Making “impossible” vacations possible
You’ve probably seen advertisements for grand world tours sponsored by the likes of the New York Times, National Geographic, and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts aboard luxury converted airliners, their itineraries packed with curated experiences and insider access to exotic destinations. If the trips sound enticing, but rubbing shoulders with 50 or so other travelers puts you off, you’ll be glad to know that the same aircraft, along with a variety of well-appointed business jets from these and other high-end tour organizers, are often available for private luxury guided tours. And demand for such tours is growing.
“People are increasingly starting to value experiences over things, meaning that they are putting a higher priority on travel and looking for unique experiences,” says Elisabeth Nelson, managing director for private travel at TCS World Travel, which offers tours aboard business jets in partnership with veteran U.S.-based luxury tour organizer Travcoa. The mass-media advertisements mentioned above could also be influencing the market.
“Now that Four Seasons and National Geographic are doing it, it’s made it seem a bit more accessible,” says Elizabeth Ellis, founder of luxury travel consultancy Blue Marble Private in the U.K. “Now it might not feel so extravagant to clients.”
It’s not simply the chance to travel onboard a luxury converted airliner or a business jet that draws customers to these tours. “Many of the guests on our private jet journeys have their own planes,” says Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for bespoke tour outfitter Abercrombie & Kent (A&K). But, she adds, “The logistics of trying to do it on their own can be overwhelming.”
A&K began the luxury jet tour trend, hosting its first such trip in 1989 aboard a retrofitted Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. Today the company (like the New York Times) uses an Icelandair Boeing 757-200ER for its world tours; the aircraft, with its 50 custom-designed Italian leather berthable seats, is also available for families and private groups.
If you don’t need a platform that large, A&K can source a jet that matches the size of your group (16 guests maximum) and itinerary for one of its Wings Over the World journeys. If you want to use your own jet, A&K and other tour organizers can handle all the
Having onboard gourmet meals instead of dining on traditional airplane food is surely part of the appeal of these jaunts. The Four Seasons’ 52-passenger B757-200ER carries an executive chef who uses fresh ingredients gathered at each stop for every in-flight meal, for example. But what most sets private luxury air tours apart are the customized itineraries and on-ground activities designed around each client’s demands and desires. These purveyors have the contacts and clout to arrange unusual and otherwise unavailable activities, from private performances by world-acclaimed artists to off-hours access to Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza, so you can explore the wonders in solitude.
China’s Deer Jet recently offered a weeklong Cannes Film Festival tour on its Gulfstream G550 that included access to the red carpet for the opening-night gala, mingling with artists and celebrities, and invitations to the official after-party.
U.K.-based Air Charter Services (ACS) provides customized tours designed around events like the Monaco Grand Prix, European Fashion Week, and the Super Bowl, along with more traditional offerings like African safaris and themed regional tours. The shift toward this kind of travel is “palpable,” says Christian Lee-Fatt, ACS’s jet card sales manager for the Americas.
“The bigger they dream, the better,” says Ellis of those considering such journeys. “There’s generally a way of making possible things they don’t think are possible.”
Blue Marble Private recently introduced a selection of tours with “off-the-beaten-path experiences only possible when flying by private charter,” including a “top-to-tail” exploration of South America and a Greenland-to-Iceland adventure. As the latter journey may suggest, these tours can sometimes be brief. Nelson at TWC notes their tour customers “tend to book shorter trips to fit around their work schedules,” to maximize the value of their leisure time. (TWC has also partnered with Four Seasons on private jet tours.)
If you prefer to mix your forms of transportation, note that the U.K.’s Air Partner has allied with yacht broker Camper and Nicholsons to offer packages that include roundtrip jet charter travel to Fort Lauderdale, where passengers embark on a yacht for a one-week cruise.
The big names in the business are responding to the demand for these private, individually curated tours. Four Seasons last fall teamed with NetJets to offer vacation packages using the fractional provider’s fleet and Four Seasons properties. In introducing the tours, J. Allen Smith, president and CEO of Four Seasons, noted that “many of our guests are already NetJets owners.” The offerings include a ski trip in the American West, a Hawaiian getaway, and a European jaunt that hits the Continent’s gastronomic hot spots.
Crystal Cruises made waves last year when it introduced Crystal Skye, a B777-200LR, the newest and largest of the dedicated VIP tour platforms, under the banner of its new Crystal AirCruises division. The 88-passenger jet is available for private charter—design your own itinerary or choose one of Crystal’s global journeys—but the company also offers, through its new Crystal Luxury Air branch, tours on “a curated fleet of sophisticated aircraft” led by its 12-passenger flagship, a Bombardier Global XRS.
These tours aren’t limited to journeys of self-fulfillment and indulgence. TCS World Travel/Travcoa, for example, can organize itineraries that involve charitable causes and volunteerism.
“If you want to make a difference, or just learn more about how you can make a difference while traveling, we can help,”
Costs of these tours vary based on the aircraft, accommodations, on-ground activities, and itinerary. (Group world tours organized by the New York Times and A&K start at about $135,000 to $150,000 per person, double occupancy.) If you’re considering a charter like this, look for a company with proven experience in the high end of the travel market, and deep knowledge and contacts in the locations you want to visit.