Skip to main content

A brief butN guide to international air travel on business

Authored by Robin Chater, butN Founder


This guide is primarily intended for the less experienced business traveler, or the traveler going to far off destinations for the first time. It is packed with useful tips for every stage of your journey. Some things may seem obvious, but they remain useful memory aids all the same.

In preparing this document we have not been influenced by any commercial interests. The information is taken from direct experience and sometimes from making hard felt mistakes. It is planned to expand this guide in several ways and to improve its presentation. However, at the launch of butN we felt it was more important to share this with you in its present form. If you have any tips and experiences please share them with us (feedback@but-n.com) and we will quote you in updates

Preparing for the trip

Always check the validity of your passport, visa and vaccination requirements well in advance. When booking your travel tickets and hotels note airline baggage allowances and be careful about the neighborhoods where your hotels are located. Try to avoid rooms on the first two floors or at the front of the building. Ensure that your hotel has designated “no smoking” rooms, a lift and “free wifi throughout the building”. If you are booking through “bookings.com” do not rely too heavily on customer ratings – although avoid ratings below “7”. Trip Advisor ratings tend to be a better guide to hotel quality.

If you are not travelling business class try to advance book an exit seat. Remember a condition for sitting in such a seat is that you are fit and able – so expect to be questioned by cabin staff. The aisle seat is usually best as it will allow more space to stretch out – however briefly! Economy exit row seats by the toilets can be busy and unsavory if you are trying to get some rest. On some airlines you can mingle around the galley between meal preparation and it can be very sociable. But be careful during night-time or even evening flights as cabin staff can object to too much chatter.

If you are traveling within the European Union and are a citizen of an EU member state make sure you are carrying a valid European Health Card (http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=559).

Ensure you travel primarily by a reputable international airline. If travel by a local or budget airline is unavoidable ensure that it is a daytime flight and that weather conditions are forecast to be good both at the point of takeoff and arrival.

Stopovers and transfers are a fact of life for many plane journeys. Try to leave at least 90 minutes between plane connections, especially in difficult airports like Charles de Gaulle in Paris or if a terminal change is involved. Transfers involving a change of airport might mean a stopover of many hours is necessary. Do your homework before you leave home and allow for late arrivals and delays by connecting vehicles. Many airlines like Emirates have an arrangement with a company that will provide a meet and greet service. This is well worth the cost if you are unfamiliar with an airport.

In many counties you will be expected to give small presents to your host and/or immediate colleagues or family members. It is important that these are quality items, but with a modest unit value and with an origin in the country where you reside. A successful gift to sophisticated people with some English language skills is the first edition of a modern classic by, for instance, a well known American or English writer, especially if it is signed by the author. These can be purchased for as little as $25 and should be suitably gift wrapped in a wrapping colour that identifies the target gender for the gift. If your home country is not English speaking then the book can be full of illustrations and photos of your country and/or cultural artifacts.

Arrange comprehensive cover for health, cancellation and luggage covering the total duration of your overseas trip. Ensure that the insurance provides adequate cover for third party liability and repatriation in case of sickness or injury and does not have substantial waivers on any claims made. If you have any serious pre-existing medical conditions inform your insurer so that your cover is valid.

Purchase foreign currency from your bank or travel agent. This will often be at a better rate than you could obtain at the airport. Also contact your credit card company to inform them about your journey. They will then add a note to your file which should prevent an unnecessary fraud alert and a stop being made to your card if it is used abroad. If you are travelling to a country where crime rates are high ensure that you set apart sufficient emergency foreign currency in a body pouch. Also take a note of the numbers, expiry dates and names of your credit/debit cards and add that to your pouch. You may wish to leave a copy of this information in a secure place at home.

Always leave a full schedule of your trip with a responsible person at home or work. If the schedule has to be changed let them know before you travel on the amended journey. The schedule should include times and places of departure and arrival, any changes/transfers and the identifying numbers of your intended carriers.

Mark your luggage in a way that will help identify it easily at your destination. You should attach a luggage tag with your name and contact mobile telephone number (with international codes where necessary), but it also helps to tie a coloured scarf or handkerchief to the top of your case.

Just before you go

If there is a severe or significant threat relating to any of your destinations and travel remains imperative then assess the threat as much as possible from several news reports. If you are travelling by air or train arrange for a car from a reputable company to meet you upon arrival. Arrange for them to keep all doors locked during travel and ensure that you go directly to your host or hotel. Do not travel to high risk regions by car, bus or other form of transport. A useful source for travel warnings is the fortnightly newswire published by The Federation of International Employers (FedEE). See http://www.fedee.com

If you are visiting a city for the first time, do not know the local language or do not have established business relationships in the locality consider hiring a local guide. This is especially helpful if no-one from your business contacts can meet you on arrival and when you wish to gain some cultural insights about the country/city that you are travelling to. There is no universal way to secure a guide, but a useful starting point is to search Google using the term “[City name] interpreters and travel guides”. Ensure you secure a specific daily or hourly rate for from the guide and ask them to email confirmation of the agreement. If their response is slow or written English poor you may wish to cancel them and start again.

Business trips to a country where you know very little of the local language can be made less stressful if you purchase a phrase book in advance and learn some language basics such as “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you”, “where is” and “help”. One good idea is to prepare some useful phrases – using Google translate - in the most common language used at your destination(s). Increase their size to at least bold 24-point and print onto thin card. Then cut into strips and carry them in your hand baggage. Of particular importance is “Where is the official taxi pickup point?” and “Please take me to [name of hotel in English and the local language)”.

Remember to check-in online at least 24 hours before your flight and print off two copies of the boarding ticket. Put one in the pocket of the clothes you shall be wearing on your flight and another in your hand baggage. That will ensure you can always access it quickly and any loss or damage will not prevent your flight. Also make sure you charge your mobile phone before you leave home.

Ensure you pack or supervise the packing of your own luggage (you may well be asked this question) and never agree to carry any item for anyone else outside your immediate family or deeply trusted friends. Remember not to carry any liquids in your hand baggage and to carefully pack liquids if carried in hold baggage. Remember to make your packing easy to open and close again as it is highly likely that the item will be examined by customs or security.

Many airlines now restrict hand baggage to one item. If this applies to your trip then it is a good idea to carry a small bag within your cabin bag containing urgent things you will need during your trip. This can then be removed before you place the cabin bag into the overhead lockers.

During long distance flights problems can arise with blood circulation in your feet. It is therefore wise to purchase compression socks (sometimes called flight socks) to be worn throughout the flight.

Why is it we seem to get memory loss whenever we are about to leave for the airport or train? Last minute checks should always be for Passport, Wallet, Tickets (boarding passes), Keys, Laptop, Mobile Phone and Charging Cable.

Around one hour before you leave your home or office check the flight times and note any posted delays. If a delay is indicated, but no time is given, call your travel agent, airline or airport to obtain the latest information.

It is always difficult to know how much time to allow to get to the airport and go through check-in and security. It is best to allow as much time as possible – especially at peak travelling times. A good piece of equipment to have at home is a suitcase weighing device. These can be bought at many high street stores and the best ones secure to the top carrying strap and all you need to do is lift it up to record the weight. Knowing your luggage is within weight limits for the plane’s ‘hold’ will prevent that last minute shuffling of heavy things into hand baggage or having to ditch those old comfortable shoes. You can, of course, always pay for excess baggage – but the cost may be excessive.

Starting your journey

When you arrive at the airport note down the car park name and floor/aisle numbers on your ticket and put it into a safe place.

When entering the public departures hall consult the rotating list of flight departures to check the flight is still scheduled and the number of the check-in desk. Check in at the earliest opportunity and do not leave this until the last minute. Security checks can take a long time – particularly on Friday evenings and immediately prior to local holidays. Make sure the check-in attendant issues a ticket for your hold luggage and attaches it to your flight ticket. If you are on a long haul flight with connections it will normally be possible to issue tickets for each part of your journey at the outset – especially if they are all with the same airline.

Although you are not allowed to carry liquids through security – once in the departure area it will be normally possible to purchase bottled water. Although airlines will generally provide refreshments on the plane it is a wise precaution to have at least a small bottle of mineral water for your journey.

Airport lounges can be welcome after a hard day at the office and a rushed taxi to the airport. But some airport lounges can be well away from your departure gate and be pretty dull places with few facilities. The normal bustle of an airport departure area can be welcome as a necessary precursor to the quiet sobriety of an aircraft cabin.

Do not wait to be called to your gate. Note it down at the outset and get there in good time. In some very large airports like Heathrow, Bangkok and St Louis it can take a long time to get to your gate. If you are tired do not sit down, see if you can obtain a coffee nearby and watch for early signs of boarding – such a the last departing passengers from the incoming flight.

When boarding the plane take be careful to retain and put in a safe and accessible place that part of your ticket containing your hold baggage receipt. If there is a problem with your baggage you will need to produce it and in some airports all baggage receipts are checked before an incoming passenger may leave the baggage hall.

During your trip

It is a good idea to dress casually, especially for long distance trips. Cabins should be warm and well ventilated so remove jackets, place wallets and other valuables into the bag you keep under the seat in front of you and fold the garment carefully in on itself to prevent creasing. Try to place it on top of your hand luggage in the overhead lockers.

Many passengers are nervous before a flight. It is a natural reaction to the prospect of such an experience. Many of us are also car drivers and feel out of place when we are not in control. Cabin conditions are always cramped and there are often delays on access runways waiting to take-off. Cabin staff can make a great deal of difference to your state of mind. It helps to chew gum before take-off, but avoid alcohol. If your condition is severe confide in a member of cabin staff before seat belts are required. They may be able to move you to another seat on your own or near to where they sit. Watch your breathing and remember that it is far more dangerous to be a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist than an airline passenger.

Ensure that you get up from your seat at least once every three to four hours of your journey. This can be to visit the toilet or go to the galley to ask for a drink of water. From time to time move your seating position and move your toes. It is not generally welcome for passengers to remove their shoes because of offending foot odour, but some airlines do provide slippers.

The sociability of other passengers will vary a great deal. On longer flights it is polite to acknowledge those in the seat(s) immediately next to you, but do not assume they will want to be talkative. There is also the danger that once you start to converse with your temporary neighbour they may never stop trying to talk to you.

Arrival at your destination

Luggage arrival halls can be confusing places. Remember your flight number and the name of the airport where you travelled from – often baggage carousel information boards do not specify the city but the airport name. When waiting for luggage listen out carefully for changes to carousel number. You can easily be caught out this way. Also check out the exits through customs and unless your luggage is small secure a trolley. Look at the direction of travel of the conveyor and stand at least 15 metres from the point where the luggage comes into view. Try to be on the front row so that you can watch the luggage moving towards you.

As soon as you have collected your luggage walk slowly towards the customs bays and keep your eyes on fellow passengers rather than the customs staff or the exit door. Try to feel relaxed. If you look nervous or nonchalant it could attract the attention of an official.

Except in small regional airports, as soon as you leave customs you will be confronted with a mass of people waiting for other passengers. If you have not anyone waiting for you try to get clear of this crowd as quickly as possible. In many places, especially in less developed countries, you will be greeted by many persistent men offering unlicenced taxi services. Never accept these offers – you might never reach your destination and if you do you will be almost certainly overcharged. If you need a taxi look out for signs to the taxi rank. If you get lost ask a uniformed official or go back to the arrivals gate and ask one of the people waiting for someone there.

Be careful about tipping taxi-drivers, hotel and restaurant staff. Practices differ greatly between some countries. For instance, in much of Europe you would round up a taxi fare to the nearest euro, pound or crown and give hotel porters no less than two pounds/ euro for carrying your bags. But in the USA taxi drivers expect higher tips and waiters are so badly paid they expect tips of at least 20%. By contrast, in China it is not common to tip at all. Just to thank drivers and waiters with an energetic declaration of “xie xie”.

Acquire both a general location and a detailed street map for every city where you visit for more than a few ours. Never leave your hotel or business location without consulting the maps first. Ask your hotel concierge or business contacts if there are any streets or neighborhoods to avoid. Always seek to walk with a friend, colleague or guide and note landmarks on your journey to recognise on your return. Do not consult any map openly on the street, especially if you are walking alone. It is also not generally a good idea to carry an SLR camera openly on the street (unless you are a journalist). This will instantly classify you as a tourist and increase our vulnerability to pick pockets and muggers.

Keeping in touch with your home and business base can be very expensive when abroad. In many countries Pay-as-You-Go chips can be bought for your mobile offering cheaper foreign calls. It is also possible to purchase local mobiles preloaded with credits that allow foreign calls. In China purchasing a local mobile is relatively easy, but the device will only call domestic numbers. To make foreign calls it is necessary to visit a separate store in each city run by China Telecom and deposit around 1000 rm. (120 euros) to obtain foreign call credits.

Finally, be careful about cultural and even hotel chain differences in the hour that staff feel it is ok to walk into your room each morning to make the bed. Most hotel staff will knock and wait before doing so, but it is possible not to hear them if you are in the shower. It is therefore wise to display the “do not disturb” sign until you are ready to go down to breakfast and to apply the door chain before entering the shower!

Have a good trip.

butN / FedEE Services Ltd 2014

BS1 4DJ, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Our sponsors