Travel is an essential part of my business. It’s exciting, gives me new perspective, and challenges the equilibrium in my life. Despite the inspiration it brings though, travel can be absolutely exhausting. It was especially difficult during the early years of destination weddings, as I started shooting travel weddings from the get-go. My first year shooting weddings took me out of state about six times, and since then, that number has more than tripled. For the first year, travel was amazing because I was riding the adrenaline of having my dream job. As time went on though, it took a bigger toll on my health than I had imagined. I brought a heavy dose of stress on myself due to ridiculous arrangements. To name a few: catching flights at all hours of the day (and night), chasing wifi, sleeping poorly for days-on-end, massive jet-lag upon return, a terribly unhealthy diet, and a lot of days spent getting behind as opposed to getting ahead.
Over the years, I’ve learned my share of things to improve on and this is going to just be a few travel hacks and tips for how to travel well. Some will be familiar, some may be new, but if you’re traveling a lot this year, especially for work, hopefully this will help you avoid stress and a world of hurt.
1. ALWAYS BOOK YOUR OWN TRAVEL
It may seem obvious, but often times it can be financially viable for your clients to book travel for you. The problem with this is that it sacrifices any level of comfort for pure convenience. The cheapest flights are often at the worst times, often with (multiple) connections. To avoid this, you have to take control of your own schedule. Do your research and remember to be kind to yourself. Since this about travel tips, the best place to start looking for flights is with Google Flights. You can input your starting location and put a vague destination. It’s brilliant, it’s needed, and it’s asinine to not use it. Once you have a route and an idea of price, you can quote that number to your clients and keep track of the cost of the airfare. An app such as Hopper can track the cost of these flights for you in order to save as much money and time as possible.
2. LOYALTY PAYS OFF
It will almost always be cheaper to buy tickets directly from the airline as opposed to booking them through a third-party site. The exception to this will be if you’re stringing together a multi-city trip and relying on codeshare flights. With all of this in mind, keep in mind that Loyalty matters. This is the one lesson I’m the latest in the game to learn, which is unfortunate. Airlines will reward you for traveling with them frequently, and having loyalty to one airline will pay for itself in benefits, rest, rewards, and upgrades. Up until this year, I was loosely keeping track, but still booking the cheapest flights (My go to airlines were Southwest and Icelandair). This year, after a few long-haul flights to Asia, I upped my game and decided to go all-in with American, due to their proximity to locations I want to travel, as well as for upgrades and lounges. I also have status with Icelandair. Status is an elusive, and often mis-understood thing, but the general gist of it is that it can involve (free) upgrades on flights (meaning: free meals, seats with outlets–Hint: we’ll talk about this more in Workflow) and also include access to the airline lounges. With Icelandair, it’s an added bonus because lounge access saves me $20 each visit to the airport in not having to pay for food. In four trips through Iceland this year, that’s $100 worth of free food and drinks in addition to being able to shower at the airport after a long wedding.
Now, before I get too far into this, the harsh reality is that unless you’re a very frequent flier, airline loyalty doesn’t do a whole lot. What defines a frequent flier? If you’re taking about 30 flights a year (on one airline) or heading about 50-60K miles in a plane—well, then you’re probably well on your way to building great status. Because it’s all relative to your amount of travel, I’m going to break this up by three categories of traveler.
– The Casual Traveler
If you’re catching flights once a month or so—even while that is much more than most—it’s usually still not enough to let you build status with airlines. (Obviously, take this all with a grain of salt as each person, airline, and main hub are different). Your main hub location will be a better determiner of which airline is right for you. If you’re living in the US, one of the best frequent flier programs for casual fliers is Southwest Airlines. Traveling semi-often with them, coupled with their credit cards is a great program for the average flier. Your credit card will help you rack up extra points and Southwest flights can often be so cheap to redeem points for that it’s a no-brainer. Southwest is where I started off, and, as long as I’m traveling domestic, Southwest will be the way to go. We often earn about 1-2 round trip flights for free each year from personal credit cards and personal travel mileage.
Southwest Hack: One reason why I try to travel domestic on Southwest for work is because they offer free media boarding. Show up early to the gate, and ask the agent to check-in for Media Boarding. If you’re traveling with Camera Gear, it should be a shoe-in after showing them gear and your business card. Media Boarding will allow you to board the plane first and store your gear overhead and get the best seats on the plane.
– The Extensive Traveler
If you’re traveling more often once a month, then there are a lot more options for airline loyalty plans. It might be tempting to become a frequent flier with a local airline (like Frontier in Colorado) however, these airlines are so small that the perks they offer rarely pay off. Free TV your flight? Meh, no thanks.
The downside of the bigger airlines over the local airlines is the price. You can book a flight on Frontier, roundtrip, to most US locations for $200 or less. That same ticket on American Airlines would likely be an extra $100+.
So at some point, you’re going to need to pick—stay with a local airline (less amenities, and often cheaper) vs. a bigger airline (more amenities, but more expensive). Of course, the type of travel you do and your destinations should be a big decider in this element, but everyone is going to have a different solution. Again, Southwest is still an amazing airline at this point.
– The Road Warrior
Lastly, if you’re traveling often, and especially internationally, there are still more options. At that point, the airlines still matter, but the alliance they’re a part of matters the most. For example, if you fly American, booking a flight on One World still helps you accrue points towards American flights. You can use One World lounges (if you qualify) and can still earn upgrades on international flights. If you’re putting on more than 80K miles a year and you’re not building status on an airline, you’re literally throwing away upgrades, lounge access, and opportunities to travel much more comfortably. Choose and airline and get loyal. Now. At this point, though, you’re wandering into the territory of a new topic, which is…
3. THERE IS A NOT-SO-FINE-LINE BETWEEN CHEAP AND COMFORT
I traveled hard for the last decade. Red eye flights, cheap hotels, budgeting too little for food, not factoring in time to rest while I’m traveling. I had a wake-up call when I was in Asia with my wife and realized that, on our vacation, we had a $15 hotel with a toilet in the shower. No Good. You almost always sacrifice comfort when you travel cheaply. Crappy meals, lack of sleep, and a sincere lack of actual rest—it’s easy now when I’m young, but I can already feel the wear. On our most recent trip, I was one week in out of a four week stretch and I was already exhausted. The remaining three weeks only added to the exhaustion. Nights staying up past 1AM; morning-after-morning with a 07:00 wake up call. All of this only to be followed by hot, unventilated train rides, biking around cities, and driving hours upon hours reaching locations. When I got home, I felt like I could sleep for a week straight. But…since I hadn’t planned well, it was immediately back into the grind.
Doing this week(end) after week(end) rips you apart. Quickly.
It’s important to know your limits. What things bring you rest? Take those into account and factor (and budget) them in. If I get a last-minute travel inquiry, I only quote business-class flights out to them. Additionally, I’ve realized that comfort isn’t always a luxury. Sometimes, it’s a necessity. Spending more money on better hotels, paying extra to upgrade your seating option; it’s easy to see these things as a ‘waste’ but trust me…they’re not. That $138 extra to upgrade your seat for 4” of extra space on a 17 hour flight to Hong Kong…it’s really not that much if you want to arrive feeling more rested and in a better physical shape (From experience: I did not do this. Legs sore for days upon final arrival in Malaysia).
4. GLOBAL ENTRY AND TSA PRE-CHECK
If you’re in the US, travel more than once a month, and aren’t signed up for TSA Pre-check, you’re crazy. TSA Pre-check allows you to skip the big lines at security; you get to keep your shoes on, keep your laptop & liquids in your bag, and head straight through the scanner. You can get through security in less than 10 minutes.
If you travel internationally fairly often, and your port-of-return has a Global Entry kiosk, then sign up for Global Entry. Global Entry automatically includes TSA Pre-check and when you return to the US, you can skip all the lines at customs, go to a kiosk, and enter the country in less than 10 minutes. I’ve had times where from the time the plane first touched the ground to the time I’m through customs is 8 minutes. Enough said.
5. LOCAL SIM CARDS ARE THE WAY TO GO
One of the hardest things about being in a new country is navigating around the city/countryside with ease. I’ve spent a lot of time getting lost while driving around cities or taking wrong turns in the countryside that end up costing hours of delays. On top of that, it can be difficult to run a business effectively while traveling when you are 100% dependent on wifi. When you’re out in the wilderness of Iceland–where wifi is shoddy at best–and you’ve got emails piling up, you need a better solution than café hopping.
The best solution to this is a local SIM card. It’s often much, much cheaper than paying for an international data plan. Typically, you’ll end up paying about $15 for the SIM card + approximately 1-2GB of data plus +/- 100 Text messages and 100 minutes.
The trickiest part with US phones and SIM cards is that you need to have your phone unlocked. For most people, that means paying an extra fee for the carrier to unlock your phone or using an older phone (as your phone should be able to be unlocked for free by your carrier once your 2-year contract ends). However, one work around that few people know about is that, by default, all Verizon 4G LTE phones are unlocked at point of purchase. Meaning: no extra steps necessary to unlock your phone.
Since I’m on on Verizon, whenever I’m in a new country the first place I head to is a gas station or connivence store, buy a local SIM and top up my card with a data plan. Usually takes about 20 minutes and allows me to use the GPS navigation on my phone, keep up with emails, text friends and clients, book an Uber, FaceTime my wife, and in general, keep a normal work schedule.
6. TELEPHONE: BEST PRACTICE
This one will be succinct, but it’s really important. Buying a local SIM card is one thing and can be very helpful on the ground, yet it can still be difficult (and expensive) to phone back to the US, or any other country for that matter. To counteract this, at the beginning of the year, I buy $10 worth of Skype credit so that I can make calls from Skype directly to a landline or cell phone. This allows me to pay about .07 cents a minute and to call anywhere in the world. It works off of data or wifi, so coupling it with a good data plan is best practice. This has saved me a lot of headaches, and has been great in a pinch or an emergency. It has paid for itself time and time again.
7. THE RULES OF MONEY
There are a lot of options out there regarding money when you’re traveling abroad. If you’re like me, you pick-and-choose your options based on where you’ll be traveling to. Heading to the 3rd world: bring cash. Staying in Europe: keep the debit and credit cards on hand.
Recently, however, I got a kick in the pants for not making smart choices with money while traveling. Here’s what happened: we were hitting up mostly Western European countries, with the exception of Morocco. I had with me: one personal debit card, one business debit card, one personal credit card, and one business credit card. Additionally, we had brought with us $200 USD (to exchange in Morocco).
We had made it through about 15 days traveling through Iceland, Scotland, Spain, and Morocco without many problems. However, when we landed in Denmark, my inbox blew up. First, my personal credit card (which I hadn’t used at all on the trip) had been attempted to be used for fraudulent purchases in the US. The card was immediately locked down. We hadn’t been using it, so it wasn’t a big deal. A day or two later, my business debit card kept getting declined. I made a phone call (via Skype on my data plan on my Danish SIM card) to my bank: apparently, this card had also been used for fraudulent activity in the US. So it got shut down. Now all I had left was a personal debit card and a business credit card. Since the trip was a business trip, I opted not to use my personal card except only when necessary for personal purchases. This left me with one credit card. And everything went on that card for 1.5 weeks.
It was pretty debilitating to know that my options were fairly limited in terms of plastic money (and only having $200 USD on me). In the end, everything worked out fine, but for the last 1.5 weeks, I would hold my breath every time I swiped my card or booked something online. Additionally, it made my bookkeeping a mess when I got home to try and balance all my purchases and to make sure they were up to par with my accountant’s standards.
Because of that, I implemented two new rules for myself when I travel for more than a few days:
RULE ONE: Always bring all my cards–credit and debit–for emergency situations
RULE TWO: Bring $50 USD for each day I plan to be gone
The old adage is true: “Cash is King.” The only thing to remember is to try to get the crispest bills possible because foreign banks may not accept old or wrinkled bills.
Sidenote: About Credit Cards
I won’t spend too much time on credit cards, however, I will say that if you’re traveling internationally often, having a good credit card does wonders. If you have Status on an airline your best bet is to go for their premium credit card. If you’re looking to redeem points for all kinds of travel, I would suggest Chase Sapphire. I used it often enough to get one free (roundtrip) flight to Asia, as well as another (one-way) flight home from CPH – DEN. The points add up quick, there are no foreign transaction fees, and the bonus is that you can mix miles + money when you purchase tickets. I was not paid to say this, I just think it’s a great card.
8. RENTAL CARS FOR DAYS (ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE UNDER 25)
There are a lot of ways to save money on rental cars—third party sites like Piceline often show you all the prices side-by-side so you can book the cheapest option. However, my biggest advice is geared at those under 25. My 25th birthday happened a few weeks ago, but for a long time, I was shooting (travel) weddings while being under the “Rental Age” of 25. Usually, they end up hitting you with fees that are up to $27/day simply because you’re between the ages of 21-24.
I swore I would never pay under-age fees. It seemed ludicrous to me to pay that extra money just due to my age, so I needed a work-around. There are several ways to workaround this, but the best way, in my opinion, is through a secret gem known as USAA. Yes, USAA is a bank—but since they’re geared towards veterans and their families, they have incredible benefits for young adults (since a lot of folks serving our country are between the ages of 18-24). One of their benefits is that if you book through their code, they waive the young driver fee.
So I opened a bank account with USAA. It cost me $25 and that money is still mine (technically it’s in an account somewhere that I never use, so I’ll get it back when I close down the account). The perks of having a bank account not only waive the young driver fee, but also give you up to 30% off on select companies, like Enterprise, Avis, and Hertz. If you’re under 25 and paying young driver fees. STOP. You’re throwing money away. I’ve saved upwards of $2K by not paying young driver fees.
Side Note: Most rental car companies will allow you to use your reservation as a way to gain mileage with your preferred airline. If you have airline status, remember to book with your mileage account number.
9. THE IMPORTANCE OF A (GOOD) WORKFLOW
You will never regret having an efficient workflow. Some of my biggest mistakes while traveling early on were a complete lack of a travel workflow. I would fly out, scout, shoot, fly home, and then continue my normal schedule. That wasn’t a bad system, but when you’re leaving every weekend, it’s really difficult to catch up for those 3 days that you spent away from the computer while you were out shooting. Everyone operates differently, but chances are that you have a lot of e-mails to stay on top of or you’re swimming in edits. For me, creating a workflow that worked with my travel schedule was essential. It meant adjusting things to ‘kill two birds with one stone.’ Waiting at the airport? I’m responding to emails. No wifi on the flight? I’m culling photos and importing them into Lightroom.
When I land back at home all I have to do is go into Lightroom and start editing, everything else is done. Emails are on track and selects are made, so I’m ready to return to my normal schedule when I’m home and I’m not behind on any of my tasks. It takes determination and discipline, but I promise you it’s worth it to go the extra mile by dialing in your workflow.
10. BACKING UP YOUR CONTENT ON THE ROAD
Backing up your content is essential no matter where you are, but it’s even more important when you’re traveling. Additionally, it’s not enough to do it, it’s important to have a repeatable plan of how to do it. Your backup workflow should be just as dialed in as your travel workflow. I often travel for long stretches, two to four weeks at a time, and I often have between 5-7 shoots during those periods. Here is how I keep things backed up at all times and keep my workflow consistent while I’m on the road:
My Backup Gear:
– Two 2TB hard drives
– One Computer
– Four 64GB SD Cards
– Four 64GB CF Cards
– Business Account with Dropbox
– One Spyder Calibration System
I have a 15” rMBP that I edit and work on when I travel, and a 27” iMac that I work on when I’m at home. I always use accounts that sync up, whether it’s iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. The point is: make sure your essential content can be accessible from all your essential devices (if you work off of 2+ devices). My first line of backup is to shoot with dual slots on my camera, one copy to SD and the other copy to CF. Once I finish a shoot, I try to immediately download the files to each of the 2TB hard drives. I keep these devices in separate baggage when I travel. I also don’t format SD/CF cards when I travel and these cards are always kept on my person. After I download my cards to my hard drive(s), if I can, I immediately cull the selects from each shoot. Once they’re culled, I import them into an individual Lightroom Catalog (one for each shoot). I build Smart Previews and Standard Previews in Lightroom. Once that’s done, I technically have 5 backups of all my content. Two copies of the RAW files on the hard drives, two copies on my SD/CF Cards, and Smart Previews of my Selects in Lightroom (that I can export to almost full-size .JPGs).
I keep my LR catalogs saved on Dropbox (hence the need for a business account – 1TB – $99/year) so that the catalogs are immediately synced up to my iMac at home.
When I get home, all I have to do is open my computer, access the LR catalog and start editing. I copy the files back to my main hard-drives when I’m home; I can immediately start editing at home since my LR catalogs are up-to-date because of Dropbox. Additionally, if I started editing on the road, my edits will be available on my iMac without ever plugging anything in. The magic of the Cloud.
The Spyder system is there to calibrate my monitors so that they both show the same colors. I calibrate before every long trip.
11. REAL TALK: TRAVEL AFFECTS MORE THAN JUST YOU
My last and final piece is simply about self-awareness. When I started traveling for work, I was unmarried, had lived around the world, and was pretty determined to see as much as I could see. Now, three years later, I’m married, have a home, a dog, and friends and family in an incredible city. Traveling comes at a much greater price. Time spent on the road is time away from my wife. Summer weekends, instead of having a BBQ in our backyard with friends, I’m often shooting a wedding or traveling to/from a wedding. Things just pile up and you are often alone. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to travel, but I’m learned that saying “yes” to destination and travel work means saying “no” to something else. Every single time.
I’ll still continue to travel for work, but I want to be smarter about how I do it. There are some very important things for me at home here in Denver and I’m not willing to trade those things just for the opportunity to go to a new place. I’m still young, but I’m learning that if I don’t prioritize what’s important for me now, life will prioritize itself, and not always in the most healthy way.
These are some tips, both practical and philosophical, for making travel an easier (and hopefully more enjoyable) experience. I hope that as we head full-on into wedding season that these come in handy. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to email me and let me know. Let me know if any of these things help you out or if you have any tips of your own, it’s always great to collaborate on ideas like this.
Travel smart. Know what’s important. When you’re home, be present. When you’re away, be committed.