Mobile Nation

The things you carry on the road are only as good as the strategies you've developed for using them

Efficiency on the road requires a whole lot more than stuffing your bags with the latest in mobile technology. Just like efficiency in the gym, it's a matter of carefully choosing not only what equipment to use but also how to use it. The most loaded laptop won't do you any good if lugging it around--along with a ton of product brochures that you couldn't see clients without--would break your back. And the sleekest cell phone will only drain your resources (both physical and financial) if you don't have a calling plan with roaming capabilities and instead have to run to pay phones or absorb the charges that hotels tack on to in-room calls.

What follows is a look at the personal travel habits of four peripatetic businesspeople who know how to do it right, from the technology they tote to the work strategies they employ to stay maximally productive outside the office.

Mission Control
Control your destiny or someone else will." That's General Electric CEO Jack Welch's first rule to live by, and it's just as appropriate to describe Israel "Sruki" Switzer's approach to business travel. Back in 1980, Switzer joined the front-runners of the mobile-technology elite with the purchase of a Sony Typecorder (the precursor to today's laptops), a machine that ran off four AA batteries and displayed a single line of text. In those days Switzer held a senior position with a major Canadian cable operator and often had to travel frantically around the United States as local municipalities solicited bids, but when corporate policy nixed business-class privileges, he quit. Now 69, Switzer is still one of the most sought-after specialists in cable-TV network architecture, and he has traveled from his home in Toronto to consult on large-scale cable-system projects in Israel, Hong Kong, Colombia, and England.

A two-million-miler in American Airlines' AAdvantage program, Switzer says his laptop--now an IBM ThinkPad 560--is his primary productivity tool when traveling. But technology alone isn't the ticket to his efficiency. Switzer adds to the mix an aspiration to "travel with equanimity"--that is, to experience hassle-free travel shaped by his ability to control the variables along the way.

According to Switzer, the key to mastering his mobile fate was learning to focus on the average cost of traveling over time, rather than on how much he shelled out for each trip. Now he feels comfortable spending a few bucks to smooth out bumps in the road when he needs to--and knows better how to divvy up his resources. For example, Switzer carries airline-club membership cards, which, if you travel often enough, add little to the average cost of a flight and grant access, he says, to "an island of serenity when everything else has gone to hell." And he doesn't hesitate to tip exorbitantly when circumstances warrant it.

Consider the time 10 years ago when a blizzard battered the entire Northeast, and Switzer's flight to Washington, D.C., wound up in Philadelphia. Knowing hotel rooms would be hard to come by, Switzer left before his bags got to the carousel, handed a taxi driver a $20 bill, and asked to be taken to the nearest hotel. (The fare itself came to only a couple of dollars.) He wound up with a good night's sleep while his fellow passengers spent a miserable night in the airport. "Most problems you can buy your way out of, but you have to be willing to pay now, argue later," he says.

Make no mistake about it, Switzer does eventually get around to the arguing part--usually by firing off biting letters to airline executives. Back in the mid 1980s, after an Eastern Airlines pilot forbade him to use his Radio Shack TRS-80 portable computer while airborne, Switzer sent the airline a request for reimbursement for $125 to cover the cost of his lost working time. (No, he never saw the money.) When an American Airlines gate agent in Tokyo couldn't find his first-class reservation, Switzer wrote to the head of consumer relations: "It's no fun standing in the middle of Narita Airport and being told your F-Class reservation has been lost....My travel agent tells me that they were advised that we were 'no-shows' at NRT [Narita Airport]. Bullshit!" And with a pilot's license and his own Piper Aztec, Switzer feels qualified to comment on airlines' choices of equipment, as he did in a 1989 letter to American's then-CEO Robert Crandall. "I will cross the Pacific only on four-engine airliners," wrote Switzer. "If the Boeing 747 is too big for your routes, you will have to get the Airbus A340 if you want my business." Switzer insists he's only trying to get the airlines he flies to improve their service, and only rarely is he plied with free frequent-flier miles for his efforts.