Can business travel be fun?

Yes, very much so, say enthusiastic frequent travelers -- if, like them, you make the effort to get out and see the sights wherever duty takes you. Sometimes, though, you have to plot your break from the briefcase with all the skills of an escape artist.

Holding a job that calls for regular travel sounds appealing -- it's a chance to get out of the office and visit new and exciting places on somebody else's money. Unfortunately, the dream sometimes can become a nightmare when the trip turns out to be a sequence of days full of meetings, receptions and business meals, perhaps all of them in your hotel. You might be in San Antonio (a lovely city), but how would you know unless you happen to spot the Alamo on the cab ride back to the airport?

True, the whole purpose of a business trip is to get work done, and travel can be an expensive item on your company's budget that it doesn't want to see wasted. But you can be properly conscientious in your job and, at least on occasion, still set aside some personal time to take advantage of the opportunities travel offers. The reward is a business trip that -- improbable though it sounds -- seems almost like a mini-vacation.

Jack O'Connell, a Washington public relations consultant and formerly president of the Sugar Association, makes a point of visiting art museums when he travels on business, which is often. "It makes the trip fun," he says. He thinks it's a waste to travel to a new city that you might not otherwise see and not give it at least a once-over-lightly look. O'Connell has traveled to 49 states (Alaska is the exception), South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Still, finding the time in a busy work schedule is not always easy. Robert Covell, the director of programs for a Germantown telecommunications firm, tries to plan sightseeing activities "that complement my business schedule." If he has a day full of meetings in San Francisco, he says, he will pick a spot he can tour safely in the evening, such as the city's busy Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf.

At the very minimum, Dolores K. Jones, an insurance executive for Amtrak, makes sure she has dinner outside her hotel, even if it's another business meal. Getting to the restaurant gives her a glimpse of the city "from a taxi window." But just in case her schedule suddenly frees, she reads tourist brochures in advance so she's prepared to go sightseeing.

On a busy trip, it is tempting when work is finally done to collapse in your room with a TV movie or join your colleagues at the bar. But to business travelers such as O'Connell, who enjoy seeing new places, the pleasure of touring seems to ease the fatigue. And when the trip is over, he says, "you feel good about using your time."

Not every business trip will lend itself to sightseeing getaways. But if you have a yen to get to know and enjoy your next destination, consider these suggestions: Indulge your interests. You may not be able to tour the whole city on the first visit, but you can try to sample at least one of its primary attractions. If you love fine dining, arrange for dinner at a leading restaurant. If, like O'Connell, your joy is art, skip a lunch and head for the museum. "They're likely to be in the center of the city near business hotels," he says. Or go shopping, if you prefer.

If major league baseball excites you (and there's no home-town team to cheer for), schedule your trip to catch a night game. Go to a concert, the theater, a ballet. If the city boasts a famous golf course, arrange a meeting on the links. Salt Lake City and Denver make it easy for skiers traveling on business to get in a half-day or day on the slopes. Combine fitness with sightseeing. Many large hotels have added fitness centers because their guests maintain their workout scheduleswhile on the road. A negative is that these indoor centers keep you confined to your hotel. Two obvious alternatives that get you outdoors for the views are jogging and brisk walking.

The point to remember, however, is that exercise isn't your only goal. So detour around the statue in the park to read its inscription and keep an eye out for shops, restaurants and museums that you might try visiting later. Don't overschedule yourself. Your company may want to see you on the go from morning to night, but pencil in a personal break on your pocket calendar. Say no to a business lunch in Philadelphia and go have a look at Independence Hall. Hold your first meeting at 10 a.m. in San Francisco, giving you a chance for a morning cable car ride. Beg out of the cocktail reception and go for a walk through the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Most return flights to the United States from Europe depart at midday. Covell, who crosses the Atlantic several times a year, tries to keep that last morning free for touring. "I'll try and catch a museum that opens at 10 a.m.," he says.

O'Connell takes advantage of any free time that suddenly opens up. "I see that our meeting breaks up at 4:30 p.m.," he says, "and the reception isn't until 7, so I go out and take that city bus tour at 5 that lasts for an hour and a half." He and other travelers see guided bus tours as a way to orient themselves to a city's principle features. Later, if there's time, they can go back to places that interest them.

If a meeting ends early, don't rush to the airport to catch an earlier flight. Use the extra time to see the city. Eat away from your hotel, if only down the block. Room service can be a treat, and many women traveling alone prefer it. Or it is convenient to grab a quick meal in the hotel coffee shop. But, say these frequent travelers, you end up missing one of the best opportunities to get to know a place.

Many hotel dining rooms offer a standard international menu. Instead, seek out restaurants that serve local dishes -- places that cater to the home-town crowd and in their decor reflect the flavor of the city or country. If nothing else, you will see what the local people eat, hear their accents, observe how they dress, perhaps be introduced to new foods and different customs.

Amtrak's Jones, who not surprisingly travels frequently by train, says business associates in cities she visits are good sources for dining recommendations. She looks forward to business dinners in such places.

Avoid airport hotels, if possible. They have convenience in their favor, but they are isolated. Most are chain hotels, which means they resemble a lot of other hotels you have stayed in.

One Washington traveler, attending a three-day convention at a big chain hotel at the Houston airport, never met a Texan except for the hotel staff. It is harder to catch a concert, see a museum or sample local restaurants when you are miles from the heart of town. Instead, on occasion stay in a small hotel or bed-and-breakfast inn. The small places, many of them restored historic lodgings, offer the native flavor that the chains can't manage. In bed-and-breakfast inns, which are growing in popularity with business travelers, you get the benefit -- if you want it -- of personal attention from your host and hostess. Over a glass of wine on the veranda, they can tell you about their town and may even offer to give you a tour. You are talking to local people, not other out-of-towners. Obtain sightseeing information and entertainment schedules in advance. While you or an assistant is setting up business appointments, put a call in to the tourism office at your destination. You will know what you want to see before you get there.

"I read up on the spot -- the city and the area," says O'Connell. He often asks for a map, so he can see if any side trips are possible by rented car. He also calls ahead to business contacts for their suggestions. If you have a voice in meeting planning, speak up. A number of historic structures, art museums and other popular tourist sites welcome private functions, often cocktail receptions after regular closing hours. An example is the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

Hold a gathering at one of these places, and you have treated yourself and the other guests to a business meeting that will be remembered. Combine the business trip with a weekend or a vacation. This is especially true if you are being sent to a popular resort area such as Hawaii.

The company is picking up your air fare, which is a big saving if you want to take along the family. And the company will pay for your hotel room for the days that you are working. A double rate to accommodate your spouse is usually only a few dollars more than you would be charged for a single. Your spouse, incidentally, will see to it that you find free time in your schedule for sightseeing and recreation.

If you are headed for a city, go on the weekend before your meeting or linger the weekend after. Business hotels in many cities offer weekend rates at discounts of up to 50 percent off weekday prices. "If it doesn't dent your budget," says O'Connell, and "you've given yourself a two-day vacation when you might otherwise be at home mowing the lawn."

He notes that even if you have only a three-day business trip, you can turn it into a holiday. Take two days of vacation, add the two weekends and the result is that you have three days for work and six days for fun.

Don't forget casual clothes. With sneakers and sports garb at hand, you are more apt to venture into the realm of the tourist than you would dressed in business attire. You will be more comfortable, too.