Remember when travel was easy? When reward programs actually delivered rewards and lines actually moved? Well then, join us in saluting 10 innovators that have worked hard over the past year to make traveling simpler, more affordable, and—yes!—more fun.
Because what does the latest iPhone not do for travelers?
Translate languages, locate a bathroom, scout nearby gas prices, spot the shortest lines at Disney parks....The iPhone has quickly become the ultimate on-the-go multi-tool, thanks largely to the dizzying number of downloadable apps. More innovative than ever, the new iPhone 3GS rises above its predecessors for three reasons. It gives you the power to:
1. Shoot Better Images The 3GS records video about as capably as a standard-definition ultracompact camcorder. The still camera is improved, too, with autofocus and the ability to capture higher-resolution images—up from two megapixels to three.
2. Navigate More Reliably A newly integrated compass automatically orients you based on the direction the phone is facing. A host of new apps maximize the technology by, for example, pointing you to a trailhead or an out-of-the-way restaurant.
3. Do Everything Faster The 3GS is significantly speedier than older models, and that changes everything. Quicker camera reaction, downloading, and app launch times mean the iPhone is all the more useful—because if you have to wait forever for Google Maps to find where you are, you're better off just asking for directions.
Because now you can order a Heineken at your gate while you wait
Lucky passengers flying out of JetBlue's Terminal 5 at JFK can have a made-to-order meal delivered right to them. Throughout the terminal, more than 200 touch-screen monitors display menus from Re:Vive bar, which serves sandwiches, tapas, and drinks. Place your order, swipe a credit card, and a waiter brings the meal to your kiosk in no more than 10 minutes.
Because the Red Coats are back! Hallelujah!
Sometimes, the most brilliant customer service move is the most obvious one. Like making increasingly rare agents (no, not machines) easier to locate. Spotting an opportunity to stand out in an industry bent on streamlining, Delta brought its Red Coats (essentially customer-service superagents) back to 12 U.S. airports this past summer. More than 500 of the agents, who were eliminated in 2005 to cut costs, have returned in their signature red blazers; they roam the gates and concourses with handheld devices that can pull up reservation and baggage information, print boarding passes, and produce vouchers if flights are canceled. This is one time when we're glad to see red.
Because loyal fliers deserve loyal airlines
Just when we'd resigned ourselves to how hard it's become to actually score reward trips from travel loyalty programs, American Airlines introduced One-Way Flex Awards, allowing travelers to book flights for as few as 12,500 miles. That's a low enough threshold that even casual travelers can start cashing in.
Because surprise perks are the sweetest perks of all
Getting an unexpected upgrade can hook you on a place—and that's the motivation behind Hyatt's "random acts of generosity" initiative (yes, it's an initiative), announced in May. The company's CEO told employees to occasionally tear up guests' bar tabs, comp massages, or dole out some other out-of-the-blue treats. Consider us hooked.
Because going green doesn't mean you shouldn't go on vacation
The Australia-based outfitter this year eliminated the carbon footprint of its 38 most popular trips—and not just by buying offsets. Its goal: making every one of its 600-plus itineraries carbon neutral by early 2010. Here's how:
Transportation By far the biggest source of greenhouse gases on any trip is transport. Intrepid compares the emissions of every mode of local conveyance available, from planes and trains to bikes, boats, buses, and tuk-tuks. On its Road to Angkor trip, the company swapped a flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for a five-hour bus ride through the countryside—a more scenic experience anyway.
Waste In Vietnam and Cambodia, Intrepid subsidized the installation of watercoolers in hotel lobbies to reduce the number of plastic water bottles used by travelers. In northern Thailand, they participate in a program in which local women make cloth shopping bags for tourists.
Accommodations Intrepid books small, locally owned hotels rather than large resorts. Lodgings can include guesthouses in Turkey, homestays in Thailand, and campsites in Kenya. Because Intrepid is often a local hotel's biggest customer, it's able to influence a place for the better. For example, at some spots in Indochina, it helped pay for key-tag systems that automatically turn off the lights.
Activities Intrepid always opts for activities that use preexisting facilities over ones that were built for tourism. That means taking a local raft rather than a tour boat, and eating bowls of pho in Vietnam rather than something from an international chain.
Because Street View for trails and parks is the coolest idea ever
Google is no longer taking its Street View mapping feature literally. It can now reveal ground-level views of cobblestoned alleys, theme parks, college campuses—even hiking trails—all thanks to the company's latest gadget: a GPS-enabled tricycle topped with a 360-degree camera similar to the one used on the Street View car fleet. At 49 inches across, the trike can fit almost anywhere wide enough for a wheelchair. A cycling path in Monterey, Calif., was the first trail to go online, in December 2008, and the walkways at California's Legoland theme park followed. Now several of the cycles are shooting the back roads of Italy, France, and Japan.
Because the giant of user reviews keeps inventing new ways to wring value from its supersize community
Calculate rental values On top of adding vacation-rental listings and more reviews this year, TripAdvisor also launched a tool to help you comparison shop. The new Vacation Rentals Calculator allows you to look at the prices of a hotel versus a rental—based on recent bookings. Customize results by entering details such as how often you'd be willing to cook if you had access to a kitchen.
Find hotel values The Top Values tool lists the hotels in any given destination that offer the best quality at the fairest price, as determined by an algorithm that weighs TripAdvisor rankings, prices, and outside info such as star ratings. The regularly updated listings average about $100.
Calculate flight values TripAdvisor's move into the world of airfare searches included a first-of-its-kind feature that calculates the true price of a trip, taking into account fees for checked baggage, food service, and any other airline services. This being TripAdvisor, you also get the scoop from other travelers on a plane's best seats.
Because the mad scientist of search keeps cranking out new ways to connect you with the trip you want
Search sharing Suppose you're planning a group trip, but your fellow travelers are departing from different cities. Now, the members of your group can make decisions together by sharing their searches with one another. Simply click "Share Results," and the site lets you e-mail around a link to your live search.
Search snooping Kayak's Insight tool allows you to enter your home airport and watch as the best fares other searchers are finding from that airport pop up in real time on a world map. Somebody found a $337 trip to Paris? Click through quickly before the fare changes. The service is especially helpful when you've got some time off but aren't sure where to go.
Search on the go If your flight's been canceled, Kayak's iPhone app will pull up a list of the next flights out to your destination on any airline. Sort results by cost and time. A built-in directory of carrier hotlines makes it possible to get an agent on the phone—and fast.
CITY OF NEW YORK
Because even New Yorkers love the new Times Square
The best new show on Broadway is the swirling chaos of the city itself—and the seats are free. Inspired by Copenhagen's car-free Strøget zone, the city of New York has permanently closed five blocks in Times Square to traffic and installed 300 chairs and benches, where thousands of locals now join the tourists every day to experience the city in an entirely new way. Street performers are on constant parade. There are free events like sunrise yoga. And impromptu crowds linger to watch a sports game or the nightly news on the JumboTrons.