Business travel may or may not be better than it was 30 years ago, but the process for arranging flights and hotels today is immeasurably better than it was in the supposed good old days.
Back in 1983, we had exactly one computerized tool, the Official Airline Guide Electronic Edition. Created for first-generation IBM personal computers, the OAG Electronic Edition spit out endless lines of code to represent flights, arrival and departure times and prices. And unless you knew the undocumented secret (the number “99” appended to end of a command line), you couldn’t display all of your fare options in a single session.
Websites like Kayak.com, which help travelers compare air fares, are just one of many online tools that make it easier for road warriors to operate while away from home.
Throw in dial-up modems, 5.25-inch floppy drives and a 10-cent-a-minute charge to access the Electronic Edition and you’re talking the business-travel equivalent of stone knives and bear skins.
Today we’re spoiled for choices to make our planning better. So much choice, in fact, that we’re almost paralyzed by the cornucopia of data at our fingertips and accessible via smartphones, tablets, laptops or our latest-generation PC. I sometimes yearn for the wonky excitement I felt when I first accessed schedules on a tiny, monochrome screen, but, overall, I prefer to use these seven sites to make my life on the road in 2013 a bit easier.
Kayak.com for fare information
The Net teems with sites that claim to beat the airlines at their own fare games. Most can’t. But I find Kayak.com fantastically flexible as a fare-compare tool. You can filter prices by number of stops and connections (useful if you’re looking for a bargain on international premium-class travel); take-off and landing times; by any combination of carriers you choose; aircraft type; and, most creatively, by an airline’s membership in a global alliance.
Best of all, I find Kayak’s layout and displays comparatively clean and intuitive. I say comparatively because every traveler’s idea of clean and simple will vary. Kayak isn’t perfect—it recently refused to show Porter Airlines on a itinerary between New York and Porter’s Toronto hub—but no third-party site is. If Kayak isn’t to your fare-compare tastes, try the relatively obscure Dohop.com or the better known Matrix offered by Google’s ITA Software.
SeatGuru.com for seating information
Most airlines offer seat maps of the aircraft in their fleets, but SeatGuru.com is by far the better choice for seating information. For starters, it puts aircraft-by-aircraft seat maps for more than 100 airlines all in one place. More to the point, each of the maps come with color-coded alerts highlighting good (green), bad (red) and questionable (yellow) seats. It also explains why it puts the seats in each category.
Best of all, SeatGuru publishes the most important information (amount of legroom in coach, type of reclining seat in premium class) is big, bold type. I’m not mad about last week’s drastic site redesign, but that might simply be the need to get used to something new after so many years of using an old, familiar interface.
FlightStats.com for flight information
FlightStats.com has literally changed how travelers track an airline’s flight-by-flight performance. We no longer have to rely on what airlines choose to say about the state of their daily operations or any particular flight. We can check FlightStats and see how the airline is operating by day, down to the hour, and how flights are running at a specific airport. Naturally, real-time flight tracking is what drives most travelers to FlightStats, but it also has a continuously updated one-page snapshot of global cancellations and delays.
FlightStats.com has a host of on-line competitors and one notable alternative,FlightAware.com, offers more visual and graphic displays. It also offers something I find valuable during a delay: You can click a link to see where the aircraft due to operate your flight is currently located. Knowing where the equipment is usually gives a better idea of your actual delay time than what a carrier posts on a departure board.
TripAdvisor.com for hotel reviews
I continue to be amused by “experts” who claim TripAdvisor.com can’t be trusted because a few of the reviews may be faked. Any business traveler who can’t tell when a review—good or bad—is a plant probably shouldn’t be trusted to be a business traveler in the first place. TripAdvisor’s strength is its depth. If dozens of reviews make the same point—good or bad—that pretty much ensures the accuracy of the claim.
I find TripAdvisor most useful in cities where I am not personally a regular visitor. I also like it to compare several properties from the same hotel family in a particular destination. After all, if I have a choice of a Marriott, a Courtyard by Marriott or a Renaissance—all part of the Marriott (NYSE: MAR) chain—I like to read TripAdvisor to see if any of properties are above or below the brand standard. None of TripAdvisor’s user-generated competitors can match it, but I also pay attention to the professional content offered by Oyster.com.
FlyerTalk.com for business-travel chatter
Those with a low threshold for self-important posturing, mind-numbing minutia and the faint aroma of performing seals will find little use for FlyerTalk.com. But the granddaddy of business-travel message boards, now owned by an Internet conglomerate, remains a treasure trove of detail about our lives on the road. It is the canary in the coal mine for trouble, too. When an airline or hotel chain is malfunctioning, you’ll almost surely find out about it first on FlyerTalk.com. And FlyerTalk has genuine market-moving power, which is why major airlines and hotel chains have staffers who interact with and respond to the boards. So much so that many airlines and hotels announce information about program and policy changes on FlyerTalk before it appears on their own proprietary websites.
EvRewards.com for shopping bonuses
With so many frequent flyer miles and frequent guest points now coming from affinity credit cards, it was inevitable that someone would create a site to track, cross-reference and highlight the best matches of cards, airlines, hotels and bonus offers. EvRewards.com isn’t polished and it isn’t perfect, but it can certainly help you maximize your earnings. All you do is enter the name of the store or website where you want to shop and EvRewards returns a list of cash-back offers and bonus deals from credit card, airline and hotel shopping portals.
Mapquest.com for airport maps
Between the map apps on our smartphones and the GPS devices we can get with our rental cars, maps on the Internet seem almost antiquated. Maybe it’s the Luddite in me—or maybe I’m just lousy at directions—but I still check Mapquest.com’s Airports Maps page before I fly. The state-by-state, click-the-URL page isn’t state of the art, of course, but the airport-area street maps are solid and scalable. Besides I like reminding myself of the lay of the airport land before I head out in an unfamiliar rental car on unfamiliar roads with the pressure of making a flight ahead of me.