First business trip coming up (3 weeks in the northwest USA!) - prepare me

This Friday I got an offer from my IT agency to go to Washington/Oregon/Idaho for 3 weeks to do some west coast work. Since I’ve been wanting to go to Seattle for the better part of my life, and I’ve never been to that corner of the USA before, I didn’t have to think twice before saying yes.

The work itself is great – I’m a computer technician for the IT company who Chase bank has a contract with in order to convert the newly-acquired Washington Mutual branches over to Chase hardware. Since this is the first time Chase will have a northwest presence (it didn’t occur to me until I got this offer why the WASHINGTON in Wamu is in the name!), they have no staff out there, and so they’re sending techs from other parts of the country (I’ve been doing this work in the NYC area the last month or so, and I’ve done work for this company in the past too) out. However, the more I think of it, the more things come up that worry me.

First of all, this is the first time I’ve ever done a business trip that required more than a day or two. This is also the first time I’m getting paid to fly somewhere. The job is going to be for 3 weeks straight. I won’t be working every day, but they will not be sending me home until the 3 weeks are up. They will be paying for all travel expenses and hotels, as well as a meal allowance. Oh, and a minimum $800 per week salary (with overtime if I do work more than 40 hours a week). So it does sound like a pretty sweet package for me.

I need to prepare myself though. 3 weeks living in a hotel in a part of the country that I am not familiar with at all. I do have some friends living out there, which I hope to see on my time off, but I feel like it’ll be very easy to get lost. Driving on the west coast (I haven’t even driven a car in over 2 years, although I do still have a driver’s license). What to bring, what not to pack (I freaked myself out when I realized that one of the tools I need to do my job is a box cutter, the #1 no-no on planes now!). How to spend my downtime. How to handle my responsibilities back home - paying rent & bills, making sure my apartment stays in good shape, keeping in touch with loved ones. Making sure I don’t run out of money out there…I’ll have a pretty good payoff when my paychecks direct deposit (the first $800 won’t hit until the Friday of my second week there), but I won’t be starting out with much. I’m thinking about actually getting a credit card (I do have an Amex, but it’s linked to my parents account), since most of my expenses, aside from the plane ticket and hotel (I’m not sure yet what the travel arrangements on site will be, but I assume we’ll be renting cars since each tech is going to have his own bank branch each day) are going to be reimbursed after I submit the pile of receipts.

So, you dopers who have done long term trips like these - what advice and preparedness should a new-comer like me have? And what the hell is in Idaho? (I’ll probably start a separate thread about what to see in the Pacific Northwest once I know exactly what my itinerary will be)

Don’t eat a lot of junk food. Don’t eat all your meals in your room. Go out, at least to the lobby of the hotel to sit and read. Open your curtains to get lots of light. Don’t treat it like a holiday, you’re still working so don’t get hammered every night. Bring a couple of books, one that is somewhat serious and one that is lighter in tone so that you can switch up what you read depending on your mood.

I like busieness trips because I can get in some serious computer gaming over the weekend without life intruding, but I’m a huge geek.

A credit card will be very handy.

Also, figure out whether you get reimbursed for laundry and/or dry cleaning and how to send it out.

Discuss with the appropriate person at your office about which expenses ARE going to be covered by your work and which aren’t. You want to be clear on this before you leave. Also, they will expect you to keep reciepts, so don’t forget to keep them.

The hotel will do your laundry and dry cleaning and add it to your hotel bill. You will be responsible for this hotel bill and all meals, car rentals, gas, etc. until you get back, fill out an expense form, have it approved and finally get reimbursed. Without a credit card this could prove burdensome. Your company will likely have an advancement policy whereby you can ask for, say $3,000 up front and then factor that into the expense claim upon return.

When I first started some serious travel for work I spent far too much time in bars, and not enough time actually seeing things and experiencing life. I’ve since learned to force myself to go see things and am always glad when I do. But you won’t be reimbursed of course for personal activities.

If you get a meal per diem, i.e. a set number of dollars to spend per day on food, you can take advantage of this by eating fast food occasionally, so that you will have extra money for personal things and the occasional expensive meal. If you don’t have a per diem then you will need to keep every damned receipt, and the more the merrier. You’d be amazed how fast the odd muffin, snack, etc. can add up over three weeks. It sucks when you realize you spent way more than you’re getting reimbursed for. If you do need to keep every meal receipt, number them or somehow keep them in chronological order or else it’s a real pain to recreate the trail after getting home.

And good luck!

OK, the most important thing to remember is that once you get past the Rocky Mountains, everybody starts driving on the left side of the road. This is necessary so all the right-driving easterners don’t cause the continent to start drifting clockwise.

Contrary to popular belief, the toilets in California flush the same way as their New York cousins, but in Washington, you can’t get a plumbing hookup without paying the county Bigfoot tax. This shouldn’t affect you since you’ll be staying in a hotel and the tax will be noted on your bill.

In Oregon, it’s traditional to tip meter maids by duct-taping a coconut to the coin-slot, and it’s illegal to pump your own gas.

June 19th is Kurt Cobain day. Be sure to pack a greasy, disheveled, long-haired wig, blue jeans with torn knees, and angst.

Check out Olympic National Park if you get a chance. It’s spectacular.

Pretend you are at home as far as daily routine.
In other words, during the week try to hang around the hotel at night, bring a good book or two, watch some tube, get to bed fairly early. Don’t get into the “vacation” mode and screw up work.
Weekends, however, you should rent a car if possible, see those friends, do all the touristy things, go to a nice dinner, hit a bar or club.
But come Sunday night, back to the room and hit bed early.

Stop thinking about it. Do it…NOW

It is virtually impossible to function in a strange city without a credit card. Checking into a hotel may require a card even though your company is paying (just as a formality, so the dumb clerk at the desk can operate the computer. ) Renting a car, you must have a credit card. (I’ve heard that it may be possible without a card, but don’t count on it, and even then you need a huge deposit of cash.)

Living in hotels means lots of small and large expenses, every day. Some of them can be charged to your room, but not all. A credit card will make life much easier.

First of all, I’ve never been a big bar person, and I don’t see why the Pacific Northwest would change that. It sounds like I will be busy enough that I won’t fall into full vacation mode, and our work is usually done in the evenings (can’t start shutting down computers until the branch is closed for the day), so most of my free time would be in the morning and early afternoon, or later than 11pm. I do hope to have some alone time (the whole “life not getting in the way” thing actually does kind of appeal to me) although unless they give me a newer laptop, my gaming is just gonna consist of what can run on my Pentium 3-ish laptop (Heroes of M&M 3, Civ 3, etc) and whichever DS games I bring with me.

The reason I never got a real credit card is because I’ve never been good at managing my income flow, and I knew that having a credit card (aka the ability to pay for things without having the cash to back it up immediately) would just sink me into debt really fast. This is really the first case where I know I’ll have to be spending a lot of money, with a payout for it coming later. The Amex card I have does have my name on it, but the bill for it gets attached to my parents account. It will (and has) worked for renting cars before. Perhaps I should start another separate thread for how to go about getting a card, since I don’t want to get suckered.

Although the hassles of traveling without a credit card are considerable, they are as nothing compared to falling into the credit card debt sinkhole. But this might be a good time to try developing your financial management skills, since some competence here will be required (by your employer, at a minimum).

Can you get a cash advance for your trip? A number of people my company sends out to branch locations don’t have credit cards so we advance them cash.

Be prepared for homesickness. I’ve traveled a lot over the years but never for more than a week. Since January, I’ve been on several multi-week trips and the homesickness that hit me on the first trip really knocked me for a loop. Now it doesn’t affect me at all but that first trip was a killer.

I always ask the people I’m working with where the good local restaurants are. I’ve had some surprisingly good food in some remote locations. Sometimes they offer to take me out so maybe that will happen to you. I enjoy spending most of my evenings alone when I’m on the road but it’s nice to have company once in a while.

If your hotel is “in town” just take off on foot in the evenings to see what you run into (if it’s safe, of course). Ask the front desk for suggestions of places close by that might be of interest.

I pay my bills online so I don’t have any advice for you there other than to get set up to do that.

-You MUST get a credit card
-If you plan to travel with any regularity for work, you should sign up for reward points with any vendor you use - Starwood Hotels, air miles, National Emerald Club, whatever you plan on using.
-Don’t sit there playing videogames the whole time like a freakin dork. Use the time to find places to go and things to do in the city you are visiting.
-Get a GPS from the rental car agency (unless you have one built into your cell phone)
-Get a Blackberry, Treo, iPhone or other email capable smart phone. People will need to be able to contact you on the road
-It rains a lot in Seattle, although I think it’s relatively nice this time of year.
-Keep some cash on you. You may not know where ATMs are.
-Ignore the “don’t get into vacation mode” stuff. Do your job, but also take advantage of the opportunity travel provides you.

The first night, you must strip down naked (or a thong, if you’re modest) and do the Initiate Business Traveler’s cleansing ritual. This is accomplished by taking a cold (cool is okay) shower then running through the halls of your hotel singing the Safety Dance song and doing as many motions, hops, skips and jumps as you can perform.

You may need to hit the mini bar first to work up the courage to do this. Afterward, as a cool down, order all of the pay-per-view channels that they offer in your room, taking special care to view all of the “Adult” stuff for at least five minutes each.

Hopefully this will put you into an optimal state of arousal to order room service. Remember not to get dressed before you do so. Room service servers EXPECT their guests to answer the door in the buff – it’s why they get paid minimum wage.

Finally, and this is important, make sure that you leave the drapes wide open at all times.

Okay, I just had a meeting about this trip. First of all, I am officially confirmed for this trip, and I’ll be getting the itinerary at the end of the week. I’m getting a $40/day allowance, no receipts required, in addition to my salary (with overtime added if I clock in more than 40 hours a week on site). This will be added to my paycheck, so I won’t have to worry about reimbursements. I’m just gonna use my parents credit card, since the only expenses I’ll have will be for food and downtime fun, which I’ll keep reasonable. The company will pay for airfare, hotels and the car rental up front (although they said that fuel will be part of my per diem). I assume that if I raid the mini-bar, I’ll be responsible for paying that bill myself too.

And no, I fully do NOT intend to sit in my hotel room the entire time. I’ve been wanting to visit the Pacific Northwest almost my entire life, and I fully intend to SEE it. Once I have my itinerary, I’ll open a separate “going to northwest, what should I see?” thread.

Thanks for the advice so far. Some really good points have been brought up. I still need to figure out what and how much to pack.

Some rather random thoughts from a frequent business traveler.

First enjoy your trip. It’s an adventure.

"Home base"
Will you be able to set up in one hotel in one city for a week or several days at a time? If so see if you can get reservations at a suites or residence inn type place. Something that has a small kitchen or at least fridge and micro wave. This will allow you to go shopping for some groceries and eat breakfast or late night snacks. You can also bring home and reheat left overs - just like home. It saves lots of money. $40 a day is not a bad per diem but it will go fast. Save up and treat your self to a nice dinner once a week. Suites type places also usually have free laundry and some have mixers for their long term guests.

If I’m going to be in a hotel for two days I unpack. I don’t like living out of a suit case things just get to messy. Just be careful not to spread out to much. I’ve left clothes in hotel dressers more than once.

Ask the locals in the offices where you’re working what’s going on and what to do. They’ll be more than willing to brag about all the good things about their town.

You don’t have to be a big bar going person or drinker to take advantage of the welcome of a good pub. People willingly talk to strangers, bar tenders may introduce you to regulars. It’s a great way to get in some human interaction that’s not work related.

If someone in the bank you’re working at offers to take you out accept (assuming your company allows this). First if they’re buying it helps your budget. Even it not, business travel is a great chance to network.

Will parking be part of your per diem? This can add up quick.

Get a small fuel efficient rental car. You don’t want to be driving some big boat in a strange city, especially if your out of practice.

What to bring
Bring more than you think you’ll need. Ask if you’re company will be paying the per bag fee that all the airlines now charge. For three weeks you’ll likely need two bags or one really big one. Plus your carry on. You can pack a box cutter or other knife in your checked bag. I keep a multi took in my checked bag. It comes in handy often.

Join the frequent flyer program for the airline your using along with the frequent guest program of the hotels chain you’ll be staying in. See if you can keep all you stays within one family of hotels. Those extra points, miles or whatever can come in hardly the next time you travel personally.

Okay, I’m checked in at my hotel, and unpacked immediately. That really did help me feel more at home.

First of all, what’s with all these new travel fees? $15 to check ONE 35 lb bag? Having to BUY meals on the plane? $10 a day for internet access in the hotel? The last time I travelled (granted, its been a couple years) this stuff was all FREE!

Well, I’m free for the next 5 hours, so I’m gonna head out and explore Seattle. My first impression of the city is that the stereotypes are right - its cloudy and wet, and there’s coffee being advertised EVERYWHERE. Also, the trees are WAY bigger than they are on the East Coast. I have a pretty thorough plan in place this week. The real excitement starts this weekend when I get sent on the road…

Another rule we forgot. The more expensive the hotel, the more likely they’ll charge for Internet access.

I bought some tonight, now that I know that it’ll be reimbursed — there’s free wireless in the lobby, but it cuts out every 2 minutes (and uses B-protocol!).

So it turns out that I’m gonna be in Bellevue (about 20 minutes away from Seattle) during weeks 2 and 3. I’ll also be getting a car. Since I have the entire weekend free, I’m thinking about taking a trip to Portland (if anything, so I can visit one more state for the first time, and see just how similar to the Simpsons’ Springfield it is).

I got a 15% discount, and almost a date, when I walked into the Cold Stone Creamery at the corner of 6 Av & Stewart Ave and told the server that it was my birthday and I needed to celebrate.

Where exactly are you staying?

Not in rush hour, it ain’t. You might want to ask your coworkers how much time to allot for travel.