HOW-TO HANDBOOK

2008 Extra Mile Awards

Our annual look at companies going out of their way to make travel easier and more affordable during an especially trying time for trip-goers.

Southwest: Holding firm against fees

Keeping You a Step Ahead
In our humble opinion, vacation should never be a dirty word. But with oil prices soaring, getting away today is a lot harder to do. That's why we're especially thrilled to present this year's Extra Mile Award winners, whose innovations have made travel easier or more affordable at a trying time. As a token of our respect, we offer them one cool snow globe—they offer you happier travels.

TSA: Grooming a smoother path through airport security checks
Drawing inspiration from ski slopes, the Transportation Security Administration's new self-select security checkpoint lanes are dramatically cutting travelers' wait times at dozens of airports. With color-coded signs pointing the way, the system works like this: Black-diamond lanes are used by ace travelers who can speed through security, blue-square lanes are for infrequent travelers who don't know the ropes quite as well, and green-circle lanes are geared toward families who require extra time. "We didn't think there would be such a demand for it," says TSA federal security director Earl Morris, who spearheaded the program. "The goal is to create a more passenger-friendly checkpoint and to have a calmer atmosphere, and it's working." At airports with the program, travelers in the expert lanes are clearing security up to 40 percent faster, and families using the green-circle lanes are setting off the metal detector alarms an average of 11 percent fewer times than at airports that don't have the lanes, the TSA says. Screeners are on hand to help travelers select the best lane, but the main thing keeping people in line is peer pressure. "It's like when you are in a supermarket and you're only supposed to have 12 items in the express lane—peer pressure is very helpful," Morris says. —Elissa Leibowitz Poma

ORBITZ: Providing passengers with a way to share their travel secrets
Since 2001, Orbitz has employed a team of former air-traffic controllers to scan data from the Federal Aviation Administration and air-traffic-control systems so it can send people instant updates on flight delays and cancellations. Now the company is enlisting everyday passengers to be its eyes and ears at airports: Its new Traveler Update system allows people to share tips on flight delays, security wait times, taxi lines, and anything else they observe while they're on the go. "Our customers have information that can help each other, and the whole idea was to find a way to foster an exchange," says Tom Russell, Orbitz's group vice president of brand marketing. Anyone can submit updates from their computers or Web-enabled PDAs at updates.orbitz.com, or by text message from a cell phone. All you have to do is send a message like "JFK update" to 672489, and the system will walk you through the steps. Tips are then posted at updates.orbitz.com, and passengers who book tickets through Orbitz will receive updates via e-mail or cell phone. "The most useful tips reveal an insider secret or a trick of the trade at an airport," says Russell. For instance, after the update system debuted last year, travelers tipped each other off to an underutilized security line at O'Hare airport. "Another checkpoint had 100 people in line one day, and this one had only 20," Russell says. "People loved finding out about that." —Kate Appleton

InsideTrip
When you book plane tickets, the Internet can be a source of both convenience and frustration: There are more and more ways to compare airlines and find cheap flights, but most travelers don't have the time to sort through all the data. Enter insidetrip.com, which compiles statistics on nearly every factor that makes for a good flying experience—from on-time ratings to legroom in cabins—and gives each flight a score from 1 to 100. "It's like a report card," says founder Dave Pelter. "If I get a 91, I'm pretty happy. But a 64? I can do better than that." According to Pelter, price is still the top concern for many people, but it's not the only thing that matters. "We wanted to look at flight options from a more holistic point of view," he says. —Brad Tuttle

Megabus: Taking buses to the next level
Call it prescient: In the past year, Megabus has expanded its operations to 25 cities in the United States and Canada as fuel costs have risen, giving travelers a cheap alternative to driving and flying when they need it most. The bus line keeps its fares extremely low—starting from $1 for the first few people who book seats on each bus—by selling tickets online and doing pickups and drop-offs in the centers of cities rather than at terminals. At the same time, Megabus hasn't skimped on quality—its double-decker fleet is equipped with free Wi-Fi, video screens, headsets, and seat belts. Plus, many buses run on biodiesel fuel. "We're conscious of what the traveling public wants," says Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer. "We're saving people money but still giving them a coach outfitted with the latest technology." Now even the 94-year-old grande dame of bus companies, Greyhound, is rethinking its business model. Greyhound joined with competitors this year to launch two bus lines, BoltBus and NeOn, with similar low fares and high-tech amenities. Megabus didn't start a trend, it reinvented bus travel for a new generation. —Jean Tang

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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