Meet Ahmed – the Director of Business Development for Utrip.com a travel start-up based in Seattle. Last year, he spent 133 nights in hotel rooms for business travel. For the last 8 years, he was with Booking.com, based in New York, while overlooking the North American market and most recently spent two years in Singapore for the site overlooking strategic partnerships for South Asia (8 countries). He travels 100k miles a year on business travel and has had elite status with Delta, United, Singapore Air, Air Berlin, Alitalia, alongside elite statuses with Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt, IHG and Club Carlson.
Ahmed took the time to chat with AllTheRooms to give us his top tips for business travel:
What are 3 essentials, besides your phone and laptop, that you bring on every trip?
I never travel without my Bose noise canceling in-ear headphones. Good noise-canceling headphones are a must for any frequent traveler—they block out the ambient noise letting you get some shut-eye on a long flight.
I also do not travel without my Priority Pass. Priority Pass gives you access to 1,000+ lounges in airports throughout the world, so during a long layover, missed connection or delay you can get away from the frenzy, rest-up and get some food and free wifi. What’s more, Priority Pass is complimentary with the Amex Platinum Card, Citi Prestiege Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve card. The latter two even let you take two additional guests to the lounge for free. If you don’t have elite status with One World, Sky Team or Star Alliance than you will want to get the Priority Pass.
Finally, entertainment! I don’t count on the in-flight entertainment system to always work. When you travel over 100K miles a year, you will likely have your share of non-working in-flight systems—it’s inevitable. So, I usually will have movies or tv shows loaded into my phone, iPad or laptop. Nowadays, with Netflix downloads, you can easily just pre-download a show or movie into your device and watch it during the flight even without wifi or data. For long flights, this becomes an important break—we all want to answer those emails and clear out the inbox on business trips, but sometimes you need a hour or two of entertainment to recharge.
Do you prefer hotels or Airbnbs (or other vacation rentals) for business travel? Why?
I prefer hotels. Always hotels for business travel. After a long flight, getting in to your hotel at 9pm, but in your city of departure it’s 12pm means your body is hungry (in those 6-hour flights from New York to Los Angeles they don’t provide food anymore unless you’re in business class), so being able to go to your room and order room service is important. I also love my Club Carlson, Hilton, IHG, Marriott and Starwood status—I’ll get free wifi, free breakfast, late check-out and early check-in as a result of frequently staying with them.
It’s a great perk to be able to earn points for business travel which you can later redeem for a family vacation. I have 587,000 Club Carlson points all from business travel—that’s enough to let me stay in their lower level hotel for 39 nights.
Additionally, there’s a standard of operation that comes with a hotel stay: you know what to expect in a Hilton in New York and a Hilton in Kansas to even a Hilton in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Finally, I also want to book it now and have it confirmed now, not wait 24 hours for a confirmation. We live in an age of instant gratification.
Where has been your favorite place you have stayed?
I stayed in the Palladium Hotel in Mumbai, India which is now a St. Regis. It is a fantastic hotel with great service and hospitality. Service and hospitality is really big in India, they really go the extra mile in making sure you are comfortable and the Palladium Hotel staff are amazing at making guests feel like they are home.
I was once staying there for 6 nights on a 3 week long business trip to India, as is typical, I got sick in India. When I checked in to the hotel, the check-in agent asked how I was and I mentioned I wasn’t feeling well. After checking in I left for a day full of meetings and came back in the evening to my room to see a bouquet of flowers, a get well soon card, cough medicine and Tylenol. It made my day. Big kudos goes to Abhishek Malik the then Hotel Manager—we still keep in touch.
Do you manage to find time to enjoy the destination “off the clock”?
I used to find time to enjoy the destination “off the clock” by staying the weekend. After a year and then years, you realize they are the same places you are traveling to for meetings and for client visits, so there’s not much of a need to take time off to see them now. However, I always try to make a point of visiting a nice restaurant wherever I visit; as I like to experience a city though its cuisine and one of the perks of traveling for work is the ability to try different cuisines that you otherwise may not be able to find in your local town.
What’s your most memorable “off the clock” travel moment?
While waiting in Mexico City, I noticed someone running from the corner of my eyes who seemed very familiar to me. Uncharacteristically of me, I actually ran to catch up to them and see if I was right. I was indeed right. I did know the person—it was Muhammad Yunus! A Nobel Peace Prize Winner from my parents’ homeland of Bangladesh. My parents, my Bengali community in America, and the entire country of Bangladesh is very proud of Muhammad Yunus for pioneering microcredit which is empowering women in developing countries like Bangladesh, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa and Venezuela.
What frustrates you the most about constant travel?
Being on the road is tiring, your body constantly has to acclimatize to new time zones, new sleep cycles and weather. This tires your body and all that recycled air in planes isn’t good for your body either—you’re more likely to get sick in planes as The Wall Street Journal article suggest you’re at risk of catching a common cold by a factor of 20 in-flight. Additionally, when you are on a business trip, you tend to work even more as you have a day packed full of meetings, but you still continue to get new emails. So, when you’re back at your hotel around 7 pm, instead of having dinner or getting some exercise, you’re playing catch up to answer those emails and to try not to fall behind. Finally, depending constantly on room service, or a quick meal on your way to the next meeting leads to a poor diet. It’s quite easy to gain weight.
How do you make this easier for yourself?
I tend to take advantage of the hotel gyms, saunas, and spas. They really help to keep you in shape and offer some relaxation. As you also fly frequently and with only one airline/alliance you can earn elite status which leads to upgrades. I was Platinum with Delta for four years in a row, I would often (up to 80% of the time) get complimentary upgrades to business class—that really helps. The complimentary upgrades aren’t as extensive anymore. For example, you can no longer get complimentary upgrades for JFK to LAX, SFO or SEA flights.
After a while, the constant business travel becomes a routine and you know how to manage it well. You have to.
When you retire and no longer have to travel for business, which destinations are at the top of your bucket list?
I have been to 50 countries and 6 continents all before the age of 30. My next goal is to travel 150 countries and all 7 continents. When I retire and I no longer have to travel for business, I want to travel to Antartica with my wife and experience the Southern Lights—also, I will be proudly able to say, I’ve been to all 7 continents. I fantasize about exploring Bhutan, it’s such a faraway place and unspoiled. I heard amazing stories from those that visited—I hope its natural beauty stays unspoiled for me when I visit. I also want to go to Cinque Terre and experience the small charming villages, go to New Zealand and explore the fjords of Milford Sound and beautiful lakeside towns. I heard Lord of the Rings mythic towns is there, as a Lord of the Rings fan, I would love to see it in person. Finally, as a Muslim, it’s a lifelong goal to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. I would love to go to Mecca with my family for the Hajj pilgrimage.