HOW-TO HANDBOOK

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.

"We realized that there were customers like myself who didn't want to wait in line just to talk to a desk agent," says Alamo's vice president of operations, John Murphy. "If people can handle checking themselves out at Home Depot, then we figured we could apply the same concept to rental cars."

The decision to roll out the kiosks was in response to consumer demand (and complaints regarding waiting times). The machines have an average transaction time of two minutes--versus seven to eight minutes for talking to an agent (and that doesn't include waiting in line). An Alamo survey showed that nearly 90 percent of renters reported that not only would they use the kiosks again, but they'd also recommend that friends use them as well.

"We're always trying to devise new ways to lead the industry," says Murphy. That includes giving customers a 10 to15 percent discount if they prepay, and also allowing online check-in at 39 U.S. locations--with more to come.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts: The Happiest Places on Earth are now healthier.

Making healthy choices while you're on vacation isn't always easy, and that goes double at amusement parks, where deep-fried and sugary temptations abound--and you're rarely allowed to bring your own food. In October 2006, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts became the first U.S. amusement park chain to announce plans to eliminate added trans fats from food served at its domestic theme parks and in Disney-owned hotels and restaurants. "It was the right thing to do," says vice president Mary Niven.

The policy is just part of Disney's Well-Balanced Foods Initiative, which includes making sure more nutritious options are available. Instead of French fries and soda, kids' meals now can come with fruits and veggies and a choice of water, juice, or low-fat milk; burgers contain no more than 20 percent fat (down from 22-24 percent), and by year's end, pizza will be made with lower-fat cheese and whole-grain crusts.

Other parks are following Disney's lead: Universal Parks & Resorts has banned trans fats in its U.S. parks, and Anheuser-Busch Adventure Parks (which includes SeaWorld) will eliminate trans fats from its menus by year's end.

Marriott International: Ultimately, warm hospitality comes down to communication.

"We have a lot of jobs where people don't have that much contact with guests--such as housekeepers--but they wanted to be able to interact better," says David Rodriguez, Marriott's executive vice president of global human resources. The company turned to Sed de Saber ("thirst for knowledge" in Spanish), a LeapPad-like machine that teaches English to Spanish speakers. The lessons are a mix of stories and games, with many opportunities for students to record their attempts at pronunciation. The lessons are tailored to the hospitality industry, but they also have sections on nonwork life. And Marriott encourages employees to take the machines home, so family members can use them, too.

After a four-month pilot program at 23 hotels--after which 85 percent of the participants demonstrated "significant improvement"--Marriott is rolling Sed de Saber out across the U.S., to properties across all of its brands. So far, nearly 1,000 employees have participated in the training. "We have 200 hotels in the program, and more are coming," says Rodriguez. "Now our Latin American hotels are looking to use it." A second-level course is in the works, and Marriott is also thinking about expanding the program to other languages. (Rodriguez says that more than 60 languages are spoken at Marriott hotels in the U.S.)

Blanca Barrera de Martinez, a housekeeping inspector at a Residence Inn in Arlington, Va., studied English with Sed de Saber for four months. "The program was so good for me," she says. "Before, I didn't talk to guests. Now I can understand them and have conversations with them. It is so much better."

Avis Budget Group: The company is making life in the fast lane possible for travelers.

To spare rental car drivers from languishing in cash-only toll lanes, the Avis Budget Group has decided to enable toll-pass systems in more than 400,000 of its Avis and Budget cars, so renters can use lanes typically reserved for locals.

The company, which first tested the idea back in 2003, spent the last 14 months implementing electronic toll passes in cars around the U.S.: in the east from Maine to Virginia, and in Illinois, Florida, Houston, Colorado; and in Puerto Rico. Programs in California and Ontario, Canada, will launch by early 2008. "We're adding cars each month," says Michael Caron, vice president of product and program development. "Our goal is to have transponders installed on a minimum of 75 percent of cars in each market."

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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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