Business Travel Budgeting: How To Save Money
As self-employed travel columnist for two decades, I’ve usually booked my own travel, independent of a corporate travel manager. That makes me less of an expert and more of a veteran with scars.
Elsewhere on Lola.com you’ll find solid advice -- for travel managers and business travelers themselves -- that the rock-bottom cheapest way is not always the best way on the road. I offer one possibly useful personal anecdote.
Not long ago, after a stint as a consultant on a movie filmed in the hills of forlorn eastern Kentucky, I had to spend a night in proximity to the closest airport, 90 miles away in Huntington, West Virginia. Rather than opting for one of my usual choices among the major hotel chains, all of which seemed a bit pricey for West Virginia, I found a bargain at a hotel-booking site, an off-brand hotel that looked attractive enough and was just across the river in Ohio. The rate was $50. I booked it.
Upon arrival, I encountered a decrepit property that looked nothing like the online photo. When I checked in, a sullen woman at the front desk handed over my room key and a white bundle.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s your towel,” she replied.
Off to my room I trudged with my towel, dragging my roll-aboard. Then things went further downhill. The elevator door was boarded up. There was a box of cat litter in the hall. My room smelled of cigarettes. The bed looked alarmingly rumpled. The otherwise towel-less bathroom was dirty, with a dead roach belly-up in the tub. Through the thin walls, I could hear two men arguing violently in the next room. Determined to flee, I rushed online and quickly booked a known entity, a Marriott Fairfield Inn back across the Ohio River in Huntington -- for $176. So counting the failed $50 bargain, not to mention my return trips across the river, the night ended up costing over $220, and many hours of unanticipated time.
The take-away here is that, despite my long experience as a travel columnist who has been around the track a great many times, I am probably not your very best source for practical tips on spending money on the road. I’m too disorganized.
But I do know a lot of actual experts, one of whom is Joe Brancatelli, a travel-journalism veteran who has for almost 20 years been publishing JoeSentMe, a subscription-based, non-commercial website with wide-ranging news, advice, links and no-holds-barred opinions and insights for engaged business travelers. Unlike many consumer travel websites, JoeSentMe.com doesn’t sell anything; it just offers information and lots of informed attitude from its various contributors.
Over the years, Joe Brancatelli has sometimes rolled his eyed to hear of my occasional misadventures on the road -- so I didn’t tell him about the bargain hotel where they gave me a single dingy towel, like some seashore bathhouse from the 1950s. I did ask him to share basic advice, especially for those of you who might be relatively new to business travel. In future columns I’ll pass on advice and insights from other experts – including hard-core business travelers themselves -- on avoiding rip-offs on the road and on how to get the best bang for your travel buck. Reader comments and suggestions are welcome.
Here is Word One from Joe Brancatelli: “Most of what you know is wrong.” The Internet and even mainstream travel media are full of travel budget advice and moneysaving tactics that are often “irrelevant, outdated or flat-out wrong,” he says, adding: “Business travel is changing so fast that you need to make sure you’re not listening to advice that was good in 1999 but is awful in 2019.”
Any good corporate travel manager will echo his assertions about how airlines, and even to a growing extent hotels these days, fiddle with the price-tag and “have basically turned themselves into a-la-carte operations” piling on extra fees that are not reliably apparent when you first shop around. That cheap airfare may not look so good once you realize that it doesn’t guarantee you an assigned seat on the plane, which usually costs extra unless you want to spend hours crushed into a middle seat in the last rows back by the lavs. A hotel “resort” fee (sometimes now called a “destination fee”) can show up on your bill as an unpleasant surprise.
In recent years, airlines have refashioned their elite-status programs to favor those who pay the most. Back in the day, ordinary frequent business travelers like me could reasonably achieve top-level frequent-flier elite status on a favored airline just by flying X-number of miles a year, no matter how much we paid for fares. Often flying 100,000-plus miles a year, I got to be pretty good at booking my business trips to get the best fares with the most elite-status-qualifying miles. That yielded frequent free upgrades to first-class and many other perks -- but the airlines put an end to that when they started awarding the most valuable elite-status levels based not on miles flown, but on the amount of money you paid them.
“They have made useful elite status so expensive to earn that it’s not worth it, even for comparatively frequent travelers,” Brancatelli says. Instead, you’re better off evaluating the various extra fees for better seats or services that you choose to buy, while “getting your useful perks from credit cards,” which still compete robustly for your patronage.
Among his credit card recommendations: The American Express Platinum Card, which has an annual $550 fee. “It’s less useful than in years past, but it still laps the pack for great business-travel perks” including a $200 annual credit for ancillary fees on a chosen airline, and access to over 1,000 airport clubs, including the luxury American Express Centurion airport lounges now open at Miami, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Las Vegas, Seattle and Hong Kong.
Like the Platinum card, other credit cards favored by savvy travelers – some with much lower annual fees – provide cash credits covering fees for the Global Entry or T.S.A. Pre-Check expedited security programs -- which are indispensable for business travelers.
A future column will evaluate some of those credit cards that offer the best benefits for business travelers. The good ones all offer perks like no fees for foreign currency transactions. One card that some frequent travelers rave about is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (a mere $95 annually), which also gives you 60,000 flexible bonus points if you charge $4,000 on it within three months after opening the account.
Some cards give you elite status in hotel programs. The Platinum card, for example, gives you Gold status in the Hilton Honors loyalty program. Unlike the dissipated airline frequent-flier programs, most hotel loyalty programs actually provide worthwhile perks – room upgrades, free Wi-Fi and breakfast -- to ordinary budget-conscious travelers.
More on all of that in future columns on saving money and avoiding rip-offs, but here are some snippets from Brancatelli’s tip sheet:
--“Car rentals are less important than ever.” Rates have skyrocketed, and you can often avoid the car-rental hassles -- drop-off and gasoline fees, insurance confusion, long lines and the like – by depending more on Uber, Lyft and such services. Who says you need to have a rental car on that business trip? But if you do, consider the terrific Costco Travel car-rental service.
-- “Be with the right bank” for foreign currency transactions. “When you travel internationally the cheapest way to get local currency is via an ATM” linked to a familiar global bank network that you know does not charge a fee for withdrawals.
-- “When you travel overseas, never allow a hotel or restaurant to do you the ‘convenience’ of converting your charge to U.S. dollars. It’s a scam. The conversion rate can be padded with huge fees. Always demand that your bill be presented, and charged, in the local currency.”
“Avoid hotel room service,” which is usually overpriced, of dubious quality -- and increasingly passé. In fact, many hotels are eliminating room service as demand decreases, and especially as app-based food-delivery services like Door Dash and Grub Hub make inroads into the routine business-travel experience.
More on those things in future columns, but here’s one reminder from me: A good travel manager who stays current with the fast-changing world of business travel can save you money, ensure more convenience and comfort on the road -- and can help you avoid a cheap hotel room that doesn’t even have towels in the bathroom.