Extra Mile Awards 2005: The 10 Winners
China Help Line: Translators on Call
During frequent trips to China, Harvard Business School grads Eric Moffett and Manoj Dengla wished they had access to a translator from time to time. They regularly found themselves calling a friend in Shanghai whenever they got in a jam. "He'd always solve our problems," says Moffett. Eureka! "After doing some research we found that there were lots of Westerners who were willing to pay for such a service." In January, Moffett, Dengla, and another partner, Karen Zhou, launched the China Help Line, a phone-based service in Shanghai that offers real-time translation between Chinese and English. First, you sign up at chinahelpline.com. Then, next time you're lost in a taxi in Shanghai, call 021-6100-9700 and tell one of the staffers where you need to go. Hand the phone to the driver, and your request will come through in the appropriate language. The system was created with business travelers in mind, but it also works well for tourists--especially because users get the first five calls free (37¢ a minute thereafter). The line is staffed seven days a week (from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. locally), handles three-way calls, doesn't impose a time limit, and even serves as a concierge by giving advice on restaurants and trip planning. Right now, the only call center is in Shanghai, so if you're elsewhere and want assistance, you'll have to pay long-distance charges. A local number for Beijing is in the works.
Walt Disney World: The Happiest Airport Transfers on Earth
Since May, guests have found it significantly easier to get from the Orlando airport to Disney World, thanks to a free shuttle, the Magical Express. "The roots of the idea come from the Disney Cruise Line," says John Padgett, vice president in charge of products and services. Disney cruises have transported bags and offered airport transfers since launching in 1998. "We thought, Why not do that for all of Disney World?"
If you've booked a Disney-owned hotel, you'll receive special tags in the mail to attach to your luggage. Upon arrival at the Orlando airport--it doesn't matter which airline you fly--the bags are loaded into trucks bound for the park, so you can breeze past baggage claim and head directly onto the Magical Express. Disney staffers are on hand to answer questions, and a video explaining some resort basics (including what happens on the return to the airport) is shown on the drive over. You're dropped off at the hotel and bags are delivered to guest rooms within a few hours. When you're ready to fly home, certain airlines-- American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Song, United, Ted, and Northwest-- let you pick up boarding passes and check in luggage right at the hotel. The only line at the airport you have to worry about is security screening, and there's no getting around that. "If we can find a way to take one of the most difficult parts of a vacation and make it easier," says Padgett, "that's a big win."
Announced as a temporary initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Magical Express is scheduled to run through fall 2006. Feedback from customers has been fantastic (Orlando cab drivers, not so much), and Disney executives are looking into extending the service.
Continental Airlines: Making Frequent-Flier Miles Easier to Redeem
Anyone who's tried to cash in frequent-flier miles for tickets knows the drill: Call the airline's 800 number, wait for an agent, ask him or her to look up availability on a particular date, find out there are no award seats, then repeat the process until you get lucky or give up. Even the Internet offered little relief. But last September, Continental introduced an online calendar that shows exactly when you can use miles on your selected route. Days are color-coded to indicate whether you're allowed to trade in miles for an economy or first-class seat.
Since the calendar was launched, there's been a 15 percent increase in customers booking award tickets online. The system was dreamed up with clients as well as reservation agents in mind--both groups were frustrated by how long searches took. But the agents haven't been as fortunate. Says Ken Penny, Continental's director of Internet planning, "Our reservation agents tell me, 'I wish we could have that calendar tool.' "
In April, Continental added the ability to book award flights via the Internet on partner Northwest Airlines, and plans to do the same for other partner carriers down the road. None of this means that Continental is more generous than other airlines regarding the number of award tickets it allows per plane, but the calendar sure makes it a snap to find out if seats are available.