For a mere $10,000, first class airline passengers can now rest their champagne glasses on mahogany tables as they hunker down in Givenchy sleep suits in 30-inch leather seats that turn into cozy beds.
Last month, Singapore Airlines debuted its "Orient Express of the skies" with a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Seoul and then on to Singapore.
The industry trendsetter is banking on the success of a new fleet of Boeing 777-300ER's, with 19 on order and an option to buy 12 more.
Its new 555-seat Airbus 380 -- due to launch in October -- will have some of the same creature comforts, including a bar on each deck.
In the hype surrounding the world's largest jet, some speculate that customized features might include onboard casinos, beauty salons and even hot tubs.
Online Booking for the Rich
Luxury travel is on the rise, and those who can afford it are flaunting it, according to www.luxurytravelmagazine.com, an online booking service for the über-rich.
As first class lounges and amenities are upgraded, those who find commercial travel a hassle hire private jets to take them to the most remote locations on Earth.
"Travelers are looking for bragging rights and one-upmanship, so the more exclusive they can travel, the better," said Luxury Travel editor Christine Gray. "Private jet travel is also in demand more than ever, as commercial flying becomes more of a hassle."
World travel broke all records in 2006 with 842 million international tourist arrivals -- up 4.5 percent from 2005, according to the World Tourism Organization. Africa saw the biggest increase with an 8.1 percent jump as luxury travelers were lured by "authentic" experiences, according to the United Nations tourism watchdog.
The trend is fueled by a buoyant economy, increase in corporate incentive travel and a shift in the business travel choices of affluent baby boomers. Last year, the typical luxury traveler spent an average of $26,000, a 41 percent jump from 2004, according to Unity Marketing, which tracks luxury spending. This year, it is expected to rise to $28,000.
In the last few years, many international airlines have added lavish VIP lounges to try to build loyalty from their first class passengers. They have also upgraded services and amenities in their first class cabins.
11 Million Luxury Travelers
Luxury Travel magazine considers the 11 million American households with average annual incomes over $256,000 as luxury travelers. The site caters primarily to 30 to 50-year-olds, but the newest buyers are in their 20s and 30s.
"They want the trendy, hip hotels," said Gray. "Luxury travel used to only be for the opulent and retired people who could afford it. Now, it's the Paris Hilton types."
More of those travelers are going online to research, plan and book their travel. Luxury Travel has launched a search engine that works like Orbitz or Expedia for the mass market, but is based on deluxe experiences rather than price and location.
Travelers can search for a villa in Tuscany, mountains or boutique hotel, rather than a nonstop for under $500.
"Luxury travelers are looking for very rare and authentic experiences," said Gray. "The trend in the newest hotels and resorts is exclusivity -- the smaller and more intimate."
Hotel chains invest in villas and resorts within resorts to make them more exclusive. "It's like a private concierge floor in a city hotel," Gray said. "True luxury travelers are looking for a unique experience that the mass market might not have access to."
In Quest of Culture and Adventure
Looking for cultural experiences, like yoga for relaxation and wellness, and adventure, these tourists are going to remote resorts in places like Bhutan, Sri Lanka and northern Thailand or to luxury safari camps in Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa.
"They want places that are far flung and difficult to get to," said Gray. "People tend to tag luxury travel too easily, and it's all in the eye of the beholder. Where you used to pitch a tent, there is now a luxury hotel."
Most luxury travelers fly business, first class or by private jet, but with resorts now well off the beaten path, travelers must turn to other modes of transport. Recently, a European prince and princess booked a 10-day holiday in South Africa with Luxury Travel magazine for just over $50,000, traveling by helicopter to each locale.
One couple played an auction to get a private villa for all their friends in St. Barts, according to luxurylink.com, which offers 650 luxury packages that clients can bid on.
"They were very wealthy, and it was fun for them to play the game," said luxurylink.com president Diane McDavitt. "They could pay full freight, but they do it for kicks."
The average luxurylink.com buyer spends $10,000 per person. Popular destinations are private castles, Peru, spa vacations and "anywhere with a beach," McDavitt said.
Renting private jets is also on the upswing, according to George Khairallah, president of BusinessJetClass. His company created privatejetspecialists.com, an online reservation system that works much like the world's commercial airline booking network.
At first the site was open to travel agencies, but now consumers can book directly online. Since it was launched two weeks ago, about 14,000 visitors have perused the site.
"Interest in private jets is more than luxury," said Khairallah. "It's the efficiency of going from one place to another. The private jet is an alternative for those who can afford it."
A typical cost for a New York to Florida trip on a six-passenger jet is about $8,500 one way or about $12,000 for a weekend. Demand has been highest for international travel and transcontinental flights.
Entertainment World Hires Private Jets
Many of BusinessJetClass's clients come from the entertainment world. An estimated 30 percent are individuals, not corporations, Khairallah said. "It gives travelers a new way to breathe fresh air. They don't have the time to stand in long lines. Their time is more valuable than anything else."
And, Khairallah added, the increase in demand for these jets is bringing prices down. He predicts rates might drop to $2,000 for a two-hour trip, which, when divided by four passengers, costs about $500 each.
"You can go where you want to go and avoid the crowds and you save time, fuel and aggravation," he said. "The beauty of the private aircraft is that it will pick you up at the airport near your house like taking a taxi."
Despite all the pampering in the first class cabins of today's large jetliners, commercial travel has become a hassle -- especially for the lowliest of passengers. Luxurious jets like the Boeing 777-300ER and the Airbus 380 may just be flashes in the pan, say industry watchers.
"Private jets will be the transportation of the future as we would like it," said Khairallah. "Years ago we had to dress nice for the airlines. Now it's like taking the bus."