How to Travel in Luxury, With or Without the Price Tag

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic adventure "between 12 and 18 months" away

April 6, 2011— -- Yes, indeed, the rich are different -- and no, Mr. Hemingway, it's not just that they have more money. Some wealthy people really know how to spend it. I'm thinking of those who travel in grand style.

Unfortunately, there are fewer luxury travel options available these days (or so it seems at first glance). The great ocean liners are mostly a thing of the past, and the original Orient Express, established in 1883, rattled down its last European track in 2009.

However, self-indulgent travel still exists, and not all of it costs an arm and a leg (although prepare to pay numerous limbs for certain opulent options). But, here's a surprise: one place you won't necessarily find a lot of "rich people" is in the first and business class seats on many airlines.

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We took a look at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' "10 percent ticket sample" to see how many folks actually fly in domestic first class fares and pay the full price. What we found is that most of those forward cabin seats are filled by miles "upgraders."

It's difficult to get an exact number, but it's also pretty clear that those who pay the regular astronomical prices of first class are a distinct minority.

And the prices are astronomical.

A recent check of roundtrip flights on United from Los Angeles to New York's JFK in mid-May showed economy seats selling for $360, while first class seats were going for $6,502.

In other words, you could buy 18 coach seats for the price of one seat in the front of the plane, and still have enough money left over to load up on several cans of Pringles. No wonder hardly anyone's paying full freight for first.

That's one luxury option: use your miles and join the not-exactly-rich-but-luxury-loving-crowd.

I've got some other ideas, too.

Luxury Travel -- Pay a Little, Pay a Lot

1. Look for Front of the Cabin Bargains

Less than two weeks ago, we stumbled across an incredible deal from Delta ; the airline was offering what they called "first/business" class flights from Boston to Amsterdam (and other U.S./European city pairs) for less than the price of economy. How come? I'm not really sure; this wasn't an advertised sale, and it could have been a mistake.

If you'd like to find such deals for yourself, you could sit in front of your computer hour after hour, day by day, hoping to glom onto similar vagaries of airline pricing, but a much easier way is to let technology do the work for you.

Sign up for airfare alerts on a site of your choosing (yes, FareCompare has these alerts) so you get real-time notification of such bargains.

A word to the wise: such deals don't last long.

2. Get-What-You-Pay-For First Class

Not all first classes are created equal.

Want to take a shower on board your plane? You want to fly Emirates.

Want to chat with a friend or colleague? He or she can sit on the mini-sofa in your first class suite on Cathay Pacific.

Want to slip into Givenchy pajamas before turning in on your full-size flat bed with a regular-sized pillow? Try Singapore airlines.

Such perks, of course, cost what most of us would consider astounding amounts of money, but it sure sounds good, doesn't it?

3. Try a Fraction of Luxury

Maybe private jet ownership hasn't quite made a full recovery from the recession (will anyone ever forget how the clueless suits from the Big 3 automakers went to D.C. to ask for handouts -- in their private jets?); however, fractional jet ownership seems to be making some headway.

You and your friends can all take turns on a very cool ride. Hate to share? Buy a big Boeing like John Travolta and hog all the bin space yourself.

Luxury Travel -- Pay a Little, Pay a Lot

4. Beastly Luxury

Pet Airways is still going strong and while you can't enjoy it, it's a posh ride for your pet.

It's not cheap however -- I just checked roundtrip prices for LA/New York and it was about $1,800. However, that was for a big dog that would have had to fly in cargo on a human airline, which does not always end well (according to government statistics for December 2010, airlines reported six pet deaths and one pet injury for that month alone).

5. The Ultimate High You could become an astronaut - kind of. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is already taking reservations for sub-orbital flights (it'll cost $200,000 but you only need to plunk down a $20Kdeposit now). This week, the White Knight II - the aircraft from which the actual "space ship" - landed at SFO to celebrate the newly renovated terminal that'll be Virgin America's home in San Francisco. According to Branson, the first flights for space tourists are now "between 12 and 18 months" away.

6. My Approach to Luxury

I've said it before, I'll say it again: my idea of "luxury" is pretty simple.

Give me a comfortable seat (I'm all for avoiding deep vein thrombosis on those eight-hour flights whenever possible), adequate bin space for my carryon, a speedy and painless few minutes at security and boarding, and the serenity of knowing that I -- and my luggage -- will take off and land together on schedule.

Doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it?