I didn’t take trips for work.
But sometimes, you’re just tired. Work is work, and often work on a trip is more taxing–you’re standing up at a conference, or schmoozing clients, you have to be “on” all day. Combine that with the toll travel can take on your body, and you just don’t always want to spend your free evenings seeing the sights. And that’s totally ok. There’s nothing wrong with going back to your hotel, ordering room service and watching HGTV like you would if you were at home. Try to strike a balance between experiencing wherever you are while still putting the focus on work and being in your best mindset to handle whatever might come up while you’re away.
Try to Get Real Work Done, But Don’t Expect It to Happen
Speaking of things that might “come up” while you’re away–let’s talk about keeping up with work while you’re on a work trip. That sounds like an odd sentence, but when you’re on a trip for work, you’re doing something out of the ordinary, something other than your day-to-day work (unless your job requires you to be on the road all the time, which is an entirely different beast). You’re in meetings or running events or giving presentations, you’re not at your desk keeping up with emails or working on reports. That means it’s totally possible that while you’re gone, your regular work is going to start piling up. So work on having a plan in place for this.
When I go on work trips, I’m usually attending conferences, either as a delegate going to various sessions, or as a representative of the company and working a booth. These two roles vary greatly in terms of down time, as do client meetings, which is another common type of trip. What I’ve learned is that when I leave for a work trip, I need to pretty much pretend I’m going on vacation, and have all of my regular work wrapped up. I assume I won’t be able to do anything until I’m back in the office. That way, if I don’t have time to do much more than check my email, I’m not stressed because I need to finish my proposal to present my first day back in the office. But if I do end up having more down time, any work I get done is sort of a bonus.
Work trips can bring with them a whole bunch of sticky situations, and the first time you travel for work, it can be a little intimidating. But it can also be an excellent opportunity to see a new place and further your career. Show your boss you can kill it on the road, and you never know what opportunities might open up.
Have you traveled for work before? Tell us about it, and share your tips below!