Travel isn't the same for owners and employees of smaller companies as it is for people working for large corporations. Most of the time, travelers from small businesses pay for their travel expenses out of their own pockets, with no generous expense accounts to fall back on. While that used to mean traveling on a shoestring, noncorporate travelers recently started stepping up in the world. No longer are they willing to accept inconvenient flights; small, dark hotel rooms; or clunky, old rental cars just because they're inexpensive. That's not to say independent travelers are out there burning dollars. But as their businesses grow, they're increasingly willing to spend a little more money on travel if they feel they're getting more value.
Travel suppliers are taking note of that trend. As a matter of fact, some are even changing their names to reflect a focus in that direction. For example, the Budgetel hotel chain recently changed its name to Baymont Inns & Suites and spent the past year upgrading its offerings and its image as it migrated from the "economy" to the "midmarket" segment of the hotel industry. Also, major airlines have recently launched programs offering small businesses added value in the form of discounts and perks that were traditionally reserved for large corporations.
Remember, our awards do not constitute a formal or scientific survey--they're just our highly subjective choice of suppliers with offerings of true value for independent travelers.
Best Low-Fare Airline
AirTran Airways has continued to grow and prosper since we first recognized the upstart carrier in our awards three years ago. Travelers seeking to avoid the increasingly rapacious fares charged by major carriers for midweek business trips are flocking to AirTran. That's because the airline never requires a round-trip purchase or a Saturday-night stayover.
AirTran also recently bought the first 16 of 50 brand-new Boeing 717 aircraft. In addition, the airline offers last-minute upgrades to "business class" seats at the front of the plane, where travelers will find enough room to spread out and get some work done--or relax--for just $25 more than its standard coach-class fares. And for small businesses, AirTran's A2B Corporate Travel Program offers upgrades, reduced restrictions, lower change fees and bonus frequent-flier points.
Last year, American, Delta, Trans Air, TWA, United and US Airways signed "interline" agreements with AirTran, meaning passengers of delayed or cancelled flights can be reaccommodated on the other airlines (or vice versa) for no additional charge. This is good news not only for AirTran passengers, but also for the airline, as acceptance from the big boys shows that they no longer see AirTran as a struggling upstart.
Systemwide, AirTran now operates 310 daily flights between 34 cities, mostly in the Midwest and on the East Coast, with its major hub in Atlanta.
Best Major Airline Program
Delta Air Lines' MYOBTravel
Many major airlines have special programs for small businesses, but most offer only lukewarm benefits and tiny discounts. This year, however, Delta is taking these programs to a whole new level. Its brand-new MYOBTravel (Mind Your Own Business) program helps small businesses that spend up to $500,000 per year on travel manage their own travel programs. Web users can make air, hotel and car reservations online while earning rewards and getting 10 to 30 percent discounts when flying on Delta. Additionally, individual travelers can earn bonus frequent-flier miles and are automatically enrolled in drawings for free weekend getaway trips. To take advantage of the program, businesses must register and book their travel online at www.myobtravel.com.
Best Hotel Value
Baymont Inn & Suites
While the Baymont Inn & Suites sign on the side of the road may look just like one of the many new hotel chains that have popped up in the past few years, veteran road warriors should know that this is simply a new name for a previous Business Travel Award winner, Budgetel Inns.
So what's changed besides the name? First of all, Baymont has repositioned its hotels into the midmarket category, meaning average rates currently run in the $55-to-$60 range. At the same time, the chain has increased its value for travelers by enhancing its amenities. For example, Budgetel was once famous for the free continental breakfast it hung in bags on all its guests' doorknobs each morning. Now, guests can enjoy hot waffles or French toast in the hotel lobby.
Rooms at all Baymont Inns include large desks, speaker-phones, task lights and desktop outlets for laptops--some rooms even offer high-speed Internet connections. Other standard amenities include 25-inch color TVs with cable, free local calls, voice mail, hair dryers, irons and coffeemakers. Plus, with the exception of two units in the chain, all rooms face secured interior corridors with electronic card-key locks. Some locations have pools and fitness facilities as well.
There are now more than 175 Baymont Inns in 30 states, and the chain has 34 more hotels under construction.
Best Rental Car Value
When renting a car, you usually get what you pay for. For a busy traveler racing between planes, airports, hotels and clients, a smooth car rental process is key--and a less-than-smooth car rental process can wreak havoc on every other component of a trip.
That's why we've chosen Hertz for the first time as a Business Travel Award winner. Although you may pay slightly more for a Hertz car, the company has the rental process down to an exact science. Customers can count on car availability; rates that include all taxes, surcharges and fees; and counter agents who don't push too hard trying to persuade renters to buy unnecessary insurance. There's rarely a line or a wait to pick up or drop off your vehicle. And Hertz's Web site is informative, easy to use and offers discounts for online bookings.
If your small or midsized business doesn't have a negotiated contract, the Hertz Business Account Program provides special car rental rates and benefits, including a free rental day after every five paid rentals, waived Hertz #1 Club Gold membership fees (normally $50), free upgrades and free weekend rental days.
Overburdened By Travel Taxes?
The government's got its hands in your travel expenses--and you may never benefit.
Feeling overtaxed lately? That's probably because you are if you travel often on business, according to Alexander Nikoloff, a research analyst for Michigan State University's World Travel & Tourism Tax Policy Center. His research suggests travelers are carrying more than their fair share of the tax burden and rarely benefit from the levies they pay. "It's taxation without representation," contends Nikoloff.
Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have found that in cities like Buenos Aires, a four-night stay could set you back $272 in hotel taxes alone. The numbers also indicate that state, local and national governments around the world rely more than ever on travelers for tax revenues.
According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travelers are affected by high taxes in this country, too. The average international arrival or departure fee in the United States is $12, which doesn't include a $6.50 Customs Service user fee, a $6 Immigration and Naturalization Service user fee and a $1.45 Agriculture Department fee. Most hotel taxes--also called bed taxes--are in the 12 percent range. Those charges aren't always quoted when you're shopping for rates, either.
It'd be one thing if the money collected from travelers went to road improvements, police or new terminals. However, many of the newest taxes will pay for improvements that will never affect the average traveler. New levies are funding athletic stadiums in Boston, Houston and San Antonio.
Avoiding the charges is close to impossible, particularly if you're traveling on business. Always ask whether there are any additional taxes when you request a quote on a room, car or airline ticket--at least then you won't be surprised.
New Online Booking Options
Great fares, or farewell to online booking? You decide.
The recent launches of three new Web sites promising to find you the lowest air fare are giving business travelers new hope of cutting travel expenses. But is it only hope? The three projects, AirlineGuides.com, FareChase.com and QIXO.com, belong to a new breed of search sites that query multiple booking engines at the same time, helping travelers compare prices more easily.
AirlineGuides.com, which modestly describes itself as "The Internet Travelers' Best Friend," searches sites such as Expedia.comand OneTravel.comto find low prices. However, response times are sluggish, and, once you find a fare, you have to repeat the search on the particular site where the fare was found.
QIXO.comsays that it's many travel sites in one and tries to prove it by culling from a number of airline Web sites, Travelocity, Cheap Tickets and others. It's only slightly faster than AirlineGuides, and it also forces you to run two searches--one on QIXO, and another on the airline or travel agency site--unless you register and fork over a service fee of 1 percent of the purchase price (with a $10 maximum).
FareChasebills itself as the "Internet's First Real-Time Travel Comparison-Shopping Search Engine." (It reportedly launched within a day of QIXO.) In addition to airfares, it searches for hotel rooms and rental cars. Finding a fare is painfully slow for the moment, but FareChase takes you directly to the site and lets you book from the supplier in question without any additional charges. Pay attention, though, to the unusually large number of disclaimers.
To be fair, these sites were in their start-up phases at press time and should improve with age. But until they do, it's a good idea to check with a variety of sources, including a real travel agent, if you're looking for competitive fares.
A trip is no time to skimp on exercise and healthy eating.
It's getting easier than ever to travel healthy. The latest blood-pressure monitors are so compact and inconspicuous, they're easy to take on the road if hypertension is a problem. Consider Omron's latest ultra-compact wrist model, the first to employ a sensor that detects the minutest changes in blood pressure. The HEM-630 sells for about $119, less than earlier-generation monitors.
Another monitoring device, the CT1 Personal Calorie Tracker from Stayhealthy Inc., measures caloric burn by looking at body movement. The device also interfaces with the company's websiteto track your calories. The gizmo, plus a one-year subscription to the site, costs $149.
On the low-tech side, Executive Workout, a 32-page handbook by ex-Marine and veteran traveler George Bosolet, has exercises for travelers and tips on winning the battle of the bulge. All the gadgets and books in the world may not be enough to keep you from getting sick on your trip, however. Passport Healthis dedicated to preventing business-trip-induced illnesses. With locations nationwide and a Web site, Passport Health provides vaccinations and health advice for business travelers. It also offers travel insurance, including medical-consultation, evacuation, transport, lost baggage and passport services.
Christopher McGinnis, a commentator for CNN and The Weather Channel, is the author of The Unofficial Business Traveler's Pocket Guide (McGraw Hill) and manages his own Web site at www.travelskills.com. Christopher Elliot is Entrepreneur's "Travel Smarts" columnist.