Before we get into the detail of the article, I really want to thank the team here for letting me post here with them. It means a lot to be able to get something published for my Poor As Dirt Website at great site like this.
Holidays by private plane are now much more affordable. Tom Chesshyre sets off in style on a luxury city break to Turkey
Ryanair this is not. Over the speaker system of our Airbus 319 private jet (parked next to the hidden-away Harrods Terminal at Stansted, far from the bustle of budget-airline passengers) the captain begins his announcement. “I trust you are sitting comfortably and have a glass of something,” he says smoothly before informing us of our flying time to Istanbul and letting us know that lunch — with three choices of main course — will be served shortly.
Flight attendants are already distributing pre take-off smoked salmon and caviar canapés as we recline in our leather seats. There is plenty of leg room: an Airbus 319 usually has about 140 seats, but our specially kitted out version comes with just 48. We settle in and toast our superior flying surroundings, looking out across runways to a row of easyJet and Monarch Airlines aircraft (a little smugly, perhaps).
Welcome to how the super-rich travel — my fellow passengers are a mix of entrepreneurial millionaires, chief executives and the generally very well-to-do. It’s a Walter Mitty-style experience on a private jet chartered to fly on a 16-day luxury tour of The Silk Road & Beyond. Only half of the seats from Stansted to Istanbul are taken by customers travelling for the full tour. But a few of us are are just coming to fill the empty berths and stay for a three-day guided tour of Istanbul. Afterwards we’ll be flying back in cattle class to London, while the rest of the group will be joined by others and continue onwards on the Airbus 319 to China, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Georgia and Yalta. The 16-day tour would come to £19,500, with all private jet hops, five-star hotels, food and wine.
The upmarket tour operator Captain’s Choice has begun offering “taster tours” to those who simply want to have a long but luxurious weekend in Turkey’s biggest city. It’s still not cheap by any means, but at less than £3,000, it’s a fraction of the total price, and provides a highly unusual insight into private jet travel and how the other half lives.
And the answer to the latter is: it lives very well indeed. After our jet, which recently flew Bruce Springsteen on tour, hits cruising altitude, the cabin crew is swiftly back in action. My caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and pesto soon arrives, served on a tray with a crisp white cloth, accompanied by artisan bread, perfectly warmed. As a main, I opt for the grilled sea bass with lemon, roasted new potatoes and steamed snow peas. Delicious. I think back to my last sandwich on an easyJet flight, elbows tucked in amid a stag group on the way to Prague. It feels like a long time ago.
A carefully selected New Zealand sauvignon blanc materialises — as does Gary Bartelings, our tour host. He is dapper in a suit and tie, looking like a five-star hotel manager. “This is just a taster tour; our round-the-world trips are £35,000 and last 21 days,” he says. “We take everyone from pub landlords to hedge-fund managers to captains of industry.” Then he goes to the front of the plane to announce a draw to sit in the cockpit as the plane lands. You don’t get that on Monarch.
The three days in Istanbul pass in an otherworldly manner, looked after by Gary and a team of helpers as though we are in a bubble away from the everyday hassles of “regular” tourists. We visit the Hagia Sofia one evening, and the ancient church (now a museum) is specially opened for us so we have the magnificent Byzantine designs all to ourselves. We receive the same exclusive treatment the following night at the Basilica Cistern, where we wander into the subterranean Roman water-world all on our own — somehow strings have been pulled to keep everything open later than usual. In a corner of the cistern, canapés and fine wines are laid on, accompanied by dancers and traditional Turkish music.
It’s almost obscenely OTT, as though we’re part of the entourage on a royal tour.
Other guests consist of millionaire farmers from New Zealand, Channel Island stockbrokers, the owners of a large jazz club chain, property developers… you get the picture. One has brought a butler. In between all the pampered sightseeing there are plenty of chances to mingle. Best tables at best restaurants are reserved. At one, looking across the city’s minarets, I sit next to David and Sandra, who run a Californian bio-tech company and tell me that this is their fourth private jet trip: “We’ve also been to South Korea, the Antarctic, China, Russia.” Nearby, Duncan and Jan, involved in credit-rating in Melbourne, are about to head off to Nambia on safari.
Champagne is usually close at hand. Over a glass of bubbly at the Ritz-Carlton, where we are staying, an inventor of a film-processing technique is soon telling me all about how he booked a cruise to spend New Year’s Eve on the Antarctic peninsula earlier in the year, and intends to visit Everest next. It’s as though I’ve joined the Millionaire Travellers’ Club.
Experts on ancient times are on hand and give talks. Peter Ward, a Silk Road lecturer, tells us how difficult Marco Polo’s crossing would have been, with temperatures at minus 38C in winter. “A little different to our journey tomorrow,” he says: the rest of the tour is heading off on the jet to Kashgar in western China in the morning. It’s a distance of 3,943 kilometres, but it’s peanuts to the private jet set.
We’re not off to Kashgar. We’re off to Stansted, doing it low-cost airline style: crisps and maybe a can of lager. The weekend breakers and I have tasted the “other side” of travel and are flying back. What a bargain — and what a contrast, too.
Need to know: Tom Chesshyre was a guest of Captain’s Choice (captainschoice.co.uk), which has a four-day Highlights of Istanbul tour with a private jet outbound, three nights at the five-star Ciragan Palace Kempinski, all excursions, meals, wine and return flights on BA from £2,975pp. The next trip departs on September 3.
Live like an A-lister without breaking the bank
Try the Queen Mary 2: A transatlantic cruise on Cunard’s iconic ocean liner, where it’s still de rigueur to change for dinner, is high on many people’s travel wish list. It’s surprisingly good value, too, from £949 for a seven-night New York to Southampton crossing from October 28-November 4 in a balcony room, including outward or return transatlantic flight and all meals. For a small slice of luxury, though — and perhaps a first try at life on the ocean wave — you can opt for a two-night voyage from Southampton to Hamburg, which costs from £299pp for a balcony room from November 4-6, including return airfare (0843 3742224, cunard.co.uk).
Book a private jet… on the cheap: PrivateFly (01747 642777,privatefly.com) is an online broker that sells seats on private jets run by more than 2,700 operators. Each week there are “empty legs”, when jets are flying to collect wealthy clients but happen to have no passengers during this “transfer”. If you have a group of six to a dozen or so people and can fly at the last minute — usually empty legs are not known until a week or even a couple of days before flights — you could go in a group of eight between London and Paris for as little as £1,100, or £138pp. The usual rate for hiring the plane would be £3,200. Prices can work out as much as 75 per cent off. See the “empty leg” section of the PrivateFly website.
Day trip on the Belmond British Pullman: A five-day journey from London on the Belmond British Pullman, with its art deco carriages dating from the Twenties and Thirties (the brainchild of George Mortimer Pullman), before crossing the Channel to catch the Venice Simplon-Orient Express to Venice, would set you back from £2,595pp. But old train lovers can sample travel from a bygone era by taking a round day trip from London Victoria, travelling into either Kent or Surrey, departing at 11.45am and returning at 4.40pm, for just £310pp. This includes a five-course lunch with champagne and a half bottle of wine per person; the trips are available from Planet Rail (01347 811810, planetrail.co.uk).
On the Blue Train in South Africa: For another experience of old-fashioned luxury train travel for a very good price, there’s the chance to take the iconic Blue Train across South Africa (01403 243619, ethosmarketing.co.uk). The usual route is between Pretoria and Cape Town at a price of £722pp, which takes 27 hours. However, twice a year the Blue Train, with its elegant lounges and dining car, travels from Pretoria to Durban. This is an overnight journey lasting 19 hours, departing at 3pm and arriving at 10am and costs just £353pp. This includes all food and drink (excluding French champagne and caviar), and a suite with an en suite shower room, with a private butler on hand to take care of nightcap orders. The next departure is on September 19.
Stay near the Taj Mahal: From May to the end of September it’s the monsoon season in India, and the price of hotels can drop by as much as 50 per cent. The rain, though, often comes in bursts and it can be a refreshing time to visit. The five-star Oberoi Hotel group offers half-price discounts at its stable of iconic properties for stays of six nights or more as part of its annual Oberoi Exotic Summer Vacations sale (00800 12340101, oberoihotels.com). A double at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra with the best hotel views of the Taj Mahal is from £180 per room per night B&B. Airport transfers are included. British Airways (ba.com) has returns to New Delhi in September from about £650.
Try a Silversea taster cruise: All meals and drinks — including cognacs in the Connoisseur’s Corner bar — are included in a five-star, five-night “taster” cruise offered by ultra-upmarket Silvesea, from Limassol in Cyprus to Rome, departing on October 21. This is the halfway point of a longer cruise that continues to Athens, but the price is £950pp for five nights, compared with £2,950pp for the full journey (0844 2510837, silversea.com). Silversea sells a handful of such taster cruises each year and has a growing following among those who wish to live the high life on the high seas without breaking the bank. The Limassol-Rome trip is on the Silver Wind and includes an interior cabin with a personal butler who will pack and unpack cases and stock your mini bar with drinks of your choice (all free). Gratuities are included in the price. A cabin with a private veranda is an extra £100pp. Flights are excluded but come to about £100 on Skyscanner (skyscanner.net). The reference is Voyage 2433A.
Book a five-star hotel fit for President Obama: From September 4-5 the first Nato summit to be held in Britain since 1990 will take place at Celtic Manor near Newport in Wales (01633 413000, celtic-manor.com). World leaders including President Obama will descend on the five-star hotel, which was host to golf’s Ryder Cup in 2010 and regularly attracts Welsh luminaries such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Jones. There are three golf courses, a plush spa and six restaurants. In the run-up to the summit, though, double rooms are available from £82 a night (usually at least £150).
This post was contributed by the Live Love Small Blog who is a regular poster both here on their own blog. You can catch them on twitter, facebook or even their very popular youtube channel.