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Life on the Fly:

The Road Warrior’s Survival Guide to Business Travel

In the past 25 years, I figure I've averaged about 150,000 miles of air travel a year. This year alone, I've hoovered up 200,000 miles, and I still have four months to go! How did this happen? I'll tell you: Three trips a week usually from San Francisco to New York, Washington, Chicago or Houston, though I do fit in the odd trip to Salt Lake City; Dallas, Texas; or Columbus, Ohio in between. And then there are my London clients. I'm sure this pace is the reason that I look 65 years old rather than 53.

United Global Services customer service desk
United Airlines Global Services desk

Truthfully, I have a love/hate relationship with travel. It wears me out yet I am drawn to the excitement and buzz, not to mention the chance to spend time with clients who have become friends. When I run into people I know at (where else?) the airport, I'm always asked two questions; well, actually, three:

  1. What are your secrets to surviving such a grueling work schedule?
  2. Is United Global Services truly all that it is cracked up to be?
  3. And thirdly, how do I get to be a United Global Services flier?

I'll answer the second question first. Yes, United Global Services takes most of the angst out of business travel. To start with, only the top one percent of United's fliers are awarded Global Service status which is determined in January of each year. At one time it was decided on the number of miles flown. But with many fliers opting for the cheapest seats they could grab, United "wised" up. The magic formula is now a combination of dollars spent and miles traveled.

Global Services members get perks that make you forget that United and Continental employees have not yet totally merged, the WiFi seldom works and that many of the planes are older than I am.

My business partner (also a Global Services member) and I believe that if you fly 150,000 miles and spend about $50,000 that would get you in the club. I have a hunch that, like most things in life, money talks. Spend enough money, and you will be awarded Global Services status. You will not get an invitation if you fly to Hong Kong for the weekend on a $600 ticket. You may earn Premier 1K status but, trust me, there is a world of difference between Global Services and 1K.

United Global Services is the best frequent flyer benefit a business traveler can get. Forget Delta Diamond

While I will admit that Delta and probably American have better, newer planes and friendlier skies, Global Services members get perks that make you forget that United and Continental employees have not yet totally merged, the WiFi seldom works and that many of the planes are older than I am.

Here are five benefits of United Global Services that make for easier travel:

United Global Services private airport entrance
United Global Services private airport entrance
  • A private entrance. You just can't beat having your own entrance to get through security. In the last year, United has opened private Global Services entrances in Newark, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The entrances are almost hidden. Once you walk through the entrance, agents who always remember your name are willing to help you though. At this point, I'm simply making a mad dash for the gate. I was in Houston last week and was through security in two minutes while the line for the hoi polloi snaked around the terminal with waits of 30 minutes.
  • A private phone number. Let's face it, most of us don't need a lot of help making normal business trip reservations, but when it comes to vacation planning, rescheduling a cancelled flight or trying to cash in miles, it can get complicated. I used to dread calling United, waiting on hold for hours to make family vacation reservations or dealing with cancelled flights. No more. The Global Services reservation agents are the creme de la creme and answer the phone immediately. The senior agents have a lot of power and when the website tells you "no, you can't upgrade", the Global Service agents can work their magic and voila! You have your upgrades on the flights you want.
  • First selection of dinner entrees. To be honest, this is one of these perks that is a non-perk. I stopped eating on planes several years ago. I admit I do like the cocktail nuts, but that may have more to do with the cocktail than the nuts. I took the adage from a friend to heart: "Restaurants can't fly, and airplanes can't cook." It has served me well (Jet Blue and Emirates are exceptions, but I will leave that to a different column). I would much rather have a meal with one of my colleagues or a client on the ground than force myself to eat the increasingly awful United food. To United I would say: "bring back the chocolate chip cookies."
  • When things go awry. I typically fly to two to three cities a week. If flights are delayed, it can pose a huge scheduling snafu, as many candidates I interview are flying to meet me and in some cases are already waiting. Last week, I flew from Houston to Chicago to meet a candidate who had flown in from Buffalo to meet me. As I headed to the airport, Global Services called to let me know that my plane had mechanical issues. They then booked me on three other flights and monitored those flights to see which one would get me to Chicago for my meeting fastest. I was receiving calls from Global Services every few minutes with updates, finally receiving word to "go to terminal B. That flight just arrived and will be leaving first." I was able to make one of the alternate flights with minutes to spare and actually landed in Chicago 25 minutes ahead of my original flight.
    My business partner tells a story of being on the 12:30 flight to Houston from Newark. As she was en route to the airport she received a call from Global Services saying, "Your flight has been cancelled. Can you get to the airport in 15 minutes to catch the earlier flight?" It was not clear she could, but as she arrived at the airport 20 minutes later two Global Service representatives were standing on the curb to escort her to the plane which was seconds from closing its doors.
  • United's Twitter team will respond to Global Services members within minutes. If you are a Global Services member with a Twitter account, United will follow you. If you get in a bind, you can tweet them and they will help. A friend was flying from Phuket to Sydney. She didn't realize she needed a visa to enter Australia. She tweeted United (no reliable phone service) from Phuket and within five minutes the Global Services rep had helped her secure a visa. She made her flight with minutes to spare.

Now let me go back to the first question: How do you maintain such a killer travel schedule?

  • Flatbed seats are a must if you can find and afford them. If you fly to coast to coast, try to get flatbed seats. I am typically on the 7 a.m. flight from San Francisco to New York each Monday morning. That means I get up at 4 a.m. to be at the airport by 6. While it is tempting to watch the vast array of movies that come on the flight, I always skip the breakfast and sleep from take off until we are flying over Denver. I wake feeling refreshed and can then return emails (assuming the spotty and prohibitively expensive United WiFi is working) and prepare for meetings so that, when I land, I'm ready to go.
  • Pace yourself. I do not schedule a full day of meetings on the first day in a city especially if I am going to be there the rest of the week. I would much rather have more meetings the second day than be dead-ass tired after getting off a seven-hour flight.
  • Exercise. I always bring exercise clothes. You can't travel as much as we road warriors do without getting lethargic and tired. Exercise is a great panacea. Even if I only have time to walk an hour when I arrive at night, I don't miss the opportunity to exercise.
There is some kind of bad travel karma on Friday afternoons—delayed flights always seem to happen then.
  • Find a hotel you like and stick to it. In my early days of business travel, I vowed to try as many hotels in major cities as possible. Now I'm older and wiser. I have found several hotels in each city where the staff know me. Not only do they help me get a lower rate for my client, they also know what I do and what I need. They put me in the quietest rooms and reserve the best tables for my client and candidate meetings.
  • Smell the roses. My day is usually packed with client meetings, interviews, and conference calls with my team. It would be easy to work 15 hours a day. Instead, I try to fit in dinner at a nice restaurant with a client. It reminds me how much I love what I do and why I work so hard at it.
  • Homeward bound. The worst days to travel are Monday morning and Friday afternoon. I try to avoid the Friday afternoon flight home. Airports are packed and there is a frenzied vibe of people wanting to go home. I fly out on Thursday night or on the 6 a.m. flight Friday morning. It is good to avoid the rush of business travelers, and there is some kind of bad travel karma on Friday afternoons—delayed flights always seem to happen then. When I get home, I carve out time for exercise, to enjoy my home, be with my partner Faith, and generally decompress...

...Because in 48 hours or less, the road warrior will suit up and fly again.

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John C. Lamar

Managing Director