Mathew’s Tips for International Business Travel
I am fortunate to have a job that allows me to travel to interesting places. While perhaps not the typical road warrior who has to take connecting flights to towns with three stoplights, I am able to travel, on the regular, to places such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Nashville. I also find myself frequently engaging in international business travel.
I also have international business that allows me to travel to England, the Netherlands, and Germany. As a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, I enjoy the convenience of being in a hub for American Airlines and get to take direct flights to nearly any destination in the United States and many in Europe. Because I get to go to great cities and travel comfortably from my home airport, travel is a feature of my job, not a downside.
As an attorney, I am used to finding conveniences in the system, and I am no different when traveling. Here are a few tips that I have learned over the years which may make your business travel more convenient.
In the industry, I am known as hub captured. American Airlines carries 90% of Charlotte’s originating passengers. To fly another airline consistently, almost every trip would involve a stop, which is not efficient when traveling for business. I maintain Executive Platinum status with American Airlines because of their flight network out of Charlotte and because they are a decent airline when it comes to their elite status customers.
Picking an airline and maintaining loyalty is very important when business traveling because it has specific benefits that help when traveling for business and when you travel with your family. I do not use points/miles for business travel. These are saved for personal leisure trips. However, I aggressively use upgrades for business travel. This can be the difference between being crammed in red-eye to London in the back of the plane, or having a full bed so that you get five to six hours of sleep and can hit the ground running.
As an Executive Platinum member, I get four confirmed upgrades a year that can be used on any flight. These are different than regular upgrades because those are usually not confirmed until the flight is ready to board. Also, regular upgrades do not work internationally. It makes little sense to use one of my four upgrades for short domestic flights because the first-class seat is only marginally better than coach. However, a trip to Europe is a great use of an upgrade because business class will feature a seat that converts into a full bed.
On occasion, you may need to decide whether to use an upgrade to Europe or back to the United States. If I have meetings on the day that I land, I will always use the upgrade heading to Europe so that I get more restful sleep. On the trip home, I don’t need a bed since it is a daytime flight and I can work from a coach seat. If I do not have to work on my first day in Europe, I may choose to reserve the comfort for on the way home. In a perfect world, you will have enough upgrades to clear both ways, but sometimes you will need to make these decisions.
If you are like me and live in a hub city, it is pretty easy to decide which airline to fly. If you live in a city where connections are a fact of life, my recommendation is to choose a single airline and fly them every time. If you simply pick the lowest fare each time, you will never earn enough status with a single airline to get a significant rebate in terms of miles nor will you ever be upgraded on that European redeye flight.
I am often asked about hotel loyalty programs, and I do not have a strong brand allegiance. Hilton and Marriott have the largest global footprint, but many of their properties are unexciting. I know several die-hard Hyatt loyalists, but it can be hard to find Hyatts in good locations in a lot of cities. I have accidentally fallen into decent status with companies such as Accor and IHG, but I never really make an effort to stay at their hotels.
When it comes to hotel stays, I am always looking for convenience. I want to find a good, clean hotel that is close to where I need to attend meetings. On one day trips, I will usually choose an airport hotel so I can sleep a little later in the morning and catch my flight without hassle.
When I am traveling with my family, and want the perks of hotel elite status, I book my hotel through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts. This program will get you a room upgrade, noon check-in, guaranteed 4:00 pm checkout, and daily breakfast for two people. Most properties will also give a $100 resort, food, and/or spa credit. These benefits are equal to, if not better, than top tier status with any of the hotel companies and that is why I do not play the hotel loyalty game.
Immigration and Customs
When flying internationally, passengers need to go through immigration control and Customs. The immigration office decides if you are allowed in the country, and the customs officer makes sure you are not bringing anything into the county that is forbidden. This all makes sense to international travelers; what doesn’t make sense are the lines. Getting through this part of your trip can be a nightmare. Fortunately, I (impending humble brag) have mastered this process. First, I will give you my tips for entering a foreign country with minimal stress and then will discuss the best way to fly through US immigration and customs.
It must be noted, there is literally nothing you can do to make getting through immigration at Heathrow easier. If you travel to England more than four times a year, you should sign up for their Registered Traveler program. This is similar to Global Entry in the United States, which I will discuss in a bit.
The vast majority of business travelers will not be eligible for England’s Registered Traveler program, so the next best thing is to get a Fast-Track pass. If you fly into a country in business or first-class or are an elite member with an airline, you can usually get a piece of paper that allows you to go in a separate, and usually (though not always), faster line. If you are entitled to this access, make sure you request it from your flight attendant before you leave the plane.
Once you get to the immigration official, it is best to be organized. Along with my passport, I have a folder that contains my flight information, hotel information, proof of health insurance, and some cash. No, the cash is not for bribes. I will come back to the cash. Let’s go through this one by one:
- Dress: When I am traveling internationally for business, I am always dressed professionally. I typically wear brown slacks, a polo shirt with my company’s logo, and a sports jacket. Because of the walking involved at airports, I like to wear black tennis shoes. Being dressed well certainly does not give you a free pass through immigration, but it helps present the professional appearance that the officer is expecting.
- Passport: Make sure that your passport is active and is valid for at least three months past your departure date. Also, you need empty pages available for stamping.
- Visas: European Union countries do not require Americans to have a visa. However, always check the requirements before you leave on a trip. Some countries provide visas upon arrival, but sometimes you have to send your passport to an embassy in advance.
- Flight and Hotel Information: In a folder, that you should have readily accessible (but do not proactively hand to the officer), keep a print out of your flight itinerary and your hotel confirmation. This will prove you have a departure date set and shows the officer where you will be staying. It is not recommended to book a one-way flight without a return as the officer may think you are trying to emigrate.
- Proof of Health Insurance: Some countries like the Netherlands require that you show proof of insurance that would cover medical costs. They do not want visitors to avail themselves of their health services without the ability to pay. I have a simple, inexpensive policy with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and I bring my policy letter and insurance card. I have never been asked by an officer to show this information (possibly due to my professional dress), but I have it just in case.
- Cash: I promised I would return to this topic and here we go. Let’s be crystal clear. Do not bribe an immigration official. Just a terrible idea. Unless they ask for it, in which case, use your best judgment…. All joking aside, many countries require that you have enough money to cover the duration of your trip. For example, the Netherlands requires 34 Euros a day, which roughly translates to $40. I once saw an immigration official ask a person in line in front of me to pull up their mobile banking app to prove they had enough money. I have not ever been asked the question, but I make sure I have enough cash in my pocket so that I am not asked to show bank accounts. The other benefit is that you will have enough cash to pay a taxi or any other initial expenses without looking for a currency exchange location in a new country. You can get cash at the airport, but those rates are pretty bad. I usually order it through my local bank.
In light of the points above, may be helpful to see an example of entry requirements. As an example, here are the Netherlands’ requirements for entry:
I have never been stopped at a customs check in Europe. It is certainly a possibility, and it is wise to understand what you can bring into the country and what is forbidden. Customs is generally less structured than in the United States (unless you are traveling to Australia, in which case everyone, pretty much, gets searched to prevent rogue agriculture items from entering the island nation).
Typically, there are two doors, one for those with nothing to declare and one for declarations. Pick the door that fits your situation. There are usually officers stationed at the “nothing to declare” door, and they will occasionally grab somebody to do a spot check. Just make sure you are in compliance. If you are not sure, most countries have a helpful website. You can also check with your airline when you check-in.
Now that we have covered the most efficient way to get through immigration and Customs leaving the United States, the conversation turns to coming back to the United States. If you are an American citizen, immigration control should not be difficult. Most international airports now have kiosks that Americans can use to skip the line. However, my strongest recommendation is to apply for Global Entry. Some people are skeptical of giving the Government their fingerprints and entering a database, but I figure we are already cataloged so take advantage of any convenience you can find.
I am not an expert on much, but I will say that I have cleared Customs in LAX in 2 minutes. I once made a 26-minute flight connection coming off an international flight at JFK where I had to change terminals. I have gone from an airplane to my car in exactly five minutes at CLT. Why? I know how to get through customs in the United States using a few simple rules:
- Under no circumstance should you bring food or flowers back into the country. Your mom wants a macaron from Paris? Tell her that three-day-old French cookies that have been in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet are worse than getting a macaroon at the mall kiosk in her hometown. Your child wants European candy? That is what the internet is for. Your wife wants a tulip from Holland? Go to Lowes or Home Depot. There is literally no excuse to bring food or any agricultural products into the United States. Most airports have dogs walking around and when the cute puppy sits down next to your bag, you are toast. You will probably be fined. You may lose your Global Entry. The question on the Customs form is confusing, and it is unclear if packaged food counts. The problem is that how you interpret the form is irrelevant. The key is how the random Customs official with the puppy interprets the form. Never leave it up for interpretation. You don’t need it. Don’t bring it. This will eliminate one common pinch point.
- Do not spend more than $400 on souvenirs and purchases. If you do, you must declare it and pay duty when you enter the country. This involves going to a separate line and presenting cash for the amount of the duty. It is a major delay. If it is a family trip, you can spend up to $400 per person. But this is about business travel. Don’t go crazy on gifts. Buy everyone something sensible and keep it under $400. Then use your freshly acquired miles to take them all on a vacation. Pro Tip: I keep all of my receipts in an envelope in my jacket pocket. When the customs agent asks me if I purchased souvenirs, I reach for my envelope and say yes for $148 dollars, showing the agent the tabulation on the envelope. I have never once had an agent look at the envelope or look at the receipts inside. They just waved me through. However, if they ever do, they will see a perfect accounting of my souvenir spending.
- Always be courteous and professional. The customs officers are just doing their jobs, and if you are pleasant, they have no reason but to be anything but pleasant back. Getting snippy with an agent will only lead to unwanted delays.
With these suggestions, getting into Europe (and many other destinations) and back into the United States should be as painless as possible.
My professional experience incorporates logistics. Whether it is handling complex litigation, or running a business, being on top of the details are important. To that end, I keep a handy chart of things I need to do before I travel. I broke them down into two categories. The first are things that must be done relatively close to travel. The second group is things that should be done about a month out. I will make some notes following the chart to explain a few of the non-self-explanatory items.
|Within 24 – 48 Hours of Travel|
|Organize Travel Wallets with Right Cards and Cash|
|Pack Travel Adapter||https://www.power-plugs-sockets.com|
|Pack Envelopes for Receipts|
|Make Google Drive Folder Available Offline|
|Print Embassy Information||https://www.usembassy.gov/|
|Confirm and Print Flight Itineraries and Tickets|
|Confirm and Print Hotel Addresses and Confirmations|
|Confirm and Print Transportation Confirmations|
|Confirm and Print Excursion Confirmations|
|Confirm and Print Travel Insurance Certificate/Letter|
|Download Language in Google Translate|
|Download Google Maps|
|Prior to Travel|
|Visa (Research)||Done – See Below||http://alliedpassport.com/visas.php|
|Verizon Travel Pass||Yes – $10 per day||Link|
|Currency Exchange Rate||1 Euro = 1.2146 USD|
|Newspaper Stop (Observer)||Link|
|Newspaper Stop (NYT)||Link|
|STEP Program Notice||Link|
|Save Embassy Information to Google Drive||https://www.usembassy.gov/|
|Save Embassy Information to Phone Contacts||https://www.usembassy.gov/|
|Minor Child Letter|
|Alert American Express||Not Required|
|Alert Bank of America|
|Alert Chase Bank|
|Alert Citi Bank|
Credit cards: Make sure you only bring cards with no foreign transaction fees. Barclay’s has cards that allow for use of a PIN number instead of signing at the terminal. This is crucial at self-service kiosks in Europe that do not give you the option to sign. Your transaction will be denied. I find this to be particularly prevalent at train stations.
Travel adapters are obvious. What is less obvious is the problem with those loose power sockets on airplanes. The American plugs never stick, and it is a nightmare. This is why I always carry a UK adapter. The sockets are universal and nothing sticks better than those sturdy UK adapters. I learned this trick from travel expert Gary Leff, on his blog View from the Wing on BoardingArea.com. I highly recommend his travel tips.
Google Translate is a good language app. Take the time to download the languages you need for your trip. Same with Google maps – download the cities you will be in so if you lose cell reception, your phone can still get you around.
Verizon Travel Pass: I use Verizon, and they have a good deal for international usage. For $10 a day, you can use your data package in most countries. Make sure you verify your travel country is included or else you could end up with a problem. I once took a train from Nice, France, to Monte Carlo, Monaco, and when I got off the train, my data started going crazy. Monaco was not a Travel Pass country. The roaming rates were insane. I turned off my phone and wandered the small city without any electronic guidance. Though a bit refreshing to not rely on a device and just wander, it may not fit your agenda or interests to do so. Be prepared!
STEP Program: The United States Department of State has a program called Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This is a website where you can tell the Department of State where you will be when outside the United States. This makes it easier to help if a problem arises. I keep them updated on my travels and monitor any alerts.
Minor Child Letter is a letter that a parent should take when traveling with a child without the other spouse. These can be found online, but it may make sense to have a law firm draft the letter. It is an inexpensive legal service, but critical if stopped at immigration without the overt consent of the other parent.
Alerting banks and credit card companies is a good idea because if you do not, they may block transactions while you travel.
Finally, I am often asked how I pack my electronics for a trip to Europe. This is what I take on every international trip (laptop not pictured).
Get a full breakdown of packing electronics in this video:
I hope my experiences are of some help. Safe travels!