What a difference a year makes. Last spring, Entrepreneur's Business Travel Awards focused on the growing trend toward upscale travel as business fortunes swelled and expense accounts fattened. Just a year later, the weakening economy and the threat of terrorism have altered the travel habits of entrepreneurs and their employees, and will continue to do so in coming years.
When four hijacked aircraft crashed last September, business travel ground to a halt. But slowly it crept back as companies realized that most trips are essential to their businesses' survival.
The frequency and the manner of these trips, however, are changing. In many cases, business owners are requiring employees to drive instead of fly to destinations that they can reach in four or five hours by car. When employees do fly, low-fare carriers are more likely to be business owners' first choice. And increasingly, business travelers are relying on the Internet to provide them with information as well as lower prices.
Keeping these trends in mind, we've come up with a list of suppliers we feel offer entrepreneurs the best bang for their travel bucks in 2002. Remember, this is not a formal or scientific survey, just a subjective list of suppliers that have been found to consistently offer affordable options to value-conscious business travelers.
Best Low-Fare Airlines
AirTran Airways & Frontier Airlines
Big-ticket trips without paying big-ticket prices
At a time when major airlines are reeling, low-fare carriers like AirTran Airways (a Business Travel Award winner last year) and Frontier Airlines continue to grow and prosper. Why? First, travelers tend to use lower-cost providers more frequently in tough economic times. Second, the carriers' low-cost structures make it easier to adjust to changes in consumer demand.
Business travelers east of the Mississippi are flocking to AirTran, which never requires a round-trip purchase or a Saturday night stayover for a low fare. The only drawback: Travelers usually must make a connection at AirTran's Atlanta hub-one of the 37 cities the airline serves. AirTran offers a special program for small businesses called the A2B Corporate Travel Program, which provides upgrades, reduced restrictions, lower change fees and bonus frequent-flier points. Even more attractive to business travelers are features such as business-class seating at a $25 premium, advanced seat assignments, and full participation in travel agents' computer reservation systems.
AirTran operates 336 flights a day using 30 brand-new Boeing 717s and 30 older DC-9s.
If you live in the Western U.S., you'll find the best deals on Frontier. Even if you haven't taken advantage of the airline yet, you may have noticed its aircraft, adorned with giant images of animals.
From its Denver base, Frontier now serves 28 cities nationwide with a fleet of 24 Boeing 737s and 6 Airbus A-319s. This makes Frontier an ideal choice for those on either coast looking for a low-cost alternative.
In exchange for that low fare, Frontier passengers must be willing to stop over in Denver. Frontier offers advanced seat assignments, electronic ticketing, flight status paging notification, curbside check-in and EarlyReturns, its frequent-flier program. Small and medium-sized businesses can receive online access to corporate rebates, direct booking capabilities, and reporting information about their companies' travel and accounting histories.
Best Low-Priced Hotel Value
Now it's your checkbook's turn to get comfortable.
Business travelers who have been on the road more than in the skies recently have undoubtedly come across Comfort Inns and Suites. Ubiquitous along the nation's freeways, 1,301 Comfort Inns exist nationwide, with another 102 under construction. In recent years, the chain has shed older, nonperforming properties and opened hundreds of new ones. Now, almost 71 percent of Comfort Inns boast a three-diamond rating from the America Automobile Association.
What's best about a Comfort Inn is the value you'll find when paying its low average rate of $64 per night. In addition to a clean and modern room, Comfort Inns offer a free continental breakfast, a 25-inch television and a guest satisfaction guarantee. So if anything does go wrong, it's likely to be fixed, or you don't pay for your stay.
If you're a member of American Airlines AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, Northwest WorldPerks or the US Airways Dividend Miles frequent-flier program, you can collect 250 miles per stay at any Comfort Inn. And with its Choice Privileges program, after paying for about 10 nights, you'll have earned a free one.
Remember, at hotels you truly get what you pay for. Your accommodations at Comfort Inn will be basic, but most likely new, clean and convenient to the freeway. And if you feel like a splurge, or just a little more room, consider an upgrade to a suite at properties that offer them. Suites feature an oversized room and work area, separate sleeping and seating areas, a microwave and a refrigerator, all for an extra $10 over the standard room rate.
Best Online Travel Value
Quikbook.com & Hotels.com
Big-business-style buying power is a keystroke away.
Why pay retail when the hotel you want, or one nearby, might offer the same thing for much less? While new limited-service hotel chains like Comfort Inns are a good value, they are rarely located in central downtown locations in major cities, where hotel prices are sometimes prohibitive.
Bargain-savvy business travelers can turn to online hotel booking sites like Quikbook.com and Hotels.com for help. These hotel consolidators purchase room blocks from upscale hotels in many major cities at deep discounts and then pass part of the savings on to travelers who book through their sites.
While there's no fee for the site's service, you are required to pay for your entire stay in advance with a credit card when using Hotels.com. The Quikbook.com service usually doesn't require advance payment, but its selection of higher caliber hotels is smaller than that of Hotels.com. Both provide discounts ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent off standard hotel rates. Plus, both services can sometimes find rooms in cities that are otherwise "sold out."
Best Budget Car Rental
Payless Car Rental
Almost as cheap as walking
Earlier this year, Payless Car Rental introduced a corporate account program designed just for small-business travelers. It offers a 5 percent discount off the lowest rate available at the time you make your reservation (typically including low promotional rates). Because the rates at Payless are usually significantly less than the rates at major car rental companies to begin with, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better deal. Keep in mind, however, that Payless caters mostly to the leisure travel set, so you may occasionally find yourself in a long line with the straw-hat-and-sandals vacationing crowd. But at least you'll know you've shaved a few dollars off the travel budget. Payless has rental facilities in 120 cities in the United States and abroad.
It's a Deal!
Road warriors are more cost-conscious than they've been in years. Here are a few tips for tightening your belt:
1. Play your cards right. Remember, not all discount cards are created equal. For example, government subcontractors are often entitled to negotiated rates at hotels. But look closely: Sometimes you can find even better deals through a Web site or travel agent.
2. Learn to negotiate. Haggling used to be an activity confined to leisure travelers. However, small-business owners are now getting into the act, too. "Ask if the price they're giving you is the best they can do," advises Mary Hunt, who publishes Cheapskate Monthly, a newsletter dedicated to helping people save money. Hunt has slashed hotel bills by as much as half--just by asking.
3. Click online-check offline. Airlines, once reluctant to cut fares for business travel, are now slashing prices and lifting restrictions on Saturday-night stayovers. The best strategy is to check online with a carrier's Web site and then go offline to a travel agent you trust to make sure you've got the best deal.
Thought you could carry that laptop and garment bag on to your next flight? Not so fast. Several carriers have imposed further restrictions after last fall's terrorist attacks. In many cases, passengers are being limited to just one piece of luggage-meaning you may have to make the difficult choice between technology and toiletries.
Now that more of your precious cargo will be out of your hands, it's important to know what an airline is responsible for if it should lose your checked-in luggage. Federal law stipulates a maximum liability of $2,500 per ticketed passenger. But carriers aren't often compelled to pay passengers the full amount. That's up to you to negotiate.
Here's something else to consider: You can purchase additional liability insurance from the airline for up to $5,000 per passenger, usually at a rate of $5 per $100 of valuation. If all else fails, write to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Often, admonishment from the government is enough to make an airline pay you back for what it's lost.
Classic Sites & Add-Ons
To be useful to road warriors, the best Web sites have to constantly improve and upgrade their content. They also answer the questions every traveler asks: How do I get there? What's the weather like? How about my miles? Here are three of the most useful travel sites:
What it does: Weather.com doesn't just tell you what the weather's like. It also features information travelers need to know, like airport weather forecasts, travel advisories and even your flight's on-time status. Data such as the site's road conditions information is indispensable to the business traveler.
Why it's cool: Weather.com is always looking for new ways to deliver data, such as Desktop Weather, which shows current conditions in your desktop tray.
What it does: The Rand McNally site is more than a place to click on for turn-by-turn directions. Its detailed electronic road maps tell you everything from road construction updates to estimated driving times. The site uses more advanced technology than that of competitors such as MapBlast and MapQuest. Considering that it got a late start, RandMcNally.com has played catch-up with its competitors nicely.
Why it's cool: The site is uncluttered and does what it's supposed to without too many ads and graphics.
What it does: Frequentflier.com does one thing and does it well: It helps you select and enroll in a rewards program and provides information for maximizing your miles. Don't miss the Frequent Flier Crier, a free newsletter that provides the latest mileage news.
Why it's cool: This site is useful and irreverent. Webmaster and mileage expert Tim Winship isn't afraid to distinguish between good deals and awful ones.
Even though the dotcom boom has turned bust, the Web isn't dead when it comes to business travel. New Web sites for road warriors are popping up all the time. Here are three of the best:
Airport Parking Lots
What it does: Enter your locations and dates for a price quote. The company negotiates with airport parking lots for volume discounts.
Why it's cool: Airport Parking Lots eliminates calling ahead for a less expensive parking spot but still allows you to choose which parking vendor to use.
What it does: HotelShark offers hotel reviews from a guest's perspective. The site has been around awhile, but it's only now becoming an indispensable site for finding the best accommodations.
Why it's cool: Other than word-of-mouth, getting reliable hotel information is close to impossible.
What it does: Send voice-to-text e-mail from any phone, at any time, through a toll-free number. WeEmail4u.com four-hour delivery.
Why it's cool: Unified messaging services have figured out how to convert text to speech, but reversing the process has eluded them-until now.