Make a Business Trip Feel More Like a Vacation



If you're a road warrior who stays in the Hilton (HLT), eats room service, works out in a fluorescent light-filled trap, and gets six hours of sleep, no wonder you hate business travel.

Ditch the familiar, and reclaim the excitement of a vacation when you're away from home on a business trip. With a few small changes, you can turn the predictable into a travel experience, and get more out of your off-the-clock hours.

1. No chain hotels, no matter how convenient. Chain hotels have no soul, and they'll rob you of yours. Find an alternative through Small Luxury Hotels of the World, or consider a local bed and breakfast.

When in Boston, I love the Newbury Guest House, complete with creaky steps and a real live cat under the rocking chair. When I'm there, it's like I'm sharing a room with Edgar Allen Poe himself.

If you're contemplating a chain, remember, your hotel is not your home; it's a place to restore. All you need is a good sleep, a clean bathroom and Internet connectivity. Business travelers punt with a chain hotel when they're desperate for familiarity. But that's what Starbucks (SBUX) is for! It's not just a cup of coffee, it's a global security blanket.

Drink all the chain coffee you want, but when it comes time to rest, stay in a place with a soul.

2. Do not enter the hotel exercise room. Oh, you'll still get plenty of exercise; you're just not going to spend 30 minutes of your very valuable time in a tiny, stale, fluorescent-lit hotel gym with antiquated equipment.

"Workout centers" are often little more than a sloping Stairmaster, a couple of eight-pound weights and a stationery bike from back when Let's Get Physical was a hit. And though an indoor pool is seductive, conceptually, let's face it: You can't even breathe in this over-chlorinated steam room, and after five strokes you need to turn around.

If you have half an hour to exercise (and I know you do), get out of the hotel. Take a walk or a jog; do some pushups or sit-ups in a local park. If you're in Philly, climb those steps and do it Rocky-style. You'll see more of the city than you will from inside the hotel, and people will greet you like a local.

If you're really cool, a business traveler might even ask you for directions. (Though, do make sure the neighborhood you're in is relatively safe, especially if you plan to go jogging at night.)

3. Avoid restaurants with laminated menus. Lamination equals stagnation. It means there's too much pre-planning and consistency, and the kitchen is on auto pilot.

Sure, I can get a good BLT at Denny's (DENN). Heck, I can inhale a Whopper at Burger King (BKC) with the best of 'em, but I don't make a habit of it.

Meet your new best friends: Jane and Michael Stern. They are the authors of the Road Food book series, write a column for Gourmet magazine and offer an up-to-the-minute Web site with local dining information. They've driven down every country road, sampled every sky-high apple pie and sucked down scampi after sirloin after sautéed spinach at every steakhouse in every city in the country.

Trust them, they've yet to steer me wrong.

4. Sit alone. At the bar. During a recent business trip, I treated myself to dinner at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa. I sat alone, celebrating every silent forkful of ribeye.

Soon, many of the women in the room were looking in my direction. I kept turning around to see what they were looking at; it took a while for me to realize that the glances were at me (poor dear, dining alone). I suppose I was too busy enjoying my meat to realize how sad I should have been.

All this could have been remedied if Bern's had a bar. As a solo traveler, there's no better place to eat than at a restaurant bar. Within minutes, you'll be chatting with another solo traveler (or couple, or group). Some of the best local suggestions are written on the backs of bar napkins and paper scraps by a person whose name you haven't learned yet.

5. Support Local Scalpers. If you've got a few hours to kill on your own, take in a local game, movie or see some music. As a "just one," it's much easier to scalp a ticket to see the Yankees, Pistons, Springsteen or the Met Opera than it is when you're with a group.

If you'd rather keep it on the up-and-up, buy a ticket to an independent movie house, like The Red Vic in San Francisco, or a music venue, like First Avenue in Minneapolis.

6. Say Yes to (Almost) Everything. When your new best friend from the Mighty Ducks game invites you to play darts at this great local place down the road, go with him.

Remember after college when you were backpacking, how you met that Kiwi on the train from Amsterdam to Cologne? Following him into trouble led to some of the best memories from that trip. When a local invites you along, just do it.

7. Scrap a plan at a moment's notice. So there you are, alone at the bar at Manhattan's Otto, where you just ordered a bottle of Nero d'Avola and a Vongole pie. Then this gorgeous Swede walks over and asks you for directions, as she's just visiting and needs to get to her friend's art opening in Tribeca. While she's at it, she invites you along. Pour her a glass, donate the pie to the couple next to you, jump off your barstool and hail a cab.

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