Business travel sucks. Here’s how to make it suck a bit less.

Is business travel fun?

No. It’s not. It’s largely a soul-sucking affair, resulting from a lack of sleep, eating meal after meal alone, and little to no time to enjoy yourself. For the past 7 years I’ve flown at least 100,000 per year. Most of those miles are from international travel. Each year I visit Singapore, Bangalore, Shanghai, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and San Jose, Costa Rica at least once. Most of these are long (8+ hour) flights to destinations that are 5+ time zones away. A few of those flights are 15+ hours long. Over the years I’ve experimented with a variety of products and services to make travel less painful. Below I’ve pulled together a list of my favorites. In compiling my list I prioritize small, lightweight products that solve multiple problems (if possible). After those criteria have been met I look for the best value. All of the recommendations below are products I use (or are as close as I can find in the event that the exact model I use is no longer available).

Note: there are Amazon affiliate links in the descriptions below. If you click on the link and end up buying the product you’ll help support this blog.

Recommendations

Computer bag  – Picking the right computer bag is a tricky balancing act. On one hand you want it to be small enough to fit into the overhead bins on even the smallest planes (including the smaller puddle jumpers that I take from my regional airport to a major hub like LA, SFO, or Denver). However, it also needs to be large enough to carry a laptop, multiple power chargers (laptop, phone, etc.), a notepad (to record to-do lists and notes from meetings), a passport, earplugs, external power strip, plug adapter, external battery, reading material, and other miscellaneous things. For many years I carried around a slick-looking leather bag like this. It looked great and I felt very professional with this slung over my shoulder as I dashed through the airport. Unfortunately, after a few years of carrying a this bag I started developing shoulder problems. I’ve since switched to a rolling computer bag and I’ve never looked back. I have a bag very similar to this and it’s fantastic. My shoulder problems disappeared as soon as I made the switch and I can make the long walk through enormous airports like Heathrow without breaking a sweat. A good computer bag is the foundation for all business travel.

Orange earplugs – personally, I hate making small talk on the airplane. Between my family, full-time job, reading/studying for my CFP classes, and this blog, I don’t have a lot of extra time. My time on the airplane is used for 1 of 3 things:

  • Sleep (I never get enough of this)
  • Working (either doing work related stuff or reading for my CFP classes)
  • Relaxation (usually watching movies or TV shows).

Any time making small talk with strangers is time taken away from one of these 3 things. Because of my airline status I’m always one of the first people on the plane. A few years ago I discovered that if I had my headphones in before my seat mate(s) arrive then I’ll almost be left alone. However, I don’t always want my headphones in because I don’t always want to be listening to music when I’m working or reading. In addition, I find it a bit uncomfortable to sleep with my headphone in (I like to lean against the wall when I sleep). To solve these problems I put earplugs in as soon as I sat down. I initially used the earplugs provided by airlines – these work great, but they are a tan/beige latex and are basically invisible. This meant that my future seat mates couldn’t see the earplugs and ended up trying to talk to me anyway. I solved the problem by getting these earplugs. Not only do they work great for blocking noise (making it easier to concentrate on my reading), but the bright orange color is pretty easy to see. They essentially act like a big stop sign, preventing unwanted conversations. Antisocial? Yes. Effective? Very.

Headphones – I used to use Bose noise cancelling headphones. They were great but had a few significant drawbacks. They are large. As I mentioned in the introduction, weight and space is at a premium when traveling. Every ounce and every square inch counts. The Bose headphones just took up too much space. Second, they are battery-powered. A flight from San Francisco to Singapore (15+ hours each way) will deplete the battery in the headphones. You always need to have a spare battery (or two) on you and that is just another thing to worry about. The large headphones made it tough for me to sleep. Although I’ve never been able to sleep while watching a movie or TV, I sometimes like to have some soft music or meditation music playing when I try to sleep on the plane. When I’d try to sleep while wearing the Bose headphones I’d inevitably tilt my head one way or the other, hit either the headrest or window, and wake up. And for some reason the active noise cancellation never seemed to work all that well for me. Yes, you could hear some of the background engine noise fade away when the headphones were turned on, but not entirely. And, they are designed to specifically NOT block the frequencies of human speech, but that’s often exactly what I wanted to block! I now use Shure headphones and I love them. They are tiny (the carrying case is roughly the size of a deck of cards). They are light. They don’t need a battery. Because of the design with the foam earpiece they are not only fantastically comfortable but they help reduce all ambient sound (including human speech!) I have the Shure 525’s, which are definitely on the expensive side. I was very unsure about spending that much money on a pair of headphones but I’ve now had them for about 10 years and I don’t regret them for a second. They are an essential part of my travel gear. If the 525’s are out of your budget then the Shure 215s are a great alternative.

Netflix/Amazon Prime movies – During the time I allow myself to relax on a plane I like to watch movies. Reading usually causes me to fall asleep (whether I want to or not). Unfortunately, it’s always been a major pain to load movies on my iPad. I had to use my home computer to rip the DVD or BluRay, encode them into a mobile-friendly format, then transfer to my iPad. Thankfully that’s all in the past. Both Amazon Prime and Netflix now allow you to download movies to your tablet for later viewing. The night before a long trip I usually spend 5 minutes selecting movies and TV shows I want to watch, then they download while my tablet charges overnight. The only downsides are that the downloaded videos are only valid for a few days and you can only download any given movie/TV show a few times in a year. You have to do a bit of balancing to ensure that you download enough stuff to keep you entertained on your trip but not so much stuff that you can’t watch it all.

External battery pack/charger – although more and more airplanes have power plugs, not all of them do. When you’re on a 10+ hour international trip you’ll almost certainly burn through the battery on your mobile devices. Given that I use Google Maps on my phone to navigate everywhere I go this is a big problem. No phone means no Google Maps, and no Google Maps means I’m lost. To address this problem I’ve started carrying a an external battery back. It’s small, light, and has enough juice to recharge my tablet once or my phone approximately 3 times. I used to carry an external battery with 2 USB plugs, but I found that I never once needed to charge 2 devices simultaneously. By only having one plug the device is noticeably smaller and lighter than my older battery. Throw one of these in your travel bag – you’ll be glad you did.

International plug adapter + USB charger – if you do international travel then you need an all-in-one plug adapter. I used to carry individual adapters. My thinking was that by carrying individual dedicated adapters I would minimize the size/weight I needed to carry – I would just need to make sure I grabbed the right adapter before each flight. It only took one time where I forgot to grab the right adapter before I realized it would be much smarter to just keep a single all-in-one adapter in my bag. The BONAZZA Universal World Travel Adapter is awesome – it has everything I need. It works with the plugs in every country I’ve visited, it has 4 built-in USB charger, and it has a built-in surge protector. Frankly, I’m probably going to stop carrying the travel power strip (below) because the BONAZZA does everything the power strip does and more. The only drawback is that the dedicated power strip has 2 actual power plugs. However, I’m finding that the only thing I actually plug into a power plug is my laptop and everything else is charged via USB. Having 4 built-in USB ports allows me to simultaneously charge my phone, watch, tablet, and external battery. If you travel internationally I recommend this adapter. If you only travel domestically then I recommend the travel power strip below.

Travel power strip – If you’re traveling domestically then you don’t need to worry about plug adapters. However, you’ll still need to deal with the fact that power outlets are at a premium at every airport I’ve ever been to. It’s almost impossible to find somewhere to top off your mobile devices or laptop before jumping on a long flight. The Bestek 2 outlet power strip has a number of nice features:

  • You can turn a single power plug into 2 plugs and 2 USB plugs. If you walk up to a charging station and every power outlet is taken then you can unplug somebody, plug them into this power strip, and still have an extra power plug for your laptop plus 2 USB plugs for your mobile devices. This means you can leave your USB plug adapters at home.
  • It has a short cable, which gives you another foot or so of range from the power outlet.
  • The cable wraps around and plugs into one of its outlets. This keeps everything neat and tidy.
  • The plugs are spaced far enough apart that you can use larger/bulkier power adapters without having them interfere with each other.

If you do international travel then I’d recommend the international plug adapter + USB charger I discuss above instead of this.

Passport/travel wallet – this is more of a luxury than a necessity. It’s amazing how much stuff you need to carry with you for travel. Membership cards, passports, foreign currency, etc. It’s nice to have one place to keep everything. This travel wallet has a couple of features that I think are important:

  • A sleeve to hold your entire passport. In my old travel wallet the passport was held in place by sliding the back cover into a slot. The idea is that you can look through your passport without needing to remove it from the wallet. Unfortunately, that design had a number of drawbacks. First, I was a bit tricky to get the passport cover back into the slot – the slot had to be small enough to securely hold the passport and that meant the slot was a tight fit. Second, the entire passport was held in place by the back cover. This put lots of pressure on the passport and it started falling apart. Finally, I had to completely take the passport out of the wallet to go through customs and immigration anyway. The design in this wallet is better – it’s a slot that the entire passport slides into. It’s easy to insert/remove the passport and the whole passport is protected.
  • Multiple slots for travel membership cards and an emergency credit card. It’s amazing to me that we still need to carry around actual cards (instead of just having everything on our phones) but lots of places still want to physically run your membership card through a scanner. This means you’ll want to have them with you.
  • A slot for currency – when I arrive at a foreign country I just take all my US dollars, stash them in the travel wallet, and put the foreign currency in my money clip. I use the slot in the wallet that’s apparently designed as a boarding pass holder (I don’t carry boarding passes because they can just be downloaded on your computer).
  • A spot for a pen – there’s always a scramble to find a pen to fill the customs and immigration forms that are required when entering a foreign country. Nobody seems to have a pen and everybody borrows from everybody else. Having one always sitting next to your passport is surprisingly handy.

Collapsable Water Bottle – it’s shocking how dry the cabin of an airplane can be. The humidity levels average around 12 percent, which is drier than in many deserts. This is due to the fact that the air in an airplane cabin is about 50% recirculated air and 50% fresh air from outside. When at cruising altitude (usually above 10,000 feet) the air pulled from outside contains somewhere between very little and no humidity. The solution, of course, is to drink more water. Unfortunately, the beverage service is never frequent enough to keep you hydrated. And you can’t carry liquid through security, so you either need to pack an empty water bottle or buy a bottle of water once you’re through security. My solution has been to use a Platypus collapsible water bottle. They come in a various sizes – I prefer the 1 liter size. It’s collapsible, which means when it’s empty it rolls up and takes no room in your carry on bad. It’s lightweight. When it’s full it stands up. Because it’s soft, you can fill it up and then toss it in your bag and it will just conform to whatever’s around it. I’ve never had mine leak. Get one, fill it up before your next flight, and drink more water than you think you need to. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel when you land.

Not recommended

Neck pillows – I know some people swear by them, but I just don’t like them. First, they are big & bulky, which violates one of my major goals for any travel related gear. Second, I don’t find that they help me sleep. On longer flights I always prefer to sit at a window so I can lean my head against the wall to sleep, so the neck pillow doesn’t help. Blanket – Again, I don’t see the point. Blankets are big, bulky, and single purpose. Airlines provide blankets on longer flights. You can’t easily stuff them in your computer bag, which means you have to carry them in your hands through the airport, on the plane, then back through the airport again. I just don’t see the upside to bringing your own blanket.

What am I missing?

There you go – The Money Commando recommendation for kick-ass travel gear to make business travel suck slightly less. Most of these items I heard about through fellow business travelers. Do you have an essential piece of gear that I’m missing? If so, please add it to the comment section below or email me directly.

8 thoughts on “Business travel sucks. Here’s how to make it suck a bit less.

  1. I agree that business travel is not all that fun. Since getting my recent promotion I have had to start traveling much more. I have a monthly trip from CA to NY and I always come back feeling like crap.

    I don’t get on a plane without my Beats headphones, a good book, and my iphone charge.

    1. Over the last few years I’ve almost entire switched away from carrying books. If I still want something non-electronic to read I bring magazines. The issue for me is that books are big, heavy, and not disposable. Magazines are thin, light, and can go directly into the recycling at the airport as soon as I land.

      But I agree about the headphones – never get onto a plane without headphones and the necessary chargers for your various electronic devices.

  2. One thing I always carry is a water bottle (either an empty plastic one or an insulated metal one). I find it’s much less expensive to stay hydrated on long flights, which helps me not get sick and stay energetic!

    Great article and I’m enjoying your site–keep up the great work!

    1. I couldn’t agree more about staying hydrated – it’s shocking how dry the cabin in an airplane can be. I’ve noticed a difference in how I feel when I fly in a 787 (which is made of composite materials and therefor can have higher cabin humidity) vs. a 747-400.

      I usually carry a Platypus water pouch – it’s essentially no weight or bulk when it’s empty and when it’s full it easily squeezes into my bad because it’s soft sided. I can’t believe I forgot to add this in the original post – I’ll update it now!

  3. I ended up getting Monoprice noise cancelling headphones, which are bulky like the Bose ones. Works well for the price, but I agree that they are bulky and does take up the space. I think my battery life is around 8-9 hours on a AAA. I do have to pack extra for long hauls.

    I got a pretty nice neck pillow, but really stopped using it because of the bulk too.

    1. It’s amazing how just a few extra ounces of weight or square inches of bulk start to matter when you do a lot of traveling. I understand how backpackers must feel – I’m always trying to find way to reduce the amount of stuff I bring with me without sacrificing comfort or convenience.

  4. I think the best part of work travel is gathering points and miles for free family vacations. Also, if you are travel hacking, and are able to use your personal credit cards on those trips, those trips are helping you to meet your minimum spend to get big sign up bonuses.

    1. I think about this every time I go on a trip. Yes, the travel sucks, but earning miles and status certainly makes family vacations a lot easier. We can use points to pay for flights, points to pay for hotels, and then we are eligible for free upgrades due to my status.

      I use a personal credit card to pay for all my flights, and that results in even MORE miles. The only downside is that it takes a few months to get reimbursed, so I’m effectively loaning the money to my employer until I’m reimbursed. Even factoring that in I think it’s still worth it.

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