The 6th-Annual Extra Mile Awards
Travel gets more complicated and expensive by the year. But amid all the chaos, there are bright rays of hope and bravery. That's precisely why each fall Budget Travel salutes the forward-thinking companies—and people—working to make your vacation simpler, more affordable, and way more fun.
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NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE
Because going it alone shouldn't cost extra
The cruise industry has never been particularly welcoming to solo travelers. They're generally charged a single supplement that can nearly double the cost of the cruise. But the new 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic changes the game. Of the ship's more than 2,100 staterooms, 128 are reserved for solo cruisers—at no extra charge. The 100-square-foot studios are a little smaller than standard doubles but come with the same amenities—a full-size bed, a separate bathroom—as well as exclusive access to the Studio Lounge, a public area with a bar, plasma TVs, and comfy seating. Most important, studio prices start at $799, rather than $1,318, the cost of a standard double. epic.ncl.com, studios from $799 for seven-night itineraries.
Because fees suck. And Chuck ain't havin' it
In April, Spirit Airlines announced that it would charge as much as $45 for carry-ons. Predictably, the news was not well-received. But while most just grumbled, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sprang into action. After calling such fees "a slap in the face to travelers," he managed to secure promises from five major airlines to not institute similar charges. "When the economy is sputtering, we need to do everything we can to make sure individuals and businesses can remain on the move," Schumer argues. "Travelers' rights are now a critical economic issue for the country."
Even now that the furor over Spirit has died down, Schumer, along with six other senators, is working to pass the Block Airlines' Gratuitous (BAG) Fees Act, which aims to close a complicated tax loophole that allows the airline industry to profit from fees on "nonessential" items, which include carry-ons. "What will they charge us for next?" he asks. "Wearing a jacket? Carrying a toothbrush?"
Because everyone needs a place to play
Amusement parks should be fun for all, but until this April, they left out one important group: children with disabilities. Enter Morgan's Wonderland. The 25-acre amusement park in northeast San Antonio is the world's first fun zone designed especially for special-needs children. More than 25 activities, including a carousel, a pirate island, and customized swing sets, are wheelchair-accessible and outfitted with braille signage. Jessica Mireles, of Houston, recently visited with her five children, two of whom have cognitive disabilities. "At Morgan's, we were able to relax without any pressure," she says. "We are already planning a return trip."
5223 David Edwards Dr., San Antonio, morganswonderland.com, free for those with special needs, $5 per person for everyone else, reservations required.
Because truly going green takes guts—and money
As much as we love reclaimed wood and carpets made from recycled soda bottles, green hotels need to tackle consumption, not just construction. That's something Hilton understands. In April, the company rolled out its new LightStay program, a system designed to track the impact of daily operations like garbage disposal, housekeeping, and utility costs on the environment and then adjust its practices to reduce waste. Sounds kind of unexciting, at least until you look at the numbers below. Hilton tested LightStay in 1,300 hotels over the course of a year and now plans to implement it across all 3,500 global properties by the end of 2011.
Water: Saved enough water to fill more than 650 Olympic-size swimming pools
Energy: Conserved enough energy to power 5,700 homes for a year
Carbon: Reduced CO2 emissions by the equivalent of 34,865 cars
KAYAK AND DEALBASE
Because searching for a deal shouldn't take all weekend
Zeroing in on the best airfare isn't as simple as it used to be. Sure, every online travel agency (OTA) aims to be a one-stop shop for low fares. But wily marketers now often hide their best fares in a hailstorm of e-mail newsletters, revealing discounts only to registered travelers. So bless the wonks at DealBase and Kayak, who have engineered speedier and more intuitive ways to uncover the cheapest flights without adding a single message to your already overloaded in-box.
Sometimes you don't just want deals, you want possibilities—and that's where Kayak's Explore tool comes in. Type in your gateway, price range, and dates, along with a few parameters like average temperature, language fluency, and favorite activity—golf, beach, skiing. Instantly, a world map appears with up-to-the-minute fares around the globe. You may be surprised at which destinations turn out to be within reach. kayak.com/explore.
DealBase began life a few years back as a price-comparison tool for hotel packages, but this spring it seriously raised the bar with a tracking service for e-saver fares. On the site, click on the name of your local gateway and then select from a list of Web-only deals, many of which you won't find on your favorite OTA. dealbase.com/flight-deals.