The frequent flyer’s handbook part one: The business trip packing list.
One part of my work that I really enjoy is traveling to cover cases all over the country. This is usually a service I perform as a contractor for other attorneys when their clients move to a different area, but I sometimes encounter the same need for my own clients and do it myself. That means I go on a lot of very short business trips, as little as 24 hours, and I fly a lot more than most people, often twice a month or more.
So let me share some tips from a frequent flyer. Note that your needs may be different from mine, but for the attorney on business travel, this should be a helpful guide.
Most airlines allow travelers to carry two bags on board the plane, and require additional bags to be checked to the baggage compartment, usually for a fee. Checking baggage is a hassle and a risk, so I try to avoid it except in special circumstances like a long trip or if I’m bringing bulky gear like kayaking or skiing equipment.
Most frequent flyers use rolling luggage as a carry on, and if that’s what you want to do it’s not hard to find good luggage suited for the purpose. However, I have found rolling luggage to come with a lot of downsides, and after years of trial and error I’ve switched to using a backpack instead. Why a backpack? The main reason is that it’s much easier to carry around the airport, especially if you need to run which is inevitable once in a while to make a short connection in a large airport. The next advantage of a backpack is that it more easily fits into the smaller overhead bins common to the smaller airplanes that fly into more remote airports. Finally, since backpacks are less common on planes than rolling luggage, it’s much less likely that someone else will accidentally take your bag.
Now, backpacks vary a lot, and it’s easy to spend a fortune on a good travel backpack such as the GoRuck GR1 or GR2, but I haven’t found that necessary. What’s nice about the GoRucks is that they are shaped like conventional rolling bags, which makes them easy to pack and they hold a lot, but I’ve found that a simple student-type backpack is more than sufficient for most trips. I use a low-end North Face bag that I bought for $30 at a climbing festival. Before that, I was pretty happy with the Eastpack school bag I bought for college in 1999. A large backpack holds more than the largest rolling bag that would fit in the same space, but can be stuffed into a slightly smaller space, so you can freely use a relatively large day pack. I don’t recommend larger “backpacking” backpacks, but they may be acceptable for longer trips.
The second bag should be some variation of a laptop bag. I use a courier bag from REI that provides good storage for a laptop and basic business needs and then some. Check with your preferred airline for recommended dimensions and ideally get something that fits your volume needs but still fits under the seat. I don’t personally recommend spending a lot on this bag, but to some professionals image matters, so buy whatever you like.
What to bring
Again this is assuming a short overnight business trip of just a day or two.
In the backpack or rolling bag:
- Change of clothes (base layer) and work shoes
- Hygiene supplies – some like to rely on what hotels provide, but I prefer my own shower supplies so I bring that in a ziplock bag, along with toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers (you never know), a small bottle of mouthwash, and optionally a small “sample” bottle of cologne. Personally I don’t shave, but if you do, bring just a razor; most hotels have shaving cream available for free. Oh, bring deodorant; hotels rarely have any to give you. I get my toothpaste from the hotel front desk periodically; I have never bought a travel tube of toothpaste.
- Recreational clothing – most trips include at least a few hours of downtime and I prefer not to spend that wearing a suit, so I tend to bring comfortable clothes if I don’t wear them to the airport (see below). I usually bring a bathing suit as there’s usually a hotel at the pool even if it’s not a beach destination, and I’m often traveling from Buffalo in the winter. Bring your own towel if you’re planning a beach trip; you may not be able to use one from the hotel depending on your checkout time.
- Sandals – flip flops are great to wear in hotel showers and to the pool or beach.
- Medication – if you are reliant on any kind of medication, I recommend keeping a few days supply in each of your bags.
And that’s it for the backpack, unless you have a special need or desire; there are no set rules here.
The smaller courier/laptop bag
The second bag that shows under the seat in front of you is more critical, and I try to fit as many of my essentials in it as possible.
Your mobile office – for me, this consists of quite a few items:
- Laptop (in a neoprene sleeve)
- Laptop power adapter and cord
- Portable scanner – less essential now that phones can scan but still nice if you expect to receive documents
- Power cords and adapters for phone and headphones, and for your smart watch if you have one
- Flash drive (several in my case)
- Any adapters you might need (especially if you have one of the newer USB-C laptops)
- Any paperwork you will need for the trip – best to print it in advance as hotel facilities are unreliable
- Bluetooth or wired headphones- these are really essential for longer flights
- Portable power pack – every frequent traveler should own one of these. You’ll use and rely on your phone more while traveling, and if you use Bluetooth headphones they could die over the course of several flights. If you don’t have one, grab a cheap small one on Amazon, but get one big enough to charge your phone a few times.
- Car charger – I use a dual USB lighter jack adapter to plug my phone in to the rental car. It’s less essential now that most cars have a USB port, but you can’t rely on that as you never know when you’ll be stuck in a 2013 Elantra.
- Aux cord – in case you get stuck in a car without Bluetooth. Most of them at least have an aux port.
- Vent clip phone holder – to hold your phone in view in the rental car for navigation
- Kindle or tablet- I used to carry these to use in flights, but I don’t anymore. I now consider it dead weight but if it’s worth it to you, bring it.
- GPS unit – I use my phone, but if you prefer a stand-alone unit it may be worth the space and weight to you.
- Ezpass – it’s not a bad idea to get a spare to keep in your travel bag. In certain areas this will save you on tolls versus renting one from the rental car agency. On the other hand it really sucks if you forget it in the rental, and the more you have in the car the more you can forget.
I don’t carry these last few items, because for my needs it’s better to keep it simple, but do what works for you and you decide what’s worth carrying.
Clothes: I pack my work clothes in my work bag for a few reasons. They’re less likely to get wrinkled there than in your backpack, and this bag is less likely than the bin bag to get lost or stolen. If you lose a bag, you want to minimize what you need to buy on site, and the last thing you want is to be scrambling for a replacement suit at 8 AM before work.
So my suit pants and dress shirt get folded and go in my courier bag. I put them in a plastic grocery bag for more protection. My tie also goes in this bag. Socks and base layer go in the other bag; in an emergency I can just keep on what I’m already wearing.
Medication: you should have a few days supply of any essential medications in each bag, including “PRN” medications, and OTC essentials like Advil or Aleve and motion sickness pills if that’s your thing. Imodium and antacid are a good idea too.
Secondary ID and form of payment – Losing your wallet on the road is a nightmare, and in some cities and airports business travelers are targeted by pickpockets and muggers. I keep my passport and a backup credit card in my courier bag.
On your person:
Clothing- I dress oddly for transit. I wear my sneakers, comfortable casual pants, a t-shirt, my smartwatch, sunglasses, and my suit jacket.
Why the suit jacket? It’s almost impossible to stuff it in a bag without wrinkling it, short of using an absurdly bulky and expensive garment bag. Plus it has pockets and comes off easily, so it spares me from having to unload pockets at airport security. Trust me, this will save your time. And it’s a cool look.
In my wallet I have the two most essential “optional” items: my Nexus card for the TSA Precheck security line, and my American Express card.
I can’t sing the praises of TSA Precheck enough. You can buy into it as a stand-alone product for $25 a year if you have an enhanced driver’s license, but you get it for free with a NEXUS or Global Entry card, which is just $50 every five years and also speeds you through the US ground border crossings.
Similarly, I can’t get over American Express for business travel. Which Amex is right for you is a whole other article, but I am not aware of any card that beats them for transaction tracking, fraud protection, travel perks, and loss protection. My favorite feature for business travel is how easy the web site makes it to generate expense reports for client billing. If someone else is paying your bills, there’s no other card that comes close. And if you get one of their premium cards a lot of other perks kick in, like free rental car insurance, life and injury insurance, travel bookings, and of course reward points.
I don’t travel with much cash at all if I can avoid it, but if it makes you feel safer stuff a few 20 dollar bills in a hidden spot in each of your bags. A little cash is nice to enable things like eating at street vendors, but I seldom need it, and for tracking purposes I prefer to spend every dollar of a trip on the Amex anyway. However it’s a great idea to have a few dollars in quarters in your bag for city parking.
And that’s about it. If you use this as your packing list for business travel, you’ll be lean and fast at the airport while having everything you are ever likely to need.