Travel is a defining characteristic of management consulting regardless of your company. From Bain to Accenture, from McKinsey to Alvarez & Marsal. If you’re a consultant, you can expect to become familiar with acronyms like LGA, LAX, and ORD. You can expect to spend enough time in hotels that the staff will recognize and greet you by name.
However, there is A LOT of misinformation on this topic.
Here are the TOP FIVE myths about consulting travel and my thoughts about the “broader truth” behind each.
Bad Myths About Consulting Travel
#1 Consultants spend months, often years, in the farthest flung cities where the weather is freezing and Arby’s is considered fine-dining
This is the most oft-repeated consultant traveling myth, and one that turns many away from giving the profession a serious thought (and also the biggest category of investment banker jokes). That’s not to say the truth is glamorous – reality lies somewhere in the middle. Most management consultants throughout their careers will find themselves in 1 or 2 cities that have few redeeming qualities. But the majority of the time – work is focused in large cities (think San Francisco, California and not Paris, Texas) and developed countries (think Johannesburg, South Africa and not Tallinn, Estonia).
Paris, Texas-based companies need consultants too – but most likely, they won’t be able to afford the services of Big-3 caliber firms. If you work for regionally-focused consulting companies with functional expertise (eg, environment, tax), your chances of spending significant time in such places will increase.
At the end of the day – lifestyle matters to consultants. Partners avoid sending teams to lifestyle poor areas for extended periods of time (as often the resulting negative feedback can hurt the Partner’s performance as well). And if they do, there are typically compensating mechanisms (“spend 3 months here, and I will strongly support your interest in a Latin-American project when staffing comes around”).
#2 Consulting travel means a frantic, never-ending procession of deadlines
You’ll be building PowerPoint Presentations on a trans-Pacific flight thru the night, land in Foreign Country A and rush to the client where you’re already 15 minutes late for the crucial meeting. Give the presentation – the whole time, your manager and team will be glaring at you for unforgivable typos in the slide “deck”. Once the meeting finishes, the team piles into another taxi and races to the airport to catch a flight to Foreign Country B. And the whole cycle starts anew.
Another convenient myth that investment bankers like to share to make themselves feel better at 4am on a Saturday morning. The truth here is also somewhere in the middle. Travel projects – particularly international ones – face a higher degree of pressure to succeed (both from the client and from firm leadership). You will face more deadlines, and will be expected to spend part of flight time working. You’ll also face at least a few deadlines where it seems like you rush from the airport to the client and back again. But “a few” is the key phrase here. In the course of a 3-month project, expect this to happen 2-3 times maximum.
#3 You have no choice about where you work
The office staffing manager sends you an email of the following variety:
“Your next project will be in [RANDOM TOWN], Wisconsin. We’ve booked the team at the local Days Inn for the next 3 months. Please find the cheapest flight leaving tomorrow morning. Sincerely, your Staffer.”
Not true. Your choice in projects – choice of location, choice of “function” (eg strategy, operations, organization, etc), choice of client – depends on two key factors: your PERFORMANCE ON PRIOR PROJECTS and your SENIORITY. But even the worst-performing, most junior-level consultants can sway staffing decisions in their favor. I will write about this more when I hit the “how to succeed at your new consulting job” series of posts, but here’s what you need to know:
Staffing is never a one-way process. Based on your background, your interests, your stated preferences – and your ability to build relationships with firm leadership – you can exercise sway over staffing decisions starting on Day 1 of your job at a management consulting firm.
If you find yourself staffed consistently on projects of lower-interest in less-attractive locales, there are several reasons why this is happening:
1) You don’t care enough to express your opinions to firm leadership, to staffing, even to your team
2) You aren’t proactive in meeting partners, managers, etc – people who REALLY make the staffing decisions
3) You haven’t learned the art of effective “pushback” – the ability to express your honest opinions without offending those around you
Good Myths About Consulting Travel (But they are still Myths)
#4 Consultants travel in style – business class flights, filet mignon steak dinners, new countries and continents explored every week
The opposite extreme of BAD MYTH #1, but equally misrepresentative. Similar answer as before – aspects are true (business class flights for select projects and distances, the occasional fancy dinners with the team and/or client, some international projects will see you traverse 5 countries in the course of 1-2 weeks). But this is the exception and it comes with its own baggage, in the form of BAD MYTH #2.
What is the norm, then? Expect to spend 50% of your time on domestic projects, traveling to cities like Houston, Raleigh, Chicago, and Seattle. You may fly business class, but you can expect an equal number of economy-class flights (particularly given lack of long-term scheduling flexibility). And there will be fancy dinners – but these come typically after several long nights and high-pressure meetings. And work dinners are not like dinners with your frat buddies or school tennis club. Not at all.
The good news, though? You get to put all of that travel spend on your own credit card. Your travel budget = personal points to use however you would like. It’s why choosing a credit card is one of our top to-do’s for new consultants.
Our favorite card for consultants? The Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which offers 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, which has already covered the $550 annual fee. In addition, the card offers 3X points on travel, restaurant and dining purchases (AKA you’ll rack up the bonus points like gangbusters). Plus, with perks like Priority Pass lounge membership, Lyft Pink membership, travel insurance, and up to a $100 reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®, the Sapphire Reserve is a no-brainer for the traveling consultant.
#5 You become Mr. Uber-Platinum-Gold-Diamond-Titanium Status for Life
You receive free upgrades on every flight and every hotel room. You accumulate enough frequent user points/miles/etc. to enjoy free vacations for the rest of your life
Again, the truth is a more moderate version of this myth. Many consultants will rack up serious points – especially the longer you’ve been a consultant and the more senior you are – and will have “Status” on every major airline and hotel chain. At my peak, I was Starwood Platinum, AA Platinum, and middle-tier status on a few other airlines and hotel chains. But I’ve already run out of free hotel nights and free flights (sorry, readers!). And Platinum status doesn’t last forever – otherwise, these Status programs would be major money losers.
The minute you quit consulting is the minute you’ll lose it, unless you plan to maintain spend on travel reward credit cards. My colleague here at MC has maintained Delta Platinum Medallion and Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite 10+ years after leaving Bain – if you want to continue to make travel a priority, having the status you earned in consulting is a great launching pad from which to continue to do it in style. Hopefully it’s not a big enough loss to sway your decision – but it is one factor of the consulting lifestyle that can become addicting, particularly over extended periods of time.
Wondering what other myths about the management consulting industry and career you believe to be true? Our 3 Month Mastery will break it down for you – what to expect, how to roll with the industry and come up on top.