As we enter our second decade of Entrepreneur's Annual Business Travel Awards, there's one thing that remains unchanged: As an entrepreneur, you almost always pay for business trips right out of your own wallet-not out of some cushy corporate expense account. And that means your focus must be razor-sharp to obtain the best value possible for every penny you spend on travel.
With our Annual Business Travel Awards, we aim to help you choose the travel suppliers that offer the most value; that is, those that offer the best products or services for business owners at an affordable price.
Remember, this is not a formal or scientific survey. It's simply our subjective selection of the product and service suppliers that we believe offer the most to value-driven business travelers.
Best Car-Rental Company: Enterprise Rent-a-Car Co.
Enterprise was started in 1957 by entrepreneur Jack Taylor, whose family still runs the show-managing a rental fleet of 500,000-plus vehicles and motivating thousands of employees at its 5,500 company-owned locations in five countries.
What's best about Enterprise is that it offers the business-travel basics: clean, late-model cars; many on-airport locations; helpful employees; and consistently good prices. What you won't find at Enterprise are many of the bells and whistles that tend to inflate prices, like satellite guidance systems, covered parking or frequent-flier miles.
Rates at Enterprise are typically about 20 percent less than what you'll find at its competitors. Frequent renters can get even lower rates by signing up for its Corporate Class program.
Best Travel Web Site: Hotwire.com
In the past, last-minute travel usually meant paying through the nose. But the Internet has changed all that. Now, sites like Hotwire.com help value-conscious business travelers make smart last-minute decisions that help keep travel budgets in check. Hotwire partners with major airlines, hotels and car rental companies, which offer their unsold inventory at big discounts that Hotwire passes on to its users. But in exchange for the discounts, you must be willing to live with some uncertainty.
Hotwire can work wonders when it comes to hotel and car rental bookings. For cars, you choose your dates, car type, pickup and dropoff locations; then Hotwire offers a price you can take or leave. The same goes for hotels, but you can only choose the hotel category (based on a star system) and a general location. The catch is that you don't know the name of the car rental company or the hotel you'll get until after you've agreed to pay the nonrefundable, discounted rate.
Booking flights on Hotwire is less of an option for business travelers, because you're only allowed to choose the day of travel-which means you could be on an early morning or late-night flight that may not work into your schedule. Still, the savings can be substantial. So if your schedule is flexible and your budget is tight, it's worth a try.
Best Upscale Hotel Chain: Marriott Hotels & Resorts
Ubiquity and consistency are what make Marriott the leader of the pack when it comes to upscale lodging for value-driven business travelers. You will almost always find a centrally located Marriott Hotel in every major business destination in the world.
It's comforting to know a Marriott in Santiago, Chile, is going to feel very similar to a Marriott in San Francisco or St. Louis. At every hotel, you'll find the familiar full-service amenities like fitness centers, pools, business centers, meeting spaces and, more recently, high-speed Internet connections. And you can count on Marriott to offer all this at a price that won't break the budget.
Plus, you earn extras with Marriott Rewards, its popular frequent-stay program. There are 469 Marriott Hotels & Resorts locations worldwide-305 in the United States and another 164 abroad.
Best Midpriced Hotel Chain: Wingate Inns
In an era when nickel-and-diming hotel guests seems to be standard practice, Wingate Inns' all-inclusive price is a refreshing value. There are now more than 130 Wingate Inns across the country with an average rate of about $99, which includes high-speed Internet access (wireless and/or wired), breakfast, business-center access, meeting rooms, a gym with a whirlpool, a cordless in-room phone with free local calls and free long-distance access, and a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.
Better yet, every Wingate Inn has been built new from the ground up since the chain launched in 1996. Also, the chain participates in the TripRewards program, offering members 10 points per dollar spent on qualifying room rates, which can be redeemed for free nights or a wide variety of other rewards, like shopping and dining certificates, electronics, or theme park and movie tickets.
Best Budget Hotel Chain: Microtel Inns & Suites
Microtel has only been around for eight years, but based on the success of its value proposition (average rates run in the $49 range), it has grown to more than 250 properties in the United States and a handful of other countries. For the past two years, it has ranked as the number-one economy/budget chain in the well-known "North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study" conducted by J.D. Power and Associates.
Every Microtel is built new from the ground up and features interior corridors, a big desk, cable TV, plus complimentary morning coffee. By the end of 2004, there will also be free local and long-distance calling, and free wireless high-speed Internet access in every room. If you need more room, just ask for one of Microtel's suites; each comes with a microwave, a mini-refrigerator, a coffee maker and separate seating area. Frequent guests who are members of its MicroPass program get every 10th stay free. Also, depending on your company's travel patterns, Microtel offers its "Value Preferred Rate," a fixed corporate rate that's valid nationwide.
Best Low-Fare Airline: Airtran Airways
Since AirTran walked away with the Best Low-Fare Airline award two years ago, it has continued on a slow and deliberate path to success, winning over the hearts and wallets of value-conscious business travelers fed up with major airlines. From its main hub in Atlanta, AirTran now flies nonstop to more than 40 cities, using a fleet of all brand-new Boeing 717's.
AirTran fares rarely exceed $100 each way for tickets bought at least 21 days in advance. And walk-up fares rarely exceed $299 each way. There's never a Saturday night stay-over requirement. AirTran also offers a simple frequent-flier program, which rewards members with a free, one-way flight for every eight segments flown. Standby upgrades to its business-class cabin (identical to the major airlines' first class) cost $35 to $50. AirTran also offers a special program for small businesses-called the A2B Corporate Travel Program-which provides member companies with easier access to upgrades, reduced restrictions and waived change fees.
Last year, AirTran broadened its mostly East Coast/Midwest presence with new nonstops between Atlanta and Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC, with fares as low as $100 each way. It's also developing secondary hubs in Baltimore, Dallas and Philadelphia.
Don't confuse AirTran with American Trans Air (ATA), another low-fare carrier operating out of Chicago, which was a close runner-up for this year's award.
Best Major Airline: America West Airlines
If you're paying less than $300 for a round- trip, coast-to-coast ticket this year, you can thank America West . Based in Tempe, Arizona, the carrier-which took this category last year-continues its remarkable turnaround this year as one of the few profitable, growing major airlines.
America West seems to be one of the few major carriers that "gets it" when it comes to offering value to travelers. Two years ago, when the airline was on the brink of insolvency, it dumped its worn-out major-airline fare structure and replaced it with simplified, flexible fares that offer customers reasonable prices on tickets bought on short notice, with no aggravating Saturday night stay.
Business travelers in its Las Vegas and Phoenix hubs are among the lucky beneficiaries of America West's resurgence. And now that the airline is offering transcontinental nonstops from New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco, as well as Boston to Los Angeles and Boston to San Francisco, budget-conscious travelers on both coasts benefit with lower fares and fewer restrictions. Fares in these nonstop transcontinental markets were as high as $1,219 each way before America West entered the market and lowered the one-way, walk-up business fares to as low as $299.
Its FlightFund frequent-flier program offers elite benefits that include unlimited, space-available upgrades; mileage bonuses; preferred seating; priority check-in; and early boarding. It also offers a 5 percent discount on all tickets to small businesses that are enrolled in its Corporate AWArds program.
America West is the eighth largest carrier in the country, and flies to 93 cities in the United States, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico.
Must-Have Travel Gear
Plane Quiet noise-canceling headphones help shut out the drone of airliner jet engines (as well as those less-than-quiet fellow passengers), and keep you focused on what's playing on your CD or DVD player, or on the airline's entertainment system. (The headset plugs into all three as well as into a laptop computer.) Best of all, this unit retails for just $80, compared to the similar, better-known version from Bose, which runs $300. Price: $80 (704) 583-1100
Tired of digging through your pocket, carry-on or purse for your ID and boarding pass at airport security checkpoints? The AccessWallet can help you speed through the irritating process. This pocket-size case has a clear plastic sleeve to display your ID and boarding pass, so you have them ready for airport agents to scan-without having to remove anything from your wallet. It also has pockets to hold itineraries and receipts, keeping your travel documents separate from cash and credit cards in case of loss. Price: vinyl, $24.95; leather, $49.95 (888) 565-4138
When your mobile phone battery needs recharging, and you're nowhere near a conventional power source, plug it in to the SideWinder charger, and crank your way to extra minutes of talk time. You'll get about six minutes of talk time for every two minutes of cranking. The SideWinder comes with four adapter tips to fit the most popular mobile phone models, weighs only 2.5 ounces, and fits in the palm of your hand. The windup technology is more dependable than solar chargers, more efficient than carrying extra batteries, and won't spike your phone's voltage. Price: $24.95 (888) 478-6565
Ever arrived at your hotel after a long day of business travel and longed for the comforts of home? With AromaZone's Travel Candle Tins (keyword: travel), you can relax all evening-or 15 to 20 hours-thanks to the therapeutic, long-lasting scents of eucalyptus, juniper and ylang-ylang, among others. Small and lightweight, the travel-wise tin containers make these candles easy to pack and carry with you, turning your hotel room into a soothing sanctuary instead of a beige box. Price: $6.25 (323) 846-8686
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently gave the nod to a new luggage lock from Travel Sentry , allowing you to secure your checked luggage without worrying that screeners will break your locks to search your bags. TSA personnel are trained to recognize the Travel Sentry identification logo and can unlock the bags with coded passkeys to inspect your luggage. Inexpensive and lightweight, they're available in padlock and combination-lock versions. Price: $5 to $10 (800) 575-6611
In the age of SARS, travelers are increasingly worried about picking up germs from public phones, drinking fountains or even-yuck!-toilets. Zap those bugs with a pocket-size, 0.5- or 1-ounce bottle of antibacterial, antiviral Virofree disinfectant spray. This odorless, nontoxic, EPA-approved formula is harmless enough to use in hospital nurseries but strong enough to be effective against everything from the common cold and the flu to hepatitis B, salmonella, staph and the Norwalk virus. It's also great for airplane restrooms and tray tables. Price: $7.99 to $16.95 (888) viro-free