Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Master Traveler Tells All

Insurance salesman Dean Burri is on the road 300 days a year, and relishes every liftoff and layover. Why? We tagged along to find out

EXACTLY 24 HOURS and four cities after we awoke, Dean Burri volunteered his assessment of my traveling skills. "I'd call you a travel enthusiast," he said, taking a puff of a Cuban cigar at a bar inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "You understand the fundamentals of being a road warrior, but you still make too many amateur mistakes." It was a harsh critique, but that was exactly why I had spent the last two days trailing Burri. Last year the 41-year-old insurance salesman (he peddles policies to Catholic institutions like parishes and convents) spent almost 300 days on the road--that's six weeks in the air. He logged more than 400,000 miles, and this year he will probably beat that. Burri doesn't even own a car--he rents one when he lands at home in Clearwater, Fla., where he lives with his wife and six kids. "I would just as soon fly to Hong Kong for Chinese food than order delivery from the place around the corner," Burri says. This was somebody I could learn from.


Several hours before our flight from Newark to Pittsburgh is to depart, Burri sends me an e-mail. It details the FAA ground-delay program for that day, the weather report in New Jersey, and--based on some detective work on Continental's website--the route our incoming plane is taking. And having identified a few trouble spots, Burri had checked availability on two backup flights. He swears that this type of worst-case scenario planning is vital--and countless times has saved him from getting stuck. Burri prefers morning flights, since they're more likely to be on time. He also avoids the last flight of the day (if it's canceled, you're out of luck).


Call it Burri's law: If a first-class ticket isn't much more than double coach, he'll buy it. Otherwise, the hunt for underbooked planes (where he has a better chance of an upgrade) begins. Seat maps on airline websites can tell you that flights through Cleveland, for example, are often less crowded up-front. Sometimes he'll even book two one-way tickets on different carriers to see which one will upgrade him (he pays a change fee to use the second ticket later).


"Laundry!" Burri proclaims loudly in the mezzanine at Newark. And hotel laundry is what allows Burri to carry only one piece of luggage: a medium-sized Tumi shoulder bag. Inside is one extra suit, four dress shirts, underwear, socks, a laptop, work documents, and a wireless router. His suits are custom-made by Alfred Dunhill in London with a military-grade lining to handle the stress of a heavy shoulder bag. Inside the jacket are five custom pockets for gear, including cellphone, passport, and two travel humidors.


Shadowing Burri in an airport is like following a Porsche around in a Toyota Corolla. Though he's 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, he has the agility of a left tackle. When I ask how he always manages to be first in line for everything, he looks at me quizzically. Clearly this is not a skill that can be explained to mere travel "enthusiasts" like myself.


One reason Burri finds traveling such a snap is that he's a member of Continental's "Chairman's Circle." It's a top-secret, invite-only frequent-flier program usually reserved for VIPs and CEOs, and members get a special reservations number and priority upgrades, and can request an airport escort whenever they fly. Being a top customer, and a rather opinionated fellow, Burri has also become a sounding board for Continental execs (they recently asked him to try their new phone voice prompting system). But even if you don't have Continental CEO Larry Kellner's private e-mail, as Burri does, he insists the fastest route to first-class service is to make airline employees laugh. When he first boards and the flight attendant asks him if he wants a drink, he invariably responds, "Can I have a seat-belt extender on the rocks?" He always gets a smile.


Arriving in Vegas from Houston, I finally realize Burri loves to travel because he sees it as a game. Later this month, he tells me, he's flying from L.A. to Honolulu to Guam to Manila to Taiwan to Macao to Hong Kong to Seoul to Tokyo to Newark and back to Tampa, all in seven days. What's more, he's doing it for fun: The idea is to hit airports he hasn't been to before. How will he spend all that air time? Apparently the endless strategizing doesn't just apply to travel, which explains Burri's new obsession with Bollywood DVDs. "They give you the most bang for your buck," he says gleefully. "I bought 800 movies for $4 each!"

Avoid Bad Weather Pick the right hubs to change planes. In general, the farther south the airport is, the better. Never book the last flight of the day.
Be Funny If you make airline employees laugh, you'll get far better service.
Skip Full Flights If you want to upgrade, check seat maps on airline websites and choose flights that have the most open seats in first class. Midday and night flights often have more availability.
Don't Fight the Law Avoid booking the aisles in first class, since that's where air marshals often sit. You could get bumped.
Carry On Only amateurs check bags when they're traveling for business. Burri uses hotel laundry to keep going for weeks at a time.
Charge It Buy one adapter that can charge everything. (Burri likes Igo Juice,

Modern Flight

Most business travelers wouldn't dream of checking their bags. But now, thanks to stringent regulations about what liquids and creams can be carried on, more travelers have resigned themselves to bad breath and messy hair. That just wasn't an option for Jodi Nass. A recently retired 25-year Wall Street vet, she heard about the initial TSA ban and "a light bulb went off in my head." The solution? A line of travel products called Fly Dry that could pass security. "I knew in the old days there wasn't liquid toothpaste or soaps," says Nass. That led her to an old-time soapmaker in Texas. "These things have been around forever, but no one had really wanted them," she says. At first, the shampoo and conditioning bars look scary, but a recent test showed they work nicely (men and women's kits are $49 at And for men, Smart Fixx H20 Styling Strips turn into gel with a splash of warm water--perfect for hairstyling on the run ($9 at most drugstores). — B.G.

By: Gimbel, Barney, Fortune, 10/16/2006

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