The term road warrior has taken on new meaning in 2003. A troubled economy, war in Iraq, SARS, and ongoing corporate mandates to cut costs—not to mention fewer available flights on many routes and heightened airport security—presented challenges to even the most seasoned business travelers. But times are tough for airlines and hotels too, and this fall plenty of them are offering enticements to those who know where to look. Here, the year's most significant business-travel trends, with strategies for charting the ever-changing course.
More business travelers than ever must now fly coach, a fact made reasonably manageable during the past two years by perks on the major airlines, including American Airlines' "More Room Throughout Coach" program. That amenity is the latest casualty of the industry's woes, with seats being added back to the company's planes. At the same time, American and other major carriers continue to scale back flights on many business routes.
In contrast, the country's low-cost carriers are expanding: AirTran, JetBlue, and ATA have all added nonstop routes this year. Although these airlines first marketed themselves to leisure travelers, their success has been driven, in part, by their ability to lure business travelers with competitive prices, simplified fare structures, and popular extras like JetBlue's DirecTV service.
Taking a page from these upstart carriers, Delta launched its own budget carrier, Song, this spring, and plans to fly 36 Boeing 757 planes to 13 cities—including Atlanta, Boston, and New York—by year's end. Passengers will be offered 24 channels of digital television, streaming MP3 music, and movie rentals.
As for comfort, JetBlue recently announced that it will remove some seats on all planes by November, increasing seat pitch from 32 inches to 34—comparable to American's generous pitch under the "More Room Throughout Coach" program. (Note that the first nine rows of each plane will remain at 32.) While most low-fare carriers are coach class only, AirTran has a business class—with seven additional inches of legroom—and passengers can buy an upgrade for $35 or $50 (depending on the route), on a first-come, first-served basis.
For those who still fly with the majors, there is a new breed of airline ticket, known as an alternate business fare. A cross between a traditional business and a leisure fare, it is usually nonrefundable and carries a $100 change fee, but doesn't require a Saturday-night stay. It may, however, require a one- or two-night minimum stay and advance purchase of 3 to 10 days. Typically, an alternate business fare costs about one-third less than a full-fare coach ticket, and unlike many discounted fares can be applied to elite frequent-flier status.
Some business travelers, of course, are lucky enough to still fly business and first. To keep these important customers happy—they effectively subsidize all those discounted seats—airlines have been revamping the front of their planes.
Fully reclining sleeper seats are the major trend: Air France, Singapore Airlines, and British Airways set the standard with sleepers in first class; the latter two further upped the ante by adding them to business as well. Now Qantas, Japan Airlines, and Lufthansa have introduced them in first, and all three will roll out sleepers in business class through the fall and next year. Virgin Atlantic, for its part, begins installing a revolutionary new sleeper seat in its Upper Class this year—one that doesn't have to be upright even for takeoff and landing. Among domestic carriers, American and United have installed sleeper seats in first class on 777's flying long-haul routes. Looking for the widest sleepers?They're on Japan's All Nippon Airways (33 inches), in first class.
In-flight Internet service is another expanding amenity. First- and business-class passengers on United can send and receive e-mails at their seat for about $16 per flight; the service will be on all planes by the end of the year. Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines have been testing broadband Internet and plan to equip more planes throughout 2004.
Happily, e-mail at 30,000 feet won't be the province of the elite forever: coach passengers on United already have e-mail access on many planes (through the Airfone at the middle seat in each row). Virgin Atlantic has introduced a service that will allow passengers in all classes to send e-mails and text messages from their seat-back television screens to e-mail addresses or mobile phones on the ground, for $2.50 per message. One-third of Virgin's planes will have the service by the end of 2003.
This year, it became more difficult and expensive to buy upgrades and redeem miles, as airlines tacked on fees and instituted policies allowing passengers to use only certain flights to earn elite status. Fewer people will now qualify, says mileage expert Randy Petersen.
On the other hand, new alliances among airline frequent-flier programs have made it easier to accumulate miles. Members of Continental OnePass, Delta SkyMiles, and Northwest WorldPerks programs can earn miles on flights operated by any of the three. Southwest is offering double credits for on-line bookings through the end of the year, bringing the number of round-trip flights needed to earn a free ticket down to four.
If you maintain several frequent-flier accounts, Petersen's Web site, www.mileagemanager.com, keeps track of them for you, tells you when you've earned enough miles for a free ticket, and updates you on promotions via e-mail.
Unlike airlines, hotels are actually making it easier to qualify for elite status in their loyalty programs, and as the chains compete for a smaller number of business travelers, they're offering not only more rewards but also helpful business-related services, even for those who aren't enrolled in a program.
The 18 million members of Marriott Rewards can rack up points for more than 300 different awards; this year the program added a new category of elite-only awards, such as seven nights in Hawaii. In June, the company also reduced the number of nights required to qualify for elite status to 10 a year, down from 15.
The "double dipping" policy of Hilton HHonors allows customers to earn hotel points and airline miles simultaneously; now travelers can also buy points, in increments of 1,000 ($12.50), to qualify for free hotel stays or for tickets with airline partners, including Continental and Virgin Atlantic.
Wyndham's ByRequest program has made its policy more inclusive, allowing new members to immediately earn the perks that long-standing members have always received: free local and long-distance calls, high-speed Internet access, photocopies, and faxes, as well as special rates at Wyndham resorts in North America and the Caribbean.
High-speed Internet access is the local phone call of the 21st century: the service that nearly every business traveler needs, and hates to pay for. While hotel companies such as Marriott and Starwood finally have high-speed access at most properties—a new Web site, www.pluggedinns.com, allows you to search for wired hotels by location—they also charge a fee, usually $10 to $15 a day. (Some chains, such as Fairmont, make free service available to elite program members.) But Omni offers free high-speed Internet to all: at any of its 32 hotels, guests can log on using a Wi-Fi compliant network interface card (or NIC, a feature in most new laptops); wireless adapters are available(for a small charge) to those who need to use traditional Ethernet cards.
If you work out on the road, check out the latest perk from Hilton: the hotel staff will deliver a Sole F-80 treadmill to your room for $15 a day in any of 100 locations; 50 more locations are expected to have the service by the end of the year.