What’s the best hotel in Aspen? According to Web entrepreneur Travis Katz, it all depends on who you are: a Goldman Sachs banker might want the luxury and cosseting service of the Little Nell, while a 20-year-old yoga instructor on a budget might opt for the more-bang-for-your-buck Limelight Lodge. Earlier this year, Katz, a former MySpace executive, officially launched gogobot.com, a sort of Facebook for travelers that lets you exchange tailored hotel, restaurant, and other destination recommendations with like-minded friends on the site and through other social networks. Gogobot, which creates stylish destination scrapbooks for users by drawing from their manually submitted reviews and FourSquare and Facebook check-ins, is based on the premise that travelers trust their friends’ recommendations over those of guidebooks or online user-generated review sites like TripAdvisor.
Who He Is: Not since Richard Branson has Britain seen an entrepreneur as iconoclastic as Woodroffe. He designed rock shows for Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart, launched the chain of conveyor-belt YO! Sushi restaurants, and then created Yotel in 2007, which blends the self-service of Japanese pod hotels (touch-screen check-in kiosks; motorized retractable beds) with a stylish, airplane-cabin vibe.
His Big Idea: Woodroffe’s newest outpost, Yotel Times Square(doubles from $259), in New York City, is a living demonstration of convenience through technology. The hotel features the world’s first luggage robot, a cranelike contraption that retrieves bags and stores them in a sleek white wall of drawers in the lobby. At its restaurant, Dohyo, the tables can be lowered into the floor, opening up the space for performances. Guest “cabins” all have Yotel’s trademark “techno-wall,” with flat-screen TV’s, music and power services, and device-storage areas.
When it comes to the environment, technology can be a double-edged sword. New devices use up energy and precious resources, but they also offer exciting ways to travel green. These days, the best are doing this while also lightening their footprints. Take the Android-powered Samsung Replenish smartphone ($50), made from recycled plastic and without many of the toxic chemicals found in other phones. It is loaded with a bundle of eco-friendly apps (Treehugger; National Audubon Society) and can be powered using a solar battery charger. Music lovers, meanwhile, can take comfort in knowing that the new Etón Soulra XL($300) iPod dock, which is designed to resemble an old-school boom box, not only charges while it plays but lasts up to five hours on a single solar charge—perfect for the beach. Unfortunately, most travel-size solar chargers are still not strong enough to power your laptop. In the meantime, though, there’s the Energy Star–rated IDAPT i1 Eco($24.99). Constructed of recycled materials, it lets you charge nearly any device on the go. The green edge: when a gadget is fully powered, the IDAPT turns itself off—conserving essential electricity.
Who She Is: Though she’s been known for years as a writer of books about Italian interiors, Elizabeth Minchilli’s greatest passion is food—an interest that blossomed after her family moved from St. Louis to Rome when she was 12. “By the time I was 14, I was cooking for the whole family,” recalls the writer, who, in addition to writing for Food & Wine, posts daily about Italian cuisine and travel on her blog.
Her Big Idea: “I’ve always had my own list of restaurants to recommend to friends when they come to town,” Minchilli explains. “People kept saying, ‘You should do an app.’” Earlier this year, she did just that, with the launch of Eat Rome and Eat Florence($2.99 each; iTunes). Both are searchable, GPS-enabled apps with Minchilli’s picks and reviews for the best places to eat, drink, and shop for food in each city, complete with downloadable maps for offline viewing (to avoid costly roaming charges).
Five-course dinners at top restaurants around the country no longer have to be such a costly part of your trip, thanks to an influx of restaurant deals found both online and via mobile apps. The BlackboardEats site offers discounts—such as 30 percent off dinner at Los Angeles’s Mo-Chica or New York’s Matsuri—to anyone who signs up. All you have to do is present the discount code at the restaurant at any time. Every venue is handpicked by a staff of professional restaurant reviewers (many from the now-defunct print version of Gourmet). Sometimes the deals involve mystery dishes that are only available to members, making it more of a food enthusiasts’ club than a coupon service.
Who He Is: As founder and CEO of Altimeter Capital, a hedge fund that specializes in travel-themed tech companies, Brad Gerstner spends a lot of time on the road as both a business and a leisure traveler. As a result, he knows how to spot a good hotel room (“on a high floor and away from the elevator”)—a skill he leveraged when creating his latest company.
His Big Idea: The website room77.com promises to help travelers pick the perfect hotel room. (Sort of like what SeatGuru did for airline seats.) The site offers floor plans, pictures, user reviews, and window views for rooms in 2,500 three-star-plus hotels (and counting). A new iPhone app provides the same service for free, on the go. So now guests can book a room and not worry about that blocked ocean view the hotel’s website neglected to mention.
Who He Is: “I got bitten by the travel bug late in life,” serial entrepreneur Sam Shank says. He’s certainly making up for lost time. In the past decade, Shank founded the hotel site travelpost.com, and dealbase.com, which compiles online travel discounts. His latest venture, Hotel Tonight, comes to the aid of stranded travelers.
His Big Idea: While on a business trip to Seattle last year, Shank’s plans changed at the last minute and he needed to stay an extra night, so he tried to book something on his phone—a surprisingly difficult process. The result? The free Hotel Tonight app (iPhone/iPad), which instantly delivers three one-night hotel deals per city in different categories and lets you book one in just seconds. The app is available for Boston, Chicago, L.A., New York, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., with Las Vegas on the way.
Thanks to a recent explosion of online booking sites, the $24 billion short-term rental market is now about one-fifth of all U.S. hotel-room revenue, according to Alexis de Belloy, a vice president at HomeAway and VRBO. De Belloy’s sites, which are among the first generation of online rental agencies, cater mainly to families looking to book entire houses—a great way to save money on the road. The success of HomeAway and VRBO has helped to launch a slew of home-rental sites, many of which serve travelers with ever more particular tastes and interests. With listings in 10,000 cities and counting, AirBnB is like eBay for rentals: each host has a profile with user reviews and images. Plus, everyone is encouraged to submit ratings after a visit, which maintains quality control. Roomorama and iStopOver provide similar offerings, with additional features such as the ability to post requests for specific types of accommodations, in case you want, say, organic food in the fridge or a toddler-friendly apartment. And finally, taking the house-swapping trend to a whole new level is Luxe Home Swap, which lets you trade stays at your chic place with one of thousands of comparably stylish options across the globe for an annual fee of $159. At press time, a high-design house in Tucson, Arizona, and a relaxed beach retreat on Isla Fuerte, in Colombia, were just two of the properties available.
Thanks to the rise of social networking, smartphones, and faster Internet speeds, it’s never been easier to immerse yourself in a new language without even leaving home.
The best-known method is Rosetta Stone, the interactive, total-immersion-style program that uses intuitive flash-card-like video games to teach students in the same way a child might learn a language. In other words: no boring grammar lectures or lessons. The service’s Totale Version 4 program ($249; rosettastone.com) offers interactive, voice-recognition-enabled lessons in any of 24 languages on CD, online, or via an app for iPhone, as well as through live online sessions with a native speaker. For the more scholarly minded, Livemocha’s Active classes($99–$399 per year; livemocha.com) for French, Italian, Spanish, and German deliver a mix of text-based grammar and usage lessons and repeat-after-me-style exercises that use voice recognition to test pronunciation. Learners also interact with teachers and native speakers online, both in live video sessions and via e-mail and recorded voice messages.