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Advice From the Expert: Lessons Learned, Favorites Revealed

It was suggested recently by a SmarterTravel.com editor that after almost 25 years in and around the travel industry, I might have some suggestions worth passing along to our readers.

On reflection, I find that the innumerable trips, thousands of hours of research, and hundreds of travel-related articles have indeed left me with some ideas, which fall broadly in three areas: value, comfort, and loyalty. And those considerations have in turn led me to three favorite travel suppliers.

But before citing favorites, some thoughts of a more general nature.

The price of value

My first travel-industry job was with Singapore Airlines. It was 1980, and I had been designing the airline’s U.S. employee newsletter on a freelance basis. Gradually, the scope of the job expanded to include writing captions and then articles for the newsletter. When the budget allowed, the company invited me to come aboard as a full-time employee.

With some reluctance, I agreed. As a newcomer to the travel industry, Singapore Airlines’ cachet as one of the world’s finest carriers was lost on me. And “the romance of travel” was little more than an advertising slogan. In fact, that first giant step down the road to a lifetime in travel was spurred by the most practical of considerations: I had a hefty college tuition loan that had to be repaid, and a regular paycheck seemed like just the ticket.

My first taste of travel’s potential rewards came soon enough. Before I knew the difference between a B747 and a B-fare, I was assigned to escort a group of travel writers on a press trip to Singapore. Because the goal was to generate positive media coverage for the airline—and for the country and the hotels involved—no expense was spared.

The flight itself, stopping once en route, was almost 18 hours. But with the king-sized seats, ever-flowing champagne and caviar, and back-to-back movies, it was as pleasurable as travel gets. In fact, it was positively heavenly.

Heaven comes at a price. In today’s dollars, a ticket purchased for that trip would cost a hefty $9,300.

I could not have afforded the ticket price at the time. And I wouldn’t pay that fare today. But that flight framed for me one side of what became a continuous internal debate regarding the value of travel.

The counter-argument to that first-class budget-buster is no less compelling: an advance-purchase coach ticket that could be had for one-tenth the price or less.

First class or coach? Singapore or Southwest? Ritz Carlton or Motel 6?

Obviously, there’s no right answer to the price-performance question. But I’ve discovered a personal sweet spot—neither the excess at the top end nor the cattle-car deprivation at the bottom.

But more important than any particular favorites is the process, the continual reassessment of travel options in light of my own wants and needs.

The measure of comfort

Since that memorable Singapore flight, I have spent more hours than I care to count squeezed into every type of airline seat imaginable, from the positively throne-like to the certifiably bone-crushing. The worst? It’s a toss-up between an ANA flight from Tokyo to Sapporo on a “high-density” B747 (full flight, no legroom, but mercifully short) and a Qantas flight from Los Angeles to Sydney (15 hours stuck in a bulkhead seat between a basketball player and a mother with her squalling baby).

Bottom line: The seat is the single most important determinant of comfort on an airline flight. Sure, a good meal trumps a bag of peanuts. And a wide-body plane beats a single-aisle puddle-jumper. But in the end, to me, it’s the seat that makes or breaks the flight. And the flight makes or breaks the entire trip.

In particular, it’s the seat’s legroom. Seat widths tend to be standardized for first, business, and coach because aircraft fuselages have fixed diameters. But the distance between seats, front to back, is variable. More legroom—or, in industry parlance, pitch—translates directly into more comfort.

My rule of thumb is to look for coach-class seating pitch of 33 or 34 inches. The industry standard is between 31 and 32 inches. In coach, just one or two extra inches can alleviate the feeling of crushing claustrophobia that can make air travel such a stressful experience.

The rewards of loyalty

Most of the 20 years I spent working for Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways, and Hilton Hotels were devoted to developing and managing frequent-travel programs. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a host of savvy marketers at those companies as well as marketing partners at a host of affiliated companies and agencies.

It was also my good luck to have been a practitioner of loyalty marketing in its formative days. Indeed, the strategies and tactics at the heart of airline frequent flyer programs have proven to be the bedrock of current best-practices marketing.

It is an axiom of loyalty marketing that repeat customers not only add more to a company’s top line, but also contribute disproportionately to the bottom line because they cost a company less to service. That, according to this line of thought, is because loyal customers become experts in obtaining and using a company’s products or services. So they require less selling, less advertising, and less customer service.

Recasting that marketing adage from the consumer’s standpoint, there is indeed an efficiency advantage to keeping one’s business focused on one airline, one hotel chain, one car-rental company. Because I fly the same airline whenever possible, I know the ins and outs of booking flights on that carrier’s website; I’m familiar with the layout of that airline’s terminals at various airports; and I know the carrier’s route network, aircraft types, and seating configurations.

That saves me time and energy, and it saves the airline money.

So even without the miles and extra perks of elite status, there’s a real practical payoff to behaving loyally, both to companies and to their customers.

My favorites: Naming names

The above general considerations, in conjunction with the inevitable intangibles, have led me to favor certain travel suppliers—not because they are “the best” in any definitive sense, but because they consistently meet my individual needs better than the alternatives. Surely the list will change as my priorities shift and travel companies evolve.

For now, though, my short list is as follows:

Airline: American. Can you say “More Room Throughout Coach”? That was the brand name for American’s initiative to increase coach-class pitch on every plane in its fleet. They have since restored tighter seating on some leisure-travel routes. But even with the rollback, travelers stand a better chance of finding themselves in a coach seat with 33 to 34 inches of legroom on American than on any other airline.

(Surprisingly, American’s closest competitor in the comfort-in-coach race is not another Big Six airline; it’s JetBlue. JetBlue offers 33 to 34 inches of legroom in the rear-most two-thirds of its seats on every flight.)

In all, American’s total package—comfort, extensive network, industry-leading mileage program, good prospects for survival—make it a solid value. Loyalty follows.

Hotel chain: Hampton Inn. A member of the Hilton “family” of hotels, the Hampton Inn brand has become my first choice for both business and leisure trips.

Most properties feature free wi-fi Internet access, a complimentary breakfast buffet, good-sized rooms with adequate work areas, and indoor pools.

And the room rates are typically half those charged by full-service hotels.

Rental car company: Alamo. The service at Hertz and Avis is probably a cut above Alamo’s. But Alamo does an adequate job, and its prices are low enough to more than offset the service deficit. (The last time I compared Alamo’s and Hertz’s rates, the savings at Alamo were enough to cover two hotel nights at a Hampton Inn.)

My favorites may not be universal favorites given the variety of needs and preferences among the traveling public. But should you base your decision about where to place your loyalty on value, comfort, and dependability as I do, you too can travel like an expert.

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