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.
Because you could still be stuck on the tarmac were it not for the work of some stubborn volunteers
Four years ago, Kate Hanni found herself sitting on the runway at the Austin airport with no food, no water, and no working toilets—for nine hours straight. At that moment, the Napa Valley, Calif., native decided to put her career as a real estate broker on hold and launch flyersrights.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to empowering air travelers.
What began as one woman's passion slowly morphed into a grassroots movement. Volunteers across the country—88 in all—signed on to answer phones, offer legal support, send out petitions, and lobby local politicians and other consumer groups. Last winter, after 87 cross-country flights and seven appearances before Congress, Hanni and flyersrights.org scored big: In response to overwhelming pressure, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that domestic air carriers were required to return their planes to the terminal after three hours on the tarmac or they'd face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger. In addition, travelers involuntarily bumped from planes could be compensated with as much as $1,300, up from $800. Yet even with these victories in hand, Hanni and company see more room for improvement. "We think there should be a cap on the number of seats airlines are allowed to oversell," Hanni says. And you can be sure she's well-prepped for the next fight.
To learn more, visit flyersrights.org. To report an air-travel-related problem, call the flyersrights.org hotline at 877/359-3776.
Because your $2 can change the world
What if lending a hand was as easy as booking a trip? That's the goal of MassiveGood, a new program from the U.N. Millennium Foundation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Established earlier this year, MassiveGood has partnered with global hotel chains like Accor, major booking engines like Travelocity, and travel agents the world over to allow for travelers to make $2 micro-donations; the goal is to raise $1 billion annually for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria research. At the time of purchase, customers are presented with a clickable box, banner ad, or e-mail link—depending on the partnership—to put their dollars to work. massivegood.org.
THE NEW AMERICAN MOTEL
Because budget can, and should, be beautiful
Over the years, American motel chains have done little to better their somewhat dingy reputations. We're now at a distinct turning point. Three of the largest budget hotel chains—Motel 6, Red Roof Inn, and Holiday Inn—have been undergoing redesigns of unprecedented ambition. Improvements like completely reimagined rooms, upgraded bedding, rain-flow showers, and the latest high-tech gadgetry might just change your mind about motels forever.
Motel 6's new redesign emphasizes smart, efficient touches (think pedestal beds and multimedia units that double as closets). What's more, all of the nearly 100 renovated properties are specially flagged on the revamped website. motel6.com.
With 32 hotels opened and 50 more coming (17 built from the ground up), Red Roof Inn is having its own little construction boom, adding tech-ready rooms, walk-in showers, and common spaces with cozy seats and stone walls. redroof.com.
By the end of 2010, Holiday Inn will have upgraded all 3,300 of its properties with crisp duvets and pillows in two comfort levels (soft and firm), spruced-up lobbies, and a custom scent (citrus and white tea). holidayinn.com.
Because the future of travel is now on your phone
Imagine searching the web without making a single keystroke. Google Goggles allows just that. The Android-only app, released last winter, uses your smartphone's camera and image-recognition technology to perform Google searches. Want to know more about that baroque building in front of you? Just point your camera and Goggles pulls up all relevant information, from architecture websites to Wikipedia. What about that foreign-language menu or a baffling street sign? At a glance, the app translates French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Currently, Goggles can recognize between 50,000 and 100,000 landmarks around the world and hundreds of thousands of works of art. But that's just the beginning: Project manager Shailesh Nalawadi says full translations of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian are in the pipeline, and the collection of landmarks—in locations everywhere from Paris to Uzbekistan—is growing daily.
Google Goggles comes preloaded on most new Android phones or can be downloaded for free from the Android Market accessible via your smartphone.
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.