Thursday, November 15, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 2: Travel - One if By Land...

This is Part 2 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing tips on travel, something required of most consultants. We’ll look at travel by land here in Part 2, and tackle travel by air separately in Part 3.

There’s no escaping it, consulting means traveling. In today’s consulting world, many of us travel less than we used to because we can sometimes work remotely and attend meetings remotely. Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time before travel becomes necessary. Whether you are going to be traveling frequently or infrequently, you should know the ropes.
First, let’s clear up any romantic notions you may have that traveling is fun or adventurous. It may seem that way at first, but once you’ve done enough of it travel is at best something you put up with, not something you look forward to. If I added up all the time I’ve spent travelling to and from clients I am sure I would feel a large part of my life had been robbed. I’m not being entirely honest here: visiting a place you’ve never been to can be fun and interesting, especially if you take the time to get familiar with the local culture and get to know the people. That’s more applicable to air travel, which we’ll get to to next time. Today we’re discussing the land travel options: driving to a local client, taking the train, taxis, and rental cars. There’s nothing fun or exotic about land travel.
Find out how your company expects you to track and log your travel time and expenses, and what you can be reimbursed for. If you are required to turn in receipts with your expenses, get disciplined about remembering to always get receipts and keep them in a standard place. Regardless of how you are traveling, if you find yourself in a situation where you must be on-site at your client week after week, you may want to inquire about a 4-days on-site / 1-day off-site arrangement, or perhaps working 4 x 10-hour days instead of 5 x 8-hour days each week. Creative scheduling like this can reduce your travel and give you more time at home.

Driving to a Local (or not-so-local) Client
Depending where you live and where your client is, driving to the client could be a breeze. Or it could consume 3-4 hours of your time every day and make you wonder why you’re in this business. For projects that require you to be on-site, consulting companies do try their best to assign consultants to customers geographically near them. Circumstances don’t always cooperate, though. If you sat in on the weekly planning that goes on to fit consultants to projects in larger consulting companies, you’d find it interesting to say the least; there’s almost always an imbalance to be dealt with and it takes a lot of puzzle-solving skills and horse-trading to make it all work out right.

Therefore, you may at times find yourself working for a client who is not far enough away to justify air travel, but is neither a short drive. Long drives are doubly unpleasant if you’re facing ugly traffic. In areas like LA the traffic can be unpredictable, sometimes adding an unexpected hour or two to your drive; if you’re expected to show up at a certain time, this may require you to leave extra-early to compensate. If you’re in an area with a car pool / HOV lane, consider carpooling with a co-worker (or using an eco-friendly vehicle that qualifies for car pool lane privileges with a single driver). If mass transportation is available, that’s something to weigh against driving.
Find out your company’s mileage reimbursement policy, which likely means paying you a certain rate per mile that you drive for client work. Policies vary, but frequently the reimbursement does not apply to every mile you drive, just those where the distance is above and beyond your normal commute to the office. You’ll want to be acquainted with the information you need to track and how to report it.


When driving, invest in a GPS. They don’t cost much and are invaluable—especially for getting to new addresses in areas you aren’t very familiar with. If you’re driving to the same place on a regular basis, you can usually find a route and time that works best and settle into a routine. But if you’re driving to a different place every day, that’s another matter entirely. I remember well a job I held in the 1980’s that required me to visit several locations a day in New York City each day to perform on-site computer repair. The repair part of the job was by far the easier aspect: it was making your way through that enormous city to new destinations that was the real challenge. One wrong turn and you’re in Jersey. We didn’t have GPS back then, but we do now--and you should have one.

As good as they’ve gotten, GPS’s aren’t perfect: they occasionally give you bad information, and they’re completely useless on those occasions where they cannot establish contact with their satellites. Therefore, for a first-time visit it is a good idea to have a fallback in case your GPS fails you. You can map your route in advance with an online map service such as Bing Maps or Google Maps and have a print-out with you as back-up. You could also rely on your smart phone’s map application as a back-up (however, if you’re an iPhone user be aware that Apple’s new map app seems to be having some woes at the time of this writing).  While I only need to rely on my fallback perhaps 1 time out of 20 these days, I’m sure glad I have it when I need it.

Traveling by Train
Traveling by train can be nice: you don’t have to drive, so you have the option of reading, working on your laptop or tablet, even sleeping perhaps. In Southern California, where the automobile is a big part of the lifestyle, I’ve had this experience.

Traveling by train can also be a nightmare, where you are packed in tightly with insufficient seating and have the claustrophobic feeling that you are all just sardines in a can. I’ve had this experience in New York, where neither the driving nor taking the train choice is particularly appealing.
Obviously, the former experience is to be preferred to the latter, but you don’t have a lot of control: it depends where you’re traveling from and to. One thing you can do, if you have any flexibility in your schedule, is to consider that some times are far busier than others. Shifting your schedule earlier or later to accommodate a less-busy train may make a big difference.

If you're contemplating a long train ride (say, as an alternative to flying) think that through carefully. Although I've met a few people who habitually take long train rides on their vacations, a lot of people find long train rides uncomfortable if not intolerable.

If you're traveling in the UK or Europe, be very aware that the trains stay on schedule! Let me illustrate this with a personal experience: on a trip to England, I and a colleague (who had brought his wife along) put her and our bags on the train, then he and I went off to quickly use a restroom. When we returned to the track, the train was gone!--it had left already, and we had all the tickets. She was not happy about this, and I don't think she has forgiven him yet.

Rental Cars
If you’ve flown somewhere to visit a client, you’ll need to make the last leg of your journey by local transportation, which usually means a rental car or a taxi. You could also consider mass transportation. Let’s talk rental cars.

There are plenty of rental car companies to choose from, each claiming a special color to brand themselves and available at most airports. You may have to take a shuttle from the airport to the rental car area.
In some ways, all rental cars are the same: they have cars to rent, in various types and sizes, and you can reserve them in advance or just show up  and take your chances (please: reserve your car). They all offer you add-on services ranging from a GPS (recommended--see earlier comments) to insurance coverage—which you probably don’t need, because your own insurance likely covers you already. Your employer likely has auto rental policies you’ll need to be aware of, for example you might be required to rent a compact-size vehicle.

Now there’s the very important topic of which auto rental company to go with. I’m not going to try to tell you who to rent from, but it is important to find one that you like which gives you consistently good service. I find people have very different opinions about car companies based on their past experiences, and I’ll share some of mine to illustrate. For example, I’ve personally had poor experience with Enterprise car rentals (including the indignity of a microscopic scan of the entire car before and after the rental, hunting for the tiniest scratches); yet, a J.D. Power customer satisfaction study ranked them #1. Or take Hertz, who is self-proclaimed as #1 in the car rental space and it appears many travelers view them that way, as the obvious choice. Personally, I have never once had a good experience with Hertz. That caused me to look at Avis, which I love. After enough of this, you will lock onto your preferred auto rental company and stick to them like glue. For me, that means I always, always rent from Avis. They give me good service, every single time. And when it comes to travel, consistency is worth its weight in gold.

Your auto rental company probably has a loyalty program, and if you can get preferred status. That usually means you can bypass the lines entirely, find your name on a board with the location of your car identified, and be on your way.
When returning your rental car, be sure to look for the rental car return signs as you near the airport. Since rental car facilities are often off-airport these days you need to pay careful attention. Make sure you take all of your belongings with you, including bags/briefcases, coat, and phone.

Driving internationally? Automatic transmissions are rarely used in Europe so you'll need to be able to drive a manual transmission. Although the basics (steering wheel, accelerator, brake pedal, etc) are standardized and familiar, there can be small details about cars in other countries that can throw you. On one trip to the Netherlands I could not figure out how to put my rental car in reverse--it took me a good hour to find the special button I had to push. Not unreasonable in hindsight, but completely non-obvious to an American.

Why visit a foreign land, when all you have to do to get the experience is jump into a taxi? Well, it’s not always that bad but sometimes it is. Your taxi driver’s command of English can vary from better than yours to just head nods. If you’re unable to communicate with your driver at any level, it’s best to find another taxi.

How to get a taxi varies a bit depending where you are. Most airports have a taxi stand, which you should use to avoid being scammed by non-approved limo companies who might charge a much higher rate. If you’re leaving from a hotel, they should be able to order you a taxi or may have their own taxi stand. But what if you’re not at an airport or a hotel? In cities like New York you can hail a cab by putting your arm in the air on a street corner. In other places, like Portland, you need to call a taxi company. When on the street and having little luck finding a taxi, look for a nearby hotel or other location where taxis are likely to cruise regularly looking for passengers.
You do not want to commit to a taxi ride unless you are convinced of a few things. Does the driver know how to get to where you are going? While some taxis now have GPS’s as you’d expect, there are still times where the driver is trying to figure out their route over the phone as they’re driving—neither time nor cost-efficient. Second, what will the charge be, approximately? Third, does the taxi driver accept credit cards? While you want to have some cash on hand, it’s best to reserve that and try to use your credit card as much as possible. I doubly recommend credit card use for taxis when travelling internationally.

Whether you get into a conversation with your taxi driver on the way is up to you—usually. Sometimes a driver will pour out their life story to you whether or not you are interested. Sometimes these stories are touching or thought-provoking.
As for tipping, I usually add a few dollars to round up the fare, perhaps more if it’s been a long trip and they’ve been especially helpful with bags and such.
In some areas the taxi companies are extortionists. The last time I was in the Netherlands, the taxi fares doubled when it began snowing.
As with rental cars, be sure to leave nothing behind in your taxi. Make sure you have your bags, your coat, your phone, your wallet. And get that receipt if you’re required to turn one in.

Whether you consider a subway (or “Metro”) to be a viable option depends on your upbringing, past experiences, courage, and appetite for new experiences. Quality of service, cleanliness, and overall safety do seem to vary from place to place. Being originally from New York, my general tendency is to avoid them as much as possible. Some, like BART in San Francisco, seem very good and feel safe to me when I ride them. When I last visited Washington DC, hearing the Metro was very good, I used it and did not feel particularly unsafe—but there was an incident where police apprehended a person at a Metro station and pepper spray filled the air, stinging everyone’s eyes. Not particularly fun.

If you do ride the subway, have a neutral/pleasant expression on your face, do not drop your awareness of people near you, and hold on to your possessions.
So there you have it: travel by land is often no big deal, especially with a bit of experience behind you and exercising caution and common sense. When repeat travel is necessary, you have some options and alternatives to consider in making the best of things.

One last tip: as a consultant, you can honestly bill for an hour when you work on a client project, and some of your tasks likely include thinking through some problem or forming a plan. That’s something you can sometimes do while you’re traveling.


1 comment:

alfred said...

This one is probably pretty obvious, but it's worth noting: any station wagon vehicle worth its weight in off road adventures must have all wheel drive in order to deal with the rough terrain and uncertain circumstances that await it beyond the pavement. Beyond simply off-loading, however, a station wagon that features all wheel drive will be more versatile in adverse weather conditions -- especially snowy or icy roads.

Station Cars