Business Travel Tips

How to tighten your travel budget

Spend your points, life is short. For those who don’t have a doctorate in frequent flier miles, it can be challenging to quantify the value of frequent flier points. Here’s a tip: spend them, they keep being devalued. To upgrade from an economy flight from Sydney to London (one way) will cost 60,000 Qantas frequent flier points (the same as buying four domestic flights between Sydney and Melbourne). The Qantas website has a useful flight upgrade table. As with all frequent flier offerings, seats are limited so book as early as possible.

Pay full-price economy fares. For Qantas travellers, the three cheapest economy fares exclude travellers from upgrading with their points (N, O and Q class). In terms of status, N, O and Q is no-man’s land and these travellers will be the last to be considered for an upgrade. Other economy fares are better in terms of upgrade chances. Full-price economy fares also allow the passenger to use less frequent flier points to upgrade than they would if on other discounted economy fares.

Grab the extra legroom. Emergency exit seats in economy class for those able-bodied and prepared to help out in an emergency situation offer at least double the legroom. On domestic flights, book online (Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar now offer the service) and reserve your seat early. This new service means travellers that do not have savvy travel agents can grab these seats. Bulkhead seats (on 747s row 34 is popular) also offer more legroom but there is the chance that a baby in a bassinet may be your neighbour. On the Airbus, try rows 23 and 45.

A genuine gripe helps. Severe flight delays or an error by the airline, if delicately handled, can make an upgrade a distinct possibility. The trick is to negotiate for the upgrade rather than kick up a stink, keep smiling and give them an easy way to say they are sorry.

Don’t order a special meal. It is all too complicated to upgrade someone who has ordered a special meal in economy. What is more important, that “special” meal, or the upgrade?

Travel solo (and leave the kids at home). Travelling alone boosts your chances of being upgraded, so you can grab that rare empty seat in business or first class. The chances of upgrading a couple, let alone a family or group, are very slim. One of the unspoken truths of air travel is that it is “grown ups up the front, kids down the back”. Screaming babies (or even cute ones) are not a hit with airlines’ most valuable customers, the corporate business traveller, known in some travel circles as the “golden whingers”.

Be early. Last-minute travellers have no hope of being considered for an upgrade. For the only exception to this rule see point 9.

Try anything legal. What have you got to lose? At check-in, there is the “I’m a friend of the pilot/sibling is a hostie/third cousin works at head office” approach. Most times a polite “I’m sorry the plane is full” stops that, but occasionally, an upgrader can advance to the next round, to the “You can try at the gate” lottery, where a select few boarding passes are held by staff. This is where any status helps. The downside of this is mooching around the desk as everyone else boards the plane. The likely outcome is getting your original (economy) boarding pass back but maybe your personal charm, charisma and dress sense may just get you over the line.

Educate staff about the travel policy. There is no point having a policy if it is not enforced consistently. To avoid the tedium of staff tantrums, managers need to have a response to requests for certain hotels or to keep the frequent flier points their travel attracts. Staff need to understand why costs need to be controlled. This is very much about the culture of the company, the standard of travel it can afford, or want to give its staff.

Employee satisfaction is a factor worth considering. If the policy allows for different tiers of business travel, ensure it is transparent and fair. It grates on employees to see the boss whisked off in a limo while they wait in a taxi queue. Similarly, employers hate discovering a staff member has taken a partner on a trip and disguised the two fares as one.

Police peripheral costs. “Taxis and restaurants are the most uncontrolled expenses,” Drury says. He sees countless examples where a company will be strict about preferred hotels and rates yet staff can blow the budget by chalking up expensive bottles of wine. Some travellers have added adult movies and mini-bar purchases to their bills, without having them itemised. These costs can add 20% to the hotel bill. Warning than these costs need to be controlled and that staff will be held accountable makes it more likely they will be managed. It’s about educating staff about the total cost of travel, not just the airfare and the hotel room.

Book in advance. Airfares can be cut by 10% by booking flights at least a week ahead. If fares have to be bought at the last minute, insist on best fare of the day even if travellers complain it is not their favourite airline. “Also ask yourself: does the ticket need to be flexible,” says Jamie Pherous, managing director of Corporate Travel Management (CTM). Maybe the fare can be fixed one way and flexible the other, delivering a 20% saving.

For $150k+ budgets, call in the experts. Businesses that spend more than $150,000 a year on business travel should consider hiring a travel management company such as FcM, American Express or CTM. The service can often pay for itself, particularly if the company has piles of unused air tickets (missed flights, etc). They tend to disappear into the “system”. Agents will use tracking systems to ensure these tickets are not wasted. Travel management companies can also offer smaller businesses access to better rates with its combined negotiation and buying power.

Play the loyalty card, particularly in hotels. Cut down your preferred hotels in one major destination and seek a better deal — add in free broadband or late checkout to the rate. “Hoteliers value loyalty,” Pherous says.

Ask about expenses. Remember it is OK to ask employees why their travel expenditure is so high. Practise the following question: “Why are your expenses so high?”

What would Ingvar do? Ikea billionaire Ingvar Kamprad has been a great advocate for “cattle class”. In Europe, Kamprad used to catch trains from country to country when he travelled on business. He would often use the time to do market research on Ikea products, chatting to fellow passengers. If it’s good enough for Ingvar …

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