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Once-in-a-lifetime vacations — for a price

Luxury travelers can try tandem paragliding in Queenstown, New Zealand, which offers a spectacular view of Lake Wakatipu.
Luxury travelers can try tandem paragliding in Queenstown, New Zealand, which offers a spectacular view of Lake Wakatipu.Hamiza Bakirci
/ Source: Forbes

To some, the $100,000 vacation is purely fantasy, particularly as the global economy slows. But despite the bad news, the rich continue to spend extravagantly on luxurious getaways.

Take, for example a $98,000 around-the-world trip offered to American Express card members. Last year, Abercrombie & Kent twice offered this tour, which takes up to 52 guests by private jet to eight destinations on five continents. This year, demand was so high that three additional trips were added. The Casa Triton, a luxury villa on the coast of Rincon Careyes, Mexico, is also renting six bedrooms for five days at the cost of $100,000. The package includes a staff of butlers, drivers and maids as well as polo lessons, sunset massages and rare tequila tasting.

Another $100,000 itinerary — designed for a philanthropist who is also an avid photographer — includes flying to each secluded destination by private turboprop as well as trips to local communities and charities. It was created by the New York-based agency Our Personal Guest at the request of The 16-day itinerary also includes an exclusive perk: the assistance of a National Geographic photographer during a private safari in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.

Such personalization is essential for wealthy "citizens of the world." That's the term Kristi Jones, president of the high-end travel network Virtuoso, uses to describe the well traveled who focus less on a to-do list and are more interested in collecting memorable, singular experiences.

"What people will spend begs the question on what they want to experience," she says. "For the true affluent consumer, it's not the price tag, but what they're getting for it."

What $100,000 will buy
Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a market research firm focusing on affluent consumers, says that a defining trend for the luxury traveler is finding the undiscovered destination. While chartering a yacht remains popular among the wealthy, Pedraza says that formerly isolated places like the Aegean and Caribbean are now hot spots. The same holds true for Mount Kilimanjaro.

"[These places] are like a McDonald's," says Pedraza. "They were previously enclaves for explorers or for the [very wealthy]. Now there's no exclusivity or privacy."

Instead, high spenders are looking to rent an island or fly by helicopter to remote ski locations. Premium rentals start at $10,000 a week, according to Pedraza.

"For that," he says, "you're really getting something unique."

A well-connected travel adviser can also deliver exceptional value for an expensive price.

AMH1K7 Fishing boat at sunset,

At our request, the Kansas-based agency Great Getaways created a $100,000 vacation tailored to the interests of a CEO who leads a billion-dollar company and enjoys collecting antiques. On this three-week trip, two travelers explore India and Bhutan, visiting villages where age-old trades like weaving, iron-working and pearl piercing are still practiced. They also visit several museums where thousand-year antiquities are on display.

Kristi Jones says that this level of detail and personalization is available only from a travel adviser. Though the number of agents in the United States declined from 100,000 to 30,000 between 2001 and 2008, Jones says she's seen a resurgence of advisers in the industry.

Their skill is not just recommending the right restaurant, but also providing personal access to the chef.

"That's what people pay for," Jones says. "That's what people come back and talk about."

The value of a travel adviser
When Michael Kahn, president and CEO of the Kansas City-based technology consulting firm Velociti, decided to travel to China with his 13-year-old son and his son's friend, he enlisted the help of his longtime travel agent at Great Getaways. For 10 months, he consulted with the boutique agency and the luxury tour operator Travcoa about how best to experience the sprawling country in just two weeks.

With help from a local guide and his travel agent, he organized a helicopter ride over Hong Kong, arranged for a Rolls-Royce to drive the group from the airport to their hotel, rode the super-fast Maglev train in Shanghai and scheduled a private suit fitting for the two boys. All of these activities were a hit with the teenagers. In total, Kahn spent $50,000 in two weeks, but gained precious time with his son.

"There's a relatively limited window of time where kids are willing to travel with their parents," says Kahn. "It was nice to have a solid couple of weeks to spend together."

Though costly, a five- or six-figure vacation buys something that's priceless: seamless travel.

"It's about homogeneity in luxury," says Pedraza of the Luxury Institute, "and not having to go through junctures in my trip that are low-end."

These experiences are no longer just for celebrities and CEOs, but also for "plain old millionaires."