The best way I can think to describe the feeling of being a single business traveler is this: you’re at a city coffee shop at 5 minutes to 8 on a Monday morning, there’s a long line of caffeine fiends behind you—and your order is wrong. What do you do? Maybe you reorder. Maybe you take it. It’s not a situation in which you can cast a hypothetical prediction of what-you-would-do-if. You think you’re on your time, but everyone else thinks you’re on their time. All you can say of this hypothetical scenario is that if you were the one making your latte at home, you would have gotten it right. But you’re not at home.

Travel is a desirable aspect of a job today. With the economy in the state it is, and with unprecedented advances in architecture, media attention to cuisine, sanitation and comfort in hospitality, and democratization of the arts, who wouldn’t want to travel for “free”?

I love to travel. My parents first put me on a plane by myself when I was probably 7 to visit my grandparents. At nineteen, I booked myself on a last-minute flight to Ireland and joined a group of mostly middle-aged international couples in bicycling the perimeter of County Cork. I hopped on a plane to Costa Rica the next summer to see about a guy. I’ve seen about guys in several cities. They didn’t work out romantically, but these were still experiences I’m glad I’ve had.

Business travel bears only a slight resemblance to personal travel. I used to think the time was mine, and treating it that way is unethical. It is not my time, it is not my money, and it is not my agenda. If it so happens that I can spend a small amount of my time and money on my agenda, I should consider myself lucky.

Weeks into the job, I remember how excited I was to receive an e-mail notifying me I qualified for Travelocity VIP, and I assure you that there are no benefits to Travelocity VIP except a different phone number for customer service with slightly fewer voice menu options and a San Antonio based representative who stays on the line while you work toward understanding with the other representative with the Indian accent. I didn’t even get a VIP card in the mail, much less an occasional upgrade to first class. I try to use the same three airlines for frequent flier miles, but they did not add up to a free flight in two years. And office policy would have me use them toward work travel. (I will not be finding out if it can even be enforced.)

Most of my flights leave from Charlottesville Airport (affectionately, “Cho,” for its three-letter code), a regional airport with one baggage claim and local elementary schoolchildren’s artwork in display cases. Because it caters to commuters and only flies to Atlanta, Charlotte, DC, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York, most of my flights leave between 5 and 7 in the morning and all have layovers. I won’t earn much sympathy from parents or night shift workers complaining about a 4am wakeup, but the difficulty is the irregularity of the schedule and discomfort of prop planes. I have a neck pillow, of course. I have to wear it as a choker so I don’t fall forward when I pass out, because those chair backs are so upright. Most recently, my pillow was inches from the bare toes of a passenger behind me who had crossed her legs and rested her foot on the arm rest between the two seats in my row. Even if the feet didn’t touch it, the prospect is still terrifying to a germophobe. In my effort to be as non-germy as possible, I rely on airports to provide cloth booties for my own feet. My antibacterial gel soap is ready for any germ emergency in airports, waiting in my 1-quart clear plastic baggy for the security-check, and I’ve used it to disinfect my exposed soles in airports that don’t offer cloth booties. I’ve also been handed 409 spray and a paper towel by a TSA employee who could see how distraught I was that they did not have the cloth booties there when I was traveling in sandals. I suspect my face looked scrunched-up like a shar pei’s.

I’ve had my face lotion confiscated at security twice because it is 3.6 ounces. Security lines are rarely as bad as people make them out to be. If you want them to go fast, do everyone a favor and do your part: skip the belt, pack liquid containers larger than 3 ounces deep within your carry-on luggage, and don’t ask questions. I wouldn’t have lost my face lotion if I’d just packed it with my toothpaste at the bottom of my bag and stopped running my yap.

I book travel by lowest cost and arrival time, but I definitely try to accrue frequent flier points if I can. I think it’s amusing when I reflect on what characterizes each carrier to me. Delta offers Coke Zero and the choice of free snacks—wheat cheese crackers, Sun Chips, peanuts, and English biscuits (aka “the cookies”). United shows NBC TV sitcoms, and the brand will forever be attached to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody and Blue” in my mind, which is a good thing. US Airways’ name and branding have an upscale feel, but it is usually dirty and cramped, and every last comfort has a price tag. Still, I look forward to my inevitable layover in Charlotte when I fly US Airways, for its free wireless, rocking chairs, chocolate samples in the fudge shop, and Quiznos. Continental and American are distinctly forgettable and rarely have the best rates. Southwest and Jet Blue have funny flight attendants. Virgin Atlantic is stylized, modern, and cool.

On planes, I try to sit as far forward as I can without being in a middle seat. I usually wear a baseball cap with a rounded brim low on my forehead to cut out peripheral vision range and listen to music on my iPod, because I’m sensitive to rhythmic motions and sounds—foot-bouncing, pen-tapping, ice biting, and the worst, gum-chewing. This frustrates me to the point of raising my heart rate, if it’s bad enough. I’m always appreciative of the snack service for putting a temporary end to the constant, loud, squeaky sound of spit oozing from a rubber chemical compound you keep in your bacteria-infested mouth for more than a half hour. (To clear your ears in pressure change without gum, which doesn’t do anything anyway: swallow, move your jaw back and forth, or plug your nose and blow at the same time. Ta-da!)

Usually, though, I sleep on planes—I always have layovers, so these are 1-2 hour naps on puddle-jumpers. Flying is where Darwin and Pavlov come together as a happy couple in my body—often, when I’m seated and in an uncomfortable scenario (gum, body odor, chattiness, fidgeting, seat is on the wing with the propeller), I can fall asleep within 5 to 10 minutes. It’s clearly a survival skill—I don’t nap otherwise and never have. In kindergarten, I was the one child who refused to go down at nap time. Instead, I wrote a rather interesting journal about life through my 5 year-old perspective. And I’ve thought my opinions have mattered ever since.

On a lighter note, all flights have to land, and for that, I am grateful. I think airports are fascinating. I love them. The spaces and structures are sometimes worldly, like Dulles Airport’s Terminal A display of flags, sometimes otherworldly, like Denver’s Jeppesen Terminal’s peaked roof of translucent Teflon-coated fabric. Detroit and Chicago (“Ord”) both have underground walkways between terminals with mesmerizing light fixtures. The novelty wears off, but I appreciate the effort. Dallas / Fort Worth could be the airport of the future, with vending machines for anything from an iPod to underwear throughout and its Skylink shuttle. Even Dulles’ “mobile lounges” or “moon buggies” have a nostalgic Kennedy-era space-race charm about them, and a newsstand outside the international arrivals area is the only place that I know of that sells Tyson’s chicken jerky. (It is spectacular jerky.) I genuinely look forward to airport food—layovers are the only time I will treat myself to an $8 breakfast burrito with sausage, egg, cheese, guac, sour cream, and potatoes, only to pass out on a plane 20 minutes later. For some cities, the inexperienced traveler will fly into the widely known international airport, a 45 minute drive from the city center. The business traveler might choose a slightly more expensive flight to the smaller regional airport, closer to the city. To LAX, there is Burbank; to IAH, there is Houston Hobby; to SFO, there is Oakland. When I book my flights, I make unconscious decisions assigning monetary value to my sanity. I’ve established that my sanity is definitely worth up to $50 of my travel budget, especially against LAX.

I also love airports for the people-watching. I propose that airports are not an inaccurate cross-section of the US at any given time, and the Atlanta airport, in particular, with the military presence there. Hundreds of mostly middle- and upper-class people from across the US are in a finite space, rarely acknowledging one another. We might interface with work, family, or friend travel companions, but we mostly interface with computers and any of the hundreds of service workers, the lower-class not represented in the traveling population. We do not even see the manual laborers outside, handling our luggage or garbage. Watching a terminal, I sometimes feel disappointed in America the not-so-beautiful. A child not older than 10 I was walking behind last week had “SUCK IT” printed on the back of his hoodie sweatshirt. I’ve waited behind many teen girls wearing shorts that show the entire length of the leg and have large words written across the butts. At the Fox Sports Sky Box in the Charlotte Airport, I sat next to a group of men who impersonated the Taco Bell Chihuahua ad for carne asada for the duration of my meal.

After the fact, I can often laugh about memorable airport experiences and passengers I fly with, and I have accrued years of stories. The motivational speaker story is probably ten years old now, but it’s classic. I like to stock up on 2-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s in big cities, and bottles have broken in my suitcase twice. There was the little Latino girl who spilled her Coke on my white skirt and bawled until she had no water left in her body to push out of her eye ducts and could not speak English to back me up when I told the flight attendant I hadn’t done anything to her, causing travelers’ dirty looks to point at ME. (Why airlines don’t serve cold beverages in mini cans instead of cups is beyond me. Seriously.) I dated one guy I sat next to on a plane. I was kissed by another. (Twice!)

Often, though, I end up not feeling like a judgmental person but confirming that I am one. I’m noticing things that confirm bad stereotypes and frustrations–from body weight to parenting style and the predictable evils in between–and hoping my stereotyping and frustrations are not being narrowed and intensified.

The discomfort of my travel mentality is greater than the physical discomforts, but they’re worth mentioning. I no longer have nails—baggage claims always seem to take one down, and unpredictable variables have nipped the rest. My big toe is often the victim of an unfamiliar hotel room—I just don’t instinctively know where the table legs and bed feet will be when navigating my room at night–I recently stubbed it and the nail is split down the center. The skin on the sides of my stomach are occasionally raw from the friction of heavy bags I carry against cotton shirts. My posture suffers a lot. I occasionally go a few days without a toiletry item I just don’t want to replace, like a hairbrush. I don’t work out. Some would say that’s a choice, though, and they’re probably right. I’ve gained 20 pounds since starting my job.

I love walkable cities, but they are, sadly, rare! What am I looking for in a rental car? Umm, power locks and windows, lights and windshield wipers that work. Windshield wipers that clear more than an 8 inch sliver of the glass when, say, it’s dusk in Colorado and you’re on a long, empty tollway between the Denver Airport and Boulder, and you suddenly find yourself in an ice storm, so that you do not have to hand-crank your window open and drive with your head out of the window, find a police turnoff to do an illegal u-turn, and pay twice the toll amounts in said ice storm. And if that happens, I’d like the rental car company not to sneak in an insurance coverage charge when I return and ask for a free SUV upgrade, which I may or may not catch when I return the car and charge the rental to my office card. And I’d like for that company not to charge me for the insurance I don’t want on three separate occasions. It would be nice, is all.

As much as I enjoy the freedom and mobility of renting a car, I am anti-valet! I never seem to carry singles, the transaction is awkward, and I’ve had a lot of unreasonable delays and errors. Some valets make minimum wage or better, and others receive an hourly wage like servers and rely on tips for their salary–why not standardize this? I don’t like my door opened for me when I pull up, either–if I am driving a guest, my purse is to my left in the seat, and without fail, the door is opened unexpectedly and the valet must help me pick up broken makeup cases and watch nervously as I put my phone battery back in and see if the phone powers up. Somehow, I find clumsily handling my own bags less embarrassing and frustrating than paying someone to help me.

I [heart] taxicabs. I don’t have to write down driving directions or remember to call down to the valet from my hotel room ten minutes prior to going somewhere. I can drink, too! But I don’t love every cab. (See: April 2008.) All I can hope for is a friendly cab driver who takes the most direct routes. Word to the wise: study a map of your new city for 10 minutes before you go. Identify major highways and streets, and remember whether they’re east/west or north/south. There will come a driver who gives you two choices and asks you which route you want him to take, and there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But no matter what, I’ll say this about cabs: tip well. They really don’t make much money with gas prices where they are, and a driver I had in Chicago told me he was working 18 hour days to pay bills. I even tipped the driver of the grossest cab ever close to 20 percent, so I’m not a hypocrite. Today, gas prices in the US are $3.70 a gallon for regular. One year ago to the day, it was $2.57. Fares have not changed.

I genuinely look forward to hotels. There are three types of hotels business travelers will stay in: budget chains, high-end chains, and boutiques. Rarely will they stay at high-end resorts, and I exclude conferences. Travelers that stay at budget chains, often near airports, care about convenience.  Free parking, continental breakfast, wireless internet, and HBO are all they need. These travelers are more frustrated by valets than I will ever be, and they do not need to see the skyline of every city they visit illuminated at night. To them, a high floor means more elevator stops on lower floors when they are trying to check out. They’d rather spend their travel budget on a porterhouse at the local steak house. In fact, they don’t even care to book their hotel—they use their office travel agency. The hotel meets only the most basic of human needs: shelter. I will never be that business traveler again.

I like high-end chains in cities. I am fortunate enough to have a state government rate, so price is not nearly as much of an issue for me as it is for a lot of travelers. Valet notwithstanding, this hotel experience is a perk of the job, and there are aspects of this that I love. Take the hotel bedspread—it might not be washed for a couple of months, 30 to 50 unique guests, and to this, chains like Hyatt answered with triple-sheets. I do not love ordering room service because it is so expensive and better food can often be had not far from the hotel for the same price, but no Hyatt kitchen has ever said I cannot order off of the Johnny Venture children’s menu, or said that I can’t have seasoned fries with my grilled Swiss cheese sandwich instead of mac or carrots. The “dirt ‘n worms” pudding and gummy dessert is better than any brulee I’ve had in the past year. Stays at high-end chains are predictable, and predictably good at that, but there’s still room for regional flavor, and I feel I need that experience. (I can live without it, certainly, but I miss it if it’s not there.) The Wyndham Union Station in downtown Nashville is, not surprisingly, a converted train station. Trains still pass through, and because I grew up with a track a quarter of a mile from my back yard, the low, rumbling sound of midnight trains is really comforting to me. Rooms have high ceilings with curtains I can only describe as “billowy.” I am staying there next week, and my reservation is under “Her highness Kate Malay.”  In the online registration process, I was given a choice of about 20 titles. “Princess” is not my style, but “Rabbi” was tempting. The Omni Mansion Del Rio in San Antonio is perched high above the Riverwalk at its center, and the structure is a focal point of the walk. Las Canarias, its riverside restaurant, offers spectacular modern Mexican food. An enclosed pool courtyard is the kind of rare sight that actually makes me sad I travel alone. I otherwise revel in it. The Hyatts in Dallas and Houston both have revolving restaurants at their top, and it is a real thrill to see 360 degrees of the city in 45 minutes. Business travelers staying in chains like the W, St. Regis, and Intercontinental are likely not middle-class business travelers like me, but I’ve seen the facilities, and I am very content with mine. The chain hotels I like meet my needs for a clean room and an experience unique to that city—and my need simply to be left alone. These luxury chain hotels meet needs, and desires. On the menu of items that can be purchased in the mini bar and from a selection of conveniences at the W in Dallas is an “intimacy kit.” I’m sure that more than one has been broken into after a long night at Ghostbar. This, I discovered after a short night at Ghostbar, and needless to say, I didn’t need it.

The third kind of hotel is the boutique hotel. The term is a bit nebulous; even Wikipedia authors struggle to define “boutique hotel” in anything less than a lengthy, self-contradicting page. It connotes small business, but boutique chains exist—Tablet Hotels is a family of boutique hotels across the world with different names, themes, numbers of guest rooms, and huge disparities in cost, but consistently modern design and excellent staffing. The long story short is that these are unique hotels, and their idea of luxury coincides with mine, and I am still left alone. These are the hotels that have iPod beds and flat screen TVs. Their halls are lined with wallpaper of blown-up original art or photography. They are historic buildings, converted, with original brick walls and floors artfully exposed. To me, they go beyond my travel needs—they are destinations in and of themselves.

One I discovered when I lived just up the street from it on South Congress Avenue in Austin is the Hotel San Jose. I used to walk to the hotel and sip tinto de veranos on the courtyard, a mixture of red table wine and a Spanish version of Sprite, surrounded by its yellowy stucco buildings. The concierge rents out DVDs of films made in Austin or by Texas filmmakers, and CDs by Texas musicians. It is where a rockstar would stay, and so I stay there (or at the riverfront Hyatt). ZaZa in Dallas oozes sex appeal, with a crystal bowl of Hot Tamale candies where mints might be at the check-in desk. Racy photography and warm red lamps illuminate spacious rooms. I was ushered into a fashion show on the pool deck, when leaving the hotel bar. The Graves 601 in Minneapolis is a large hotel with poignant open spaces. After sipping a lychee martini and snacking on an atypical bar mix of wasabi peas one evening, killing time before going to a restaurant’s rooftop to watch “Little Miss Sunshine,” I almost literally ran into Scottie Pippen in the elevator. My breakfast was a bruléed banana Belgian waffle. International House and Loft 523 in New Orleans are run by the same management, but Loft 523 is a very small hotel of 16 lofts, each a huge, open space with concrete floors, high ceilings, and unique artwork. My room at the James in Chicago was worth squealing over when I entered—it seemed much too big for a Chicago hotel. I enjoyed my red vinyl chaise lounge and tree stump accent table for the duration. The 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky is my favorite I’ve ever experienced. As soon as you walk through its doors in downtown Louisville, blocks from the Slugger factory, you are met with video installation art of a sleeping couple, projected on the floor of the check-in lobby. Red chest-high plastic penguin sculptures are placed around the hotel, which doubles as an art exhibition space for very provocative, sometimes challenging works, and it is clear that there is something almost cult-like about the place because I’ve noticed tattoos of red penguins on a number of staff members. Its restaurant, Proof on Main, is superb. I had an unforgettable boiled octopus done with lemon, black pepper, and sea salt, as well as a scallop and squash entrée I do not wish to soon forget.

If you love to eat, if you love destination restaurants and up-and-coming chefs, if you know what a truffle is (not chocolate) and what differentiates braising from broiling from boiling, you might consider a job in which you travel. You won’t have time to go to the local aquarium for fun during your day and pet a baby manta ray, but you might be served an excellent skate wing at the end of the day, because everyone, even the business traveler, has to eat. And an expense account is a very beautiful thing to have. I won’t share the details of my allowance, but I will say it’s easy to go light on breakfast and lunch and splurge later on, and I am happy to cover the cost of my wine with dinner. A great way to explore food on the cheap is to order a few appetizers—I can usually get 3 for about $40, which is really not that much more than you’d pay for a Bloomin’ Onion and the Outback Special. It’s up to each traveler to decide how he or she wants to eat, but I’ll say this—I was not nearly as much of a foodie as I am today before I took this job.

The more I write, the less it sounds like I am doing something difficult and unpleasant, because I am describing the places where I sleep and otherwise spend only a few waking hours, and my dinners. If I can, I use what precious, elusive free time I have on a trip for my agenda, which is simply to explore, and this is where the good stuff happens. I inadvertently attended the after-party of the Latin Music Awards in San Antonio last year, wearing flip-flops. I’ve gone to honky-tonk bars in Nashville, and I repaired a broken flip-flop with my earring so that I could stay out. I went to the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, intentionally, and Lollapalooza, unintentionally. I’ve toured the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis and the Miller brewery in Milwaukee. In Chicago, I have seen the critically acclaimed play “Doubt” and Broadway hit “Wicked” (for free), and I’ve been to shows at Second City and the Chicago Lyric Opera. I’ve been to art museums in Chicago, New York City, Dallas, and Milwaukee. I’ve been to a lot of places. Including China. It is when I wander that I am at my very happiest. Remember the coffee shop at 5 to 8:00 in the morning? Wandering, to me, is sending the coffee back and getting it done just the way you like it. It’s not home. But it might be better than if you did it yourself.

* * *

“Travel while you’re young.”

“I am.”

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