The Good Life

It's the kind of first-class pampering that execs have come to expect from their favorite airlines. A chauffeur collects them from the office and delivers them--just 10 minutes before departure--to the terminal, where the business-only lounge offers all the amenities of a well-stocked boardroom. Once they're onboard there's a power socket for every passenger, breakfast is served at the seat and segregation keeps out those noisy leisure travelers. Nothing to do but sit back and wait for takeoff.

Except that this is the scene at London's Waterloo train station. Earlier this month, the international rail operator Eurostar (eurostar.com) launched its new Business Premier service in a bid to capture still more of the cross-channel market from the airlines. "Our approach has been to deliver long-haul [airline] standards on short-haul travel," says Paul Charles, a director of Eurostar, which operates trains from London to Paris and Brussels. "That's something that the short-haul carriers just aren't doing."

Indeed, thanks to faster journey times and ever-higher comfort levels, Europe's trains are picking up business at an express rate. Flights to Paris are no longer even offered from two of London's major airports, Gatwick and Stansted. Eurostar now tops the airlines' market share on the London-Brussels route, a feat already achieved on the London-Paris run. Over the first six months of this year, the company registered a 17 percent hike in business passengers. On mainland Europe, half of all passengers on the high-speed Thalys service (thalys.com) linking Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne are now business travelers, the highest such ratio in the world.

Of course, rail travel may not be terribly popular with the corporate bean counters; a first-class return between London and Paris starts at more than 300 pounds. But Wi-Fi Internet links, available on Thalys, make the travel time productive, you journey directly from city center to city center--and you can't beat the speed. The latest generation of supertrains are capable of hitting 300kph, and Europe is busily investing in new track to cope. The Paris-based International Union of Railways reckons the continent will boast 6,000 kilometers of high-speed lines by 2010, more than double the number in 2000. That means more journeys should soon be manageable in under three hours, the amount of time considered a psychological barrier among travelers. "You can see a very clear shift from the airlines to us when we get the times down to below three hours," says Thalys CEO Jean-Michel Dancoisne.

New routes are in the offing. A link due to be completed this winter is expected to cut travel time between Rome and Naples to barely an hour, down from 105 minutes. A new Paris-Strasbourg line, opening in 2007, will slice more than two hours off the present four-and-a-half-hour journey. And track upgrades scheduled for the same year will reduce the Amsterdam-Paris trip to three hours--a gain of 90 minutes. Airlines are warned: a swifter ride on the railways spells turbulence in the skies.

HOTELS: NO GUYS ALLOWED

Tiny bathrooms, creepy hotel bars and the lothario who just won't quit have long been the bane of female business travelers. Now some hotel chains are waking up to the fact that women make up 50 percent of all frequent fliers and spend $1 billion every year, and they are going out of their way to make them more comfortable. Some are making small changes--fewer sports magazines and club chairs, more glossies and colorful furnishings--while others are rolling out women-only sections and services, including marble bathrooms, backlit anti-mist makeup mirrors and high-powered hair dryers, as well as all-female staffs. Standard security measures like spy holes are amped up with doorbells, electronic do not disturb signs and closed-circuit TV.

In London, the five-star Grange City Hotel opened a female-friendly wing of 68 rooms this month (grangehotels.com; from $394). "It's not segregation," says Barry Wishart, assistant director of marketing at the Grange. "We're following gyms and even restaurants with female-only facilities in response to different needs." London's Hilton Park Lane (london-parklane.hilton.com; from $614) has a women-only executive floor with optional private check-in and healthy in-room gourmet-dining options. In Zurich, the Lady's First boutique hotel (ladysfirst.ch; from $172) was designed by and for female executives, and offers women-only floors with rooftop spa facilities and an all-organic menu.

Other hotels have simply added services that appeal mainly to women. The Kempinski Hotel Beijing (kempinski-beijing.com; from $188) offers a minibar stocked with facial creams. The Hotel de Crillon in Paris ( crillon.com; from $619) has a women's package with lighter meals and offers baby-sitting. The Elle rooms at Vancouver's boutique hotel Le Soleil (lesoleilhotel.com; from $122) have free hosiery, shopping discount vouchers, and personal shoppers and yoga instructors. That should make it easier to break through the glass ceiling.

SPAS: BEST FOOT FORWARD

Need a break while on business in Japan? Head to a local ashiyu, or hot foot bath, the latest in relaxation trends. Visitors simply slip off their shoes and socks and immerse their weary feet in ankle-deep pools filled with hot water and minerals. The experience offers many of the same benefits as a traditional hot-spring bath--a beautiful setting, a sense of calm--but requires much less time, money and disrobing. At the Doppo foot spa in Yugawara, a hot-spring town west of Tokyo, foot bathers can enjoy nine low spa pools in a forest park. The water contains sodium and calcium, among other minerals, and the town claims each bath helps a different body part, from kidneys to eyes. On a recent afternoon, Shinji Sonoda, 32, who works for a semiconductor company near Tokyo, was taking a day off to enjoy the foot spa with two colleagues. "I already feel healthier," Sonoda said. "All I had to do was to take my socks off."

The Good Life | World