White Collar Travel: Five embarrassing confessions of a business traveler

Business travelers love to look poised, in control and too important for mere words, but there’s a dark side to the lifestyle that can be downright comical. Sure, some of it will come across as sad, depressing or simply stupid. When you step back from it, though, it’s hard not to let out a chuckle. The trivial becomes incredibly serious, and almost every situation seems like an opportunity to pull off some grand scam that truly isn’t worth the effort.

I’ll confess: I was guilty of much (well, all) of what you’re about to read. I can take some comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone, but that also means I spent a lot of years associated with some pretty strange people.

1. Hoarding soap
Might as well start off with the lowest of the low: I’d always swipe the soap. It’ not because I was broke – if I were, stealing soap wouldn’t have done much for me. How much does the average guy spend on soap? Ten bucks a month? I’ve never broken down the expense, but it can’t be more than a rounding error in the average household’s budget. In pocketing the soap, felt like I was somehow winning an undefined competition. One day I realized I had more soap under the sink than I’d ever use and called it quits. Well, it wasn’t a lifetime’s worth – I’d only scrounged enough for around two years.

2. Dashboard Chinese

Expense management was always a priority – and not just for the company. I quickly realized that you could scrounge a few extra bucks if you got creative with your meals. Generally speaking, you could count on at least one team dinner a week, which meant no cash but you got to eat better than a normal human being.

The other meals on the road? Skip breakfast in favor of in-room coffee (or nab something free if complimentary continental breakfast). Lunch was best in a subsidized employee cafeteria, or absent that you go on the cheap with pizza or a burger. So far, the day cost around $5, against $5 for breakfast and $10 for lunch (back then, at least). Dinner’s the tough one, and you only get $20. On one project, I found I could get a quart (yes, that’s how it was measured) of chicken and broccoli at a frightening-looking Chinese restaurant on some back road in Whippany, New Jersey … for $5.

Per diem: $35
Total cost: $10
Difference: $25
X5 days on the road: $125

It may seem demented at first, but that strategy turned into an extra $500 a month.

3. Road warrior
Why fly when you can drive? While the prevailing view of business travelers is that we’re addicted to points, the reality is that we all cave in the face of something far more attractive: cash. Mileage is better than miles, especially since it accumulates more quickly and offers faster gratification. Driving distances that should be flown was a great way to stuff your bank account, especially if you were about to leave the road to look for a new job.

4. Overpaying for points
Well, it’s not always true that we’ll take cash over points. Perhaps the greatest flaw in economics is that human beings are rational – especially human beings who spend 15 hours a week on planes and in airports. There are circumstances in which points trump cash, even though this is irrational behavior. Now, I’m not talking about actually buying points (at least not directly). But, when you have a choice between airlines, it’s often tempting to take the more expensive ticket on the airline on which you’ve been accumulating miles, even if you have to pay the difference personally. It’s rationalized as the present cost of a future upgrade.

5. Accepting a layover
Like overpaying for miles, this isn’t entirely rational (okay, it’s not even close). When the time you spend at home every week is measured in hours rather than days, you’d think nothing matters more than taking the shortest route possible from Point A to Point B. When you’re living on a precarious balance of caffeine, nicotine, liquor, adrenaline and greed, however, there’s little room for that sort of thinking. To keep your miles on one airline, you accept a layover rather than switch airlines to spend less time in the sky. Trust me: it makes sense at the time … even though you’ll never use them.