The Right Clicks The websites this business-travel "expert" turns to, and how to get the most out of them.
After more than 30 years on the road, nothing about business travel frightens me-except when some radio or television interviewer calls me a travel expert. I cringe, because I know what you know: There is no such thing.
For one thing, business travel is personal. The goal is not to travel the way everyone else does, but to choose the way that works for you: the most productive, least oppressive, and most practical. We're each our own expert. Only we know where we want to go, how we want to get there, and how much we want to pay.
Over the years, though, I've come up with a set of Web-based strategies to help me manage my life on the road. Here are the best of them, and how I use them to my personal advantage.
Just one caveat: Take these recommendations with a few boulders of salt. Individual mileage, as they say, may vary. And I encourage you to leave a comment below telling me what works for you on the road. Then, maybe some TV or radio interviewer will label you an authority.
Finding the Fares
Most business trips begin with a flight, so I start out at Orbitz. I click the "flexible dates" link on the home page. That allows me to use the "bonus days" feature, which provides fare quotes for as many as three days before or after my prospective travel dates. Orbitz then generates an array of possible fares that can differ by hundreds of dollars, depending on the choices I eventually make.
Choosing a Perch
Since price isn't everything, I quickly cross-check my selection on SeatGuru. Plenty of sites offer generic aircraft-seating maps, but SeatGuru offers best-and-worst recommendations based on all sorts of variables: seat recline, under-seat storage space, and even proximity to galleys and lavatories. Just by gliding your mouse over the illustrated seating charts, you can generate specific, seat-by-seat reviews for hundreds of aircraft operated by dozens of airlines.
Running the Numbers
Given the parlous state of air travel these days, I never lock in my reservations before checking FlightStats. In addition to real-time tracking of flights and airport-security delays, the site allows you to check the past performance of specific flights to find out how often they're on time as well as the average length of their delays. If I'm flying into an airport I know is prone to late arrivals, I'll even use FlightStats' "time period" feature, which shows how well a particular airport functions within a given three-hour window. I find it useful to know, for instance, that I have nearly a 90 percent chance of arriving on time at New York's LaGuardia International Airport between 6 and 9 a.m., but only a 50-50 shot if I'm landing between 9 a.m. and noon.
Finding a Bed
When it comes to choosing a place to lay my bald head, I've earned super-elite status in several hotel chains' frequent-stay programs. While this ensures that I receive a degree of V.I.P. treatment everywhere I go, there are huge variations and quirks even among chains. I make a point of reading hotel reviews posted by travelers at TripAdvisor. The postings contain a lot of fluff and many niggling complaints, but any smart traveler can filter out the extremes to find a basis for making an informed opinion.
For overseas hotels, I prefer the user reviews at Fodor's or Venere.com. The travelers at Venere seem a little more worldly, and I love the arguments over the quality of the breakfast offered by European hotels. There's nothing quite like reading a review from an irate British traveler who expected a traditional "fry-up" at a hotel in Rome and was forced to make do with espresso and cornetto.
Eating on the Go
Speaking of on-the-road eats, for me it's a reflex to start with the Zagat Survey. I've used the printed versions for more than 20 years and was among the first journalists to write about Tim and Nina Zagat. But these days, I often find more useful and cutting-edge dining suggestions at Chowhound. Their diner-generated bulletin boards provide information on little-known local eateries as well as up-to-the-second reviews of the latest restaurants.
The Fine Print
Hotel rates are surging around the nation, so I often consult Quikbook when I'm searching for a lodging bargain. The site offers terrific deals, mostly on boutique and independent hotels in major cities. Best feature: Most Quikbook rates do not require pre-payment. Make your reservations online and pay when you check in.