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.

By , Tuesday, Sep 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

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

Cathay Pacific: Redesigning economy-class seats so they're fit for a king
"When a passenger flies economy, there shouldn't be a sacrifice of comfort or luxury," says Dennis Owen, vice president of marketing in the U.S. for Cathay Pacific Airways. While other airlines have spent millions in recent years revamping their first- and business-class cabins by adding amenities such as flat-bed seats, Cathay Pacific has focused on making flying more comfortable for all of its passengers—including those in coach. Late last year, the Hong Kong¿based airline rolled out a significant redesign of the economy-class cabins on most of its flights serving New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. One of the most noticeable changes is in the seats, which don't recline into the space of the person sitting behind you. Instead, the new seats have a hard-shell back and slide forward as they recline. To give your knees more room, the seat-back pocket has been moved to the space beneath the seat cushion—you can access it by reaching between your knees. Tray tables are a little longer than they used to be, and they've been tricked out with a cup holder on the back. A hook has also been added to the seat back so you can hang a jacket or a purse. Another plus: The nine-inch TV screens are nearly a third larger than their predecessors, and the entertainment library for passengers in coach has been expanded to include more than 100 movies, 350 TV shows, and 900 music CDs. "We aimed to have enough entertainment options for our passengers, no matter what cabin class they're in or which language they speak," says Owen. Taken together, the improvements make coach feel almost like first class, minus (of course) the caviar and flutes of champagne. —Sean O'Neill

Hotels.com: Launching a hotel reward program that actually pays offand is easy to use
Hotel loyalty programs are sometimes not worth the hassle. You may need years to rack up the points required to earn a free room, and when you try to redeem them, many of the most popular dates are off-limits. In July, Hotels.com introduced a blissfully straightforward reward program, designed like a punch card: After booking 10 nights at hotels with a price-match guarantee (there are more than 35,000 of them), you get a night for free. And there are no blackout dates. "The key to the whole program is that it's easy to use and the free rooms are attainable," says Scott Booker, the company's chief hotel expert and guest advocate. "We know that every traveler has different needs and that every trip is different. People are no longer limited to a single brand's properties in any given place." To underscore that point, Hotels.com does not restrict you to a handful of options when it comes to claiming your free stay—as long as you spent at least $40 a night on each booking, you can choose any hotel from the price-match-guarantee pool that costs up to $400 a night. What could be more satisfying than scoring a night at a Bali resort after a few stays at a motel in Buffalo? —Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg

Hertz Rent A Car
While the airline check-in process has become much more efficient thanks to online check-in and self-service kiosks, the lines at rental-car desks can still be painfully long. In an effort to speed up the process, Hertz has instituted a new system it promises will get you on the road in 10 minutes, or you'll receive $50 off your rental. The program, which is in effect at about 50 airports nationwide, combines online check-in with new self-service kiosks and express desks at airport locations. "Our customers had asked us to make the check-in process simpler," says Frank Camacho, Hertz's staff vice president of marketing. "And customer response was incredible—about 2,000 people checked in online the day the system launched." Plus, he says, check-in times at airports are now averaging an eye-popping three minutes per person. —Amy Westervelt

Southwest: Holding firm against fees
Air travelers are learning all too well that with most carriers these days, the listed fare is not the bottom line—it's just the starting point. Then come the fees for everything from checking a bag to reserving a seat on the aisle or window. Not true with Southwest Airlines, which has resisted joining other carriers in nickel-and-diming passengers to offset skyrocketing fuel costs. "People want to know what they're paying for," says Dave Ridley, Southwest's senior vice president for marketing, revenue management, and pricing. "What sets us apart is that what you see is what you pay. No tricks. No games. No gimmicks." One reason the airline can avoid levying extra fees on customers is that it hedged against possible rises in oil prices way back in the 1990s by locking in some of its fuel costs at a low fixed price through 2012. Only time will tell whether Southwest stands by its no-fees policy. In 2006, rising fuel prices did force the airline to ditch its $299 cap on one-way airfares. Ridley promises, though, that fees are not coming anytime soon: "We are committed [to the policy] through this period of intense oil-price increases." —Berit Thorkelson