Dear Yanni...How do I eat healthy on the company's dime?
In this week's column, Yanni addresses how to stick to your nutrition goals while on the road and what to do with flight vouchers you get from delayed business travel
One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to improve my nutrition, but I’ve got company per diem to contend with. How do I stay within my budget, without sacrificing my goals?
- Nutrition Nerd in Nashville
TL;DR: The best way to stay on track is to plan. And back up plan for when your plans go wrong. Research healthy restaurants ahead of time, pack dry snacks (RX bars, nuts, dried fruit), and don’t be afraid to speak up in defense of your goals.
Eating on the company dime, or per diem as it were, can be both good and bad. On the one hand, you may have a generous allowance to spend that may exceed what you would spend at home, while on the other, it may be challenging to follow a health regimen while traveling for business. For business travelers, it can feel impossible to keep up with health and wellness goals when on the road. A meal per diem can be a perceived barrier, an excuse to fall behind on personal goals or an enticing reason to indulge. But it doesn’t have to be any of those things.
As someone who has followed a nutritional regimen 100% of the time through a decade of travels, it’s become second nature. While it seemed like a steep mountain to climb at first, admittedly it’s not that hard. I recommend doing a little homework. Going the Whole 30 or keto route? You’ll likely be able to find guides for most cities on places to eat. Heading down vegan or vegetarian lane? There’s an even more robust set of resources. The best thing to do is to arm yourself with information. Look where you’ll stay and where you’ll be going to know what sort of options you have at your disposal and consider keeping track of at least one sit-down and one grab-and-go option per location that will meet your needs. Even chains have a hack for eating clean(er). Starbucks has little guac packs you can get with vegetables, In-n-out can serve burgers “protein style” (i.e. lettuce wrapped) and airlines have special meals (take JetBlue’s “plane eats” in Mint, for example) that can meet many dietary plans and restrictions. The key is just a dose of planning.
When planning fails, you can still win by staying stocked up on snacks. Dry snacks like RX bars, nuts and seeds or dried fruit are easy to get at a local grocer or online on sale. Keep a bunch at the ready and when you head for your next trip, fill a packing cube with more than what you think you’ll need (leave the liquid items out of carry-ons, of course lest you end up chugging chia seed pudding before TSA takes it away). This is a simple way to keep yourself going until you find the right meal.
While it may seem unorthodox, sometimes supermarkets can be a great option for prepared foods or snacks for the road and most companies won’t take issue with using your per diem towards food that is often less expensive than dining out. Whole Foods, for example, continues to grow its offerings for a variety of diets- like paleo- right in the hot and cold bar section. There’s also nothing wrong with mentioning your health goals to coworkers traveling with you and explaining why you might want to go somewhere instead of a hotel restaurant with limited options for you. I’ve often found this can be more of an opportunity to lead by example and can help keep others to their own wellness goals too. It can even be a great way to take out a client that may not normally head to the healthiest options in their own city. I’ve often taken clients to new places they ended up returning to in the future.
No need to panic on the per diem, you can still keep going with your health goals for the new year and perhaps bring more people along with you on the journey.
If I’m on a flight that is overbooked and I’m offered to get bumped for a voucher, should I? Will I have to give the voucher to the company?
- Overbooked in Ontario
TL;DR: Avoid getting bumped on your way to a business trip, but on the way home the choice is yours. If you’re sacrificing personal time going on a later flight, the voucher is yours. If you have to miss work, check with your company before using it on personal travel.
It’s often the case that airlines will offer some great deals to folks willing to get bumped on overbooked flights. It can be from a small voucher to hundreds towards future travel. It’s pretty tempting. Most airlines will do this at the airport, but some, like Delta, have become very adept at offering vouchers to get bumped voluntarily during check in. You might find yourself wondering, is it worth it? Should I do this as a business traveler?
It’s a little tricky. A general rule of thumb is to not bump yourself on the way there, but perhaps do so on the way back. Chances are, you are likely flying in to a place without a lot of time to spare before needing to be there for the purpose of your business trip. As such, volunteering to be bumped to a later flight is not a wise maneuver. If, however, you are offered during online check-in to get bumped to an earlier flight that doesn’t interfere with other work or meetings, but gets you there sooner, then why not?
Return flights is where this gets interesting. If you are coming back home rather than continuing to another destination and offered to leave later it can be enticing. Be certain if the next flight isn’t until the next day that you are ok with perhaps staying at an airport hotel and that this doesn’t interfere with your work/life commitments. Further, check the weather at your origin and destination, if a storm is approaching either airport near your new departing and arrival times, you may be signing up for heartache. If not, you could score a big voucher for future travel good for a year. While this might seem like a unicorn scenario, if you travel enough, chances are you’ll encounter this option.
Finally, there is the question of who gets to use the voucher. If you are taking time away from your personal life (e.g. you come back Saturday instead of Friday) you shouldn’t feel guilty about using the voucher to treat yourself to a trip in the future. If, however, you get offered a big voucher value to be voluntarily bumped and it means you’re missing work, then it’s probably best to clear it with your company and set that aside to use for future business travel. When I worked for a nonprofit I accepted vouchers over $500 that would have me perhaps miss part of a day, but could be used to save on future travel that was planned for the organization.
What about if you are involuntarily bumped and given a voucher? In that case, you didn’t choose this, the airline did and I say the same rules apply. If it is taking you away from your life at home, it’s yours, if it is taking you away from other business that you need to make up for, you ought to use this for future business travel. Getting bumped from a flight is rarely the best thing to happen, but if you keep these options in mind if can be beneficial to you or your company and can help spare some other travelers from being involuntarily bumped, if you have the flexibility. So it can almost be like doing a good deed with some perks.