Best Upscale Hotel Value:
When W Hotels Worldwide launched in 1998, the idea of a "lifestyle" hotel chain seemed like a bunch of marketing bluster--on top of a dumb name. But consumers were able to see past the silliness and appreciate the substance. Eight years and 20 Ws later, the brand is still resonating. And now you can call it W for worldwide: Starwood, W's parent company, just announced it is building a new W in Dubai, its fifth outside the U.S.
Ws are the apotheosis of hipness. In addition to hosting trend-conscious social events such as wine tastings and author readings, the hotels feature cutting-edge décor and creature comforts galore. Bathroom amenities are from Bliss, the pillow-top mattresses and goose down comforters are sublime, and finicky sleepers can choose their pillow from a menu. The restaurants draw top chefs, the fitness centers lure elite trainers, and most Ws have sumptuous spa facilities.
Then there's the thoughtful service. Staffers are encouraged to keep their eyes and ears open: Leave empty packages of throat lozenges and Nyquil on your bathroom vanity, and room service might show up with a complimentary bowl of chicken soup. Need to organize an 11th-hour business event? The "whatever/whenever" concierge service will help you pull it off. Forget something important? Cosmetics and fashion survival kits should have most women covered, while men can just ring that helpful concierge.
Best New Hotel Brand:
When big hotel companies known for bland, boxy rooms start talking about building "boutique" hotels, it's usually time to run the other way. The whole idea of a boutique hotel, after all, is to provide intimacy and uniqueness, not develop a formula for mass-produced whimsy. But InterContinental Hotels Group has created Hotel Indigo, a brand that has the spirit of a boutique hotel with the advantages of a hospitality powerhouse. It has an excellent frequency program, a well-designed website and some great downtown locations.
The brand-builders approached Hotel Indigo as if they were building a high-end retail store--appealing to the eye, well-lit and a tad edgy. The designers were experienced showroom developers, and the interiors look very much like sets: bold color palettes, organic materials and cool-looking restaurants and lounges. The public areas, such as lobbies and hallways, are designed so the décor and music change with the season, the way a retail floor would. There's nothing stiff or stuffy here: Instead of sofas or club chairs in the lobby, there are oversize Adirondack chairs. The resort-like feel is extended to the décor in the guest rooms--special touches include streamline modern-style coffee makers and six pillows on the bed.
Business travelers get a great deal for the price, which can run in the low $100s per night. Hotel Indigo properties are already open in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Sarasota, Florida, with nine more set to open within the year.
Best Car Rental Value:
Enterprise is the largest car rental firm in the U.S. and the fastest-growing car rental company in the airport segment. How has Enterprise managed to grow so quickly amid brutal competition? One reason is customer service, which is competent, veering on personable. For the third year in a row and the seventh time in the past eight years, Enterprise ranked highest in the 2006 J.D. Power and Associates "Rental Car Satisfaction Study." Enterprise received the highest rating in five of the six categories measured: cost and fees, pickup process, return process, shuttle bus/van service and reservation process.
We also like Enterprise's addition of portable GPS devices, which are now available at most airport locations. For $7.95 a day, you can use the StreetPilot, which contains roughly 6 million points of interest. What's especially customer-friendly about these devices is the text-to-speech feature that gives street names instead of just distances to streets.
When self-booking sites first launched, many business travelers balked at using them; it was much easier to have your travel agent make arrangements. But soon, every hotel, car-rental company and airline had created its own site and booking engine. With transparency came the opportunity for great prices.
But there can be significant price discrepancies among sites. To make comparison shopping easy, Booking Buddy lets you compare the comparers--online agencies (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity) against individual airline sites; aggregators (Hotwire, Sidestep) against each other; Hotels.com against Priceline. You'll also find a few sites you've probably never heard of, including Qixo, an airline site aggregator, and metasearch site Mobissimo. Booking Buddy even searches discount airlines (AirTran, JetBlue and Southwest) that aren't loaded in every electronic reservation system.
You enter your itinerary on Booking Buddy only once, then click on the site you want to visit. The site opens in a new window with your information. Despite the name, you don't actually book through Booking Buddy; you make online reservations yourself.
Journalist and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott's Ellipses gets our vote for best road-warrior blog. A stint at Travel Weekly in the early 1990s introduced him to travel, and he hasn't stopped writing about it since, racking up some impressive credentials. He's been a travel columnist for The New York Times and Tribune Media Services, an independent producer for National Public Radio and a frequent talking head on CNN. He will soon be hosting a travel show on the Fine Living Network.
Elliott knows travel, which is one reason his travel blogs--his most recent being Ellipses--are so compelling. He's fresh, he's funny and he can put all sorts of things in context--like the tortured history of net or "bare" fares and what customer service rankings really mean. He's also a capable ombudsman, trouble-shooting for Tripso.com with his "Customer Service Report" and for National Geographic Traveler.
Elliott sometimes gets it wrong. Last summer, he reported that an airplane manufacturer was considering a standing-room-only section of coach, and he was widely ridiculed. But when Elliott gets it right, he's spot on. Find Ellipses and more terrific travel information on Tripso.com.
Unlike other travel loyalty programs, Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards program makes it easy to earn and redeem trips. Members earn credits by flying and doing business with the program's partners, among them Southwest's Visa affinity card, ATA Airlines, four car rental companies and six hotel chains. A one-way flight earns one credit; a roundtrip earns two. To qualify for a free flight, you have to fly eight roundtrips or earn 16 credits in a 24-month period. Southwest then automatically sends a Ticketless Award to your online account--along with a few drink coupons. Although there are blackout dates for award travel, the only charge is a $10 security fee.
What else is there to like about Rapid Rewards? Points are based on the number of flights, not the number of miles, so travelers who take short-haul flights aren't at a disadvantage. Also, a free flight can be used by anyone, not just the person who earned it. (But awards are only valid for 12 months.) And if you earn 100 credits in 12 months, you can name a companion to travel free with you for one year.
Julie Moline is Entrepreneur's "Biz Travel" columnist.