Luxury round-the-world tours on private jets take off
When travel tycoon Geoffrey Kent launched a world tour by private jet—priced at $105,000—he wasn't sure how it would sell.
But the tour, which included feasts on the Amazon, spas in Samoa and wildlife treks through the Masai Mara, sold out in less than a month and the waiting list for the 26-day tour grew to more than 50 people.
"There are a lot of wealthy people today who have the money to travel and want to see the world," he said. "They are money rich and time poor. This is a great way to see as much of the world as possible in a short amount of time. And to really enjoy it."
The wealth boom is combining with the global travel bug to fuel a surge in private jet tours—hyperexclusive, month-long trips aboard custom-built jets that drop in on exotic countries for the finest meals and hotels. Several high-end tour companies, hotels and concierge businesses have launched or expanded their private jet tours. Even scientific and educational nonprofits like National Geographic are getting into the act.
The wealthy, they say, want to buy special experiences more than things these days. And jet tours give them the chance to check off many of their bucket-list travel locations in one trip—and in style.
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"People are willing to spend for these incredible experiences," said Lynn Cutter, executive vice president, National Geographic Travel, which is running five private jet trips this year and will have six next year.
Kent, the legendary travel guide and founder of luxury travel agency Abercrombie & Kent, has launched two private jet tours. The first, called "Africa: Around a Continent by Private Jet" will be in the spring of 2014. It is sold out.
The company has added a second departure. The trip costs $79,995 per person for a couple and $94,990 for single travelers.
The trip takes 40 people on a 737 jet, specially designed with expansive club-style seating and lounges, across Africa. It starts with a gala welcome dinner in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Two Oceans Aquarium, then stops in Namibia for a ride across the desert dunes and dinner under the stars.
It moves to Botswana for a wildlife tour then a trip to Victoria Falls in Zambia, a search for game in Tanzania with Kent himself as a guide, and then a trip to Uganda, where guests can come face to face with mountain gorillas. It finishes with a cocktail reception in Ethiopia and a farewell dinner in Rome.
Kent said the jet tour was so successful he decided to create a second private jet experience called "Around the World with Geoffrey Kent," where Kent takes 50 guests on a 757 to his favorite corners of the planet. The trip costs $105,000 per person per couple or $120,000 for single travelers.
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The trip starts with a sail down the Amazon, then goes to Easter Island, where travelers will have an earth-cooked feast in a Rapa Nui family home, then on to Papua New Guinea, Bali, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Kenya and Monaco. The 26-day trip, in the fall of 2014, is already sold out.
"I've tried to personalize the trip," Kent said. "It's me taking guests to my favorite places and meeting some of my favorite people. It's not just 'here's a place and here's the itinerary.'"
Another group tapping the jet-tour maket is National Geographic. The nonprofit organization started running private jet tours in 2001, using its vast team of scientists, naturalists, photographers and other experts as tour guides and advisors. It will run two "Around the World by Private Jet" tours this year and four next year. This year's trips are already sold out despite the price of $74,950 per person.
The "Around the World" trip starts in Washington then moves to Lima, Peru, for a tour of the Larco Herrera Museum and study of pre-Columbian ceramics. The group then goes to Machu Picchu, also in Peru, for a tour of Incan architecture, a meeting with master weavers and a temple tour.
Then travelers head to Easter Island for a "fia fia" dance performance, then to the Great Barrier Reef and a tour of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The trip rolls through China, Tibet, Tanzania and the Taj Mahal before finishing in Marrakech, Morocco, and Washington.
National Geographic is also running a private jet tour in honor of its 125th anniversary, called "Celebrating 125 Years of Exploration: An Extraordinary Journey by Private Jet." The trip, for 77 people, costs $70,950 per person and is already sold out for February 2014. It's also running the trip in October 2014.
The voyage starts with wildlife in Botswana with filmmakers, conservationists and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Guests go snorkeling in the Maldives with oceanographer Sylvia Earle, then to a Buddhist ceremony in Bhutan, a snorkel in the "floating gardens" of Palau and trek with the San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.
Lynn Cutter of National Geographic said it's not just the wealthy who are taking the mega-trips.
"We have teachers who have saved up for years to take this trip," Cutter said. She stressed that since National Geographic is nonprofit, all of the proceeds for the trips "go back to our mission."
For those who want luxury and service over scientific expertise, Four Seasons is offering its "Around the World By Private Jet" for $88,000 per person. The tours, which run twice a year, take guests to Four Seasons properties around the world on a jet reconfigured with plush seats and lounges for 56 passengers.
The jet has a concierge office on board so guests can customize their itineraries while jetting from one stop to another.
"It's like a private club experience," said Susan Helstab, executive vice president of marketing for Four Season.
Four Seasons is also running a trip this fall called "Urban Intrigue & and Island Oasis By Private Jet." Executive chef Kerry Sear will travel with 56 guests for 22 days to Japan, China, the Maldives, Turkey, Russia, Morocco and New York. He will coordinate menus, oversee each meal and try to help find the freshest, locally sourced ingredients.
Helstab said that travel has become almost essential to today's affluent and that they are searching for memorable, epic journeys to places rarely traveled.
"Travel has become such an integral part of the way they expect to live their lives," she said. "They see it as essential."
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.