What a Trip!

Looking to minimize surprises and maximize perks while on the road? Our picks for the best deals in business travel can help you on your way.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the April 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Travel suppliers have finally discovered the "unmanaged business traveler," a traveler typically from a small company without a corporate travel department to depend on to negotiate discounts, set a travel policy or keep that expense account nice and fat. An unmanaged traveler is a free agent--making decisions on the go, frequently paying out of his or her own pocket, and always seeking real value where he or she can find it. Sound familiar?

With business travel prices expected to increase over the next year, finding value for each dollar your company spends on business trips is more important than ever. With our 2006 Business Travel Awards, we aim to help you choose the travel suppliers that offer the most value--those that offer the best products or services at affordable prices. Remember, this is not a formal or scientific survey, it's a subjective selection of suppliers that we believe offer the most to value-driven business travelers.

Best Airline Value:
AirTran Airways and Jetblue Airways (TIE)

Now that the line between low-fare airlines and major airlines has blurred, we have merged the two previous airline award categories (best low-fare airline value and best major airline value) into a new best airline value award. But even with a single category, two airlines, AirTran and JetBlue, tie for the honor this year, and here's why:

We can't think of two airlines that have improved the business travel experience more for the greatest number of independent travelers. Fares are lower and restrictions fewer among nearly all airlines as a result of the influence of AirTran and JetBlue. Due to these carriers' practical and reasonable pricing policies, older carriers have had to revamp their obtuse pricing schemes, eliminate exorbitant fare premiums for last-minute purchases or changes, and jigger their websites to make booking easier and more transparent.

With cutting-edge entertainment such as free satellite radio (AirTran) or free in-flight satellite TV (JetBlue), the in-flight experience is now light-years ahead of the seat-back magazine or grainy overhead movie you'll still find on older carriers.

AirTran flies to 50 destinations, including its hub in Atlanta, where it is now the second largest carrier. All its new Boeing 717 and 737 aircraft have free XM Satellite Radio (100 channels of live news, talk, sports, music and games) built into the armrests of every seat. Unlike other low-fare carriers, AirTran offers two classes of service-coach and business class, with upgrades to its business-class cabin (nearly identical to first class on a major airline) going for just $35 to $75. For more information, visit www.airtran.com, or call (800) AIRTRAN.

JetBlue's main focus is New York City, where it connects Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports to 32 other destinations. You'll enjoy roomy, leather, all-coach seating (a tip: you'll get two extra inches of legroom if you choose a seat behind the wing) with 36 channels of free satellite TV on every seat back. All seats are assigned, all travel is ticketless, all fares are one-way, and an overnight stay is never required. Learn more at www.jetblue.com, or call (800) JETBLUE.

Best Budget Hotel Value:
Holiday Inn Express

Holiday Inn Express is a perennial Business Travel Award winner in this category, and we feel it's still the best, with the most locations, the newest properties, and nearly constant tweaks and improvements. Since its launch in 1990, Holiday Inn Express has been offering extras such as free breakfast and free local calls, which, in turn, have become standard at nearly all budget hotels.

To stay ahead of the pack, Holiday Inn Express now offers free in-room high-speed internet access at all hotels, hot cinnamon rolls at breakfast and a revamped SimplySmart shower program, featuring proprietary multifunction Kohler shower heads; thicker, 100 percent cotton towels and bathmats; shower curtains with curved rods (adding 25 percent more showering space); and an upgraded line of bathroom amenities.

The chain boasts more than 1,500 locations around the world. Recently, it has made its way into pricey downtown markets like New York City, Montreal and Toronto with high-rise hotels, offering an affordable and practical alternative to overpriced urban pleasure palaces. Average rates run from $60 to $90 (but can be higher or lower based on location and season). In addition, you can earn points in the popular Priority Club frequent-stay program. Check it all out at www.hiexpress.com, or call (800) HOLIDAY.

What a Trip!

Best Midprice Hotel Value:
Hilton Garden Inn

Hilton Garden Inn is the Hilton Family of hotels' fastest-growing brand for good reason: You'll always find modern, clean and practical accommodations-not a grande dame in the bunch. You also get everything you need to conduct business, including an oversize desk, a two-line phone, free high-speed internet access and a 24-hour business center (including one or more meeting rooms). You will enjoy home-like amenities in your room, such as a microwave and a minifridge. And a specially designed clock radio can play your MP3 or portable CD player. Plus, many of the hotels sport flat-screen, high-definition TVs and upgraded beds. You'll also find a small casual restaurant in each hotel as well as an always-open Pavilion Pantry.

Best of all, rates generally run in the $100 to $200 per night range. And You'll earn points in the Hilton HHonors frequent-stay program, which can be redeemed for free nights at all Hilton Family hotel brands and can be converted into airline frequent-flier miles.

We aren't the only ones singing the praises of Hilton Garden Inn-the chain has received the JD Power and Associates "Highest Guest Satisfaction Among Mid-Scale Hotel Chains With Full Serv-ice" award for the past four years. The hotels are located in mostly suburban and airport-adjacent areas, but have recently moved into more central locations, including New York City and downtown Chicago. Interested? See www.stayhgi.com, or call (877) STAY-HGI.

Best Upscale Hotel Value:
Omni Hotels

Over the past five years or so, Omni Hotels have quietly become a hit among value-conscious business travelers who want to enjoy a sense of luxury. At the 38 Omni Hotels across North America, you can expect reasonable rates, plus great locations, excellent service, well-appointed rooms, and hip and handsome hotel restaurants.

All Omni Hotels offer on-site business centers and meeting spaces, and in your room, you'll enjoy two-line speakerphones and free high-speed internet access. (Omni was the first upscale hotel chain to offer free high-speed internet in all guest rooms at all hotels; most upscale brands charge a daily fee of $10 to $20.)

For those committed to staying fit, Omni offers two options to make working out easier: First, you can request a free Get Fit Kit, which includes items such as dumbbells, a workout mat, a headset and a bottle of water. And for an additional $14.99 per night, you can reserve a Get Fit Room with a treadmill.

Instead of a standard program that rewards loyalty with free hotel stays, Omni's innovative Select Guest program is a frequent-guest recognition program. Members get bennies like express check-in, late check-out, free morning coffee or juice delivered to the room, plus occasional surprises such as complimentary upgrades or half-price weekend nights. Also, you'll earn 600 airline miles per stay with most major U.S. airlines.

The chain recently opened brand-new hotels in San Diego and Orlando, Florida. Learn more at www.omnihotels.com, or call (888) 444-OMNI.

Best Car Rental Value:
Budget Rent A Car

Budget Rent A Car gets our kudos this year for launching Budget Business, the freshest approach to small- and midsize-business car rentals in years-a $2 per day rebate, with very few strings attached. While $2 per day may not sound like much, it can certainly add up over the long run.

Here's how it works: Small and midsize businesses that rent cars at least five times per year sign up for the Budget Business program at www.budget.com/bizprogram. Once your company has signed up and received a Budget Corporate Discount number, employees receive an additional discount off Budget's lowest qualifying rates on all car classes. Then at the end of each month, Budget sends your company a statement with all car rental activity, plus a check for the $2 per day rebate on all rentals. Even better, there are no additional driver fees, and all employees get free Rapid Return and Fastbreak service (which means no standing in line at the rental car counter).

What we like best about the Budget Business program is that businesses can earn a discount without giving up the perks and convenience of a full-service car rental company. Budget has a presence in all major U.S. airports, offers frequent-flier miles for each rental, operates a fleet of low-mileage vehicles and provides 24-hour roadside assistance. Check it all out at www.budget.com, or call (800) 822-7379.

What a Trip!

Best Site for Travel Deals:

The oldest adage in the new age of online travel booking is that there is no single website that always offers the lowest fares. There are simply too many variables. But starting in early 2005, we moved closer to that silver bullet of a site with the launch of new metasearch engine Kayak.com.

Here's how Kayak works: Similar to other travel booking sites, you enter your travel dates, origins and destinations. Kayak then scours more than 100 travel sites-airline sites, travel agent sites, discount sites, consolidators-and gives you real-time airfares (and itineraries), hotel rates or car rental rates for you to select from.

Keep in mind that metasearch engines such as Kayak are just that-search engines. They are not travel agencies-they only direct you to the sites where the deals are, and you buy there. By booking directly with the travel provider, small-business travelers can avoid paying service fees. In addition, by booking directly, you'll benefit from supplier-direct incentives such as upgrades and bonus miles.

Best Site for Travel Advice:

Looking for the truth about business travel? Look no further than JoeSentMe.com, the brutally honest, practical and insightful website from journalist Joe Brancatelli, who has been covering the business travel beat since the 1970s.

Sign up for his weekly newsletter, and you'll get all the news and insider information you need to know (and a healthy dose of opinion). Plus, you'll find helpful columns from a handful of other writers who specialize in travel technology and gadgets, health and fitness, and more. Alas, the unvarnished truth does not come free. Since JoeSentMe.com is noncommercial and accepts no ads or support from the travel industry, annual membership starts at $49.

Luggage Must-Haves
Weighing in: Avoid expensive overweight-luggage surcharges by weighing your bags before you leave for the airport. Magellan's $9.85 scale allows you to weigh bags up to 75 pounds, and has a built-in tape measure to ensure bags don't exceed size requirements.

Attention: ladies with laptops: Are you tired of hauling around that ugly black computer bag? The stylish $80 Marina Computer Handbag from Timbuk2 is big enough to fit laptops up to 15 inches across-and they'll be well protected by padding, a waterproof bottom and a ballistic nylon exterior. The bag also has no-slip padded handles and a zippered exterior cell-phone pocket. Available in assorted colors.

Nothing but the best: The National Luggage Dealers Association designed the Mosaic Collection of wheeled suitcases based on what customers have been asking for. You can customize your bag with your initials or three colorful tiles, and you get a stain- and water-resistant slipcover that can stand up to abuse by luggage handlers. The $395 22-inch bag fits in overhead bins. Bags have a three-year warranty.

Travel Gear Must-Haves
Rest easy: Now that airlines are cutting back on everything, including pillows, it's time to bring your own. Cocoon offers a full line of super-lightweight travel pillows for head, neck and back support. The 10-by 13-inch pillows compress to fit into fist-size bags that weigh just 3 ounces. Inside the nylon shell is synthetic or all-natural goose down, offering a nice, soft spot on a long, hard trip. Larger sizes are available. Prices run from $16 to $28.

The better belt: Tired of taking your belt off every time you pass through the airport security gauntlet? Bison Belts are made of woven nylon and fasten with plastic buckles that won't set off metal detectors. The $12 standard belt and the $15 money belt come in a wide variety of patterns, colors and widths.

Wandering eyes?: New 3M privacy filters that fit over your laptop screen work like vertical mini-blinds to block the view of nosy airline seatmates (the screen appears dark when viewed from the side). They also provide protection from scratches or punctures to delicate laptop screens. Filters are available at most major office supply stores or online. Prices range from $50 to $80.

Tech Tools
Technology is key to your business success on the road because it keeps you connected with your office and your clients. For pure computing power, a laptop is hard to beat. The Hewlett-packard Compaq nc6140 Notebook PC starts at about $1,399 and 6 pounds, and has a 15-inch screen, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and built-in compatibility with Verizon's cellular broadband service. It's not the slimmest laptop around, but you won't have to skimp on power or wireless features.

Wireless connectivity is important when you're traveling. The Palm TX PDA comes stocked with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in a compact, $300 package. The screen can be viewed in portrait or landscape mode. Documents to Go software lets you take your Excel, PowerPoint and Word files with you. At 5.25 ounces, it might make you consider leaving your laptop at the office.

Business travel doesn't have to be all work all the time. The $299 (with cellular plan) Samsung SCH-a970 cell phone has MP3 playback, a 2-megapixel camera, video capture, Bluetooth, VCAST support and voice-to-text dictation. A microSD memory card slot gives you extra storage. The design, stereo speakerphone and swivel screen add to the cool factor.

Tech Tools Must-Haves
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.

Online Exclusive: For more travel tips and resources, visit www.entrepreneur.com//travel/index.html.

Chris McGinnis is Entrepreneur's "Biz Travel" columnist.
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