With planes less comfortable and flying less glamorous, you need to simplify your travel plans. With the onslaught of COVID-19’s quarantine life, regular travel is no longer the norm. But soon we will all be emerging from our homes and need to meet with each other face-to-face. As someone who has nearly two decades of international business travel on four continents, I have many tips to offer, so buckle up. While most of my travel was for U.S. government work, these tips apply to all travelers. However, I wouldn’t be the traveler that I am without the teachings from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Sir Graeme Lamb; they were masters at arriving ready to work when they stepped off the plane and at accomplishing a lot during a short trip.

Getting ready to travel

The first step of a successful trip is planning the trip. Whether you have an assistant or do it on your own, a checklist is essential so you don’t miss something important. Feel free to use this article as your new checklist.

Tickets

If you can’t squeeze business class out of your host or boss, then pick a seat that allows you to get on and off quickly. I like the aisle seat near the front, but ensure there is a seat in front of you unless you have long legs. If you have a few extra bucks and really need to rest on a flight, always check to see how cheap the first or business class flights are the day you travel. I have paid as little as $50 to upgrade to a first-class seat so I could sleep.

TSA PreCheck

If you don’t have it, you are wasting about an hour or two every time you travel in security screening. Always bring two forms of ID. I suggest carrying your passport for domestic travel, just in case you get re-routed overseas on an emergency trip.

Rewards programs

It is nice to use the first-class lounge in an airport, but it is usually not worth paying money for it. If you can afford a credit card that gives you access, that is great. Buying access into lounges is not important unless you fly a lot and have long layovers. But, they do have free food, drink, and comfortable chairs…sometimes even showers and barbers. So, if you can swing it, enjoy. Sometimes you will travel with a colleague who is flying business or first class, and they can often bring one guest into a lounge. Be sure you sign up for the free airline loyalty programs and download their apps.

Luggage

This is the most important part of easy business travel, and while you will think I am crazy, you can easily travel for up to five days with just a backpack and one small carry on suitcase. NEVER check a bag when you arrive at the airport. This becomes painfully clear that first time you check a suitcase with all your business clothes, and it goes to another country, leaving you shopping for a few hundred dollars in new clothes. Besides a chance of losing a checked bag, you save hours on every trip by not having to check in a bag and wait for it at baggage claim on the other end. If you ever try to travel with me with a large check-bag suitcase, I will leave you and go to the hotel for a swim and a drink.

Packing

There are likely lots of small items you bring on every trip, so don’t scatter them around your home. I keep all mine in a box by my desk. You won’t need them all on every trip but having to hunt for any of them is stressful for you and your family. Some of those small items might include: business cards in a hard carrier, headphones, chargers for all your devices, battery pack for emergency charging of phone, pens, notebook, small gifts to give your hosts, books to read, lap top, tablet, phone, passport, business credit cards, emergency cards, foreign currency, glasses, maps, breath mints, plastic envelope to hold all receipts, entry badges, and items specific to your career field. I always carry at least 200.00 in US cash with some small bills; this can cut down on credit card fraud.

Toiletry kit

Do not bring anything that your hotel will provide you for free because it is wasted space. On short trips, you won’t need much. If you are really pressed for space, buy items at the hotel or a nearby drug store upon arrival. I usually pack deodorant, tooth brush, tooth paste, razor, 2 blades, small shave gel, small lint roller, nail clippers, floss, comb/brush, medicines, and some q-tips. Use the smallest toiletry bag possible and pack it in your backpack or briefcase for easy access. You do not want to open a suitcase at the airport.

THE suitcase

I like a hard-shell, but a soft is fine too. Get one with great wheels—it will be stuffed at times and airports are a great place to walk for exercise at layovers; you will want to roll it and also strap your backpack/briefcase to the handle. Don’t use any suitcase or garment bag that cannot fit in an overhead bin, and don’t use a backpack/briefcase that cannot fit under a plane seat. Pack your most vital items in the backpack or briefcase. Buy durable suitcases and backpacks; not tactical…durable.

My rule of thumb is that for a one-to-two-day trip, I can live out of my backpack or briefcase, and for trips up to five days, I can live out of my carry-on suitcase. There will clearly be times you may need to check a large suitcase; however, with hotel cleaning services, I have lived for 10 days with a carry-on only.

Departure Airport to Arrival Airport Ideas

Departure Airport

After you park, ensure you have an ID card ready and ensure the digital boarding pass you downloaded on your phone to your photos is the only thing open. Don’t arrive too early unless you need that time and can write or think well in an airport. I usually review my presentations upon arrival, so when I sleep on the plane, they are playing in my head. The seats are just too small now to comfortably work on a plane, so use your airport time wisely to get any work done.

Before you get on, see if they are doing plane-side valet of your carry-on bags. That means you drop them off and grab them right by the plane door. If you have few minutes to spare, this is a good idea. It means you can board the plane last and don’t have to fight for overhead bin space since your backpack fits under the seat. It also means you don’t have to rush off the plane either. It can take some stress out of your trip, and sometimes they will give you priority boarding or even bump up your seat for being accommodating.

Flight and Layovers

On the plane I really just snack, read, listen to music, or watch a film. The area is so cramped that it is more stressful to try to work than to just relax. Because you’re in tight quarters and you will always have some sick folks around you, I like to take an immune system booster the day before and on every day of my trip. Forget trying to recline on domestic flights unless you’re seated outside the main cabin seats. It might start a fight and make your trip more stressful. Just chill and snag an extra snack for the road.

Layovers are pretty common when you don’t book your own trips. I love a direct flight, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. I like to write on layovers, to get all the ideas that were flying around during the flight onto paper or in my laptop. My bosses were always editing, writing, or emailing on layovers. It passes the time. Be aware that Wi-Fi in some foreign nations is wide open, so use that with caution. VPN is a great tool to have on all your devices. If you are traveling in and out of combat zones, the layover is the perfect time to have a cold beverage or find some ice cream, or even a good salad. Get some of those cravings taken care of.

Arrival Airport

This goes for the whole trip, but it is best to always travel in clothes that don’t make you look important. You can’t always blend in to the crowd, but don’t purposely stick out with your gear. Travel neutral. If you are an important person or easy target where you are traveling, this is the time that skipping the baggage claim pays off. Pull up your Uber-like app or go grab the hotel shuttle to your destination. Look like you know what you are doing and don’t hang around the airport tempting criminals or security officials. If you don’t need a rental car, skip it. If you do, ensure that you join their free loyalty programs and get an upgrade when you can.

At the Hotel and Reversing Your Travel

At the Hotel

Use the hotel and take a room on the floor you are advised to stay in by your organization. Depending on who you are, this is a risky place. You are not good looking, so don’t assume people who are interested in you think so. Use your ‘do not disturb’ sign during your stay; you don’t need the towels. Use the room safe when you go out. Mark your room in a few ways that will tell you if anyone has entered. Eat where you are safe and don’t get drunk by yourself. If you are traveling with a State Department guy, just know that when they offer to pay for a meal, it is because they know where the cheap meals are. They will stick you with the expensive ones…thanks Smudger, we will always have Tokyo.

Heading home

When it is all over, just do all of your steps in reverse. Don’t worry about packing carefully now because all of your clothes are dirty. Double check that you are leaving nothing behind, and again, download that digital boarding pass on your phone and take a picture of it in case the reception sucks at the airport security line.

Always travel happy and calm, but keep your eyes and ears open because someone out there may be looking for you. Travel well, and don’t look for me at baggage claim.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.