9 reasons international business travel was fun…back then

A few days ago at work, I was reminded after telling a few stories about the glory days of travel across Europe, South America and Asia that business travel back then was significantly more prestigious/luxurious/etc.  I don’t think you’ll see the kind of treatment I got back in the flush days of the late 90s and early 2000s ever again.

So what was fun about travel back in 1999/2000?

  1. Traveling first or business class: I never traveled coach.  The thinking of most of the companies and/or clients I worked for or with was that heavy-duty international business travel demanded business class travel.  It probably did – I often rolled off the plane, showered and headed to the office.  You want to try that after spending 14 hours in coach from New York to Istanbul?
  2. Charging “actuals” for meals (in other words, whatever you spend, rather than being allotted $25 for dinner).  And by meals, I include alcohol.  If you took clients out the expectations were that you’d slam that Amex down like you’d just won at dominos.  A dip in the martini wading pool was part of the evening.
  3. Staying at luxury hotels. It’s hard to define luxury, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s views on porn, I know it when I see it.   My favorites?  St. Martin’s Lane in London; the Grand Marriott in Bucharest and the Swissotel in Istanbul.  Nowadays I think business travellers are lucky if they don’t have to double up with their coworkers at the Best Western.
  4. Drivers. I won’t say I always had drivers; depending on the location I might drive myself or take taxis.  In Russia, I frequently hitched a ride.  But having a dedicated driver was not unusual in places like Indonesia.
  5. Freedom from connectivity. Today, no matter where you travel in the world, it’s hard to claim a lack of connectivity.  BlackBerries, GSM, and omnipresent Internet access in most modern countries make it hard to hide.  This freedom was starting to die when I was traveling; toward the end of my career I received a GSM phone that worked in Europe.  But I was able to set myself free in the evenings:  once I went out to eat, I could legitimately claim not to have read emails.
  6. Isolation. Related to the freedom from connectivity, isolation gave me the opportunity to make a lot of decisions that today’s traveler has to run through supervisors.  Much like a 19th century ambassador, I represented the home country while overseas; I didn’t have conference calls and video conferences making me into a staff gopher.
  7. Airport security. Before 9/11, crappy and pointless airport security existed.  I am sure if I totalled up the hours I’ve spent in visa control at Sheremetyevo in Moscow I’d cry.  But most of the delays were due to stupid red tape, not airport security guards trying to defend against yesterday’s terrorist tactics.
  8. Novelty. When I visited Romania, I was still unusual: an American.  Not that there weren’t Americans there, but it was still a small novelty for many, many of the people I met.  I’d belly up to the bar in the evenings and be surrounded by Germans, Russians or Italians, but seldom Americans.  I imagine by now Americans are swarming over Eastern Europe.
  9. Before the end of the love affair with America. I’m sure many Americans sneer and scoff “so what” when I say that most of the world hated us – bitterly – after the Iraq War kicked off.  I’m glad I traveled at a time when we had a president who was beloved even more than the current one overseas.  I’m glad I didn’t have to say I was Canadian, like our security department warned us to say post-2003.  I’m glad I traveled when people clapped me on the shoulder and asked me to tell Madonna and Bill Clinton that Czabo from Hungary said hi.

Even considering all of these advantages, I still got tired of business travel.  I’ve told my colleagues many times that the tenth trip to Paris is just another stupid business trip.  The novelty wears off.  But times were better, and I’m glad I got my chance to enjoy the corporate excess when corporations were still excessive.

9 Replies to “9 reasons international business travel was fun…back then”

  1. My dad travels a lot for business, and is fortunate to still enjoy many of the above – business class, nice hotels, actuals, even drivers now and then depending on where he is. Of course his employer is an international company and they don’t cut corners on their employees like American companies seem to do.

    Also, I travelled a bit during the W years, and as much as Europeans hated our president and his policies, they did not take it out on us. We were still welcomed, still honored, occasionally ridiculed a bit but they seemed to understand that Americans who travel are not the same Americans who vote for isolationist policies and unilateral warmongering. Of course, we were not travelling for business, so our experience might differ in that area.

  2. Traveling on the company dime can be great. Unfortunately my employer is too cheap to buy business class tickets even for international travel. But I have still enjoyed some nice trips for free.

  3. It's good to travel nevertheless.. To some, a trip to Paris is a dream, but I understand it can become boring when traveling again and again to the same place

  4. LOL! And here I thought these amenities were remembered only by us survivors of the Pleistocene.

    Now lemme tellya what I miss from when I was a young hatchling:

    When you flew across the Atlantic from Shannon to New York (if you had started in the Middle East you got to Shannon via Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Rome, and various waypoints, a 24-hour flight from first take-off to destination), the Connie that bore you across the ocean had — I hope you're ready for this — actual fold-out beds, so that the plane was transformed into a kind of sleeper car, with privacy curtains around each bunk. I can remember waking at dawn somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic to see the sun just creeping over the horizon.

    When the plane was put back together for the daytime, seats were wide enough for a small person to actually curl up in and read or sleep. There was plenty of leg-room, even for a six-foot man. Seats were ranged two on each side of the plane, so you didn't feel like you were riding a cattle car.

    Passengers dressed well to travel — it was considered low-class to show up in your dungarees. Conversely, airline staff were polite, cheerful, and helpful — they never treated customers like they belonged in a cattle car.

    Food on the planes was nothing fancy, because they didn't have such things as microwaves. You got a kind of boxed picnic. But as I recall, it was pretty tasty. For the times, that is. We Americans had little concept of food in those days.

    Ah, but the food and the wine and the elegant hotels in Rome and Paris were enough to lift the scales from our gastronomic eyes… Beirut was a magnificent city, not a war zone. Truly it was beautiful, the people and the food and the life a delight. The countryside in Lebanon was lovely and peaceful, if you can imagine. Bahrein had yet to turn itself into a stand-up comedy routine on the theme of obscene conspicuous consumption.

    Americans were roundly hated in the Middle East and other parts of the world even then, though, so I wouldn't feel too bad about a little hostility today. We worked hard to earn it. 😉

  5. Wow…you could not have summed up my experience any better. I followed a link from another blog out of curiosity and I could have written your entry.

    I did extensive international business travel in the 90's (including quite a bit of time in Russia and Ukraine). I used to worry that people would think I was a snob because I bought all my coats and ties in Europe…but I spent more time there than at home.

    The one thing about it that wasn't at all rosy is that I can honestly say that I was in a constant state of jet lag for several years since I routinely traveled 9+ timezones at a time and was seldom on one continent for more than a week or two. It is hard on the body and I don't think I could do it now that I'm in my 40's.

  6. Very interesting post. I got into the business world in 2004 and traveled a couple of times on the company dollar before the recession hit big time and pretty much shut down business travel. Like you noted, why pay big $$$ to fly people somewhere when you can just host a video-conference? I got the $25 meal allotment and was pretty impressed at the time, but the world you describe seems far more…grand? Excessive? Interesting? Exciting? Insanely expensive? Maybe all of those rolled into one.

    I’ve moved on from that job to another one, but I recall some of my former co-workers who’d been around in the 80’s reminisce about the holiday drink cart that used to come around at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. Every worker could have 2 drinks—on the clock—and no one thought a thing of it. Fast forward to 2004 and the company policy was no alcohol allowed in the building, and if you went out for lunch on your own dime you were permitted to buy yourself ONE drink.

    Work seems like it’s lost a lot of the fun perks that used to make work seem less like work.

  7. Wasn't just business class; there was actually a time when you were treated like a human being in coach class instead of being regarded as a pesky, ill-dressed bovine, when you were liberally fed and tended to, instead of having to whine and ululate for exotic libations such as water or coffee. Two cases in point – in September 1974 I flew American Airlines from Phoenix to NY; when meal time rolled around I was presented with a printed menu with that day's meal options, and got to make my choice from several appetizers, entrees and desserts. In the summer of 1977, on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Paris, I was fed pretty much nonstop from the time the plane hit cruising altitude to the moment we began circling Charles de Gaulle, and not one of the items was pre-packaged or mummified with preservatives. I'd pay a premium to experience that again in coach!

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