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Business travel is really just a means to an end. It is a tool entrepreneurs use to increase sales, discover new technology, monitor competition or maintain relationships. But knowing and understanding the travel business enough to feel like a smart buyer requires more time and persistence than most business owners can afford to give up.
That's exactly why we created Entrepreneur's Business Travel Awards 12 years ago--to help cost-conscious entrepreneurs find the most bang for their business travel bucks. In the following pages, you won't find the results of a scientific survey. Instead, you'll find a subjective selection of travel suppliers that we believe offer the best travel products and services for entrepreneurs at the most affordable prices. So read on--you'll find it easier to make quick and confident decisions when planning your next business trip.
Best Low-fare Airline Value:
When AirTran landed its first Business Travel Award from us in 1998, it was a small upstart airline, flying older, hand-me-down jets, and considered nothing more than a nuisance by the major carriers. Now it towers over them in terms of profitability and customer satisfaction. None of its fleet of new Boeing jets is more than five years old. And this year, AirTran will probably join the ranks of "major" carriers, or those with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
Over the years, AirTran has followed a smart--but slow--path to success in the airline industry, winning over value-conscious business travelers and companies fed up with major airlines. That's because of its low fares and common-sense approach to air travel.
For example, fares rarely exceed $100 each way for tickets bought at least 21 days in advance, and walk-up fares rarely exceed $300 each way. It also offers A-Plus Rewards, a simple frequent-flier program that rewards members with a free one-way flight for every eighth one-way trip flown. A program for small businesses, the A2B Corporate Travel Program, provides member companies with easier access to upgrades, reduced restrictions and waived change fees.
AirTran sets itself apart from other low-fare carriers by offering two classes of service--coach and business class--something you won't find on airlines like JetBlue or Southwest. Best of all, standby upgrades to its business class cabin (identical to first-class cabins of major airlines) cost just $35 to $75.
To keep passengers entertained on its transcontinental runs, AirTran plans to install XM Satellite Radio onboard its fleet this year, offering passengers 100 channels of live news, sports, music and games from every seat back.
Recently, AirTran has broadened its mostly East Coast/Midwest presence with new east-west flights, connecting cities like Atlanta with Western cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. AirTran also offers same-day standby at no additional cost.
For more information, see www.airtran.com , or call (800) AIR-TRAN.
Best Major Airline Value:
No other major airline has brought more value to more budget-conscious business travelers than Southwest. After 31 consecutive profitable years, this airline juggernaut now ranks as the largest carrier in the nation in terms of passengers carried.
Once the model that low-fare carriers aspired to, Southwest has become the model for the entire airline industry. If you're enjoying low airfares anywhere in the country, you can thank Southwest for bringing them to you, either directly or indirectly. Despite its name, Southwest is now a major carrier with influence reaching beyond its Sun Belt focus to 60 cities, including Northern cities such as Chicago; Long Island, New York; and Philadelphia. It's now also the biggest carrier in Florida and at Chicago-Midway airport, where it picked up the assets of bankrupt ATA.
For small businesses, Southwest offers SWABiz.com, a free tool that allows travelers to plan, book and purchase tickets on Southwest.com, while providing purchasing reports to the company. Rapid Rewards, its frequent-flier program, is the only major frequent-flier program that doesn't limit the number of seats available for award travel.
Southwest offers more than just low fares. It has one of the newest, all-Boeing fleets in the industry and leads in airline on-time performance. But don't expect a first-class section, an airport lounge or onboard meals. Southwest serves only peanuts and drinks, with snack packs only for long trips, encouraging customers to bring their own snacks. For reservations, call (800) I-FLY-SWA, or see www.southwest.com .
Best Budget Hotel Value:
Holiday Inn Express
Holiday Inn Express is no stranger to the value-conscious business traveler who spends a lot of time on the highway. Since its launch in 1991, it has opened 1,500-plus properties worldwide (most along major roadways or near airports), offering modern and dependably clean rooms and free Express Start continental breakfasts for an average rate of just $60 to $90 per night.
Not resting on its laurels, the chain has been adding new features since 2003, from hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast to the SimplySmart shower, featuring a new proprietary Kohler shower head, thicker towels, shower curtains with curved rods (adding 25 percent more showering space) and an upgraded line of bathroom amenities. Guests also enjoy free high-speed internet access and local calls, as well as the ability to earn points in the Priority Club Rewards frequent-stay program. For reservations, call (800) HOLIDAY, or see www.hiexpress.com .
Best Midprice Hotel Value:
Hampton Inn & Suites and Hampton Inn
Hampton Inn raised the bar for midprice hotels last year with a chainwide upgrade that made its value proposition even more appealing. As a result, nearly all of Hampton Inn's competitors in the midprice space have been scrambling to match the enhancements. First, Hampton added eight new hot items, such as eggs, pancakes and biscuits, to its popular free breakfast. (New Breakfast Bags are also available for those in a hurry--great for the food-free plane trip.)
All hotel lobbies were redesigned with red-carpet welcome mats and local art on the walls. Free high-speed internet is available in the rooms, and beds are thicker and taller. A new clock radio was designed for the chain, with easy-to-follow instructions for setting the alarm.
Bathroom upgrades include massaging shower heads; larger, fluffier towels; and a curved shower curtain rod, adding more space and light in the shower. Small boardrooms are also available at most hotels for meetings.
Hampton was the first chain to offer a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, and it still says if you're not satisfied, the company doesn't expect you to pay for your stay at any of its 1,300 hotels worldwide. Guests also earn points in the popular Hilton HHonors frequent-stay program. For reservations, call (800) HAMPTON, or see www.hamptoninn.com .
Best Upscale Hotel Value:
W Hotels have taken the business travel trend toward boutique hotels and supersized it (some are as big as 700 rooms), but maintained the boutique-style quirks, charms and reasonable prices. Business travelers with a sense of style can't get enough of the W Hotel chain for its hip factor, great locations, luscious beds, contemporary design, trendy lobbies and general buzz.
The first W Hotel opened in New York City in 1998, and the chain has since grown to 20 hotels in major cities in the United States and abroad (W Hotels are now in Mexico City; Montreal; Seoul, Korea; and Sydney, Australia; two more are in the works in China).
The chain combines a keen sense of style and customer pampering with a price that won't blow your budget. Depending on the location and the season, rates range from $159 to $459. All rooms have high-speed internet access and CD players. Bathrooms stock Bliss bath products, cotton terry bathrobes and fluffy towels.
The hotel's full-service meeting facilities are bound to wow attendees. At most W Hotels, the lobby bar area--and sometimes the entire lobby--are filled with guests and locals, eager to see and be seen in such cool surroundings. Guests can earn points in the Starwood Preferred Guest program. For reservations, call (877) W-HOTELS, or see www.whotels.com .
Best Hotel Value, Chicago:
Hilton Garden Inn Chicago/Downtown/Magnificent Mile
If you're looking for a good location, lots of amenities and a great price, check out the Hilton Garden Inn Chicago/Downtown/Magnificent Mile. For rates starting at $99, travelers get free in-room high-speed internet access and extras including refrigerators, microwaves and stunning views of the Chicago skyline. There's also a free business center and meeting space as well as an indoor pool and gym. A Starbucks kiosk is in the lobby, and the Weber Grill, which is next to the hotel, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner cooked on--you guessed it--those kettle-shaped Weber grills. Room service is also available, and you can graze in the hotel's 24-hour Pavilion Pantry. The hotel is located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile and adjacent to the River North dining and entertainment district. Call (312) 527-1989, or visit www.hiltongardenchicago.com .
Best Hotel Value, New York City:
The Affinia Dumont hotel, located just south of Midtown on East 34th Street (between Third and Lexington), could be the best-kept hotel secret in Manhattan--and a real find for the health-conscious. Built in 1986 and renovated in 2003, its spacious rooms are actually suites, which include kitchenettes; big, fluffy beds; 27-inch TVs; oversized desks with Aeron chairs; free high-speed internet access; and two-line phones. All rooms are large enough to accommodate exercise equipment that can be delivered to your room free of charge, or you can choose to work out in the hotel's Oasis Day Spa.
Fitness freaks can check in to the hotel's one-bedroom fitness suite, featuring cardio equipment, free weights and a sauna. Standard room rates range from $219 to $340 per night, with the lowest rates guaranteed at www.affinia.com , or call (212) 481-7600.
Best Hotel Value, San Francisco:
Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
If an overpriced hotel on Nob Hill is more than you need to take care of business in San Francisco, this hotel is for you. Budget-conscious business travelers have a long-standing love affair with Courtyard by Marriott. And now that the chain has snatched up most of the good suburban locations, it's moving into expensive downtown areas like San Francisco, offering many full-service amenities at a great price.
It's one of the newest hotels in town, so you'll find meeting space, a lobby bar with a big-screen TV, an indoor pool and spa, and free high-speed internet in all 405 guest rooms. Another plus is the hotel's location south of Market Street--a five-minute walk from the Moscone Convention Center or the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. As at many Courtyards, there's a free wine and cheese reception in the lobby each evening. Rates run in the $129 to $239 range. Guests also earn points in the Marriott Rewards frequent-stay program. Call (415) 947-0700, or visit www.marriott.com .
Car Rental and Online Deals
Best Site for Hotel/Car Rental Rate Deals:
For business travelers on a budget, location and price are the main factors in choosing a hotel. As long as the hotel is a good value and it's near the place you're doing business, it's probably fine. The same goes for rental cars--it doesn't matter which rental car company you choose as long as you get an on-airport location, a clean car and a decent price.
That's why lots of travelers have jumped at Priceline.com's model of allowing users to name their own prices for an unknown hotel or rental car company. The uncertainty at the time of booking is a small price to pay for the savings you'll pocket (up to 40 percent or more off published hotel rates, 25 percent off rental car rates) with a successful bid. Currently, more than 20,000 hotels around the world are listed on Priceline.com. It offers deals on cars from the five biggest names in the rental car business and guarantees it will find you the best rental car rate, pledging to refund 100 percent of the difference if you find a lower rate anywhere else. Find out more at www.priceline.com .
Best Car Rental Value:
For the third consecutive year, Enterprise gets the prize for its no-nonsense approach to car rentals. Enterprise is the Wal-Mart of car rentals (with more than 6,000 locations), so expect low prices but few frills. You won't get frequent-flier miles and the other perks that bump up rates at other rental car companies. Enterprise's rates are about 20 percent less than those of its competitors, but you can still rely on clean cars, helpful employees and plenty of on-airport locations. Frequent renters can get even lower rates when signing up for its Corporate Class program. And for five out of the last six years, the company has ranked highest in the J.D. Power and Associates Rental Car Satisfaction Study. For more information, see www.enterprise.com .
Best Site for Airfare Deals:
One of the biggest drawbacks to shopping for airfare deals on websites like Expedia or Orbitz is that they don't list all airline fares available. Enter SideStep, a free program you download onto your PC that searches multiple travel booking sites (including online agencies; consolidators; and airline, hotel and rental car company sites) for the lowest fares. It presents all fares side by side to make them easy to compare.
While you can't book trips with SideStep, it provides links to the websites where the best deals are posted. Recently, SideStep added the ability to search for fares from a web-based platform--good news for Mac users who couldn't use the software program designed for PCs. For more information, see www.sidestep.com .
Best Site for Travel Advice:
When it comes to covering the travel business, there's no better site than USAToday.com/travel. With a full staff of reporters and freelancers covering the travel beat, business travelers are sure to find every shred of news, advice or opinion that can keep them in the loop and improve their lives on the road. The day's top travel stories are listed on the main page, and from there, you'll find links to other articles and columns that apply to your travel habits. For example, if you're a frequent flier, check out the daily air travel blog, "Today in the Sky." Frequent hotel guests should tune in to the weekly "Hotel Hotsheet." There's also a weekly "Business Traveler" column that offers advice or takes on an issue of importance to road warriors. Check it out at www.usatoday.com/travel .
When it comes to luggage trends, color is the new black. Hartmann's Mobile Traveler from the new Sky Luxe collection (in dazzling polka dot, solid and checkerboard patterns) is a cinch to spot on the luggage carousel. These wheeled bags, covered in a durable wool/nylon blend, come in 22-inch (the legal limit for carry-ons) and 24-inch sizes. Durable in-line skate wheels and a sturdy, push-button locking handle system make towing your bag through the airport easy. Cost: $775 for a 22-inch; $925 for a 24-inch.
Forget the briefcase. If you want to be on fashion's cutting edge, it's time to switch to a messenger bag. The Commute bag (available in a rainbow of colors) combines the durability and look of a messenger bag with business travel features like a protective pouch for laptops; a padded handle; quick-access exterior pockets; a a padded, rubberized bottom; a padded back; and a quick-adjust shoulder strap. Cost: $100, or $110 for an extra-large version that fits 15-inch widescreen PCs.
You'll create 80 percent more packing space when you put bulky items like sweaters in the Eagle Pack-It Compressor Set , which sells for $19.85. Just place your clothes in these special triple-laminated plastic bags, then roll the air out through the one-way valve, flattening the bag. It's also a smart way to keep dirty or wet clothing separated from the other contents of your suitcase, and the clear plastic makes them easy to inspect at the airport. The set includes two reusable bags, one medium and one large.
At $24.95, Bucky Shades are the Cadillac of eyeshades, and a must-have for any traveler who has suffered through a sleepless red-eye flight. A lightweight eye mask with a unique sculpted interior padding that cradles your eyes is covered in 100 percent light-blocking blackout cloth, providing complete darkness for better sleep. An adjustable elastic strap accommodates all head sizes, and a handy, built-in pouch stores reusable earplugs. Sweet dreams!
No mobile warrior would be caught working anywhere without a cell phone. It's your lifeline, your constant connection to your business. It can be daunting to wade through the many phone candidates, but the wide variety available means you can find one that's right for you. Keep in mind that pricing can vary depending on the plan you get.
Overseas travelers should check into a world phone like the $230 LG L1400. Like most phones these days, it has a camera. It also works on the GSM/GPRS network, so you're covered in the United States and Europe.
Samsung's a795 is an update to its previous world phone, the a790. It covers CDMA and GSM networks, and features advanced voice recognition and 64MB of internal memory. A clamshell design makes it stylish as well as functional. The price had not been set at press time. The $550 Siemens SX66 is a Pocket PC phone with a host of extras, like Wi-Fi, infrared, Bluetooth and USB. This all comes in a familiar, compact PDA-style form, but with the bonus of a nifty, slide-out keyboard. It's a good example of how the line between phone and PDA continues to blur.--Amanda C. Kooser
You don't always have to haul around a laptop to have mobile computing power. Sometimes a PDA will do just fine. If you like to keep your PDA and cell phone separate, there are some PDAs that'll serve you well. For example, Palm smartphone lovers will be attracted to the Palm-One Treo 650. For $449, it has all the bells and whistles, including a camera, keyboard, Bluetooth and all the Palm OS organizer functions. It even has an MP3 player to help you relax while you're busy with mobile computing.
Hewlett-Packard iPAQ hx4705 Pocket PC has the specs you would have seen in a well-stocked laptop a few years ago. For $650, it features 64MB SDRAM, a 624 MHz Intel processor and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to boot.
Also in the Palm camp is a hot device for early adopters and entrepreneurs who don't mind paying for the cool factor. It doesn't get more portable than the $249 Fossil Wrist PDA. But you will make compromises. It has just 8MB of memory and a small black-and-white screen, but it lets you access all the main Palm features, like the memo pad and datebook.--A.C.K.
When you're on the road, it's important to have your computing power to go. The IBM ThinkPad T43 starts at about $1,499 and comes stocked with a Centrino processor. Centrino, with its integrated Wi-Fi, is becoming the standard in laptops for business travelers. At 4.5 pounds, it won't hurt to cart it around the airport. A built-in fingerprint reader is available for extra security.
When it comes to being ultraportable, the 3.1-pound Sony VAIO T-series notebooks fit right in. They come with CD-RW/DVD drives and 10.6-inch widescreen displays. Integrated Wi-Fi also comes along for the ride. The T-series starts at about $2,000. These super-light models are pricier than heavier options, but you may find the cost trade-off and smaller screen worthwhile.
Budget buyers should keep an eye out for a model like the Toshiba Tecra A4. Starting at $1,229, you get an Intel Centrino mobile processor, a 15.4-inch widescreen display, a 40GB hard drive and Windows XP Professional. The whole package weighs about 6.2 pounds--not a feather, but good bang for your buck.--A.C.K.
Chris McGinnis is Entrepreneur's "Biz Travel" columnist.