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Budget Travel's 2007 Extra Mile Awards

Presenting our third annual look at the companies that are going out of their way to improve travelers' quality of life.

Mary Niven at Disneyland's Plaza Inn (João Canziani)

See this snow globe? It's the most coveted snow globe in the travel industry. That's because every fall, we hand out a select few as our Extra Mile Awards, celebrating the companies that have made travelers' lives easier, more enjoyable, and just plain better. (Previous winners have included Google for its mapping tools, Westin for being the first major hotel brand to go smoke-free, and Continental Airlines for its innovative online calendar showing award-seat availability.) Travel isn't exactly easy these days, and when someone dares to pull off a wonderful innovation, he or she deserves a hand. At Budget Travel, it's our privilege to lead the applause.

Virgin America: The airline is introducing nifty new perks--and not just to first class.

In August, the new low-cost U.S. airline Virgin America took flight with planes that are showcases of innovation. To start, coach seats boast 32 inches of legroom, an inch or two more than the industry standard for economy class. There's a USB jack at each coach seat and two 110-volt plugs for every set of three seats, so your gizmos won't run out of juice while you're in the air.

Even more impressive are the nine-inch seat-back TVs (versus 6.8 inches on, say, JetBlue), which offer 18 channels for free--including CNN, ESPN, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, FX, and The Independent Film Channel--and 25 pay-per-view movies for $6 to $8 a pop. They also function as touch screens you can use to order food, paying by swiping your credit card. (A flight attendant delivers purchased items.) You can create playlists from a selection of 3,000 songs--and save them for your return flight--and there's even an instant-messaging service: You can communicate with other passengers using a small handheld keyboard (but only if the recipients choose to accept your messages). In yet another clever feature, each plane's windows are tinted to filter out certain light wavelengths, reducing glare.

Kudos to Virgin America for offering these innovations to all of its passengers--even the ones in the rear section of the plane.

The Virgin brand prides itself on firsts, and the new airline is the result of a strategy focused on customer service. "Our goal is to maximize comfort based on feedback," says Charles Ogilvie, director of inflight entertainment and partnerships. He's the man responsible for the airline's seat-back TVs. "You can send me an e-mail during your flight to tell me what you do and don't like."

Despite appearances, Virgin America is not a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic; it has licensed the name. Virgin America is based out of San Francisco, with nonstop flights to Los Angeles; New York City's JFK; Washington, D.C.'s Dulles; and Las Vegas (starting October 10). The airline plans on serving as many as 10 cities in its first year of operation, ramping up to 30 cities within five years' time.

Farecast: Crunching the airfare and hotel numbers so you don't have to.

Farecast is a new company that sheds some light on the traditionally difficult process of figuring out whether that deal you found is really any good. The website predicts whether fares on a route will rise or fall in the next week, and according to an independent audit, its forecasts are correct three out of four times. "We improve our calculations constantly to help make our advice more accurate," says president and CEO Hugh Crean.

The predictions are free, and there's a $10 option to book the lowest fare in the upcoming week, whether it's the lowest fare available that day or an even better fare that may pop up. Farecast receives its fares from airline sites and online agencies, and it sends you to those sources for the actual booking.

Now Farecast is taking on hotels, offering rate advice for major properties in 30 U.S. cities. Rather than predict rates, the site tells you if the rate is a good value when compared with the hotel's rate history and other factors. You plug in your dates and the hotel's location, and then add your wish list (such as preferred amenities). The site maps hotels that meet your criteria, along with the lowest rates available and advice on whether to book one or keep looking.

Alamo Rent A Car: Self-serve kiosks allow renters to make a much quicker getaway.

Renting a car has become a potentially grueling experience, because of the long lines that often greet travelers who are already exhausted from flying. Hoping to speed up this maddening process, Alamo Rent A Car introduced self-service kiosks last November--they're now at 57 of the company's U.S. locations. Customers with a credit card, a driver's license, and a reservation can skip the rental counter and use a touch-screen kiosk instead.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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