My travel planning grunt work behind every trip

Flying 50 weeks a year for more than three decades for consulting clients in the US and overseas meant a lot of travel planning.  Great big consulting firms, of course, have their own in-house or external travel agencies that coordinate everything for their billing units (consultants) going hither and yon.  But not the little boutique consulting companies I worked for.  And I was often contracting with clients just for myself. Usually, therefore, I was making my own reservations for air, for rental cars, and for hotels.

Doing all that took a lot of time every week, especially with the volatile nature of flights being canceled, delayed, and subject to schedule changes. Hotel and car reservations were, as now, more stable than air schedules, but often a major flight time change impacted the pickup or return time of my rental car and the arrival time or check-out time at the hotel. I had to coordinate, then re-coordinate, all of it every time.

Back before computers (which in the 21st century begins to sound like “back before electricity”), I had only paper schedules to work from.  For decades I subscribed to either the OAG Pocket Flight Guide (Official Airline Guide) or to the American Express Skyguide.  Both were handy references, updated monthly, to every North American airline schedule and to a few select overseas destinations, like London.  One (OAG) listed flights based on destination cities; the other by city of origin.

Until late in the game, neither thick pocket flight guide showed connections, so those had to be planned manually by tediously looking up multiple flight segments. If I was traveling on Delta, for example, between L.A. and Raleigh, I would have to research the best flight times and connections through ATL, DFW, and CVG.  Doing that and then writing it all down on paper for reference took a lot of my evening hours in hotels, but it probably kept me out of trouble.

Then I would call the airline and ask for the connections I’d scribbled on paper. Sometimes my optimal flights were full or just too expensive, and the airline rez agent would have to book me on alternative planes, routes, and times. In some cites (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston) I could not always fly into the airport I preferred and would have to take what was available.  So Newark instead of LaGuardia, or Houston Intercontinental rather than Hobby.

When flights were finally confirmed, only then could I deal with car rentals and hotels to coordinate with the final flight plan. Scores of toll-free numbers were listed in my address book.

None of it was as transparent as today, and Lord knows doing it through the web is not as easy as it sounds.  And, as I said, it was tedious and time-consuming.

Looking back now, I can’t believe how much trouble it was. Even after the long process of initial planning, unexpected flight changes going out or returning home drove everything else, and it happened often.  I spent a lot of time on airport and hotel pay phones to airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains in those days.

Thinking back, I had trained well in my youth for the toil of such back office travel planning work. I’ve been doing this sort of thing since my first big trip: three weeks around the country by rail in 1964 when I was 16 years old. But I started planning for that trip when I was just 14.

That was pre-Amtrak, back when individual railroads still proudly operated their own crack streamliners.  My 1964 journey ran over 11 different railroads coast-to-coast on 15 different trains, all fares included in a single rail ticket for $167.  I planned the entire trip and then negotiated the unified rail fare. I was frugal because I paid for it with my own hard-earned money from years of delivering papers and mowing lawns.

I also planned all hotel/motel accommodation in New Orleans, Houston, Williams (AZ), L.A., San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. My careful planning paid off: The trip went perfectly and instilled in me the confidence that I could plan trips anywhere, any time. I’ve done exactly that for 55 years all over the globe.

These days I am not traveling nearly as much for business, and more for pleasure, and also planning travel for others.  Mostly I still do my own planning because I am good at it and like the work, though sometimes I give parts of trips to my most trusted travel planning partner, Discount Travel of Jacksonville, Florida. Owner Steve Crandell is the best there is and dead honest.

Trips I have planned recently for 2019 include:

  • Buying tickets for my son to fly home and back to college from MSP over spring break. Includes ground arrangements and seat assignments.
  • Making a one way reservation for him to come home from MSP at the end of his spring Semester.
  • RDU/VIE this month on AA/BA in Premium Economy for me and my wife to see our son perform with his college symphony orchestra in Vienna and Bratislava. This included having to access and pay for BA seat assignments (a huge PIA) between London and Vienna on the connecting flights.  Also arranging the hotel in Wien.  Now studying whether to buy 3-day or weekly Vienna transit passes, and figuring out trains to/from Bratislava. Contacted AT&T to have international plans on our mobile phones. Oh, yes, also bought Euros in advance to have a few in our pockets.
  • Booked a separate ticket RDU/EWR/RDU on AA to get to Singapore Airlines to ride their new nonstop to Singapore (longest flight on earth at the moment). Also made rez at the Marriott at EWR the night before the SQ flight departs (early Feb).
  • Made Singapore Air reservations and purchased tickets EWR/SIN/EWR in premium Economy on their nonstop (world’s current longest flight). Made hotel reservations in Singapore’s Little India, and then booked a day room at a nearby Hilton Garden Inn because the return flight SIN/EWR doesn’t depart until just past midnight (0040). Made sure to research Priority Pass clubs at Changi, too, and bought a few Singapore dollars in advance. Called AT&T again for another smartphone international plan for Singapore for the period I will be there.
  • Landed a great deal on Delta for award tickets RDU to Rome (FCO) to visit my aging relatives in Florence in late March and early April. Am now looking into train schedules Rome-FCO Airport to Florence, as well as a hotel in Florence, a rental car, and a hotel in Rome that last night before I fly home. Called AT&T to add another international plan to my cell phone, and I will have plenty of Euros to take, left over from my Vienna trip this month.
  • Worked with my travel agent to book AA and Latam Peru RDU/MIA and Miami to Lima over our daughter’s spring break in April to see Cuzco and Machu Picchu. My wife and I did that trip B.K. (before kids) and planned everything ourselves, but this time I took the easy route and found a package deal with a Peru travel expert that includes early entry into the Machu Picchu grounds to climb the peak before everybody else is let in.
  • Helped my wife and daughter plan RDU to New Orleans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of JazzFest. To get a bargain fare, booked one way on two different airlines (Frontier and Allegiant). Because my schedule that week is flexible, I will drive our family van Raleigh to NOLA to save $650 on rental car and $550 in airfares.
  • Managed to find three low-mileage award tickets using mileage from two different frequent flyer accounts RDU to Billings, Montana in June for my wife, daughter, and me on Delta, and then grabbed 3 seats together (hard to do!). Booked a rental car at BIL for the period we are there visiting with my wife’s parents at their rustic summer cabin 90 miles from Billings in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness (no cell signal there).

I keep the many receipts, notes, and tickets for each trip in individual file folders and always print out air, hotel, car rental, and other pertinent details.

For complex trips (e.g., last spring’s trip to Yunnan and this past fall’s trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park), I make up a 3-ring binder notebook to take which contains all receipts and notes placed in chronological order with tabs. Yunnan was extremely complicated (air for three × 2 different airline itineraries, individual local hotels everywhere, Chinese Railway train tickets, purchase of Yuan currency, etc.). Ditto for Kruger because I have to do air × 2 separate trips, a rental car, a hotel in JNB, and Kruger accommodation, not to mention South African National Parks’ Wild Card renewal and buying South African Rand (currency.

I’ve always thought that anticipation of a trip brought me as much satisfaction as the trip itself.  My lifelong enthusiasm for travel coupled with my ability to plan ratchets up the excitement and anticipation to a higher level.  Since I plot every detail, I can visualize what will happen before I go and enjoy the trip in real time even more.

Even when things don’t go as planned, my detailed trip plans usually help me find quick resolutions because I am familiar with the variables.

Truth is, good trip or not, I love the grunt work of advance trip planning.

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