Guilt trip: Luxury travelers tone it down in hard times

She had planned to visit the Medina in Fez, the souks in Marrakesh and the mosques in Casablanca. But the Moroccan vacation would have set Nancy Yale back $15,000 for her family of five. And after laying off a full- and part-time employee last fall, the travel agency owner in Fairfield, Conn., decided to scrap the December trip.

"I just didn't think it was prudent. It wasn't a good message," she says.

Call it luxury shame, stealth wealth or guilt downsizing. Even if you've "got it" — and maybe especially if you've got it — economic times like these are no time to flaunt it.

In a time when posh has become a four-letter word, forget about keeping up with the Joneses. It's more socially expedient to stay down with them. Economic turmoil is giving luxury a bad name, it seems, and not just among the private-jet set, either. The desire to tone down consumption is affecting how some Americans vacation — or at least how they say they vacation.

It's the sort of environment that has people claiming they got that winter tan on the local ski hill, when in truth, they were skiing in Gstaad. Or, for appearances' sake, hailing a cab from the airport instead of pulling up to the hotel in a town car — never mind that the fare's the same.

The sentiment resonates in cyberspace and includes travelers who say they're lying or feeling guilty about their vacation plans or simply keeping mum about them.

Even former Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt hasn't escaped a guilt trip, telling the New York Times Magazine he canceled a spring trip to the Far East, because "I don't feel right about spending large sums of money in this environment."

"Luxury shame is very real," says travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research. "When your neighbors are losing their jobs and you're doing well, you don't flaunt your success. Of course, there are still people who will continue to enjoy the fruits of their success. They may still rent the beachfront home and continue to fly in the G5 and tool around in the leased Bentley, but they're not going to go home and brag that that's what they did on vacation."

In a recent survey of travelers' intentions, Forrester found the solidly middle class intended to cut back on travel, but so did 28% of those with household incomes of $100,000 and above. "It shows that the well-to-do are not being spared by this recession," says Harteveldt.

Neither are the wealthy, even if it's just for appearances' sake. One of Yale's best clients canceled a pricey trip to Asia explaining, " 'It's too embarrassing to tell anyone I took a $40,000 vacation,' " she says.

Josh Friedman, a luxury travel consultant in San Francisco, relates how a wealthy Pasadena couple, "the kind of people who book $3,000-a-night suites," called him to say they're cutting back 50% on everything and had him redeem frequent-flier miles for a trip to the East Coast. Another client who booked a $30,000 luxury European cruise with extra nights in Athens and Rome lopped a night off to assuage his guilt over spending so much. It cut the price by a mere $1,000 or so, but "it made him happy," says Friedman. "He realizes times are tough."

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