No matter how glamorous the job or how exciting the destination, business travel can be challenging. The airport-to-plane-to-office-to-hotel slog can wear you down, and it isn’t always easy to navigate a strange city, live out of a suitcase, or get plugged into the local scene when you’re on your own. No wonder so many road warriors end up retreating to their hotel rooms every evening for cable TV and overpriced room service.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Business travel presents an enviable opportunity to see different places on the company dime. With an enthusiastic mindset and some pre-planning, you might be amazed what you can discover with a few hours between meetings or at the front or tail end of a business trip. For a truly rewarding experience, it’s crucial that you find ways to engage with your destination so you don’t feel like an outsider. But how? We asked a group of peripatetic business travelers for their best nuggets of wisdom.
Don’t be afraid to make a plan
The first step is to assess your available downtime. “If I’m traveling someplace for a few weeks, I want to give myself a schedule of how I’m going to spend my time, especially on the weekends, so I don’t end up sitting in the hotel working—because that can easily happen,” says Martha Embrey, whose work for an international health non-profit organization takes her on multi-week trips to Africa.
Don’t think you have to start small when traveling for business. When Embrey visited Kampala, Uganda, she made a point of getting to the Owino Market, the largest second-hand clothing market in the world. “It is totally crazy place. You can’t be concerned about personal space because people are grabbing your arm and saying, ‘come look at this.’ You’re just packed in with people,” she says. “When I was in Nairobi, I did a day-long safari. Nairobi has a national park right outside the city and I thought it would be crazy to be [all the way over] there and not see some animals if I had the opportunity.”
What if you don’t have the luxury of an entire free day? “Time is what distinguishes the business traveler from another traveler,” says Romain Aubanel, the co-founder of Jack and Ferdi, a new app that provides business travelers with personalized recommendations based on their likes and dislikes, where they are, and how much time they have. “On a business trip, you tend to have strange pockets of time. Your availability is scattered,” he says. “You might have an hour between two meetings, or you might have some time before your last meeting and your plane back home.”
If you’re looking for dining and sightseeing recommendations, be specific. “A lot of people—and particularly women—don’t feel comfortable articulating what they really want,” says Pam Alvord, an Atlanta-based advertising executive. “Think of it like this: There’s this little window in your trip that you have that can make you happy. Figure out what’s going to make you happy, and articulate what that is, and then go do it.”
Gather all of your pre-planning in one place with the tried-and-true Google Maps, which lets you hone in on different types of businesses and attractions within a specific area. “I tag locations with stars and then try to hit up as many things I want to do in a starred area at one time,” says Stephanie Janes, a classical music publicist. “It is very time efficient if I only have a few hours in a place.”
The neighborhood matters as much as the hotel
Location is a top priority for most solo business travelers, who typically need to be based near their business meetings. “Especially traveling in Africa and the capital cities, traffic is so incredible that if you are across town it could take you three hours to go 20 miles in a taxi. You can’t work around that, so you have to stay close to where you’re going to be for work,” says Embrey. And if you end up in a neighborhood that’s not ideal? The quick-and-easy solution is probably already on your phone. “I’m more likely to jump into an Uber than anything else,” says Alvord.
Brand loyalty can also be a factor for travelers looking to stockpile rewards for future personal vacations. “I make a conscious effort to max my hotel points. I sometimes even swap hotels to get extra check-in bonus points, rather than stay at a single hotel for an entire stay,” says Steve Fry, a sales rep for an IT company, who favors Hyatt and Southwest Airlines.
THERE’S THIS LITTLE WINDOW IN YOUR TRIP THAT YOU HAVE THAT CAN MAKE YOU HAPPY. FIGURE OUT WHAT’S GOING TO MAKE YOU HAPPY, AND ARTICULATE WHAT THAT IS, AND THEN GO DO IT.
Alvord prefers the intimacy of a neighborhood boutique hotel and is fond of the welcome amenity at Kimpton Hotels. “When I check in—sometimes it can be at a crazy time of the day or night—I know I’m going to have an ice bucket with bottled water, a small bottle of wine, and usually some fresh fruit. Sometimes there’s a chocolate thrown in,” she says. “That puts a smile on my face.”
Bigger is not better for Sara Berks, founder of MINNA, a socially responsible textile brand. “I usually like to stay in smaller guest houses and inns instead of large hotels. That way, I can meet the owners and people who work there, and they will give me an inside look at the city instead of the typical tourist-type places,” she says of her frequent trips to South America.
Explore on foot
Natalie MacLees, founder of a Los Angeles-based interactive agency, swears by GPS-enabled walking tour apps like Cities Talking and GPSmyCity, which provide guided tours of cities and point out local points of interest. “You don’t have to walk around holding a map and looking like a tourist,” she says. “I’ve discovered all sorts of gems and hidden neighborhoods in cities all over the world this way.”
And if you can’t find the time (or energy) after a day of work to explore, combine a morning, pre-meeting workout with a self-guided orientation tour. “Have your hotel concierge map out a route for you and go for a run,” says Jeffrey Dallal, who works for a financial technology company and splits his time between New York City and the West Coast. “You get to check out the area on foot and make note of places you might want to circle back to later in the day.”
Skip room service
Food can be a huge part of the travel experience and Alvord encourages pushing out of your comfort zone. “I grew up traveling as a little kid and my parents’ rule was always that no matter what country you’re in, you try the local food first. And I always loved that. Sometimes it’s a hit, and sometimes it’s a miss, but I’m always looking for what is the best—the fresh catch of the day or the local specialty,” she says.
Dread sitting on your own? For many solo travelers, their go-to coping strategy is a seat at the bar. “If you feel like chatting, there are always other people at the bar, whether they’re traveling or dropping in after work for a beer,” says Embrey. If you’d like to savor the alone time, bring a book or magazine along. Otherwise, ask for a prime people-watching seat to keep yourself entertained: “A window table is the best because I can watch people in the restaurant as well as the street,” says Alvord.
If you don’t have the time or energy for a full, seated meal, head to a local grocery store, bakery, or to-go spot and pick up something specific to your destination. “I’ve been known to travel with a spoon and a fork in my bag,” says Alvord. “So even if all I’ve got in my hotel room is a mini fridge, I still can go get some fresh berries or some basics for the room, and not have to eat a big, heavy, formal meal for all three meals a day.”
Make a long weekend out of it
If your schedule allows, tacking on an extra day or two to a business trip is an economical way to give yourself a mini vacation. “I probably over-plan that day or extra weekend because I am trying to see friends or connect with people I haven’t seen in a while. Usually my meals are the social part of the day,” says Alvord. “And then, I usually try to find an art fair or museum exhibition or something cultural. But I really want to do that alone because I just want to see what I want to see at the pace I want to go. I just want that to be ‘me’ time.”
A healthy dose of self-indulgence might be just what you need to decide that traveling alone is the best way to see the world.
This article originally appeared on CNTraveler.com.