Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more
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Tips for Audition Travel

Next in our Audition series: planning and organizing your audition tour. Our editor shares a few tips from his time on the road.

In my previous column, I showed you how I create a written budget for my audition travel. Today, I’m going to share a few of my tips for making travel more affordable, enjoyable, and organized. [Note: Neither the author, nor OpusAtlas, nor anyone known to either receives any benefit, financial or otherwise, from the companies mentioned herein.]

Booking Travel
By now, most people are familiar with, if not proficient in, the major travel booking aggregators like Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak, Priceline, and Expedia. These services are one-stop booking sites for air travel, hotel, rental car, and all-in packages, playing the part of an impersonal, and somewhat unreliable travel agent. They have become so ubiquitous and profitable that some have created their own rewards programs in the model of airlines and hotels to maintain the loyalty of their users. They are frequently used by opera company administrators who are in charge of booking artist travel, too, but are they the best option for stress-free, budget-conscious travel?

Though I use these sites to search for airfare ranges, I never book through them – primarily because when I do, my reservation now includes a middle man, and that gives me less protection and lower priority with the airlines on which I book travel, not to mention the strong possibility that the airline/hotel and booking site may squabble over who's on the hook if something goes wrong with my reservation. In addition, some airlines and hotels won’t allow you to earn loyalty points for travel that was purchased through a third-party entity (no doubt this contributed to the advent of loyalty programs specific to these sites). Instead, I search on a third-party site to get a sense of the range of available fare and schedule options, then go directly to the airline or hotel site to book my travel. My third-party engine of choice is Hipmunk, which allows users to sort their results according to price, schedule, and a unique indicator they call “Agony,” which downgrades itineraries that feature multiple, long, or overnight layovers. Hipmunk also provides direct-booking links to the airlines they feature (they are paid by the airlines for directing traffic to their sites), so you can earn frequent flyer or loyalty points for your preferred travel partners.

***Tip: Frequent Flyer and other loyalty programs can be a huge long-term benefit if you don’t mind paying an extra $10-25 for an occasional flight. Because of the toll my work-related travel takes on me and my wife, I earmark my reward miles and stays for vacations and other trips with her. This is a concrete way that the stress of business travel can “give back” in the form of some free work/life balance!***

Frequent flyer and other loyalty points can really come through for you if you are offered an important last-minute audition at an out-of-town location. I once had a last-minute audition come up in a fairly remote European location and was able to save about $400 on a connecting flight from Florida to New York by buying it with points, instead of cash.

For additional information on strategically leveraging loyalty accounts, including airline/hotel branded credit cards, I recommend following Ben Schlappig’s blog, “One Mile at a Time.”

***Tip: Keep a “Favorites” list on AirBnB of affordable, well-located, or otherwise desirable alternatives to hotels in each of the major (and even minor) audition cities. If you get a one-off audition in a city you’ve never stayed in, an AirBnB is a great alternative to a hotel, and you can stay in popular neighborhoods near attractions or amenities that are interesting to you.***

Party Like it’s 1999
Those old enough to remember air travel before September 11, 2001, often reminisce about the simplicity of the security and check-in process: shoes and coats stayed on, bags stayed closed, and liquid toiletries flowed freely. You could even get a bottle of olive oil or a jar of homemade preserves (two real-life personal tragedies) home in a carry-on without the Transportation Security Administration (which didn’t exist) confiscating it. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight to this particular madness, but there is a workaround if you’re willing to pay.

Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check are relatively new programs instituted by the TSA to allow vetted travelers to skip the more draconian current security screening in favor of a pre-9/11 shoes-on, laptops-in experience. Admission to these programs is relatively easy:

  1. Submit an application, including non-refundable application fee ($100 for GE, $85 for Pre-Check. Both include 5-yr membership upon approval), to the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA will run a complete criminal background check and cross-reference you with existing “no-fly” lists. The initial screening process can take around 3 weeks, so be patient. Assuming you pass this phase, you

  2. Schedule and complete an in-person interview at one of their locations at participating airports. In some cities, these interviews are scheduled 2-3 months out, so don’t expect to book travel under one of these programs within a couple of weeks of applying. Due diligence on this scale is not a speedy process.

If you pass both screenings, you will receive your Known Traveler Number (KTN) at the interview, and it will be active within another week or so. You will need to enter this number every time you book travel, in order to receive expedited security screening, although most airlines allow you to store this information in your loyalty profile (yet another reason to book directly through airline websites). I recommend Global Entry, because in addition to the expedited process at U.S. Customs (I waited exactly zero minutes to pass through at U.S. Customs when I returned from Europe), it includes the $85 Pre-Check membership, so you essentially pay $15 for the Customs add-on.

As I write this, there are at least two other new products coming online for expedited security screening:

  1. Clear, a corporate travel product that provides expedited access to existing Pre-Check physical screening lanes (bypassing initial TSA boarding pass/ID check) for a monthly fee, and is at roughly 20 U.S. airports.

  2. Mobile Passport, a mobile application created by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to expedite Customs clearance (as of 12/8/16, at 1 cruise port and 20 airports) by allowing passengers to make Customs declarations on their mobile devices and proceed to special “Mobile Passport Control” lanes upon arrival.

I have not used either of these services yet, as Global Entry has thus far provided every convenience I wanted.

Organizing Your Travel
If you’re a typical singer with a regular audition and performance schedule, your email inbox is likely a wasteland of old and new travel itineraries and loyalty account statements, all tangled with your normal email flow. All of this clutter and disorganization only adds to the stress of audition season and life on the road, so it behooves you to find a strategy for organizing this information. One application that I swear by is called TripIt, which scans your email inbox for travel-related itineraries and confirmations, and combines related ones into custom itineraries for your upcoming trips. The app will also send you trip notifications, search for seats for you when they become available, and track your loyalty points with all of your preferred travel partners. Some of this functionality is reserved for the subscription service (TripIt Pro - $49/yr), and in my opinion, is worth every penny.

Another option for keeping your travel information in one place is to have a dedicated email address either for your travel (ex.: or at least for your artistic activities, so your personal emails and career-related emails aren’t all tangled together.

Travel Insurance
Like many in my generation, I think, I have never thought much of insurance products like travel and car rental insurance, and until recently, I have never had cause to reconsider my position on it. However, a new insurance product has recently come into existence, and I have used it with great satisfaction. It is called Freebird, and it is a third-party insurance product that includes a handful of really incredible features:

  • Proactively contacts you via text to re-book your flight as soon as a cancellation, missed connection, or delay of over 4 hours is announced.

  • Books the flight of your choice on the airline of your choice, using your frequent flyer information to get you tons of extra miles for your trouble.

  • Re-booking with Freebird has no bearing on compensation you may receive from your original airline – you are free to accept whatever voucher or cash payment you are offered by your original airline.

The product itself is relatively cheap ($19 one-way/$34 round trip), and I have witnessed first-hand their proactive problem-solving in trying to get my parents and myself on flights under hurricane-related cancellations in northern Florida. I now use this product every time I fly.

Packing for Auditions and Short (<1 week) Gigs
Deciding what to pack for an audition is a personal decision, of course, but there are a few guidelines that may help:

  • Try to keep everything in a carry-on, if the trip is short enough. This eliminates the possibility that you will need to shop last-minute for a replacement suit/dress when your checked bag gets last/delayed.

  • Pack an extra dress shirt/dress in your bag. You never know when you’ll find yourself eating on the run, but you can be sure some condiment or drink will find its way onto your audition clothes if you do.

  • Pack only the electronics/items you will absolutely need for the trip. I have almost never gotten this calculation quite right, but on trips of less than 3 days, I can’t remember when I’ve gotten unrelated work or reading done. If you must have access to Netflix and/or books, consider a small tablet (like the Kindle Fire) to make your life easier. Assume you’ll be carrying all of this around on your back walking around New York City. Laptops, extra scores, and extraneous books are just dead weight.

  • I always have two copies of my repertoire book with me—one totally clean copy for my pianist, and one with all of my own markings to study on the plane/at my hotel. Additionally, I have the whole thing backed up in PDF form on Dropbox or Google Drive, in case something goes wrong.

  • Likewise with résumés, headshots, press kits, and rep lists: have all the copies you need (3 of each, typically), and have them backed up to cloud-based storage for emergency printing. You may wake up the morning of the audition and change your mind about offering a certain aria. Change it, then print a new, clean copy for the audition. Details matter.
  • Packing for Extended Tours and Gigs
    Packing for longer trips (2-4 weeks, for example) is a slightly different calculation than short trips. For one, you can reasonably assume you’ll have access to laundry facilities, so 5 or 6 days’ worth of everyday clothes will suffice. I will cover longer trips in depth in a later column when I get to a broader discussion of life on the road as a professional singer.

    A Word on “Living a Little”
    My own experience as a frequent traveler for auditions and performances has given me some measure of pause as it relates to my tendency to be very business-focused when I leave for a trip. I have learned in the course of these travels that I am much more human, and much healthier when I build in some time for enjoyment in the various wonderful places I am blessed to go thanks to my job. So I implore you: set aside a few dollars and hours and treat yourself to at least one quintessential experience in each city you visit. As an opera singer, it is tremendously valuable to see live performances whenever we can, but it is also true for almost everyone that we are never fully at rest when watching others sing. Because of this, I encourage you to get to the Met, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or Loft Opera – or any one of dozens of wonderful presenting organizations – whenever you find yourself in New York; however, this is not covered under the kind of humanizing experience I mention above. See a new neighborhood, spend an hour or two in a legendary bookstore, see a museum, a National Park, or some tourist attraction that has nothing at all to do with music.

    We get precious little time to relax in our career, and it is easy to take for granted perhaps the greatest benefit of this career: the transformative experience of the incredible places we go and people we meet. I have found it so enriching to be able to look back at the wonderful cities I have seen and to know something about them – something attached to sensory memory – that I could not have known from an airplane, a magazine, or a television show. So, do yourself and your soul the favor of experiencing as much as possible while you travel.

Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more