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Savviest travelers? // It's no contest

Patricia Fairchild was standing in the Auckland, New Zealand, airport, 26 hours after leaving Tampa, when she found out her suitcase was lost.

She was asked by an official to describe it, which wasn't an easy task: "I could barely remember my name at that point," she said.

Thankfully, she had the one travel essential she never leaves home without: a snapshot of her bag. The suitcase was located shortly thereafter.

It's that kind of resourcefulness that made Fairchild, a senior clinical consultant with Largo-based Smith & Nephew United, one of five winners in a recent contest honoring savvy female business travelers.

"I've been everywhere in the world _ twice _ and carrying pictures of your luggage is really a no-brainer," said Fairchild, who teaches nurses how to prevent bedsores. "My bags get lost about twice a year. They even got lost when I came home from the awards ceremony in New York."

The contest, sponsored by Liz Claiborne, Wyndham Hotels and American Airlines, attracted 1,100 veteran travelers. The winners received an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, along with a $1,000 wardrobe from Liz Claiborne, a two-week vacation at any Wyndham hotel, 25,000 American Airlines frequent-flyer miles and a year's membership in the airline's Admiral's Club.

The contest winners had one thing in common. They all make the most of their time on the road:

Debra Miller, a single parent from Carmel, Ind., uses business trips to teach her kids world geography and math. She also checks homework daily by fax and decorates her hotel rooms with the kids' illustrations.

Tracy LaQuey Parker of Austin, Texas, downloads digital photos of her travel destinations onto the Internet and sends them to her husband back home.

Patricia Shaffer of Fountain Valley, Calif., records her favorite exercise routines and takes them along for workouts while traveling.

Fairchild, a 39-year-old Palm Harbor resident, was the most well-traveled winner: She logs about 180 nights on the road each year. After nine years as a clinical consultant, the last two with Smith & Nephew, Fairchild has racked up 1.5-million frequent flyer miles with American Airlines and another 250,000 with Delta.

"I've honestly never met anyone who travels as much as me," she said, adding that when fellow travelers brag about having 250,000 frequent-flyer miles, "I just laugh."

She often gives out advice to seven other nurse-clinicians at Smith & Nephew who also travel extensively.

"I tell them to grab every opportunity to take an earlier flight, even if it means they'll have to wait for their connection," she said. "And get to the airport at least an hour before your flight, because if your plane is canceled, you'll have a better chance of getting on another plane."

During a recent six-day trip, Fairchild fit all her clothing _ in shades of blue and black _ into a medium-size suitcase and a footlong canvas bag. Her only carry-on was a briefcase carrying her computer. The rest was checked on, along with a special piece of equipment.

"I took along my parachute bag because I skydive for fun," said Fairchild, who's also a licensed private pilot. "I try to combine business with pleasure _ skydiving or skiing _ as much as I can, or else I'd go crazy."