Presented by Wheels Up
One of the best things about travel is getting to experience new things: new environments, new adventures, new people. But over the past year, we’ve had to minimize exposure to the unfamiliar. These days, we move through the world in pods and bubbles for the sake of safety and comfort. We’re leaning toward privacy in every part of our lives—at home, at work, and even in travel.
When we think of “private travel,” we often imagine the most over-the-top, extravagant trips. But there’s a significant gray area between buying out a resort in French Polynesia for friends and family, and bumping knees with a seatmate in economy class. Customizable and small-group experiences are available at nearly every price point, and the options are only growing in number and quality.
“Every service provider across the hospitality ecosystem is thinking about [private travel experiences,]” says Luis Vargas, CEO and founder of travel operator Modern Adventure, especially as borders slowly reopen and leisure travel resumes. “People want to be in smaller groups and with people that they know.”
But even before the pandemic struck, private travel offered opportunities to see the world more intimately—whether through after-hours workshop tours or home visits with local families all over the world. “That cross-cultural exchange, that intimacy, it’s really powerful,” Vargas says. “And private travel is not just for the people for whom budget is no object.”
It can look like VIP days at Disney World with door-to-door service and private photo ops with park characters, or a private tour of the Museum of Modern Art (once those resume) at its emptiest hours. Customizing your visit to fit your needs can also help you maximize your time while traveling, and can often take an educational or entertainment experience—one that might otherwise be rushed and uncomfortable—to the next level. Your kid could have a long chat with Mickey Mouse; you could ask a docent to explain the futurism movement for you in detail, or inquire, unselfconsciously, whether van Gogh really did cut off his ear.
Or maybe it means a weekend with those you love: You could rent out a cozy bed-and-breakfast and treat yourself to some New England charm or Southern hospitality. Large groups might look to small boutique hotels offering buyouts. Spending thousands of dollars a night on accommodations sounds more reasonable when you’re splitting it with another family or two—especially if it comes with a pool.
Private travel moments don’t have to happen far from home or on a bucket-list trip, either. Consider a private boat charter on the Hudson for an afternoon, or a five-hour VIP safari at the San Diego Zoo. (Booking these experiences also offers a tangible way to support businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic, especially if they’re local to you.) And those same activities might even inspire your next dream trip: A multi-day private tour through Washington’s wine country could someday turn into a visit to the vintners of Argentina.
These days, there are even ways to book yourself onto a private trip where the planning has been done for you: travel companies like Trafalgar and Travelsphere offer multi-stop itineraries that cover food, lodging, and activities (and sometimes flights). Gather a big enough group, and you can pick a private group tour, then customize it to your tastes. For more intimate groups, services like GetYourGuide or Airbnb Experiences offer single-day experiences that you and your companions can easily book out, like a cooking class for six with a pastry chef in Paris or a solo sunset sail off the coast of Barcelona.
Of course, if the planning (and corralling friends and family) feels like too much, you can always enlist a travel specialist to fulfill your dreams—while keeping your desire for seclusion in mind. “We have the relationships and knowledge to make the trip special for our clients,” says Ilana Silverman, a travel advisor at New York–based agency Embark Beyond. A skilled travel fixer can help book coveted corner rooms or help figure out how to convert function rooms into a family lounge; they can even work with hotels to keep part of the property all to yourselves. And they’re pros at curating itineraries, so you can sit back and enjoy, say, a private horseback tour in the Dominican Republic without worrying about the finer details. “Having a dedicated travel agent will not only inspire new ideas,” says Silverman, “but will also make it easier to change plans and adapt to any new rules and regulations.” As the world continues to figure out what travel now looks like, such peace of mind is invaluable.
Private travel doesn’t have to define an entire experience, either. It can also improve the little moments between departure and arrival: resting at an airport lounge on a layover, calling a hotel concierge for reservations in a city where you don’t speak the language, arranging for a car service to pick you up from the airport. Personalized attention and tailored hospitality can make all the difference on a trip. These extra elements elevate the parts of traveling that feel like a chore into chances to be cared for, giving you more precious time with your travel companions—or with yourself. These experiences, whether big or small, can add a new dimension to your adventures, making the return to travel that much sweeter. —Matt Ortile
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Travel upgrades that make your trip feel private
“Private travel” isn’t just for celebs and CEOs—and treating yourself can turn even the most mundane tasks into moments of ease, fun, and relaxation. Here are some indulgences all travelers can score without burning through the vacation budget.
Relax in a lounge, even when flying economy
Many airlines like Alaska or American sell day passes to their clubs directly, or through a third party like LoungeBuddy—no premium ticket or elite status necessary. And paying for international lounge networks like No1 or Plaza Premium can feel like scoring a slice of first class for yourself, especially during off-peak hours (hello, 4 a.m. layovers).
Use a chauffeur service to get around town
See a city in style by hiring a car and driver by the hour or day. Beyond airport transfers, chauffeurs can save you the hassle of navigating a subway or shepherding your family into multiple cabs or ride-shares—and who doesn’t want to glimpse a brand-new destination at street level? Many services like Blacklane and 8rental also offer day trips (think, from Manhattan to the Hamptons, or even Naples from Rome). And sometimes, drivers even double as guides who can show you a local slice of life.
Book private tours—especially for popular tourist sites
Many tourist attractions offer private tour packages: At Universal Studios, a VIP tour gets you backstage access and the privilege of skipping long lines; at the Vatican, a guided tour can get you into parts of the grounds normally closed off to visitors. By getting in with a pro—whether through the attraction directly, or a third-party company like CityWonders or Viator—it can feel like any place is all yours to enjoy. At the very least, you’ll be able to make the most of your visit, since you won’t waste time waiting to buy tickets or deciphering maps.
Enlist the help of a concierge
Let a hotel concierge take care of you—especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion. They can often arrange event tickets, restaurant reservations, and other experiences you may not be able to snag yourself. (Don’t forget to tip!) Even at home, a concierge might be available to you through certain credit cards; American Express is famous for their Centurion concierge, but World Elite Mastercards and Visa Signature cards also offer top-rate concierges. —M.O.
Editor’s note: Please check local restrictions and guidelines before traveling.
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