There are lots of books and services and websites you can go to that will help you tour as cheaply as possible. The suggestions in these sources range from going on trips that are as inexpensive as possible and consist of touring by purchasing the equivalent of a Euro Pass and taking a back pack with no fixed itinerary to a more expensive but still relatively cheap do-it-your-self investigation of the destinations, travel reservations, and sleeping accommodations for your trip. For those who are not so adventurous, local travel agents can assist with these travel planning chores or, if you don't want to be bothered with any of the logistics, one can choose to book onto a prepackaged tour which includes all of these features.
Touring is big business and, although travel entails some inconveniences, it caters to people who want to go farther afield from their home base and take their vacation in places in more distant lands. A large number of present day travelers are from a demographic known as the "Baby Boomers". Many of these people are reaching or have reached their retirement age and are looking to touring as something they always wanted to do. Carol and I have bumped into hoards of these people all over the world. Many will want to travel frugally. On the other hand, numerous of these retirees have the wherewithal to travel in comfort. Consequently, this article is looking at the travelers for whom money is not the principal concern in their touring plans. Those who want to travel first class all the way. For these people, what is the best way for a couple without children to tour for sightseeing purposes?
At one time traveling first class was epitomized by the Grand Tour which meant private carriages, private coach compartments on trains, luxury hotels, and first cabin on ocean liners. Today the concept of first class connotes similar accommodations; first class on a plane, or private jet, owner's cabin on a cruise ship, private chauffeured auto (with a private guide) and the best suite in a hotel. But then, as now, the term "best" varied greatly in terms of what travel possibilities and accommodations might be available in the country being visited, the accommodations and transportation options available and the skill taken in making reservations. Although even a first class tour might be prepackaged, the "tour" is typically littered with service and attention to comfort.
My wife and I had travelled extensively for most of our professional lives. As a couple or individually we have visited every Continent and most of the "must see" locations on the globe. When Carol and I retired we both had hundreds of thousands of miles on Star Alliance which we could use to upgrade our tickets. We decided to travel extensively for several years to use these miles and to take advantage of them while out our physical abilities allowed us to enjoy the trips.
Carol and I travel first class with or without mileage. There are several types of travel arrangements we have tried. The first was hiring a travel company to plan custom trips. The second were private jet tours; both of these trips were on TCS & Starquest Airlines. The third were a couple of river cruises which were part of a Custom tour and a luxury line cruise aboard Seabourn Lines. The early tours were booked with A&K and were designed to give us a quick but comprehensive view of the Continents. The trips included tours across China, Australia, South America and Africa. The private jet tours were "Around the World" and "Indigenous Peoples". Our only cruise (outside of river cruises that were part of other trips, which shared many of the same features), was from Venice to Istanbul.
In this article we will take the experiences of these travels and, by using our experiences, paint a picture of the ways that one is able to pursue luxury travel and address the question of which of the various methods is "best".
Before going on to discuss our impressions of the pros and cons of each of these types of touring, let's look at the comparative cost of each type of travel choice. All of the types of touring we discuss have in common the necessity of getting somewhere to begin the tour. So for all trips, the journey to a city either to begin a custom tour, to get on the private jet, or to board the , which were similar is equivalent for all travel types. The same is true of the cost of the journey from the last place the tour goes, back to our starting point of Los Angeles. First class airfares are pricy today. For example, some typical first class airfares from Los Angeles, California (ignoring the savings of using miles, if available) on Star Alliance to a few sites can range from $5,000 round trip per person to Washington, D.C., $18,000 round trip each to London, and $19,000 to Melbourne round trip, $17,000 round trip per person to Hong Kong, $23,000 round trip each to Beijing.
Added to these "start-off" and return costs are the costs of the various types of tours themselves. We are going to assume a 21 day tour, pretty close to our travel tolerance and the length of most of our journeys. For a custom tour you would have to figure daily hotel costs (although the most expensive hotels in the world can go for tens of thousands a night our rooms were around $1,000 and up in major cities - as an extreme, the room in the Burj Al Arab in Dubai was about $2,000 a night). The costs also included three meals a day in the hotel or a high-end restaurant, hiring a driver and guide to get you to and from the airport and to carry-out the tour of each area, and any in-country air travel (8-10 stops). On the average these trips cost us $1,500 to $1700 per person per day.
The next least expensive of the touring options we experienced is the cruise. The Seabourn cruise we took cost in the neighborhood of $2000 per person per day for one of the best cabins on the ship and included the hiring of private tour guides in various ports. Because our experience with cruising was so limited, we priced other trips on the same cruise line that went to similar places we did on earlier trips (for example, a South American cruise that had similar stops as our South American custom tour had). These comparisons resulted in costs for the best suite on the ship that were competitive to what we paid for the custom tour.
Finally, the private jet tours. The present cost of the "Around the World" tour for two people is listed at around $ $3100 to $3500 per person per day, including upgrading the rooms when possible. All other costs for the 21 days were included in the tour package. Although this seems relatively high, the costs are not directly comparable with our other trips. If the seven places visited on the Around the World tour were done as a custom tour, (assuming you could get to the various places using first class travel arrangements) the cost of the total trip after paying for food, lodging, guides, and travel would likely be more than the packaged cost for the jet trip. To make this point further, as we did with the cruise, we priced an actual jet trip similar to the one we took in South America and we found that it was competitive with what we had paid for the custom trip to South America. No other jet trip covered similar places to what we did on our other custom tours so we could not make any other comparisons. Interestingly, although the specific stops associated with custom, private jet tours, and a cruise are not completely the same, they were similar and the prices were both competitive with the custom tour we took around South America.
In short, the costs associated with each of these travel modes are not, per se, apt to be the reason one might choose one of them over the other in planning a travel itinerary.
Getting from place to place
We have, individually and together, been flying commercial airlines for business or pleasure for more than five decades. Except that the jets are faster than props were to get to the same places, there is little in the current commercial airline industry to brag about. Although I will admit that it has been years since I have been tossed about as the plane flies through squall or thunder storm (an experience to be missed), the fun parts of flying have evaporated. Gone are the days of the piano bar in the upstairs of the 747. The seats are more cramped (even in first class), the flights are jammed and less frequent, the check-in experience is horrific (think TSA). With the loss of the postal subsidy, the airlines had to make it on their own. Recently, this has not been a very profitable or successful business. In fact, at present no matter how much you are willing to pay it is not possible to make the experience of commercial air travel less painful.
With this said, it is important to remember that every tour will require some commercial air travel to get to the place that the tour starts. Typically you arrive at the terminal in a taxi or limo one to two hours early, depending on whether the flight is International or not, and offload your luggage. Carol and I travel with one large bag each which we check, a small bag for over-seat storage and a pack which stays with us in the seat area. The large bag is checked luggage when we check in for the flight. In recent years we have taken to shipping the large bags to the first point on our itinerary. Someone comes to our house and picks the bags up and we see them again when we arrive at our point of departure for the tour (we do the same in reverse when we end the tour and ship them home again).
To make things easier and less hectic at the airport, if it is the start of a tour, we have gotten our ticket for the first leg of the journey by email however we still have to have our passports checked at the ticket desk if it is an international flight. But this pre-check-in procedure has lots of room to go horribly wrong. For example, before our departure on a recent flight to London, we were checked in by e-mail and pre-boarded for the Heathrow flight. Just before the flight we were told that we were no longer checked-in to our seats but that we had to check-in at the airport counter. This has never happened to us before. When we called and asked why, five people gave us five different (and inaccurate) answers. In the end, the problem turned out to be that United switched aircraft and the seats we had no longer existed so our earlier check in was not valid.
After checking in we proceed to security. There is usually a first class line at security which means that we get to a person who checks our ID and boarding pass somewhat faster than other passengers. But from that point on, everyone is back in the same queues. We take out our computers, small bag of toiletries that are liquid or gels, take off our shoes, belts, everything out of our pockets, and remove our jackets. These items are placed in containers and, along with our carry-on bags put through a scanner. We proceed, stocking footed, through a scanners ourselves. In my case, because I have a knee replacement and set off the magnetic scanners, I get patted down by a guard. In some airports, the scanners have been upgraded to a type of x-ray machine that does away with the need for pat-downs because of my knee but is replaced by a pat-down because of my suspenders which are plastic. These suspenders were chosen deliberately so as to not set off the magnetic scanners, but they do invoke the x-ray machine. If you have something in your bag that rises to the level of suspicious or are one of the random persons chosen for more detailed scrutiny, you and your bags are taken aside for a more careful pat-down and bag search to check for explosives.
A variation of this procedure awaits us every time we board a commercial plane anywhere throughout the tour. In some countries there is an added wrinkle; your large bag is not just taken from you at check-in and scanned but awaits you on the tarmac to be identified as yours before it is loaded on the plane on the theory that only if you are willing to fly with the luggage, they are. Someone has not been reading the newspapers about suicide bombers.
We now proceed to the United or First class lounge to await our departure. In some countries there is neither so we wait with everyone else. When boarding time comes, we proceed down the mobile ramp to the plane. In some airports, there is no ramp so passengers are bussed or walk to the plane. This may require climbing down stairs, carrying your luggage to the bus and climbing up stairs to the plane, carrying your luggage. We then stow our carry-on bags in the overhead (if the crew has not used up all the room first) and take our seats. Remember, this is first class. On some aircraft configurations, bulkhead seats have insufficient leg-room and the last row seats often do not recline. The isle seats often have electronic equipment where your feet go.
The fates do not always allow a departure, even when it has been so difficult to get to that point. Take the trip to Argentina for example.
Although Carol speaks some Spanish, it was not sufficient to allow us to be completely free of asking for help for directions. Our stop in Argentina consisted of two side trips to Isuzu Falls and Mendoza and a connecting stop to Patagonia. Each of these legs required that we fly from Argentina to one of the two side trips and back to the central hub. So we were dependent on the quality of service at the hub. On the
first side trip to Isuzu Falls the plane pulled out from the gate and stopped dead on the runway. We sat there until a truck pulled up and some people boarded the plane. Then a bus came alongside and off-loaded the passengers and returned them to the terminal. We were put at a gate and told to wait. And we waited and waited with no information. A couple of hours later some fellow passengers came to the holding area and told us that the plane to the Falls was loading at Gate 13. As we were proceeding to that Gate, the loudspeaker announced that the substitute plane for our Flight was loading at Gate 9. The plane took off from Gate 13.
On arrival the march from the plane to exit the terminal is the reverse of the boarding. Typically, the landing is at a major hub airport and it is at that airport that we go through local customs and passport control. These hub airports tend to be huge. Getting from the plane to the street or to meet a connecting flight is apt to require a good deal of walking or even a tramway or bus if the connecting flight or customs is in another terminal. We leave the plane with our carry-on baggage and proceed to passport control. Because we are foreign nationals coming into the country, the lines are typically long. Passing control, we go on to claim our checked luggage. If we are disembarking at this point, we also go through customs. If we are going on to another destination, the luggage is checked by customs, rescanned and loaded back into baggage handling.
The US Customs Service, realizing this process is a mess has instituted a Global Entry Program which allows its citizens who are frequent travelers into the US to expedite passport and entry back into the US after foreign travel. It took us a couple of hours to fill out the forms. Because the nearest place that we could go is an hour drive away and because the appointment are one half hour apart and because we had to wait an hour and a half to get waited on (with an appointment), the time invested in getting the passes was say, six hours. Remember the pass is only good, as of now, for entry back into the US, any time saving is only dependent upon the relative number of people who have the pass at the time you are getting into the country as the process depends on you scanning your passport, having your fingerprints taken, and filling out a questionnaire. I suspect that the pass will function more as a status symbol then as a time saver.
If we are connecting with another flight we have to go back through security and then make our way back into the terminal to the departing gate. As an example of the transfer process, we recently flew through Frankfort connecting with a flight to Venice. The signs are all in English and the personnel all speak English. This helps us tremendously. Passport control was city blocks away. It was crowded and, when we passed through control, we had to walk still further to re-enter though another security check point. It was also mobbed and the security people were unbelievably slow. The guy at the CRT must have been watching a Soap Opera rather than the x-ray. They had never seen a computer like the one I was carrying so we had to leave the security area and go with a guard to still another check-point where they scanned and checked the computer for chemicals. Then we were escorted back to the security area. Finally after we were totally scanned, we started back to the connecting gate which was all the way back to an area which was as distant from the checkpoint as was where we were we disembarked the first time.
We missed the flight and had to wait three hours for the next flight.
I don't really know how many security, custom, and immigration checks we have been through. However bad as the frequency was, the actual procedure was worse. There also did not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the security checks. In a number of countries the passports and boarding passes were checked several times, often by people who were standing right next to each other. Some airports ran the bags through a scanner; some ran them through a scanner and a few feet further on them through another scanner. Interestingly, more often than not no one looked at the CRT attached to the scanner. I guess the purpose of the scan was to give the bags a ride.
In summary, every time we have to move from one tour location to the next via commercial air we had to plan on taking an hour or so to get to the airport, allow up to two hours check-in time, hours of flying time, an hour or so to get our bags (and go thru Passport Control if required), and then about another hour to get to the hotel and check-in. So, on the average, our trip experience over the past decade or so, we could plan to spend as much as seven or eight hours commercial airline transit from tour site hotel to tour site hotel each time we went to and from them.
Based on our experiences, the potential for the worst choice of the three methods of travel can be on the custom tour because you are captive of the commercial airlines; often, as we said, a modern torture chamber where travelers experience the self-inflicted indignities of this form of travel noted above: endless security lines, overcrowded club facilities, delays, etc. On the custom tour you have to go from your sleeping accommodations to an airport and back, repeating this seesaw again and again. Having to use commercial airlines today can make portions of, or all of, the whole trip hell. It doesn't even matter if you're flying first class and staying in 5-star hotels.
The private jet set up is better than commercial aviation for airport transit. You still have to use commercial travel to get to the jet to start the trip but from then on, security screening, Customs and Immigration, etc., are relatively painless from port to port because everything is usually handled for you, including filling out the immigration and customs forms. However, some countries do not allow the staff to mass process the Passports but make the traveler stand in line with everyone else. This happened only a couple of times on the two private jet tours we took. We were told it was a reaction to the fact that the tour was private - a reverse snobbery.
The checking of our bags sometimes occurred even when we were going into the country. This was a problem in China when the doctor who was traveling with the group had to horse-up the two large and heavy bags he was traveling with onto a conveyor belt and have them searched. They found drugs in the bags (surprise) and there was a fuss about whether the bags were going to be cleared and whether the doctor was going to be arrested. Did I mention that one of the two scanners broke-down and they had to search every bag by hand that was using that scanner? Leaving the country, the officials made the crew offload every bag on the plane (the large bags had been left aboard and we only took a small bag to the hotel) and arrayed them on the tarmac for inspection. Consequently, we missed our window to see the Taj Mahal which was our next stop and had to fly back to the site the next day (an unexpected benefit of traveling on your own jet). So even in situations where you pay to have the inconveniences of airports paid for, security concerns and national idiosyncrasies can make the trip unpleasant.
As I already mentioned, the private jet only gets you to the nearest big airport. To get to where the sights are it is sometimes necessary to fly a smaller charter plane or go commercial, or take a bus or train, or some combination of those. Recall, the private jet tours let you have a large bag and a small one. Because of the hassle of dealing with the large bags when it is necessary to switch from the private jet and travel by commercial air (for example, in Bhutan only pilots of the national airline can fly into the country because of the mountains and tricky winds), you're limited to a small bag. Let me explain this two bag rule more completely. We travel with two bags, one a large suitcase which holds changes of clothes to accommodate the fact that on the Around the World trip we went from snow to a rainforest in the first week and on to humid Mumbai and then to the Jordan desert. So, for some legs of the trip, we have to abandon the 757 jet we come to think of as home and use only a smaller bag known as a "wheelie". This overhead-bin sized bag, stored in the hold of the plane, plus a carry-on is what we live out of for one to say three days. Amusingly; it becomes a big deal when you can get to your big bag again.
The physical layout of the private jet is really special. The plane is a redesigned 757 with two sets on each side of the plane. These two seats fit in a space that was occupied by three seats in the usual configuration. The seats are large and plush and have ample in-reach storage. There are no restrictions on the use of electronic equipment and, in fact, many of us used the plane ride to charge our camera batteries, iPad and the like.
In short, the experience of using commercial air travel, even as a group and even with professional hand-holding can be less than optimal. Bus travel, and we did a lot of it, is bus travel, even in upscale Greyhounds. So travel by private jet is not a totally accurate description of how you get to the places you've come to see.
The travel method that lessens these indignities is a cruise. As we said, we still had to take commercial air to get to the ship but once aboard you are home for as long as the cruise lasts. You leave the ship and take a bus or private car for a tour and return to the ship. As one fellow passenger on our recent cruise put it, "it's nice to have our hotel move to the sightseeing spots."
In recent years I have joked that my idea of camping is a night at the Hilton. Although we tend to upgrade our rooms when faced with a tour package, the fact is that in some parts of the world the best accommodations available are not all that great. For example, a few years ago when we moved from the East Coast to California we decided to take a road trip across America. Since we were in no particular hurry we spent weeks meandering north to south, east to west across our country and into Canada. We did not make reservations ahead. Although even rural America is not a third world country by any stretch of the imagination, some of the places we stayed and meals we ate were memorable - but not in a good way.
As for sleeping accommodations, both the custom tour and the jet tour provide the first class hotels every night, with an option to upgrade. The cruise has you in your cabin for the duration.
On a custom tour, the travel agent works with us to plan an itinerary that insures we see what we want to see and fills in the time allowed with interesting places to visit in the area. Part of the service is to book us into a hotel. Carol and I not only like a luxury hotel but are game for one that is funky or different. For example, in China when we were going to cruise the Lijiang River we were booked in one such "interesting" hotel. We landed in Guilin at seven P.M. and did not arrive at the hotel until 8:30, because the airport was south of the city and the hotel was 25 or so miles north of the city. The flight plans were changed by the local travel agent just before we took off to China, so a planned two day stay-over so we could enjoy the amenities offered by the museum-hotel turned into a very early rising on the second day to get the only plane we could take in order to meet the Yangtze River cruise boat, our next port of call. No time to really enjoy the unique environment.
The hotel we were in was called the Hotel of Modern Art and it is truly unique. It was as if we were staying in the museum garden on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The problem is, as we said, the hotel was waaay out of town and on the wrong side to get to the airport. We squeezed in walking the grounds for a couple of hours early in the morning before we had to get back to the airport to take advantage of the site and the sculpture. The buildings were ultra-modern and the sculpture were quite extraordinary and everywhere. Luxury and funky but inconvenient.
On the whole however, because the accommodations are an integral part of the tour, the accommodations typically are planned into the experience just like the sights themselves. Usually we upgrade or ask for a suite if we are not booked in one as a part of a tour. This tends to give us a room to sleep and a separate room to read or use the computer. It is hard to believe that the term "suite' could mean so many things. It can range from a bedroom with an adjoining sitting area that has a desk (and, of course, an Internet connection) to a layout that looks like it is a functioning apartment. The larger suites have a bedroom, two baths or a bath and a half, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. Sometimes the latter three are combined in one Great Room. It always mystified me why someone who was touring would want to have a dining room. The baths are often over-the-top. One place had a good size exercise room off the bath.
Further, Carol is a view freak and so we have been known to visit a couple of rooms, if they are available, and pick one with the best view. The more expensive the suite, the more candy, fruit, and Champaign is awaiting us. In Burj Al Arab the suites are over-the-top. I'm not sure the
accommodation should even be called a suite. A "comfortably sized home" would be more like it. Our (for lack of a better word) suite is on two floors, large living room and office on the first floor and bedroom on the second (complete with a mirrors on the ceiling). The interior decoration colors are wild, but understandable if a lot of their clientele are from basically sand-colored places. For example, there's gold on picture frames and the multiple TVs, plus red and sapphire/navy colored sofas and chairs, with accents of floral and geometric fabrics that have blasts of yellow, purple, etc.
Another class of sleeping accommodation are the hotels that were really destination resorts which had rooms that even sported their own swimming pools. One such place was Al Maha, started by the president of Emirates Airlines on his desert property. That
original holding was added to by the ruling family, and the reserve now covers 22,500 hectares or 5% of country of Dubai which features safaris of the animals preserved on the property. The rooms are stand-alone tent/cottages that are supposed to resemble desert encampments. Our residence "tent" included a big central great room and a large bedroom to each side, as well as our own private pool looking out to the desert. Another was a resort on the outskirts of Marrakech. It outranks anything I have seen yet in the world. What's pictured here (click to enlarge) is an immense reflecting pool around which extraordinary guest rooms are built - - the size of small homes.
On the private jet trip, the hotels are similar to the ones we would choose on our custom tours and come with the price of the tour. The hotel in Cusco, for example, was a small museum (it was formerly a monastery) with an extensive collection of Peruvian pottery
and other artifacts and superb rooms. In Cappadocia, the hotel is again really unique. It is built in one of the larger volcanic upheavals and is a reconstruction of an earlier dwelling. It is quite splendid and somewhat unbelievable. It is called the Museum Hotel because every suite is decorated with antiques from all over the world. Our room was a three story suite with the bedroom upstairs, a sitting room on the main floor and a huge bath a story down. We also had a rose garden out front, which is on a terrace that overlooks a large area of these volcanic cone homes.
The quality of the accommodation depends on where you are. As we said, we like staying in top quality rooms so in both the custom and the jet tours we get considerable variety and often a neat, offbeat room. On the cruise you give up the possibility of staying in spas or converted castles or other unique places. If you are in one of the better suites you are in clean, if utilitarian, rooms all the time. On the ship, therefore, you unpack and only repack at the end of the cruise. Carol hated the furniture in our ship suite. It was 1950's modern; had stark and not very comfortable furnishings; a dining room table and chairs, a desk, two sofas, and a coffee table made up the great room furniture. There was a kitchenette, a bath and a half and a bedroom. Upscale motel.
On a custom tour that expects the travel agent finding accommodations and tour guides, places to eat are part of the experience. At the most rudimentary level, the guide is expected to find a place for lunch that is clean and the food safe. Many tours go way
beyond this. In Beijing lunch was in a restaurant off the Western (at least) tourist track. The wait staff, young men and women, all wore Ming Dynasty costumes as they served at tables set out among the gardens, around the pond, and in small and elaborately decorated "private" dining rooms, one of which we had. It felt like we were caught up on stage at a Chinese opera. The women wore shoes with 4" platforms in the middle of the shoes - like small stilts. Most of the garden was paved with cobbles, making walking hard under the best of circumstances, let alone on 4" stilts. In Darwin our guide prepared lunch for us at a campsite. In Oman, we ate dinner on the beach, under the stars and had a wait staff just service the tent. Very romantic.
In general, in a large majority of the places we travelled, the hotels were many starred or we were in a high-end resort. On the other hand, the opportunities to dine outside the hotel in gourmet restaurants were often limited. Before we go further, maybe we should make an attempt to define gourmet. To us a dining experience that can be called gourmet is only partly about the food. A gourmet meal includes the ambience, the presentation, the service, the wine; in short, the whole atmosphere that surrounds the food. These atmospheres change by culture and ultimately by individual tastes. Fortunately, the hotels themselves usually featured gourmet or at least fine restaurants. The best steak house in Mendoza, for example, was at our hotel and the restaurants in the Burj Al Arab were like everything else in the place, top drawer.
On the private jet, you travel with a chef so your lunches are a part of the catered-to experience if you are in the air at this time and the evening meals are arranged by the tour and overseen by the chef. But these evening meals are special. In contradistinction to being personally catered to as one is on a custom tour, the jet trips had 80 or so travelers to deal with. The meals were uniformly good and there was a choice among entrees. There were a large number of buffets. The chefs worked hard to ensure that the food
quality was superior to the typical "events" dinners that are served at charity, fraternal, and political functions everywhere. Because the tourists all ate together and at the same time, the dinners therefore were opportunities for events. . In Mongolia, there were dancers, throat singers and acrobats. On Easter Island and Samoa, we had native dancers. Sometimes, these dinners, if there was time, would be in a special place. In Egypt, the tour rented Luxor and lighted it up, added music, and all in all provided a stunning setting for dinner. Walking among the columns and statues at night, with expert lighting helping to create a really exceptional and mystical mood, all made for an unparalleled experience. At a festive party, rarely if ever does a hush descend by common if unspoken agreement, but that's what happened as all of us walked through the temple self-silenced and completely amazed. In India, we watched elephant polo. In Indonesia, shadow puppets
Dinners on a cruise are different from either of the above. You are not catered to individually unless you prefer to eat using room service. There are several opportunities for meals throughout the day on the ship, ranging from snacks to gourmet "tasting suppers". Because the ratio of staff to guest is so large, the service at the table is as good as in any restaurant. The staff remembers your preferences for wine, food, coffee by the second time you order. There are several places on the ship where you could dine almost at any time ranging from casual dining on the decks, to smorgasbord arrays, to dining in a regular dining room, to dining in a more elegant dining room.
Lunch and breakfast are buffet presentations. However, each day the theme for the buffet lunch changes and the chef lays out a variety of dishes based on that theme; Chinese, Italian, Mexican, etc. The dishes are enriched by the chef's shopping each day in the local markets. At all meals you can eat and drink as much or as little as you want. The cruise allows you to eat in port if you choose for a change, usually for lunch or an early dinner. Entertainment was not provided with the dinner as everyone does not eat at the same time or in the same place but night club style singing and dancing was provided every night after dinner.
Service is one of the things you pay for on a high-end tour. The more service, the more expensive the tour. As we said at the beginning, people have been touring around the world on a budget for decades. Carol and I, in years past, are no exception. In the pre-internet days, travel offices were a necessity for scheduling airline trips. These same offices could also fax requests for hotel bookings. These services did not cost the traveler anything as the airlines and hotels paid the bills. Today, for custom tours the hotels and airlines still foot the bill but more money is made by the travel agents in selling pre-packaged tours.
Our travel agents through the years have spent considerable time with us planning a custom trip. Carol and I pick an area of the globe we want to travel to and spend months with the agent planning the tour. The agents we have dealt with for our trips are widely travelled themselves or have contacts that have been to the areas we are interested in. They make suggestions as to place, time, and sights for us and, when we pick each stage of the itinerary, have them book our reservations. We have used the same agency for decades.
We have already discussed the trials and tribulations of commercial airline travel. When you arrive at a country, the plane is supposed to be met by a driver and guide. If you are lucky, the guide is permitted to accompany you to baggage claim. Usually he is not so we have to hire a porter to get our bag off the carousel and into the hands of the driver who is meeting us. If it is the first time we are in a city we often ask the driver and guide to take us on a drive through the city so we can get a feel for the country. We then go to the hotel and are checked in. We make arrangements at that time to be picked up for our first tour. Service in the hotel upon arrival is about the same the world over, typically great in the hotels we stay in.
One additional service we have found useful is a service available in some countries which is the assistance of a specialist who goes to the airport with you and helps you through the local check-in process.
The sightseeing service in a private car around the world is distinguished only by the personality of the guide. Some are teachers who guide as a part-time job. All are well versed and most take great pride in their country. In our tour of Northern Africa we took a four day ride across the Atlas Mountains. Our guide Hassan, who is part Berber, took pains to point out differences in the various Berber tribes (colors the women wore and how they draped their veils, for example). He also showed up every day in a new native costume and was
clearly a friend and colleague of those we passed on the tour. He would tuck us in at lodging at night and go to visit one of his relatives nearby. It was his interest and knowledge that made the trip more enjoyable. Later on in the same trip we met another character. Our guide who was also our driver was a cousin of the man who picked us up at the airport (who was later to the pickup because he had go wash his car before he picked us up), was a stitch. He drove like he was on a wild horse, talked all the time, stopped during the tour to give his mother (who tends a large goat herd) a couple of bottles of water, and generally gave us a most personable, interesting tour of Oman. Both of these men went out of their way to bring us to places to purchase items we wanted with an eye toward quality and price; fossils, or frankincense, or saffron to name a couple such items. In every case the places were not tourist stops but where the tourist shops went to get their goods. At the other end of the spectrum, we have had guides who were not all that familiar with the area or the history of their country. In Dubai we hired a guide so we could have a sail around the famous Palm Island which had literally been created out of the sea. He was late and we were rushed to meet the sailboat captain who was going to take us on the sail. Just before we got to the docking area he told us that we had to have our passports with us because the local authorities checked passports of people who were under sail on the Gulf. If the passports were missing, the parties were taken to jail and that it was difficult and expensive to get out again. He did not tell us to have our passports available because "he forgot".
But service is not only of the type that somebody does something for you so you won't have to do it yourself. It is also of the type that comes with experience and knowledge. In addition to the personality of the guide and their knowledge of the area and willingness to share it with you, the tour companies, through their local representatives, searched out places to go and things to do that made the trip special. For example, in Guilin and Beijing we toured in a ferry which was rented for us alone: on Gallipolis we went to the islands on a private boat and were able to visit islands where we were the only people on the island. In most locales we were brought into tourist attractions before they were opened or, at least, did not have to wait in line to enter but went in with our own guide. In Xian we were the only people in the museum with the clay soldier statutes in the first Han emperor's tomb. We trout fished on a private boat in both Bariloche and in New Zealand. We both love the hustle and bustle of markets as one of the places that are not "touristy" and are frequented by the people who live in the area and so weave these into our tour whenever we can. In short, custom tours mean that although they often cover the same attractions as a packaged tour might, they are enhanced by experiences that are designed for you alone - often on the spur of the moment.
On the jet tour the style of service that is of the "doing for you" variety is very complete. Every day is planned with meticulous detail to ensure that the annoyances are kept to a minimum. You are transported, fed, bedded, and awaken with military-like precision. This is the good news. Unfortunately, it is also the bad news. Moving 80 plus people takes time and the planners have to take into consideration that somebody is going to be late or somebody will not be able to keep up. So, unavoidably, there are a lot of
"hurry up and wait" experiences. Further, although the in-flight service is first class, it is in-flight service. The crews are as friendly and a helpful as they can be. We had a delightful English cabin crew who would often greet us in the costume of the country we were in and otherwise put on delightful little mini-shows while we were flying. They were also able to avoid the dry and repetitive departure safety talk by making comments such as, "The cabin will be dimmed for takeoff-to enhance the skin tone of your flight crew." Or, "Put on your rubber duckie and pull the tail" (this of course was the yellow life vest and inflator pull). Or, "If the oxygen mask descends, first stop screaming and then …" And, bless their bright pink uniforms, none of them was bothered by the odd purse or carryon bag left on the floor (not under the seat) during takeoff or landing.
Availability of specialized services was a real plus. For example, the jet travels with its own doctor, a professional photographer, cook, and an area expert who gives lectures on the country we were going to while we travelled. Other seemingly small program components were unexpected but gratefully received. For example, all of our immigration forms and departure cards were filled out by the staff in advance. All we had to add was our signature. In each country, we were given two stamped postcards. It is remarkable how much time can be spent tracking down stamps for postcards. In each country we were given the equivalent of $10 U.S. in small change. That came in handy and saved us from having to stand in line to change money.
On a cruise, the ship provides everything. The ship is your hotel, your travel method, and your dining facility. Seabourn's service level is over-the-top. There are some 360 staff aboard to service about 450 passengers. As in the TV Show CHEERS, everyone knows your name. Your wine glass is never empty (as with the food, it is in the price of the fare). Because a cruise captures you for the majority of every day the crew can do things to make the time more interesting. There is little of the waiting to be "transported to a particular site" time.
In general, the service is uniformly excellent regardless of which type of tour you are on. After all, that is what you are paying for. The difference is in the amount of service provided by the tour itself.
Although we are discussing this topic last, this is what touring is all about. In some way, every place we travelled for the first time was a new experience for us. Some of these experiences were of places or peoples that we had heard about or seen in magazines or on T.V. but never seen in person. Others places are experiences that are not so unique. For example, on our trip across America I talked about earlier, the country is peopled by individuals who look and speak somewhat alike but the cities and countryside changes dramatically. More to the point, in our recent cruise the cities we stopped in were not so different from one another. During the first week the buildings were colored terra-cotta with red tile roofs. During the second week, white boxes. Most of the islands or towns had similar histories and conquerors. All had an excellent harbor. There were ruins of Greek and Roman cities everywhere. Influences of Turks and Venetians in the architecture on the buildings. They all grow grapes and olives. Because of the propinquity and shared history, the experiences on the tour resembled a trip across America as opposed say a trip across Western Europe. Contrast this to the cultural changes experienced by the jet tours where each stop was apt to bring us in touch with a vastly different culture and landscape with little or no interaction with each other. So variety and uniqueness of experience might be a factor to be considered when planning a tour.
Imagine New York, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Paris, Beijing, Washington, D.C., Istanbul, and Athens to name a few of our world's great cities. Now think of how long you want to spend visiting one of these cities. What constitutes a visit; walking the streets and seeing the life of the city; eating in the restaurants'; driving by or going into the tourist attractions? In short, is taking a picture of the monuments in a place enough? Personally, I would find it difficult to think that it would be possible to "see" any one of the cities above in a part of a day. But, each of these cities has a tour bus service or equivalent to do just that. The depth of experiencing particular stops on the tour (time spent in each place or in a particular place), is another factor to consider.
The jet is clearly the best way to see far flung places, each substantially different from one another, in the shortest period of time. Each day is a brand new experience with little or no overlap from the culture of the day before. Our experience has been that the amount of time spent in each place as a part of the tour was sufficient for us.
On the other hand, on both jet trips, the pace was a killer. Early mornings are followed by later suppers. You become like an abused prisoner who is thankful of his jailor when he doesn't get beaten as hard on a particular day. Many stops are introduced by the guide as being very strenuous" or "difficult" or even "dangerous". I don't recall hearing this rhetoric in the advertisement for the trip. Instead, as was mentioned repeatedly in the last 20 days by our trip leader, these trips were in fact closer to an explorer's expedition. "Expedition" means that despite the private plane and other apparent trappings of luxury travel, both our three week jet tours were a rough and ready, albeit fascinating and ultimately do-able, physical and mental challenge. The custom tour could be set up to visit the same places. However, we never tried to put together our own version of a private jet trip and I suspect that the cost to do so would be more than the private jet tour and take considerably more time to accomplish.
Our custom tours were usually designed to see the sights in a particular part of the globe, mostly contained within a single continent or relatively contiguous space. Consequently, the sights were not as varied as the jet tour but, because we tended to travel across countries on the same continent, the planned stops were more or less unique but only to the extent that a particular part of a continent was distinctive because of the indigenous culture or because of some natural feature of the landscape.
The cruise is apt to be less varied as far as sightseeing goes. You are limited to what the nearest sightseeing area is, say, a night's cruise away or nearby a port that the cruise ship can get to relatively rapidly. Although the towns and villages we saw on our recent cruise in the Mediterranean were different in some particular fashion, they are very similar in general. You are, by definition, limited to coastal or near coastal cities. Because we did not want to spend the whole time cruising, the ports of call were near one another, in this case, one night's sail. If we had thought about it, we would not have expected a great deal of variation in the islands and their ports. In this case, we were interested in trying out a cruise and were interested in seeing that part of the world. The degree of variation in the various stops was not a consideration.
However, Carol wanted to see Istanbul in greater detail so we shifted from the cruise model to the custom tour model with our travel agent for three days. You can choose cruises that are at sea longer between ports or spend more time in a particular port, but in our hypothetical 21 days cruise timeframe, you will see less in the way of destinations.
In summary, there is no "best" way to plan a luxury tour. You are buying different things depending on the type of tour you want. As the saying goes, in some cases it's the journey, in others it's the destination. We travelled for years designing our own tours, sometimes on our own and, in later years, with more and more help from professional travel agents. The sojourn into the jet tours was as much for the type of travel as for the destinations. Same is true of the cruise.
To sum up; dining, defined as the ability to have consistently fine food, is available on all three cruise types. If you like to sample the native restaurants you want the custom tour although sometimes you will be able to eat in port on a cruise. Although the food on the jet tour was very good, you could not eat alone or in a place of your own choosing. The accommodations on the jet and custom tour are similar however, although you can upgrade your accommodations in the place we were staying on the jet tour, you could not pick which place you wanted to stay. The accommodations on the cruise were your stateroom. Service is what the jet tour and the cruise are selling. They go out of their way to treat you as a special guest in every fashion they can. But they are cruises and they share their attention with all of the rest of the people on the cruise with you. On the custom tour you purchase travel service that makes up a tour an item at a time. This service is as good as on either type of tour in most places in the world but the quality is risky.
And so the primary factor that will drive what type of tour you will take is where you want to go. If the places you want to see are all in one country or nearby countries, a custom tour or cruise is possible. If the places are not near a port, the cruise drops out. Hopping large distances we said, depending on areas you want to visit, a cruise or custom tour might also be an option. In any case, if your desire is to see a part of the world, as opposed to particular places in the world, you should check to see if a tour is already put together by jet or cruise line that would meet your needs. And finally, depending on where you want go, cost may not be the factor that decides your mode of travel.
It is unlikely that we will take a jet tour again although the sights we saw and the experience were such that we don't regret the trips we took. We would, even knowing what we know now, have taken the trips when we took them. We looked at another jet trip recently but, after checking on the itinerary, we felt that the grueling pace the airline felt was necessary to make the tour pencil-out for them and the tourist was too much for us to physically take on again. We are looking forward to a trip to Norway and that area of the globe. We are leaning toward a trip that is largely cruising on a luxury line, probably on the same line we took in the Mediterranean, supplemented by a custom tour of surrounding sites.
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