Business travel is considered exciting and glamorous--but mostly by those who don't have to travel on business. The reality is that business travel can be grueling. It's hard on the back, hard on the family, and increasingly hard on the wallets of entrepreneurs without fat corporate expense accounts to rely on.
In our fifth annual Business Travel Awards, we highlight the best products and programs offered by travel service suppliers that have focused on small-business owners whose travel expenses come right out of their own pockets.
This is not a ranking or a formal survey; it is a recognition of companies that consistently offer value-conscious travelers affordable options. If it weren't for some of these providers, many small-business owners would be unable to fly across the country or find an inexpensive night's sleep in a big city.
The following pages are packed with tips and information to help you save money and endure fewer headaches and hassles. So if you want to get the most from your business travels, read on!
Despite the recent hype over making travel arrangements online, most people are still using the Web primarily as a research tool. The best way to make your reservations generally depends on the type of traveler you are and the nature of your trip. Booking online works well for simple trips to familiar places, but you'll still need to contact a live human travel agent for complicated itineraries or trips with possible last-minute changes, upgrades or cancellations.
There are two main places on the Web to make travel arrangements. First are airline Web sites--almost all now allow travelers to buy tickets online. As an incentive to try this option, many airlines routinely offer frequent flier bonuses to online bookers. But like a call to an airline's toll-free number, when you make reservations on an airline's Web site, you don't have access to other airlines' flight and fare information.
The other place to book travel online is at travel agent sites. These sites are full-service travel agencies offering more than just flight availability, fare information and booking capabilities for a variety of airlines. They are also replete with destination information, computerized mapping and directions, restaurant reviews, and links to car rental and hotel booking sites. Plus, if you run into trouble online, there's usually a toll-free number listed so you can speak to someone to untangle your reservation. Some sites to check out include: http://www.thetrip.com, http://www.biztravel.com, http://www.expedia.msn.com, http://www.travelocity.com or http://www.itn.com
Travel agents are people, too--which means some are good and some aren't. Finding the right one to handle all your travel needs takes time and effort. First, determine the type of business services you require from an agent, as you may not use the same one for your business travel needs as you do for your vacations. Ask business contacts, friends or consultants for referrals.
Once you have a short list of agents to talk to, set up meetings with each. Interview travel agents the way you would interview job candidates: Find out how long they've been in business and how familiar they are with your specific travel needs. Above all, you need to feel comfortable with this person. And like finding a good doctor, lawyer or accountant, when you find a good agent, stick with him or her--it will free you up to concentrate on running your business.
Just like a new pair of shoes, the luggage you choose can make your travels more comfortable or literally give you blisters. And like a good pair of shoes, most durable luggage is not cheap. Some tips when researching luggage:
- Look for bags with heavy-duty stitching, zippers, metal buckles, and padded handles and shoulder straps. Thick ballistic nylon, leather or a combination of the two are your best bet. Opt for dark colors that don't show scuffs easily.
- Bags with a good set of wheels are one of the best options for getting around airports quickly. These "roll aboard" suitcases with built-in wheels and an extension handle score high with most travelers, but beware of the strict carry-on policies now being imposed by most airlines regarding size and number of pieces.
- To identify your suitcase among the sea of bags on the conveyor belt, tie a piece of colorful ribbon or yarn to the handle.
These days, airplanes seem to be packed tighter than ever. All that uncomfortable togetherness requires a new set of manners. Keep these tips in mind the next time you board a plane:
- Obey rear-to-front boarding instructions, especially if you have any unwieldy carry-on bags.
- Use the space above your seat for your carry-on bag; if that area is full, stow your bag above the rows ahead of you. This prevents you from going against traffic when retrieving your bag when the plane has landed.
- Do your best to avoid blocking the aisle when stowing your bag in the overhead bin. If you're having a problem, let other passengers get by.
- When stowing a large or heavy bag in the overhead bin, remove any soft items, such as coats or jackets, already placed there. Then replace them, neatly folded, on top or alongside your bag.
- Place heavy, breakable or possibly leaky items under the seat in front of you, not in the overhead bin.
- Help short or weak passengers stow their bags.
- If you need assistance, politely ask the flight attendant and be patient, especially during boarding.
- Remember, under-seat storage means under the seat in front of you--not under your own seat. Bulkhead seats (facing the wall) don't have any under-seat storage space.
- If you've been dragging a wheeled bag over dirty or wet floors, try not to place it near pillows, blankets or oats stored in overhead bins.
Face it: There will be times when Mother Nature just won't cooperate with your travel plans. So when a storm is either looming or in full force, here are a few travel tips:
- If the weather looks pretty fierce before you leave for the airport, call and find out the status of your flight. Don't call the airline's toll-free numbers for updates--you'll be put on hold for too long. Call your travel agent or the airline's automated flight arrival and departure lines, or log on to the airline's Web site, most of which broadcast real-time flight arrival and departure information.
- If bad weather is likely, you might not want to check out of your hotel or leave home until you've found out the status of your flight. Keep your eye on the Weather Channel (on television or the Web site at http://www.weather.com) to determine if a storm is brewing in your area or the area where you're headed.
- If you're already at the airport and departure looks unlikely, try to make a reservation at a nearby hotel that offers free shuttle service. Don't wait too long because airport hotels book up fast when flights are canceled.
- If you simply can't miss an out-of-town meeting or presentation, consider leaving the night before, particularly during bad weather months.
- If bad weather looms, bring along a snack. Many airports caught off-guard have been known to run out of food during prolonged weather delays. Dried fruit and nuts are nutritious, don't take up a lot of space and don't spoil.
- If your flight has been delayed or canceled, don't wait in line with everyone else to rebook. Instead, go directly to a pay phone and call the airline's toll-free line to rebook. Using the same computer system, agents on the phone can do almost everything that gate agents can do.
- If your flight is going to be delayed a few hours, buy a day pass to one of the airline clubs (usually $25 to $50). Agents inside the clubs can assist you with reticketing or rerouting.
- Unexpected cancellations that may force you to use another carrier could present problems if you have an electronic or ticketless reservation. You must first obtain a paper ticket from the original carrier before making arrangements with another airline.
There's A Place
Looking for a comfortable hotel that won't blow your business travel budget? If you want to spend less than $100 a night (and still get a decent room), you'll have to sacrifice prime downtown or central locations and opt for a hotel that's on the perimeter of the city. It's not a total sacrifice, however, because some of the newer budget hotels in the suburbs easily outperform their city competitors--for about half the price! These hotels generally offer only limited service, which means no late-night snacks from room service or in-hotel restaurants. Most are located next to or very near a reliable family-style restaurant chain, however.
When looking for a good but inexpensive room, ask about business traveler rooms and rates. Many of the budget hotels now offer large desks, desktop power outlets, ergonomic chairs, speakerphones with data ports, free copies, incoming faxes and access to meeting rooms, as well as in-room coffee makers and a free continental breakfast.
Some well-known inexpensive chains include Fairfield Inn by Marriott, Holiday Inn Express, Budgetel (changing all its properties' names to Baymont by November), Microtel, Red Roof Inn and Sleep Inn. Most are relatively new and offer rooms in the $40 to $70 per night range.
If you're looking for a hotel with a few more perks, try Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn, La Quinta Inn or Wingate Inn. Rooms run in the $58 to $100 range and offer conveniences like business centers, meeting space, free local calls, free breakfast, large in-room work areas and modern phone systems.
Entrepreneur's 1998 Business Travel Awards
Best Domestic Low-Fare Airline: AirTran Airlines
While other low-fare carriers are going out of business, feisty AirTran continues to grow by adding destinations and reducing fares throughout the eastern half of the country. AirTran serves both major metropolitan areas and small towns (38 total) from its hubs in Atlanta and Orlando, Florida. Last March, it announced a frequent-flier program that offers free trips on AirTran or 14 other U.S. carriers. That's in addition to offering business-class seats at the front of the plane that are no different from first-class seats on any other airline for just $25 more than its low walk-up fare. While the airline's fleet primarily consists of older DC-9's, it has purchased 50 new Boeing 717s that will be delivered starting next summer. ValuJet, which merged with AirTran last year, won Entrepreneur's award for Best Domestic Low-Fare Airline in 1996. For more information or reservations, call (800) AIR-TRAN or visit http://www.airtran.com
Best Trans-Atlantic Business Class: Continental BusinessFirst
A trip across the Atlantic can be as grueling as it is exciting, especially when you're traveling on business. And when you're shelling out more than $3,000 for a business-class seat, it had better be worth it. Once again, Continental Airlines has what it takes to provide true value. Several years ago when Continental was mired in bankruptcy, it had a vision: Despite the cost, it installed the roomiest and most comfortable business-class seats available on its airplanes. And the investment paid off. For the past five years, Continental's BusinessFirst cabin has been recognized by Entrepreneur and others for giving business travelers exactly what they want: a wide, cozy, electronically controlled seat; a good entertainment system; ample meals; a place to work; and award miles in a valuable frequent-flier program. And now that business is heating up south of the border, Continental offers BusinessFirst on flights to Bogotá, Colombia; Lima, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; Santiago, Chile; and Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil. For more information, call (800) 231-0856 or visit http://www.flycontinental.com
Best Trans-Pacific Coach Class: EVA Airways
Like Virgin Atlantic, Taiwan-based EVA Airways knows that a transoceanic flight can wreak havoc on a business traveler. And since business travelers typically pay more than vacationers, EVA has come up with an additional class of service called Evergreen Deluxe Class. For slightly more than the cost of an economy ticket, EVA gives Evergreen Deluxe passengers a wider, softer seat with leg rests, extra legroom, and an individual seat-back-mounted video system with six channels--handy on those 10- to 12-hour trans-Pacific odysseys. All flights stop in EVA's Taipei hub for connections to many other Asian capitals. EVA's younger-than-average jets touch down in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Honolulu. For more information, call (800) 695-1188.
Best Midpriced Hotel Chain: Hampton Inn
What's best about Hampton Inn? Consistency. At the more than 750 Hampton Inn hotels in North America, Chile, Costa Rica and Thailand, you can always expect a good night's rest at a reasonable rate. The hotels are located in high-traffic areas near full-service restaurants. All offer a free breakfast served daily in the hotel lobby, meeting space, free newspapers, pools and exercise rooms; all rooms include phones with data ports, coffee makers, irons and ironing boards. Since 1989, Hampton Inn has offered a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. In terms of value for dollars spent (on average, $65), a Hampton Inn is about as good as it gets. For more information, call (800) HAMPTON or visit http://www.hampton-inn.com
Best Trans-Atlantic Coach Class: Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy
Virgin Atlantic continues to grab our attention because it seems to be the only airline flying across the pond that is focused on making the long, cramped coach-class journey as painless as possible. Other airlines have given up on providing even a modicum of comfort and seem more focused on filling up the cabin than making it hospitable.
Virgin's most laudable effort is its Premium Economy section, which separates business travelers (those on higher full-coach fares) from backpackers and families. It's amazing what a little seat-shifting can do.
Virgin's Premium Economy offers a few more inches of leg and hip room and various goodies passed out by attentive and fun flight attendants who obviously love their jobs. For more information, call (800) 862-8621 or visit http://www.fly.virgin.com
Best Low-Priced Hotel Chain: La Quinta Inn
One of the most important features to look for in a budget hotel is the age of the property--or the date of its last major renovation. At the 270-plus La Quinta Inns, you'll find a less-than-3-years-old $120 million revamp of all 33,000 rooms. That means new bathrooms, drapes and carpet, phones with data ports, and brighter lighting.
La Quinta offers a free breakfast, free local calls, an oversized desk, a recliner, a swimming pool, space for small meetings and an adjacent restaurant--all for an average price of $58 per night. Like many other hotel chains, La Quinta offers a 100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee: If you're not happy with your stay, you don't pay. For more information, call (800) NU-ROOMS or visit http://www.laquinta.com
Best Hotel Value, New York City: Apple Core Hotels
These days, finding a value-priced hotel in New York City is almost impossible. Fortunately, a small chain of hotels is capitalizing on the cost-conscious mind-set of entrepreneurs. Apple Core Hotels renovated five centrally located, older boutique-style hotels and offers rooms at outstanding prices. All rooms feature cable television, phones with data ports, voice mail, coffee makers, irons and ironing boards. The average rate of $79 to $199 should appeal to value seekers. For more information, call (800) 567-7720 or visit http://www.applecorehotels.com
Best Hotel Value, San Francisco: Joie de Vivre Hotels
For the ideal combination of low rates and personality, try the offbeat but upscale 12-property Joie de Vivre chain. If, like many business travelers, you've grown weary of the tour bus and convention crowds that dominate the ever-popular City by the Bay, a stay at one of these small boutique-style hotels is like finding an oasis in the desert. While the properties have a whimsical style more befitting a weekend getaway than a business trip, most offer amenities that will help you get the job done during the week (some supply in-room laptops with Internet connections, printers and voice mail). The hotels offer all this at rates that start at $79--very inexpensive by San Francisco standards. And Joie de Vivre even offers corporate rates to repeat guests from small companies. For more information, call (800) 738-7477.
Best Hotel Value, Chicago: Hotel Allegro Chicago
Go ahead and indulge a little on your next trip to the Windy City. The upscale--but not uptight--Hotel Allegro is just the place to do it. Managed by the San Francisco-based Kimpton Group (winner of Entrepreneur's Business Travel Award for Best Hotel Value, San Francisco, in March 1996), the new Hotel Allegro Chicago offers 483 bright and funky rooms complete with CD players, honor bars, two-line speakerphones, hair dryers, irons and ironing boards. The hotel boasts "312 Chicago," a full-service bar and restaurant; an on-site fitness center; and plenty of meeting space. Rates start at $125--not bad for a new upscale hotel inside the Loop. For more information, call (800) 643-1500.
Best Car Rental service: Thrifty Car Rental
Once again, Thrifty Car Rental wins our praise as the car rental company most focused on small-business owners. Its combination of low rates, frequent-flier program tie-ins, multiple locations and efficient customer service comes without all the unnecessary bells and whistles offered by the major car rental companies. After five years of Thrifty winning this award, we can only find two faults: Thrifty agents seem overly zealous in trying to sell usually unnecessary collision insurance, and the company has recently imposed a few rate-expanding fees (like additional driver fees) that catch mostly happy repeat customers by surprise. Still, Thrifty is highly recommended. For more information, call (800) FOR-CARS or visit http://www.thrifty.com
- Budgetel (Baymont) (800) 428-3438
- Courtyard by Marriott (800) 321-2211
- Fairfield Inn by Marriott (800) 228-2800
- Hampton Inn (800) 426 7866
- Holiday Inn Express (800) 465 4329
- La Quinta Inn (800) 687-6667
- Microtel (888) 771-7171
- Red Roof Inn (800) 843-7663
- Sleep Inn (800) 627-5337
- Wingate Inn (800) 228-1000
Major Airline Web Sites
America West: http://www.americawest.com
US Airways: http://www.usairways.com