More Mileage, Less Money Which airline gives you a discount fare--and impeccable service? What hotel chain offers high style at half the price? Read on for <em>Entrepreneur</em>'s Annual Value Award winners.
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Value is the essential component of business travel in these difficult times. Of course, that means paying attention to the bottom line--but more important, making sure you're getting the most for your money. Entrepreneur's 2010 Value Award winners manage to give you both: They provide more amenities, perks or service than the competition and do so at a terrific price. Even better, they all seem poised to offer even more in the months to come.
Best Airline Value
None of America's major carriers could ever contend for a value award. Air travel has become a commodity on most routes, with monolithic pricing and almost no difference in the experience beyond the color of the planes. And now that experience has been stripped down to the point of misery. When consumers joke about paying extra to use the lavatory, you know the industry has gone awry.
These days, value comes from niche brands that either undercharge or over-deliver. Frontier Airlines does both. While matching Southwest Airlines' fares from its Denver hub and beyond, it offers live television, food for purchase that's actually edible and a can-do service philosophy. An a la carte pricing system enables customers to pay $20 or $30 more for a range of services including choice of seats, live TV and two checked bags. Planes are clean and newer--the average age of 5 years is one of the industry's lowest--and employees genuinely appear to enjoy their work. When's the last time you got that feeling from an airline?
Frontier's acquisition by Republic last year may produce some growing pains, but the resulting partnership with Midwest will mean more daily flights to and from popular East Coast destinations such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and an expanded route map. At least for now, EarlyReturns members can still earn domestic free flights for as little as 15,000 miles or get to one of five Mexican destinations for just 20,000. That just might be the best value in the sky.
Best Rental-Car Value
You'd think from the rainbow of rental-car counters at the airport that consumers have numerous choices in this category, but the scene is misleading: No segment of the travel industry has experienced as much consolidation. Hertz is now allied with Advantage, National is teamed with Alamo and Enterprise, Dollar is part of Thrifty, and Avis owns Budget. The inevitable result has been higher prices almost everywhere: The average weekly rate for compact cars went from $199 in 2008 to $346 as of last summer, according to Budget Travel magazine.
Fox Rent A Car remains one of the few independents and the only one competing in more than a handful of markets. Its cars are the latest models--and 2011s are on the way--typically spotless and cost as low as half as what the familiar chains offer. Though heavy on compacts, Fox's fleet includes full-sized SUVs, and hybrids (mostly Honda Insights) are available at all 14 Fox locations in five Western states and Missouri. (Eight additional international affiliates are spread from Toronto to Auckland, New Zealand.)
Fox's slow-growth strategy and low overhead allow it to undercut prices. The company started in 1989 in California and still hasn't crossed the Mississippi. Instead of vast structures with rows of agents, Fox's facilities typically consist of a shack in a parking lot. This can be a drawback, as waits are occasionally interminable, as they can be on its toll-free reservation system. And only five airports have on-site locations, though three more are coming this year. But if you're willing to put up with that, you'll get a brand-name car for an amazing rate. In six cities, you can even upgrade to a luxury vehicle such as a Mercedes or a Mustang convertible for a small additional fee. And a loyalty program rewards frequent customers with discounts.
Best of all, Fox finally seems ready to ramp up its business. Burbank and Ontario, its ninth and tenth markets in California, have recently opened, and an East Coast push is coming next, with an emphasis on Florida. Rental rates there are already cheap compared with those in the rest of the country, but Fox is confident that its can come in even cheaper.
Best Frequent Traveler Program
Starwood Preferred Guest
Mathematics alone would be enough to make Starwood Preferred Guest the best frequent-stay value in the travel industry: If you spend $25,000 on a typical rewards credit card, you'll get a free domestic airline ticket or a free night at a mid-range hotel. You'll need many thousands more points for a night at a resort, such as the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.
But if you spend $25,000 using an SPG American Express credit card, you'll get a free night at a top-tier Starwood property, such as the Aspen St. Regis, the SLS Beverly Hills, the Prince de Galles in Paris or Frank Gehry's Marqu?s de Riscal hotel in Elciego, Spain, among many others. And at most properties, including the upper-echelon brands, a fifth night is free when you redeem points for four.
But that's just the start of SPG's value. The program has no blackout dates (except for special events such as Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl), so if a room is available for booking, it's available for redemption by points. Upgrades for top-tier members are routine when space allows, and far from resenting their award-travel guests, most Starwood hotels pamper them. As of March 1, Platinum guests also receive free Internet at most properties.
No one likes amassing points or miles and then not being able to use them. Starwood's equities include some of the finest hotels in the world under the Luxury Collection umbrella, as well as flagship Sheratons, Westins, Le Meridiens and St. Regises, and the bargain brands Aloft, Element and Four Points. With 942 properties scattered from Quebec to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, there's likely to be one--or even half a dozen--anywhere you travel.
Best Value Hotel Chain
Five years ago, InterContinental hotels launched Hotel Indigo as a quirky, refreshing option to its own cookie-cutter Holiday Inns, as well as Starwood's Four Points, Marriott's Courtyards, Hilton's Garden Inns and other limited-service brands. Pricing has drifted upward as new properties have opened--Indigo's number of rooms increased by 50 percent in 2009 alone--but the 34-hotel chain still provides a singular experience for about $129 a night around North America, little more than half of what business consumers might typically expect to pay.
Indigo is trying to be a W hotel without attitude, a boutique-style hotel informed by friendliness, not trendiness. It almost always succeeds. Rather than keep staff members faceless, Indigo chronicles employees' backgrounds and interests on cards posted throughout each property. Front-desk clerks are trained to read arriving guests' intentions through their nonverbal clues, interacting with them as business customers, honeymooners or anything in between. Properties are designed around local and regional themes, so each is unique. In Nashville, Tenn., where the hotel is built in a retrofitted bank, the feel is mid-century urban, whereas the Hacienda Misne in Merida, Mexico, is all shade trees and tile. Common elements include a Phi Bar & Bistro for "grab and go" snacks or simple sit-down meals. Bedrooms have throw rugs, overstuffed chairs and ottomans, spa showers and free Internet.
What started as a North American brand went global in late 2008 with the opening of a whitewashed Indigo beside London's Paddington Station. One in Shanghai, China, will open in July, with others to come in Hong Kong; Glasgow, Scotland; and Liverpool, England.
Best Site for Travel Deals
Every business traveler should have several travel websites bookmarked. The possibilities include yapta.com for tracking price drops on purchased tickets, oyster.com for getting hotel feedback from experts and chowhound.com for finding restaurants on the road. But no aspect of the travel process is worth your computer time more than saving money on airfare, and the 4-year-old farecompare.com site helps you do that better than any other site. It advises how far in advance to buy a ticket on a particular route (based on consumer buying patterns). It sends e-mail alerts when prices on your routes go down. And it trolls the Internet for short-term deals and sales, which are sorted by price per mile.
The secret is proprietary software created by its founders, who formerly wrote code for airlines. Twelve times daily, automated programs price fares on every air route in the world for every day of the coming 10 months. The result is the world's largest database of current and historical airfares, information that can be sliced and sorted to serve multiple functions.
Last year, the site set up nearly 200 Twitter accounts that consumers can follow to get airport-specific bulletins when fares drop dramatically. Coming soon are tie-ins with social media, so if you and five friends want to fly from different locations to catch a concert on a rock band's tour, the site can tell you the optimal date and place. Choosing the band will remain your responsibility.