Was 2007 the biggest mess for business travelers since 2001? Flight delays were at an all-time high, new carry-on restrictions meant long waits at baggage carousels for bags you never wanted to check in the first place, full planes meant the uncomfortable reality of middle seats and lengthy boarding times--not to mention the slow-moving queues at security checkpoints.
Still, there have been bright spots amid the trials. There's the metasearch engine that's so well-engineered that it seriously slims down the time it takes to research the cheapest, most convenient itinerary; the frequency program that lets entrepreneurs enjoy the same perks and discounts as the big guys; and the new hotel chain that scores big on style but low on price.
Hats off to the 2008 winners of the Business Travel Awards. The victors weren't chosen by a scientific method or reader poll--just for having noteworthy products and services that will, we hope, make this a banner year for travelers.
Best Airline Value:
Since Southwest Airlines was founded 37 years ago, it has delighted passengers who are looking for sanity in pricing and levity in service.
Southwest has ranked lowest in the number of complaints per passengers boarded ever since the government began tracking customer satisfaction statistics for airlines in 1987. While concerns recently surfaced about the safety of some of its planes, the company seems to have taken quick action to fix any problems.
The airline with a reputation for value has grown so dramatically that it is now one of the largest airlines in the U.S. and flies to all four corners of the country. But no matter how big, there's still a feeling of gutsy entrepreneurial spirit about Southwest. To attract more business travelers, a new fare category, Business Select, was launched last fall, offering full refunds on tickets, full flexibility to change flights, accelerated reward credits, preferred boarding status and a free in-flight cocktail in exchange for the modestly higher fare. The frequency program was enhanced, too: Fly 32 one-way flights or 16 roundtrips in 12 months and you can join the "A-List" and get checked in automatically for your flight ahead of departure--providing you purchase your ticket at least 36 hours in advance. And by this summer, Southwest's gate areas will have undergone a makeover, including (among other things) power stations for charging electronic devices.
Best Frequent Flier Program:
Frontier Airlines' Early Returns
If you don't do much traveling in the West, chances are you're not familiar with Frontier Airlines or its EarlyReturns frequent flier program. That's a pity. The low-cost carrier, considered a major airline by the Department of Transportation since 2006, created a program that's among the fastest in the industry. You only need 15,000 miles for a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the U.S. or between the contiguous U.S. and Canada; 25,000 miles earns a free roundtrip to/from Alaska or Mexico; and 35,000 will get you to/from Costa Rica. Didn't plan ahead? Redemption Deals offers last-minute freebies for as few as 7,500 miles.
Another way to accrue benefits is to charge $60,000 in a calendar year on a Frontier MasterCard. That puts you at the program's highest level (Summit), which earns you a 25 percent mileage bonus on Frontier flights, priority check in and boarding, preferred seat assignments and access to priority lines at most airport security checkpoints. As of November 2006, AirTran flights can earn EarlyReturns points, too, so even East Coasters will have a better chance to get to know Frontier.
Best Budget Hotel Value:
The name is a clever play on words; the rooms at this new lifestyle brand have 9-foot ceilings and oversize windows, making your room feel more like an urban loft than a generic, beige box. This latest production from the stylemeisters at Starwood Hotels features the design work of David Rockwell, best known for his Ã¼bercool restaurants. The centerpieces of the guest spaces are big, comfy beds and spa-style bathrooms with oversize walk-in showers and Bliss amenities. Need to work, or at least check your e-mail? Aloft offers a gadget that lets you plug in multiple electronic devices (cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, laptops) and link them to a flat-panel HDTV.
All Aloft locations have a bar, fitness center (called Re:charge) and pool (indoor or outdoor, depending on the climate). There is also a 24-hour snack bar (Re:fuel) but no restaurant. The first Alofts will open this summer, all in secondary markets where cool hotels are sadly lacking. Go to alofthotels.com for more information.
Best Midprice Hotel Value:
If hotel chains had personalities, Kimpton's would be the effortlessly hip older sibling, the one who is trendsetting without being silly, confident but still approachable. Now with 43 properties in the U.S. and Canada, this collection of boutique hotels combines edgy interior design with a serious approach to food. Many Kimpton hotels retain the top chefs in their cities, and some have helped launch the careers of star chefs.
Even though Kimpton is a chain, each property has a distinctive look and feel that's intimately connected to its surroundings; so, for example, Boston's hotels are very different from Seattle's. What links them are their thoughtful touches and focus on comfort--lobbies have a residential feel, beds are sumptuous and bathrooms are luxurious. The managers host nightly wine receptions, and the business centers now provide dual OSes.
Kimpton is proud to have been founded on eco-friendly principles, and in 2005, it instituted its EarthCare program. Rooms are kept spotless with nontoxic cleaners, minibars have organic snacks and beverages, and there's an in-room recycling program. We also like its clever service initiatives, including the "Forgot It, We've Got It" menu, providing essentials (hairstyling products, tweezers, sunscreen, nail-care items, Static Guard, handheld steamers and spray wrinkle remover) that travelers may have forgotten at home.
Even as Kimpton has grown, it hasn't lost sight of its entrepreneurial roots and treats business travelers from small companies the way it does those from multinationals. Sign up for Kimpton's Global Business program and you'll receive a flat 10 percent discount off the best available rates. There is no minimum threshold to reach, there are no blackout dates, and the discounts are applied on weekends, too.
Best Upscale Hotel Value:
One of the horrible ironies of high-priced hotels is that for all their luxury--goose down duvets, bathrooms clad in Carrera marble, crown-moulding ceilings--you still have to pay ridiculous prices for extras such as room service ($45 for a continental breakfast) and Wi-Fi ($20 a day), which are free at budget hotels. Not so at Omni. This collection of 40 first-class and luxury hotels and resorts gets the luxe details right with free amenities like high-speed Wi-Fi, plush robes and workout kits.
Omni is clearly resonating with its customers. Since 2000, J.D. Power & Associates has rated it as the "Highest in Guest Satisfaction Among Upscale Hotel Chains" three times. Another reason to like Omni: its creative approach to the amenities that business travelers really love. The Get Fit Room, for example, can be requested for an extra fee and comes equipped with a treadmill and a Get Fit Kit, which contains a pair of 2-pound dumbbells, a floor mat, stretch cords, an AM/FM headset and a bottle of water. Another thing to like: online check in as a mobile website function. Check in at omnihotels.com while you're en route, and your key will be ready for you upon arrival.
Best Car Rental Value:
Don't confuse Thrifty with second- or third-tier car rental companies. This isn't Rent a Wreck with pretensions; Thrifty has offices in 68 countries. We particularly like Thrifty's Corporate Account Program, which is open to companies of all sizes, even sole proprietorships. Once firms sign up, travelers are treated to up to 3,000 miles per month in the renting state and those bordering it (with possible restrictions), discounts on airport parking at Thrifty's 40 airport parking facilities, and automatic enrollment in the Blue Chip Express Rental Program, whose major distinction is the industry's first satisfaction guarantee. If a Blue Chip rental experience is disappointing, the first day is free.
Unlike many of its competitors, Thrifty has a significant presence both in airports (120 airports in the U.S. and Canada) and in local markets. Bells and whistles for drivers include GPS-enabled navigation devices available at most locations in North America and prepaid Pass24 toll service, available in Dallas, Denver, Houston and nine cities in Florida, with more aggressive expansion on the way this year. A daily fee of $8.95 ($5.95 in Florida) includes all toll charges, and users get unlimited use of toll express lanes.
Best Site for Travel Deals:
The founders of Kayak.com bring with them an impressive provenance: They also co-founded online travel powerhouses Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. But rather than function as a travel booking engine, as those three do, Kayak is a travel search engine--a metasearch engine, to be exact.
With just one click, you can scour hundreds of travel sites, including airlines, hotel companies, car rental companies, cruise lines, online travel agencies and consolidators. Kayak provides more e-information than it does e-commerce, with results presented in a way that encourages speed, clarity and easy comparisons.
Click on the heart icons, and your favorite choices will appear at the top of the search results. Want to see the difference in price another departure date or choice of airports could make? You can refine a search to include up to three days before and/or after preferred travel dates for the best fare and itinerary combination. Want the real skinny on where to stay? Search for a hotel and you'll not only get the official seller's description, but also consumer reviews posted to sites such as Epinions.com and IgoUgo.com, plus professional articles and reviews from leading guidebooks, magazines and newspapers. Another feature we like: being able to search multicity itineraries--a huge timesaver when you're planning a trip that's more complex than just going there and back.
Julie Moline is Entrepreneur's "Travel" columnist.