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."

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