Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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10 Best Picks for Business Travelers in 2016
June 16, 2016 -- Most weeks in Seat 2B we talk about how life on the road stinks and gets worse every day. Even when I don't say it explicitly, it's implied. Because, you know, life on the road stinks and gets worse every day.
Still, there are good things. Honest. And I can prove it. Here's my current 10-best list. Your mileage may vary (and do tell me how it does), but it's important to remember that some things are notably better than others.
Best Credit Card for Travel Perks
The $450 annual fee is stiff, but the American Express Platinum Card has more than enough perks to offset the cost. It opens the door to about 900 airport clubs, includes a $200 annual credit for incidental airline fees and a rebate for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership. It's also bundled with gold elite status in the Hilton HHonors and Starwood Preferred Guest programs as well as elite status in National Emerald Aisle. Another perk: free WiFi via Boingo, the hotspot network.
Best Credit Card for Points
Amex Platinum spending earns points in Membership Rewards, Amex's useful frequent spending plan. But business travelers are better off piling up their spending on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Why? It offers double points on our sweet spot (travel and dining expenditures) and Chase's Ultimate Rewards program is extraordinarily valuable. Its points transfer 1:1 to United or Southwest airlines, Marriott, Hyatt or InterContinental hotels or a strong list of international airlines. Best of all, Sapphire Preferred's annual fee is low ($95) and Chase waives the charge in the first year. Chase currently offers a 50,000-point bonus if you take the card now and spend $4,000 during the first three months.
Best Way to Upgrade to First Class
Think the best way to a first class upgrade is earning elite status in an airline program? Forget it. Years ago, United Airlines started selling cheap upgrades at check-in kiosks rather than give them to their elites. Disgruntled United elites called them TOD (tens of dollars) upgrades. Lately, Delta has been doing the same thing. In fact, all airlines have decided that selling upgrades cheap is the best way to bump up revenue. They really don't care that they promised upgrades to their elites. So why fight? Stop worrying about elite status. Play the field instead and look for inexpensive opportunities to upgrade. Start at the initial point of purchase — first class prices may not be substantially higher than coach, especially when you factor in additional costs like baggage fees or more money spent to get a slightly better coach seat — and inquire again when you check in or at the gate.
Best Hub Airport
The busier the hub, the longer the lines at security checkpoints and the longer the flight delays. The notable exception: Salt Lake City, a smallish hub that Delta Air Lines acquired in its long-ago merger with Western Air Lines. The government's most recent rating of airport efficiency pegged SLC north of 90 percent on-time, about five points higher than the national average. The airport is only about eight miles from downtown and, should you chose you stay on the grounds, there are good fast food (Smashburger) and sit-down (Vino Volo) dining options. There's also a branch of a chain fronted by celebrity chef Cat Cora and a good pub, Squatters, that serves local craft brews.
Best Airline Seats
JetBlue Airways is slow-walking to the dark side, but it still has the most spacious domestic coach seats. Seats offer 32-to-34 inches of legroom compared to the industry standard of 30-31 inches. JetBlue is also expanding its much-admired (and comparatively reasonably priced) premium class called Mint beyond traditional transcontinental markets.
Best Car Rentals
Once the gold standard for business rentals, Hertz has been declining for most of the last decade. Cars are often old, prices are usually high and customers bitterly complain about the company's maddening policy of not honoring reservations. Frequent renters increasingly gravitate to National. Reserve at the mid-size rate and its Emerald Aisle program allows you to bypass counters and choose any available car in a special area of the airport lot. Elite members at the largest rental stations get a choice of higher-value cars. And its annual 1-2-Free promotion, which traditionally launches in August, offers a free rental day for every two rentals.
Best Free Cloud Storage
Business travelers constantly aim to shave inches and weight off our on-the-road technology, so we've logically and enthusiastically embraced cloud storage. Dropbox is fine, of course. So's OneDrive from Microsoft. But Google Drive offers the most free storage(15 gigabytes) and nothing beats free. It also seamlessly integrates with Chrome, Google's browser, and Android operating systems.
Best Way to Get PreCheck
The Transportation Security Administration has made a hash of airport security lines this year. Getting into the TSA's PreCheck program can help — at least when the agency deigns to make the service available. But why give the TSA $85? For just $15 more, you can enroll in Global Entry, the Customs and Border Protection agency's smooth-as-silk customs-bypass system. Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck privileges and credit cards such as the aforementioned Amex Platinum will rebate your membership fee.
Best Mobile Service
T-Mobile has been on a tear ever since its merger with AT&T didn't happen. Now it's making money, too. Pretty much everything T-Mobile has done in recent years has been a boon for frequent travelers: free international texting and data; cheap international calls; free WiFi calling; and easy and free tethering. The latest perk came last week when T-Mobile announced one hour of free WiFi on aircraft equipped with Gogo Internet.
Best Hotel Perks
If you make it to the Diamond level of Hyatt Gold Passport, you should be one happy business traveler. You get guaranteed suite upgrades four times per year, reliable upgrades to better rooms on all other stays, free breakfast with each stay, a 4 p.m. check-out time and free high-speed Internet.