The Pluses and Minuses of Business Travel

I can already see that one of the aspects of my new job that will become something of a grind after a while is the traveling.

One thing we do at the U.S. Geological Survey a lot is travel. Sometimes it seems like I work with a bunch of constantly migrating gypsies who only occasionally arrive back at the office. USGS is a very spread out agency with multiple offices in most states. This is necessary since scientists have to get out into the field and do the mapping, biological, geological and hydrological work of the nation.

During my first week in the job this February I met Colleen. She is someone with a position similar to mine and has an office right down the hall. Silly me, I assumed because she had an office she must live in the area. It wasn’t until the week ended that I learned this was one of many places she hung out. A typical month will find her on the road two to three weeks. She routinely spends a week a month at my office in Reston. Colleen’s case is pretty extreme, but the travel requirements for USGS employees are not. If you are a scientist you are likely on the go at least every other month or so.

Colleen’s team, like mine, is geographically spread out. But she has a lot more people on her team than I have on mine. She feels that to really be effective she has to constantly migrate from one worksite to the other. If keeping up with her employees weren’t enough, there are weeks of user and acceptance testing and numerous conferences to attend. There are also various side trips to remote offices to do things like make sure a server farms is configured correctly. She lives largely out of a suitcase, but she calls Tucson home. She told me she has gotten to the point in her 36 years of federal service where she doesn’t even notice the jet lag anymore.

My boss is not quite as bad but is typically gone for at least a week a month. More often she is gone for two weeks a month. As for me I can pretty much decide how much traveling I want to do. And there’s the rub. I don’t necessarily want to do all that much traveling. I understood it was a part of the job when I accepted it. But it’s not likely that I will be visiting exotic destinations. Indeed usually I go some place where there are groups of other USGS employees. And wherever I go there are usually social obligations. After six o’clock though I’d usually rather crash in my hotel room and get online.

So I’m trying to minimize my travel without giving offense or appearing ineffective. This is amazing to my 14-year old daughter Rosie. “Let me get this straight Dad. You can go anywhere you want on business at any time, and you don’t want to go anywhere?” That’s how she hears it. She is right in that my boss is very liberal with the travel budget. I’m a chief and have new powers. She told me I could pretty much go anywhere I feel I have a need to go. But I suspect my boss won’t approve a trip to Hawaii just so I can watch hydrologists at work. It must serve some reasonable business function. So I won’t likely be jetting off to Paris to attend some important conference and tour the Louvre in the evenings. Instead I will be meeting the same groups of hydrologists and scientists over and over again at various places in the Continental United States. Next week, for example, it will be an Eastern Region Data Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s close enough that I will drive instead of fly.

Traveling on someone else’s dime can be a lot of fun or mind expanding. Early in my federal career I was selected for a two-week tour overseas. I had to install some customized software we wrote and to help people learn the system. I spent a week at the Atsugi Naval Air Station near Tokyo and another week at Subic Bay in the Philippines. This was in 1987 when our Navy still had military facilities in the Philippines. The week in the Philippines was particularly a real eye opener. The Philippines showed me a side of reality I probably needed to see but really left me appalled and disheartened. I found plenty of readily available prostitution just outside the gates. Our sailors seemed to have no scruples about banging anonymous women without even using protection. I found most of the kids there didn’t go to school because only those of privilege could afford schooling. Instead they roamed the streets, smoked cigarettes and often were involved in petty crime. I found horrendous air pollution in Manila. And I learned that if I had no scruples I could have had sex with a minor, no questions asked, for about twenty bucks. So this trip in particular was a very mind expanding experience. Even my time in Japan was noteworthy. I didn’t know that air could be so polluted you always had a bad taste in your mouth. I didn’t know a city could be denser and more expensive that New York City. Overall I learned to appreciate the United States as something of an oasis in the world. Much of the world is mired in poverty and filth. I am lucky to be an American.

This kind of business travel, when it doesn’t happen too often, is actually welcome. It happened exactly once and is unlikely to happen again in my federal career.

Today though business travel is mostly just a hassle and rarely a mind opening experience. The cities I go to in the continental United States all look the same after a while. Each city has pretty much the same restaurants, malls and hotels. The hotels have a bland, uniform familiarity about them. The hassle of getting in and out of airports gets old quickly. The airlines … well, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about them. It is never a good experience. At best a flight is a neutral experience. I hate the way the airlines treat us like morons. Yes, I know they have to say and go through all that stuff because it’s required. But thank you I think I can figure out how to put an oxygen mask over my face by now. I know where the exit doors are and I’ve only buckled a seatbelt a few million times by now. I’ve learned the tradeoffs of sitting in an exit row. And I’ve learned when possible to travel with my carryon luggage alone.

It’s often the case that now there is usually someone I know on the other end. We USGSers are one big happy extended family. But I’m not the most sociable of critters. I am working hard on that aspect of myself. When my business day is over I’m not necessarily in the mood for happy hour or a long meal with colleagues at a local fern bar. I just want some downtime, some privacy and a nutritious but quick meal somewhere. I often feel itchy because I need to exercise but haven’t found the time. Coming back late to my hotel room in a semi-alcoholic haze stuffed with steaks and fried potato skins is hardly conducive to exercise.

So I find business travel to be a mixed blessing. I’m trying hard to limit my travel to a week or less a month and so far I’ve succeeded. I figure someone has to help keep down the travel expenses. For me the best business trips are often the ones where I don’t know anyone at the other end. Then I am usually free of the social obligations in the evening. I often have a rental car at my disposal, and may actually go see some of the local attractions. Or I might prefer to hole up in my room and watch a movie on the DVD player built into the laptop computer. But those trips are few and far between. Business travel is really more like working a twelve-hour day and getting paid for eight.

Still I probably need to get out more. I am the more restless spouse. Going for years at a time without traveling anywhere on my employer’s dime gets old too. So mostly I don’t grumble about the travel and try to think of the travel as a job perk. After all I am not some trucker constantly on the move up driving all night. I am not sleeping at a Motel 6 and selling grub out of a suitcase. And the best part of business travel? Someone else is paying!

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