5 Unglamorous Challenges Of Traveling For Work (And How I Deal With Them)
Work travel can be both a blessing and a curse. In the last 18 months, my job that used to have occasional (every few months at most) travel, has started to involve one to three trips per month, and four to five international trips per year. Even if you love to travel, like I do, this can get overwhelming. It’s harder to maintain work/life balance, pursue side projects and hobbies, and spend time with friends, family, and your significant other, if you’re on the road a lot. It’s also far too easy to fall into expensive and unhealthy habits. While people often idealize the life of work travel, and the ability to visit countries they’ve never seen before, while furthering their career, there are downsides that go unnoticed. Within the last year and a half of my traveling life, here are the biggest challenges I’ve faced, and how I’ve dealt with them:
Dealing with work travel burnout.
I’ve definitely experienced this a few times, and even if you get to go to exciting places, too much time traveling can wear you down. Often you have to be more “on” than usual when you are traveling, since you’re likely in meetings, giving presentations/trainings, or attending presentations/trainings. As an introvert, this is especially draining. To get through this, I recommend resting up before your trip, and working on keeping your body healthy in the week leading up to your trip. Try to get more sleep than you think you need, exercise, and eat well (cook foods you really love at home) before you leave.
Treat yourself in a small way to help fend off burnout. Recently, I bought an adult coloring book and pencils. I’ve used that on five work trips now, it’s a fun and relaxing treat, and it will take me dozens more trips to finish (using it specifically for work trips also helps keep it special). I also prep books, music, and podcasts in advance, especially for those super long international flights.
Not letting the travel policies get the best of you.
You don’t want to accidentally be responsible for a huge expense (or let’s be honest, even a small one) because it’s such an awful feeling to realize that you effectively have to hand back part of your hard-earned salary after a trip. On the flip side, you also don’t want to leave anything on the table and fail to take advantage of travel perks you’re eligible for. Here are some things I’ve learned to watch out for:
— Do you have a per diem for travel days (a flat amount you get paid for your daily expenses, like food and taxis)? If so, find out the exact details. My employer has per diem for international trips only, so the nuances of the policy are important to check. If you don’t have per diem, do you need receipts for all purchases, or just purchases over a specific value? Do you need the physical receipt or just a copy? If it’s the latter, taking photos on your smartphone as you go can make things easier when you get back. If your bank doesn’t reimburse ATM fees or international withdrawal fees, will your employer? What is the deadline for submitting receipts/expense reports? What rules do you have to follow for “reasonable” expenses, in terms of type and amount (e.g. hotel rate per night, taxi fare, delivery fees for room service, in-flight or hotel room wifi)?
— Ask about benefits, and make sure you’re taking advantage of the perks that will benefit you in the long term. Are you allowed to use your own frequent flyer number and build up points? Will your employer pay for TSA pre-check or global entry (if you travel internationally)? Will you get comp time for travel over weekends or evenings? If so, find out if you have to request it in advance or use it within a certain period of time.
Eating well on the road.
It’s already hard to eat well during your regular life, and not succumb to fast food lunches, and it just gets harder on the road. Because I didn’t want my waistline to keep expanding with my travel time, I laid out some ground rules to follow during each trip. First, I try to follow the good, the bad, and the ugly method. When I sit down for a meal, I first eat fruits, veggies, lean protein, and complex carbs. Then I eat things like pizza, pasta, or fried chicken (but only after I’ve taken the edge off my hunger with healthy foods), and I eat things like dessert last when I am less likely to gorge.
I also try to stay hydrated! If you aren’t flying, bring water in a reusable bottle. If you are flying, stay away from carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks in flight, and ask for water during the beverage service instead. To save yourself from spending money, and eating empty calories in the airport, pack snacks. As long as they aren’t liquid, you’re typically able to bring them through security. I try to pack almonds, granola bars, and other snacks that will fill me up, in case the in-flight meal is gross.
Finally, start the trip by eating well because this will set the tone for your travel time, and even if you end up treating yourself to dessert or french fries at some point, you’re less likely to give in every day. I try to follow this for the trip as a whole (breakfast is always fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, etc. and never donuts or danishes, for example).
Trying to workout.
I used to be terrible at working out while on work trips. The days tend to be full, time zone changes leave me exhausted, and as an introvert, I need time to unwind on my own and I feel incredibly drained after a day of meetings with strangers. But now that I travel multiple times per month, I’ve really tried to push myself to workout more often. Like eating well on the road, the key is to start strong. If I workout that first full day of a trip, I’m much more likely to maintain that habit. If your hotel has a gym, take advantage of it. If you are staying in a place that’s runner friendly, running outside can be a great way to see some of the city you’re visiting while burning calories. If you’re a swimmer, doing laps in a dinky hotel pool may feel a bit silly, but is a great workout.
Worst case scenario: exercise in the hotel room. I prep a variety of Youtube workouts (I like Fitness Blender, Do Yoga With Me, or Jessica Smith TV), and do a variety of cardio, strength, and “recovery” workouts.
Getting the most out of the city.
I love to travel, but work travel is different. I’m either in a place I’m not too excited to visit or I’m in an amazing place but stuck in meetings or a conference room. Work travel is not a vacation, but you can still enjoy your destination if you’re flexible and think ahead. If you are in an amazing place with little time free to explore, see if you can extend your visit to include a weekend (again, look into those work policies). I spent an incredible weekend in Istanbul recently because I was able to extend my week at a conference in a pretty boring city to allow me to fly to Turkey and then back, all for a very reasonable price.
If that’s not in the cards or the budget, see if walking tours or museums have evening hours one night during the week, or catch a concert or a play one evening. If you are in a “boring” place, do research ahead of time. No place is truly boring; try to find that unusual restaurant, quirky shop, weird museum, etc. and make your visit interesting, even if the destination doesn’t excite you at first.
Jennifer lives in Washington, DC with her fiancé and their bunny. She works in data and human rights.
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