In this super high-tech world, a face-to-face meeting is still the best way to begin a business relationship, or close a major deal. But small-business owners pressed for time, working without a travel department and on a budget find business travel especially treacherous around the holidays.

"Flying these days is really bad," says Wendy Perrin, consumer news editor for Conde Nast Traveler magazine. "Seats are smaller, storage is smaller, flight attendants and gate agents are meaner, and it's hard to get an empty seat next to you."

Adding to the aggravation recently, Delta Airlines' pilots are refusing to work overtime, forcing the airline to cancel hundreds of flights.

So what's a harried entrepreneur to do?

"Become an aggressive travel buyer," advises Chris McGinnis, former CNN business-travel correspondent and head of Travel Skills, based in Atlanta. "Be proactive when you are renting a car, ask for the newest car on the lot. At hotels, ask the reservation agent for a good room one close to the elevators, or far from them, on a quiet floor or with a view. The reservation agents know what the better rooms are, and they're happy to give a bad room to the unsuspecting."

When flying, check in really early, and ask for a seat in the emergency exit row to enjoy a few extra inches of legroom. Cabin layout makes a big difference, especially on long flights or when you have to work on your laptop en route. Wendy Perrin favors 767s, which have a two-three-two seating plan, meaning only one middle seat per row. Compare that to a 747, which is typically three-four-three, meaning four of the dreaded middle seats in every row. Ask the reservation agent, or visit www.frequentflyer.oag.com to check seating plans online before you fly.

Try smaller airlines

Both Perrin and McGinnis recommend trying smaller, budget airlines for better service (and better fares). "The other day I flew from JFK to Orlando and back, from Ft. Lauderdale," says Perrin. "On the way down, I flew Delta Express, which I thought would be the same as Delta, but it's not it was a nightmare. When the person in front of you reclined their seat, they were in your lap. You had no choice but to recline and there wasn't even enough space to read."

On the way back, she flew JetBlue, a new, small discount airline. "It was so comfortable," she said. "There was no line at the check-in counter. The plane had all leather seats and 22 channels of live TV for each seat. We left on time and arrived on time. It was a real pleasure."

McGinnis reports that most discount airlines often offer other perks. "You don't need to stay over a Saturday night, you don't need a round-trip ticket, and it costs $35 to change a ticket instead of $75," he said, suggesting that readers check out: Southwest, AirTran, Vanguard, Sun Country, JetBlue and Spirit.

You may have noticed that last fall, many travel agents began charging a fee of $10 to $20 per ticket. "Agents once made a 12 percent commission on every ticket they sold, now that's down to about 5 percent or less," says Justin Shaw, vice president and general manager of biztravel.com, a business-travel service based in Philadelphia. "They have to make it up somehow."

But the added cost of a travel agent's fee may be worth it if your time is valuable and you tend to make a lot of changes. "Lots of changes are the nature of the beast," says McGinnis, who suggests thinking of a travel agent as another consultant for your business.

You can also book plane tickets online through most airlines' Web sites, or on travel sites like expedia.com and biztravel.com. Both of these sites offer tools that allow you to authorize another person (like an assistant) to buy tickets for you, and he or she will save frequently traveled routes for easier ordering.

Biztravel.com also has a great offer for frustrated flyers. They say they will pay $100 for flights arriving 30 minutes late, $200 for flights arriving an hour late, and give complete refunds for flights arriving more than two hours late and canceled flights.

Little protection

Although travelers often feel they're entitled to compensation from airlines when flights are delayed, most passenger rights are actually not protected by law. The Department of Transportation statutes only apply if you're bumped off a flight or if your bag is lost. (Up to $2,500 in value is covered). The government also requires airlines to provide nonsmoking flights.

"Other than that," says McGinnis, "you're not entitled to anything." With that said, most airlines will pay for a hotel room when flights are delayed for more than four hours at night, and many will make efforts to assist you when connections are missed from delays. When your bags don't arrive on time, they will often dish out a bit of cash for a new shirt or skirt.

Still, smart packing can also eliminate headaches. "Never check valuables or anything you'll need on the other end," advises McGinnis. "Only check clothing that can be replaced. Take everything else on the plane with you, including medicine, cameras and glasses."

Don't forget to consider taking advantage of your frequent-flyer benefits when booking flights. "Many inexperienced travelers don't think of consolidating travel on one airline," reports Goldberg, the on-site business travel expert at about.com. "At this time of year, I'm thinking about what I need to do to make it to 'lead status.'"

Achieving elite status as a frequent flyer means more than free tickets. Elite flyers receive preferential treatment they are first in line for better seats, upgrades and new flights if there are cancellations.

When flying, book morning flights whenever possible to ensure on-time departures. Late afternoon and evenings are the worst, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report.

Try alternative airports. If you fly in or out of New York state, avoid LaGuardia (which has the worst on-time record in the country, especially for arrivals). Try alternates like JFK and Newark, or drive to suburban airports in Islip, Long Island or White Plains in Westchester County. In California, Long Beach Airport has better service records than LAX; and Oakland and San Jose airports both have better records than neighboring San Francisco.

Consider alternatives to flying. "Everybody always thinks of air" when they make travel plans, laments Bruce Goldberg, "but there are times, like when you are traveling in the Northeast, when it doesn't make sense to fly."

Rent a comfortable car for trips of less than 200 miles. Use Amtrak in the Northeast, near Chicago and on the West Coast. These alternatives are usually cheaper and almost always less stressful than flying.

Reporting by Sarah Prior. Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist, author and founder of www.sbtv.com, a new global online network for small-business owners. She is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs.

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