I’m a luxury guy; I think I always have been. Travel is of course great in its own right, but when coupled with high-end perks it can be transformed into an extraordinary experience. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend your life savings to enjoy these benefits though. I’m a firm believer that what makes a luxury experience remarkable are the small details and the level of service. Sure, high thread count sheets don’t hurt either, but what you remember years later is how the trip made you feel, and that’s the great benefit of luxury travel. There are ways everyone can experience first class travel once in a while however, it just takes a little planning and flexibility. Just keep in mind, affordable luxury isn’t about getting amazing experiences for no money. It’s about enjoying luxury experiences at a more moderate rate and in ways that are accessible to those of us NOT in the top one-percent. I won’t tell you how to score free first class seats on Singapore Airlines, but I will help you get a great business class seat for less than what you’d pay in coach.
1. Set your priorities and stick to them – The luxury experience is defined in different ways by different people. Some people can’t imagine ever flying in coach and still others prefer high end hotels. There are many aspects to a luxury experience, but to make it more affordable set your priorities. For me, hotels and activities are the most important. I am always willing to spend a little more for a better hotel or a better room, it’s just the kind of traveler that I am. I also truly enjoy remarkable, once in a lifetime experiences. These activities can be expensive though, so I cut back in other areas. I am not a high-end consumer of food, I’m just not. I prefer simple, street food to a 17-course tasting menu. So when I travel I save a lot of money by not eating expensive meals, money I then put towards my experiences and hotels. Whatever your priorities are, identify them and plan accordingly. The entire trip doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall luxury, although that’s not a bad thing, so pick and choose which aspects of your trip are important to upgrade.
2. Miles, points and perks – My very first luxury travel experience several years ago was made possible entirely thanks to travel related points and miles. For two years I hoarded every point, sought out new ways to acquire more and in general was obsessed with them. But my obsessive-compulsive accumulation paid off. We left Washington, DC in business class on Air France, stopped for a couple of days in Paris before arriving in Bangkok. It was my first long-haul business class experience and I was hooked. While in Bangkok we used Marriott Rewards points to book a suite at a riverside resort where we were treated like absolute kings. There is nothing better than hospitality in Asia and my points had transformed us from regular guests to sudden VIPs. Our other flights and hotels were all high-end and all paid for using points and miles. Sure there’s a cost to them in their accumulation and you do have to pay a couple of hundred bucks to redeem them, but ultimately we enjoyed a $25,000 trip of a lifetime for less than $1,000 out of pocket, including on the ground expenses. These reward programs are your best way to fast track to first class comfort and you don’t have to fly every week to get there. Hotels and airlines offer a variety of ways to accumulate more points that don’t involve flying, including credit card offers. It may take a few years but believe me, the payoff is well worth the temporary hassles.
3. Time of Year – Arguably one of the most important factors both in the cost and enjoyment of your trip is the time of year in which you travel. I’ve always been an off-season traveler, mostly because I get very frustrated with large crowds. I don’t want to spend an hour waiting in the hot summer sun along with several thousand strangers. That just doesn’t appeal to me. As I’ve gotten older I’ve also noticed a luxury benefit to off-season travel however. Flights are cheaper, it’s easier to find great seats and booking award miles isn’t the chore that in-season redemption can be. Also hotels feature more sales and it’s easier to score an upgrade from a standard room to a larger junior suite or better. Plus, off-season travel really is much more enjoyable. The lack of lines and annoying tourons is itself a luxury experience.
4. Where you stay matters – As I said, I’m a luxury hotel guy, I love them. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of exhalation when you open that door and find a private oasis. In my opinion though it’s not just the pretty room that matters, it’s the service, location and attention to detail. That’s why you can have a luxury experience without being a Silicon Valley millionaire. A great example I routinely give is the Four Seasons Lanai. Say you want to stay at a luxurious hotel in Hawaii, but don’t want to pay a fortune, then this is the place for you. To compare, over the same dates the Four Seasons Wailea on Maui costs $745 for a standard room, but the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele on Lanai starts at only $269 per night. You still get the remarkable Four Seasons service and quality and you’re still in Hawaii but you’re paying a fraction of the cost. Better yet, the Lodge is almost always listed in the top 100 hotels in the world, so it’s not as if you’re slumming it. That’s a significant cost savings and you still get your luxury experience. What does this tell us? Well, it shows that we need to be creative and flexible when we plan travel. Identify the hotel you want to patronize and if it’s out of your budget, find a way to replicate the experience for less. Whether it’s a sister property, a boutique hotel or even a high-end short-term vacation rental, there are many ways to enjoy a luxury lodging experience without breaking the bank.
5. Deals and specials – Everyone wants to score a good deal, even the most affluent amongst us. Everyone works hard for his or her money and no one wants to spend more than they have to. At the same time, scanning the variety of booking sites can be confusing and frustrating, so that’s why you need to sign up for special deals. First, visit and follow Airfarewatchdog.com. This site and social media presence looks for the best flight deals every day and what they find is simply amazing. Set up your notification parameters and hope for the best! Airlines always offer deals, but they can be hard to find which is why Airfarewatchdog is so important. Also be sure to sign up for newsletters from your favorite web sites, airlines and hotels. Sometimes they only announce these deals through their newsletters and since many are limited time offers, it’s important to be amongst the first to know about them. This also means that you need to be somewhat flexible in your vacation planning. Identify several weeks that are convenient to travel instead of a narrow range of dates and if possible, be prepared to leave on last minute vacations if the right deal comes along.
No matter how you travel regularly, there are always ways to introduce luxury aspects into your trip, whether it’s a suite at the Ritz-Carlton or a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley. With a little planning and creativity you can enjoy the perks of affordable luxury and take your trip to the next level.