HOW-TO HANDBOOK

Budget Travel's 2007 Extra Mile Awards

Presenting our third annual look at the companies that are going out of their way to improve travelers' quality of life.

By Beth Collins, David LaHuta, Laura MacNeil, Sean O'Neill, and Erik Torkells, Tuesday, Sep 18, 2007, 12:00 AM

Mary Niven at Disneyland's Plaza Inn (João Canziani)

See this snow globe? It's the most coveted snow globe in the travel industry. That's because every fall, we hand out a select few as our Extra Mile Awards, celebrating the companies that have made travelers' lives easier, more enjoyable, and just plain better. (Previous winners have included Google for its mapping tools, Westin for being the first major hotel brand to go smoke-free, and Continental Airlines for its innovative online calendar showing award-seat availability.) Travel isn't exactly easy these days, and when someone dares to pull off a wonderful innovation, he or she deserves a hand. At Budget Travel, it's our privilege to lead the applause.

Virgin America: The airline is introducing nifty new perks--and not just to first class.

In August, the new low-cost U.S. airline Virgin America took flight with planes that are showcases of innovation. To start, coach seats boast 32 inches of legroom, an inch or two more than the industry standard for economy class. There's a USB jack at each coach seat and two 110-volt plugs for every set of three seats, so your gizmos won't run out of juice while you're in the air.

Even more impressive are the nine-inch seat-back TVs (versus 6.8 inches on, say, JetBlue), which offer 18 channels for free--including CNN, ESPN, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, FX, and The Independent Film Channel--and 25 pay-per-view movies for $6 to $8 a pop. They also function as touch screens you can use to order food, paying by swiping your credit card. (A flight attendant delivers purchased items.) You can create playlists from a selection of 3,000 songs--and save them for your return flight--and there's even an instant-messaging service: You can communicate with other passengers using a small handheld keyboard (but only if the recipients choose to accept your messages). In yet another clever feature, each plane's windows are tinted to filter out certain light wavelengths, reducing glare.

Kudos to Virgin America for offering these innovations to all of its passengers--even the ones in the rear section of the plane.

The Virgin brand prides itself on firsts, and the new airline is the result of a strategy focused on customer service. "Our goal is to maximize comfort based on feedback," says Charles Ogilvie, director of inflight entertainment and partnerships. He's the man responsible for the airline's seat-back TVs. "You can send me an e-mail during your flight to tell me what you do and don't like."

Despite appearances, Virgin America is not a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic; it has licensed the name. Virgin America is based out of San Francisco, with nonstop flights to Los Angeles; New York City's JFK; Washington, D.C.'s Dulles; and Las Vegas (starting October 10). The airline plans on serving as many as 10 cities in its first year of operation, ramping up to 30 cities within five years' time.

Farecast: Crunching the airfare and hotel numbers so you don't have to.

Farecast is a new company that sheds some light on the traditionally difficult process of figuring out whether that deal you found is really any good. The website predicts whether fares on a route will rise or fall in the next week, and according to an independent audit, its forecasts are correct three out of four times. "We improve our calculations constantly to help make our advice more accurate," says president and CEO Hugh Crean.

The predictions are free, and there's a $10 option to book the lowest fare in the upcoming week, whether it's the lowest fare available that day or an even better fare that may pop up. Farecast receives its fares from airline sites and online agencies, and it sends you to those sources for the actual booking.

Now Farecast is taking on hotels, offering rate advice for major properties in 30 U.S. cities. Rather than predict rates, the site tells you if the rate is a good value when compared with the hotel's rate history and other factors. You plug in your dates and the hotel's location, and then add your wish list (such as preferred amenities). The site maps hotels that meet your criteria, along with the lowest rates available and advice on whether to book one or keep looking.

Alamo Rent A Car: Self-serve kiosks allow renters to make a much quicker getaway.

Renting a car has become a potentially grueling experience, because of the long lines that often greet travelers who are already exhausted from flying. Hoping to speed up this maddening process, Alamo Rent A Car introduced self-service kiosks last November--they're now at 57 of the company's U.S. locations. Customers with a credit card, a driver's license, and a reservation can skip the rental counter and use a touch-screen kiosk instead.

"We realized that there were customers like myself who didn't want to wait in line just to talk to a desk agent," says Alamo's vice president of operations, John Murphy. "If people can handle checking themselves out at Home Depot, then we figured we could apply the same concept to rental cars."

The decision to roll out the kiosks was in response to consumer demand (and complaints regarding waiting times). The machines have an average transaction time of two minutes--versus seven to eight minutes for talking to an agent (and that doesn't include waiting in line). An Alamo survey showed that nearly 90 percent of renters reported that not only would they use the kiosks again, but they'd also recommend that friends use them as well.

"We're always trying to devise new ways to lead the industry," says Murphy. That includes giving customers a 10 to15 percent discount if they prepay, and also allowing online check-in at 39 U.S. locations--with more to come.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts: The Happiest Places on Earth are now healthier.

Making healthy choices while you're on vacation isn't always easy, and that goes double at amusement parks, where deep-fried and sugary temptations abound--and you're rarely allowed to bring your own food. In October 2006, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts became the first U.S. amusement park chain to announce plans to eliminate added trans fats from food served at its domestic theme parks and in Disney-owned hotels and restaurants. "It was the right thing to do," says vice president Mary Niven.

The policy is just part of Disney's Well-Balanced Foods Initiative, which includes making sure more nutritious options are available. Instead of French fries and soda, kids' meals now can come with fruits and veggies and a choice of water, juice, or low-fat milk; burgers contain no more than 20 percent fat (down from 22-24 percent), and by year's end, pizza will be made with lower-fat cheese and whole-grain crusts.

Other parks are following Disney's lead: Universal Parks & Resorts has banned trans fats in its U.S. parks, and Anheuser-Busch Adventure Parks (which includes SeaWorld) will eliminate trans fats from its menus by year's end.

Marriott International: Ultimately, warm hospitality comes down to communication.

"We have a lot of jobs where people don't have that much contact with guests--such as housekeepers--but they wanted to be able to interact better," says David Rodriguez, Marriott's executive vice president of global human resources. The company turned to Sed de Saber ("thirst for knowledge" in Spanish), a LeapPad-like machine that teaches English to Spanish speakers. The lessons are a mix of stories and games, with many opportunities for students to record their attempts at pronunciation. The lessons are tailored to the hospitality industry, but they also have sections on nonwork life. And Marriott encourages employees to take the machines home, so family members can use them, too.

After a four-month pilot program at 23 hotels--after which 85 percent of the participants demonstrated "significant improvement"--Marriott is rolling Sed de Saber out across the U.S., to properties across all of its brands. So far, nearly 1,000 employees have participated in the training. "We have 200 hotels in the program, and more are coming," says Rodriguez. "Now our Latin American hotels are looking to use it." A second-level course is in the works, and Marriott is also thinking about expanding the program to other languages. (Rodriguez says that more than 60 languages are spoken at Marriott hotels in the U.S.)

Blanca Barrera de Martinez, a housekeeping inspector at a Residence Inn in Arlington, Va., studied English with Sed de Saber for four months. "The program was so good for me," she says. "Before, I didn't talk to guests. Now I can understand them and have conversations with them. It is so much better."

Avis Budget Group: The company is making life in the fast lane possible for travelers.

To spare rental car drivers from languishing in cash-only toll lanes, the Avis Budget Group has decided to enable toll-pass systems in more than 400,000 of its Avis and Budget cars, so renters can use lanes typically reserved for locals.

The company, which first tested the idea back in 2003, spent the last 14 months implementing electronic toll passes in cars around the U.S.: in the east from Maine to Virginia, and in Illinois, Florida, Houston, Colorado; and in Puerto Rico. Programs in California and Ontario, Canada, will launch by early 2008. "We're adding cars each month," says Michael Caron, vice president of product and program development. "Our goal is to have transponders installed on a minimum of 75 percent of cars in each market."

Some areas use transponders that attach to the windshield. Drivers can request a car with a transponder when they make a reservation; the cost is $1.50 a day, up to a max of $7.50 per week. Tolls are billed directly to drivers' credit cards. Other areas don't use transponders, but instead run images of license tags through a database of registered vehicles; Avis signed up all of its vehicles in the country. (Passes for these systems--in Houston, Florida, and Colorado--cost $2 for each day the service is used, plus tolls.) "Our aim is make your experience more convenient," says Caron. "We used to make change for customers arriving at airports, and then we sold them toll tokens, so this is a natural progression."

Homewood Suites by Hilton: Choose a room like you would an airplane seat.

Booking a hotel room has generally required a little blind faith. Once you've made the doubles-or-king, smoking-or-non decisions, the rest of the details (including the exact location of the room) are out of your hands. Homewood Suites by Hilton is out to change that with its new Suite Selection program, available at all of the brand's properties.

When you check in online, you'll be shown a floor plan of the hotel, and you can choose from the available rooms. "It's the same concept as picking your seat when you check in for a flight," says Bill Duncan, Homewood Suites' vice president of sales and marketing.

Homewood Suites is an extended-stay brand, which explains why guests would have strong feelings about the location of their suites. Each floor plan also marks amenities, so you can decide exactly how near you'll be to the elevators, laundry room, vending machines, ice machine, and pool. There's also a compass image (for those who want to avoid the morning sun in an east-facing room, for example) and a map of the surrounding area that shows the parking lot, neighboring streets, gas stations, and food options. As with some airlines' kiosks, guests are also given the option to upgrade.

Launched in the spring, Suite Selection has boosted electronic check-in at Homewood Suites by 20 percent. It's currently available to Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members, but the company hopes to make it available to all of its loyalty-club members by the end of the year. "Suite Selection is all about empowering guests--putting them in control of an out-of-control travel world," says Duncan. "And we knew that the more control we gave customers, the happier they'd ultimately be."