We're students, and we don't have a car. A client would like to meet up, but at a location that isn't far to get to by car, but is a pain by subway/taxi.
It would be awesome if we could handle the entire exchange over phone and email. What is a nice way to say this to a client? Is the truth the best approach here?
The project is a new website, by the way.
Don't mean to offend you, but if you think it "is a pain" to meet with your client then maybe you should rethink the whole business-owner thing. If they were hours away, that's a different story but it seems like you're saying it's just plain inconvenient. I'm concerned about your commitment to your clients and the long-term viability of your business.
Having said that, if I've made an incorrect assumption and it is truly a burden to travel to their location, then one way to handle it is to charge them for your travel and leave it up to them. If it's worth their while to pay extra to have you there in person, great. You've covered any expense and extra time. If they don't think it's worth it, then they'll be happy to save themselves some money and conduct business by phone/skype/email.
Just ask for a preliminary meeting over the phone, to review the project, discuss milestones, whatever.
Once you know the project is likely to happen, then maybe it's worth investing the $40 of a taxi ride to actually shake hands with the customer. Just pad your quote with the $40 and you're good.
You should keep in mind that there are things about how you run your business that the client will not care about. Whether or not you have a car is one of those things. If you have not explicitly put those facts on the table up front, then I believe there are certain reasonable expectations for the client. If the distance is such that another company like yours could easily get there, then you should do the same. And I don't think billing for time/expense in this case is appropriate. If I was the client I would be concerned about your company's inability to perform these basic business functions. Asking for a face to face meeting in the same "city" or location is not an exceptional request. Something which is a hardship specifically for you, because of your choice or situation, is not the client's problem.
You have to pick your battles carefully, and the same applies to clients. If they are not worth your time, just move on and look for another one. However, this doesn't seem to be your case.
That said, business is about building relationships. As DiPietro said, if meeting clients is a nuisance to you, I suggest you become an accountant and let somebody else manage the front office of your business. Better yet, sell your business.
Suggest an alternative place that is easy to get to?
Or skip it.
In my not so humble opinion, it depends on the price you're charging for the work.
If it is a $100-200 job, then expecting to meet you in person is unreasonable on their part. If it's a $3000 job, then the expectation of reasonable and you should go.
Since you're a student, it's likely that it'll be on the lower end of the scale. Assuming they know you're students, if they wish to meet, let them come to you.
As a student, you can learn a lot simply by meeting your clients, and as a new business, you need to do everything in your power to get in front of potential clients.
Unless the travel time by car--public transportation doesn't count--is more than a couple of hours, I'd suggest you make the meeting without asking for travel fees. In cases where the travel time is more than two hours, try to assess your client's commitment by learning more about their goals and budget.
I started in business eleven years ago by knocking on doors and traveling up to three hours without a commitment from or imposing a charge to my clients. Only when we got too busy did I begin charging for travel. The effort paid off, we're still around after a decade, and I wouldn't change a thing.