Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Traveling for Work: Not Sexy

This is not what you look like after a 6 AM flight on Monday.
I’m coming up on my 1-year anniversary with my new company, so I’ve been pretty reflective lately on how much my life has improved and changed in such a short period of time. Remember when I wrote about all the things I learned in Consulting? Well, somehow in the course of spilling my guts about the soul-crushing, spirit-killing culture of Big 4 Consulting, I managed not to mention perhaps the single worst part of the job: the 100% travel schedule.

In the course of almost four years with the company, I was staffed in: Orange County CA, Wichita KS, Santa Fe NM (with weeks in Framingham MA, Tampa FL, Vienna VA, Montrovia CA, and of course NYC), and Walnut Creek, CA. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “that sounds awesome! Free trips around the country! Expense accounts!”
But it is not awesome. Traveling for work is NOT like traveling for pleasure. You spend more time in airports than in your own bed. You live in creepy hotels (all hotels are creepy). And let me assure you, a conference room in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, looks exactly the same as that conference room in your home office. And, think about where offices of large corporations are generally located. Unless you’re really lucky, you’re in an office park just outside of Boston or DC. And the client spends thousands to bring you on site – you’re not leaving that conference room at 5 PM. You’re working until 7 PM on a good night, and you’re not going to see much outside of those office walls. Still not convinced? Here are a few more things that suck about traveling for a living.

You will have no life: Consultancies will tout a 3-4-5 schedule in their recruiting activities. You’ll hear, “you know, I travel for a living, but it’s quite reasonable. We follow a 3-4-5- schedule. That means 3 days on the client site, the fourth night at home, and the 5th day in your home office.” Meaning, you fly out Monday morning, fly home Thursday night, and are expected to be in your company’s home office on Friday. Sounds reasonable to a young go-getter, straight out of college, right?

However, 3-4-5 is really like 3-.5-0. You’ll spend 3 days at your client site hating life and counting down until you can go home. You’ll spend half a night at home when your delayed flight finally arrives. That's IF the partner on your project has not decreed that everyone stay on site 5 days a week. And you’ll spend 1.5 days at home trying to enjoy life. You will not go into your office on Friday because you’re exhausted and the thought of talking to other miserable consultants sounds absolutely horrible.  Co-worker friends? Not with this model. And while you’re home, you’re trying to make the most of it, but really, you’re dreading your Monday 6 am flight. Your friendships will suffer when you only have 2 possible days a week on which to see people, and you would rather spend those on the couch watching Bravo (how in the hell do 90% of hotels STILL not have Bravo?) and snuggling with your dog. Crying every Sunday night – normal or not normal?

The only reason I maintained a relationship in these 4 years was that I traveled with sir good hair to Orange County for 2 years. In fact, this traumatic time may have sealed our bond. Remember Keanu and Sandra in Speed? Kind of like that. In the time when we weren’t traveling together, I pretty much only saw him when I was home on weekends. Friendships: crumbled.

Hotels are creepy: I slept in the same bed as Dennis Rodman. Not at the same time, weirdo. I know this because I lived in the same hotel in Costa Mesa, CA for almost 2 years. That meant that the whole hotel staff knew me by name, and one week alerted me to the fact that Mr. Rodman was staying on my floor. They even told me which room.  I definitely had that room before and after the fact. Try feeling sanitary after that. Add to that the dumps I stayed in during the dead of winter in Wichita, KS, the Embassy Suites in Irvine that smelled damp and had murals of monkeys in turbans in the restaurant, and Dateline horror stories about hotel bacteria, and you suddenly have the urge to bathe in antibacterial hand gel. On the upside, I can identify which hotel is hosting the pageants featured on Toddlers and Tiaras based solely on the tapestries and carpet patterns.

Airports and airplanes are the worst places in the world: You will witness the absolute worst elements of human behavior. I once listened to a man projectile vomit for the entire flight from Albuquerque, NM to Las Vegas, NV. US Airways employees will look straight through you as you try to arrange passage on a later flight after your connecting flight left 10 minutes early and stranded you at PHX for ten hours. You will jockey for space in the boarding area, predicting when they will call for Premier Executives to board, because suddenly this matters to you. And you will see a man let his dog poop on the terminal carpet without cleaning it up.

You will fear for your life: Speaking of airports and airlines, do you remember that time the pilot put the landing gear down at 30,000 ft because the plane was overheating? Or the time the turbulence was so bad that people were actually screaming? No? You don’t fly every week. Fly 2-4 times a week and your odds of experiencing something horrifying just stack up. That’s my stance. Have you ever flown out of John Wayne Airport in OC? They have a noise reduction procedure that involves taking off at full speed, then cutting the throttle so that it feels like you’re in free-fall. I did it every week for 2 years, and it probably took 5 years off my life. And given my profession, I have the chance to look behind the curtain at many companies that you would think have their shit together. Here’s a secret: people are people everywhere, and people are dumb. Once you see planes being built by the guy next store, who can have good days and bad days, you’re no longer confident in so-called experts, like, say, pilots.

You will trick yourself into thinking that the airline and hotel points are worth it: One of the primary things I heard soon-to-quit traveling consultants say was “man, traveling sucks, but I really don’t want to give up my status.” I said this myself. Sure, it’s cool that I once had top-tier status at 3 hotel chains, elite status on 2 airlines, and have not paid for a hotel room or plane ticket in about 3 years. But you forget when you’re wrapped up in this travel business that the benefits of elite status do not even come close to 1) not traveling constantly and 2) having an actual, emotionally fulfilling home life. Sure, you get a slightly larger room up-grade, or even the presidential suite a few times a year. Maybe they put a cheese plate and a bottle of wine in your room when you check in. But, I, personally, would rather pay for that 8 dollar bottle of wine and 2 dollar hunk of cheese, and eat it in my arm chair with my dog in my lap. Call me crazy. I have a lot of friends that are still in consulting and will post #humblebrags about their status in a somewhat steady stream, and though I’m glad that there is a bright spot in an otherwise horrible travel schedule, I sometimes want to shake them and say, “get a hold of yourself! It’s not worth it!”

You’ll get fat: I think one of the key tips nutritionists, doctors, and trainers will give you is, “create a schedule, build healthy habits, and plan ahead.” None of that is possible if you’re traveling. You’re working late. You could get rolled off your project at any time, so don't pre-pay for any trainer sessions. If you’re traveling across time zones, your morning workouts become more and more of a pipe dream. And have you seen the average hotel "gym"? You eat all your meals through restaurants and airports. On top of that, you will not have groceries in your home, because you stopped buying them because they go bad when you’re too tired to cook. I didn’t realize how horrible this habit was until recently, when we started this paleo thing, and started cooking almost all our meals at home. Finally my taste buds “reset” or something, and I am back to actually preferring our home cooked meals to restaurant food. I won’t get into the effects of massive stress on your fat storage. Let’s just say, not good.

So, my advice to anyone who thinks that traveling for work sounds kind of sexy is: don’t be fooled. And if you do give it a shot, I’m sure that the first time you’re deathly ill in a hotel room, begging room service to bring you Nyquil, you’ll wish that you had a family member or loved one around. Or maybe it’ll be the first time you have 3 flights in 2 days, and a double ear infection. Regardless, there will be a point at which enough is enough.

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