A Canadian travel company, Butterfield & Robinson, tried something new this year that surprised others in the travel industry. It introduced a two-week “Grand Journey” tour through Indochina with the super-luxury price tag of $52,000. Travellers are ferried between countries by private jet and then choose whether they want to walk or bicycle or do a mix of both. In January, the trip sold out and had a wait list. “Absolutely bar none, yes, it is the most expensive trip ever in our catalogue,” says trip planner Kristi Elborne from the company’s headquarters in Toronto. “Travellers need to get themselves to Hong Kong and home from Bangkok. That is not included in the price.” Guests on the guided tour arrive at their first hotel by elephant and stay at “exquisite” lodgings such as the Four Seasons and two Aman resorts.
Still, why so expensive for a trip that’s mostly walking and biking? Starquest Expeditions in Seattle charges the exact same price for a luxury “Around the World” tour on a private jet that departs from Washington and is three weeks long, not two. And its price includes jetting clients from North America to Peru, then on to Easter Island, Samoa, Australia, Vietnam, India, Tanzania, Egypt and back to Washington again.
Elborne explains the cost and concept of Butterfield & Robinson’s two-week walking/cycling trip: “In 2005, we did an itinerary in New Zealand, a trip we took to another level in terms of the length of the trip [10 days], in terms of the quality of the hotels, and in terms of the price tag, really [$17,000]. We thought it would be great to bring into our portfolio more of that style of trip, really bringing the luxury level up a notch. When we were looking at doing something like that in Southeast Asia, we sat there scratching our heads thinking we’re going to be in airports all the time! The best way to connect all four countries [Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia], we realized, was to do it by private jet.”
One little luxury of the private jet is the ability to avoid lining up at airports. “Typically, one of the Butterfield & Robinson guides gets off the jet with all of the passports, so travellers don’t actually have to sit there and physically show the custom agents their passports.” At the airport in Laos, “they actually allow us to put the bikes on the tarmac. So the plane lands. We’re standing there with the bikes. The clients walk off the jet. They get on their bikes and they bike off. They never even enter the airport.”
Combining private jet travel with a walking tour is a first in the industry, says Elborne. “There is nobody else that’s doing active travel by private jet”—“active travel” meaning walking or cycling. “You will find other private jet companies but they’re doing city to city museum tours. They’re not getting off the jet with bikes waiting on the tarmac. They’re not getting off and having someone hand them a walking stick and then going off into the forest, which is what we’re doing.”
Carolyn Fox at Country Walkers in Vermont laughs when she hears the price of the Indochina Grand Journey. “That is pretty darn grand! We have some tours that are nicely appointed in terms of where you stay, but our philosophy is we want to represent the area. For instance, we have a tour of Puglia, Italy. Seven nights, six days: $4,798. But it’s representative of the area. We want you to stay at a restored 18th century masseria [manor farm], not some crazy westernized hotel. Luxury to us is experiencing another location and truly having an authentic experience.”
At Starquest Expeditions, Scott Leviton is baffled that private jet clients would want to walk or hike. “To be perfectly frank, they’re at opposite ends of the travel arena. People who seem to like to focus on the walking would almost look down at the convenience of a private jet to get from one place to another.”
Calgary lawyer Julia Turnbull signed up for B & R’s walking tour of New Zealand last year. “I would say it’s worth what they’re charging. Their guides do the whole trip by themselves the week before. They do every hike. They stay in every place. They connect with everyone so that nothing goes wrong. They know if the trail is muddy and what the conditions are. No other touring company does that and it’s extremely expensive, as you can appreciate.”
Last week, Butterfield & Robinson boosted the price of the Indochina Grand Journey from $52,000 to $59,000. If you’re travelling solo, add another $5,000 for the single supplement.