‘You’re so lucky’ said everyone, ever, when I told them what I did for a job. You must love travelling to see the world, staying in 5* hotels and eating at all the nice restaurants?
Yes…business travel sounds so glamorous when you’re looking at it from your regular 9-to-5 job and routine based lifestyle. But actually, it’s really not.
Let me help explain what it’s really like to travel for work and maybe it will help you support someone you might know who lives this lifestyle.
If it’s you that lives this lifestyle, you’ll feel every word I write with an acute sense of knowing, it will resonate deep in your bones. In fact, you might be in an airline lounge right now reading this.
Let me clarify when I say ‘business travel’ I mean real business travel. Not the travel that gets you home in time for the weekend or keeps you away from home for 2-3 nights a week (although that can be awful too). The travel I mean is long distance, multi-time zones, multi-transport travel where you don’t see your destination until the sun has risen and set at least once.
What I don’t mean is professional travel, that is that of pilots and aircrews. I am sure that is also tough but they have longer breaks and create tighter friendships as they travel in groups.
If you have a friend or family member who travels for work, don’t think of them as spoiled and lucky. Think of them as needing more support through their lonely excursions abroad.
My experience (real quick)
For starters let me briefly explain that for 3 years in a row I was in the top 1% of global travellers by distance. The chart below shows my App in the Air stats and the regular routes I flew for work.
Immediately your mind may say ‘what a boaster – what a showoff’. I get it. I would have said the same thing before I lived it. Read on.
Here is what it’s really like…
If you’re lucky you will get to travel with other people. This is a gift. Travelling with other people helps alleviate the loneliness, the anxiety and helps support you when you get to the destination. (I must say it can also be a strain on your work relationships as you often spend a long time together without a real break. Sharing meals, cars, hotels and planes can be quite exhausting over longer trips).
I travelled alone for 98% of my travel. This was great, as I like my own company, but there are times when you have finished at the office and are back in yet another hotel room, eating room service. It’s just a lonely silence or another round of American Pickers on TV or nothing at all if you are in Japan where 90% of channels are overdubbed in Japanese.
A trip to walk the local city streets and look at the bright lights of big cities can be such fun and really enjoyable….when you’re not alone. When you’re alone it’s a lonely walk.
The first few trips are exciting but by the 4th or 5th trip, you’re just a bit sad.
No-one to share it with and no-one to talk to.
Multiple Time Zones
If you’re travelling across time zones the sleep can be a real challenge but another side effect is the inability to connect with your home life well. You’re up and about, they are in bed. This leaves you with little opportunity to connect at a time you really need it.
It’s like ships passing in the night…but in different ports.
Exercise is also a challenge. First, because you’re exhausted. Second, because your body clock is upside down and third because, believe it or not, not all hotels have a gym in them – especially in smaller hotels through Asia.
Time is also not on your side. Socially you can be expected to meet for breakfasts and have late dinners. This makes that 1 extra hour of sleep feels more important than 40 minutes on the treadmill.
Finally, on this point, you may not have brought your exercise gear if you’re packing really tight. Running shoes can be a luxury.
Ultimately, you have to be VERY motivated to exercise cross timezones.
When you travel a lot for business it’s really easy to gain weight. The main reason for this is you have little choice over your food.
If you are being entertained you can’t often choose the restaurant you eat at. If you have long flights, like the one above, you have to eat a lot of plane food and, you eat it all because you don’t know when your next meal will be coming from.
It’s not always healthy food and it’s most often rich, salty food – salad isn’t always an option.
If you’re changing time zones you feel like breakfast at dinner time and dinner at breakfast time. Trips to the UK and Europe had me eating full cooked breakfasts at the beginning of the week when I arrived and cereal by the end of the week when I was about to leave. When I got home I had to reverse the whole thing.
You just travelled anywhere between 12 and 40 hours to reach your destination. If you’ve changed timezones you’re completely out of whack. Interestingly if I was going from New Zealand to the UK (12-hour time difference) I sometimes found it easier to manage than travelling Vancouver to Toronto (3-hour time difference).
My point being even a small shift can mess you up.
You’re trying your hardest to stay awake during the day – your adrenaline is working overtime to keep you alert and conversational.
You spend all day nearly falling asleep in meetings and once you get to the hotel for bed you sleep for 3 hours and wake up wide-eyed and alert, and you can’t get back to sleep! (Also a contributing factor to your anxiety).
After all that you get home. The animal part of your brain tells you that you are safe and can now relax, so you do. You collapse and want to sleep at all the wrong times. So many days later you adjust…often in time for your next trip.
You’re also grumpy as you’re so out of whack so the romance of wanting to be home is somewhat marred by the state you’re in.
Anxiety. It hits you in the weirdest places and is usually tied to being completely upsidedown and exhausted. Visiting new countries & cities, how are you going to navigate it, what will the hotel be like, how are you getting to the hotel, can you negotiate everything in a country where English isn’t the spoken language, what will the work meetings be like – what conflicts might arise, am I performing as expected. Usually, at about 40,000 feet, strange thoughts hit you like – what am I doing here watching a movie on a plane when I should be at home helping with the kids or in an office working!
If you have a partner or family there is always the guilt of being away. Sometimes it starts from the moment you have to spend family time packing to get ready to go.
While you’re away you feel you should be home with your partner and kids. Being an absent parent is a harsh lifestyle where you constantly feel guilty for not being there when you should be – at home being a parent to your kids.
There is the guilt of staying nice hotels and eating at nice restaurants when you know your partner is at home cooking dinner after he/she has had a long tough day at work or has been struggling with the kids when you should be there helping.
Work parties and events are lavish and extravagant, but the guilt sits over you knowing you’re probably meant to be somewhere else. Every Instagram post you get tagged in at events induces anxiety that you’re starting to live a double life with strangers.
This doesn’t happen to the ‘once or twice a year travellers’, that’s a great time to enjoy yourself and party. This only happens when you travel as often as you don’t, to places far from home.
Always walking into new situations with new people in new environments. Having to control the room. Always extending your best manners and being on high alert. Staying awake and contributing at a high level is incredibly hard when you’re normal asleep in your timezone and haven’t slept properly for the previous 36 hours either.
While you travel you feel the pressure to work at the times your home and away offices are working. You feel pressure to work on the plane, or in the lounge to get things done, deliver on all the expectations in all the timezones.
You get up in the morning to an inbox/slack account full of messages from the other timezone. You then work through the workday in the timezone you are in, and then as that day ends the messages start from the other timezone. It’s like a never-ending hampster work wheel.
Often, if you can’t sleep due to jetlag you get up and work again!
And then you get home. You left your last destination on a Friday night and by the time you get home, it’s Saturday afternoon. You are expected to be available again on Monday so that gives you Sunday to recover, spend time with family and get straightened up!
I always said when travelling in a plane feels like getting on a public bus, the thrill is gone.
People often imagine the nice time spent in airport lounges, the great plane trip with special frequency flyer headphones and the black car with your name on the sign to pick you up at the airport when you arrive. All that time to read and relax…ahhhh…..
That’s all true but doesn’t include the fatigue you feel at each step;
- The sore tailbone you get from sitting in the plane, lounge and car for endless hours when all you want to do is lie down flat for 30 minutes.
- The queue you stand in at immigration for as long as it takes, which can be 30-60 minutes.
- Waiting for bags at the carousel and then standing in the customs lines
- The craving for just.one.decent.coffee (first world problems).
- The traffic you hit in the car on the way to the hotel – even Mercedes are not that comfortable (no boast, it’s true that fancy cars aren’t all pillows and massage chairs.)
Just getting through the airport process can be another papercut in a death by 1000 papercuts.
I was always flown economy with the rare trip where I was able to fly business class. Business-class makes a huge difference but it’s still a long, noisy, loud trip with little fresh air, normal food and frequently being woken up by other passengers.
Babies? Get over it. Get a good pair of headphones and you’ll be fine. Even babies travel business class and one day, that might be you and your baby.
Travelling between NZ and the UK was a regular trip that required a force of will equal to the terminator to get through. Here is how long it took me door to door.
- Car or Shuttle from Home to Airport – 3 hours
- Wait at Airport – 2-3 hours
- First flight with Emirates to Dubai – 17+ hours (in Economy Class that’s a long time to sit up for.)
- Stopover in Dubai – 3-6 hours
- Flight from Dubai to London, Heathrow – 8 hours
- Car from Heathrow to Office /Hotel – 3 hours.
- Total travel time: ~37.5 hours
What saved me?
While I was travelling there were a few things that made the trips more bearable. Those included:
- iPhone – for facetime moments with home.
- Good travel pillow – for me the Cabeau Evolution as it was high enough and big enough to stop me going forward and rolling to the sides.
- Good headphones – for me that was set of Bose QC 35 as the noise-cancelling was awesome and they are light and don’t get hot.
- If you’re in North America then sleep aids like Unisom were a huge help in sleeping. When you travel different timezones you’re dreaming to think you can keep it up without some sort of sleep-aid.
- Movies – although sometimes these play with your anxiety and state of mind, especially on a 40-hour commute…and you tend to run out of movies to watch after a couple of trips.
So, be kind to people who travel. It might be all high-end restaurants, business class and 5* hotels, but it’s not all fun and adventures when it’s travel for work. Especially if you have a partner or family at home doing life without you, and you without them.
I worked with some of the best people on the planet. I worked for a company that was making a difference but alas it wasn’t enough for me to manage it for more than 3 years.
My two biggest tips, aside from the list of tools above:
- Hydrate. Water is something you will forget to drink. All that plane and altitude will dehydrate you faster than a chip fryer.
- Sleep. However you get it, get it. Medicate if you have to (see a professional) but it’s your secret weapon to survival.
Don’t get me wrong…
There are also many unexpected benefits to travel for work. The opportunity to pre-visit countries you want to go with family later. The chance to buy things you can’t get in your own country. The ability to earn frequency flyer miles which you can use for family vacations later (if your company allows it) etc.
But sometimes the money, loneliness, stress and absence just isn’t worth it.
Would I do it again if the job offered itself to me? Yes, I think if we didn’t have kids I’d be back into it faster than you could say ‘jetlag’.