Ever dreamed of being able to check off multiple bucket-list destinations in one seamless, around-the-world trip? Jancee Dunn tries out a lavish private-jet tour and, along the way, discovers a whole new way to see the world.
The 757 was cruising toward the Cape Verde Islands for a brief refueling stop when my seatmate asked a flight attendant a question I had never heard on a plane before (and likely hadn’t been uttered in the past three decades of aviation history). “May I have seconds? This is delicious.”
The explanation? I was not on just any aircraft, but was one of 50 people on a special around-the-world journey with private-jet operator TCS World Travel. On this $109,000-per-person trip, passengers were, for the first and only time, joined by TCS president Shelley Cline, who had picked her dream itinerary. The fast-moving, 25-day tour had kicked off in Seattle and woven its way through Kyoto, Japan; Hoi An, Vietnam; and the Maldives. I joined the group in Kigali, Rwanda, on day nine, en route to a gorilla-trekking expedition in Volcanoes National Park.
It was my first time flying by private jet, and friends had warned me to brace myself, saying the experience affords a tantalizing and, frankly, painful glimpse of what air travel feels like in a perfect world. They were correct. The aforementioned dish — a chicken shawarma sandwich, made with yogurt-and-cucumber dressing and fresh herbs — was created by onboard chef Kerry Sear, who makes meals from ingredients sourced, often frenetically, at the previous day’s destination. After lunch, my 49 fellow passengers and I stretched out in spacious white leather seats, waited on by eight jolly British flight attendants (“I’ll go get your duvets — all right, my darling?”) Each of them is tasked with six or so clients and given a list of their likes and dislikes (I was plied with oceans of coconut water and cappuccinos frothed by a custom-made Nespresso machine). Guests, three-quarters of whom are repeats, can become so attached to crew members that they refuse to book a tour if their favorite isn’t on board; bonds are further strengthened by a night out with the crew on every trip.
Cline told me her clients choose a private, around-the-world journey so they can see as many places on their bucket list as they can, in a short period of time and in comfort. As our plane flew across the Sahara, I snuggled under a lambswool Avoca blanket and queued up my personalized TCS iPad to watch lectures on Rwandan history streamed live from the front of the plane by a geography professor and a retired U.S. ambassador. Afterward, passengers flitted around, cocktails in hand — a buzzing party in the air. “Dessert trolley coming through!” “One of each, please. Thank you, Hayley.” Nine hours feels like six on a private-jet flight, say those in the know. I was starting to see why.
The average age of a TCS client is 65; though I’m halfway to retirement myself, I couldn’t help noticing Kindles with fonts as large as those at the top of an eye chart around me on the plane. These travelers, most of whom no longer work, have the means and, perhaps more crucially, the time to embark on a trip of this scale. “Are they friendly?” my mother had texted, worried that I was surrounded by the sort of monocle-wearing toffs who get a pie in the face in Marx Brothers movies. Yes, I assured her — in fact, the vibe was positively egalitarian. We were all clad in the same athleisure clothing, having received matching jackets in our complimentary Tumi suitcases. Everyone followed an unspoken rule to avoid talk of business and politics, and there was little one-upmanship. After all, if everyone is in the same 0.001 percent, why bother?
Many meals on the trip were communal, and it was at the dinner table that we got to know one another best. Conversation focused on the day’s events, comparison of photos, and tours past. Only occasionally would someone let slip a remark that hinted at their tax bracket, such as the retired investment director who said, “I’m cutting down on my drinking, which is difficult since we own a vineyard.”
One of my favorite aspects of the TCS experience was the way all quotidian annoyances of travel were smoothly eliminated, from security and customs lines to luggage wrangling. At least 20 smiling TCS staffers materialized at every airport, lifting ropes and waving us through (the total staff on the tour, from start to finish, numbers around 500). Even those annoying customs cards were filled out for us in advance. And wherever we assembled, longtime expedition leader Richard Butler was nearby, on constant alert. If he noticed people starting to fidget, he would step in and change course. Does a presentation need to wrap up more quickly? It’s unseasonably hot on this market trip — should we arrange for ice cream?
Another TCS calling card is engineering moments of “surprise and delight.” So, during cocktails, a local dance troupe might suddenly undulate onto the lawn, or Rwandan pop stars Charly and Nina would serenade a dinner in Kigali. Among the activities offered in Rio was a private breakfast at the foot of the Christ the Redeemer statue as dawn broke over Corcovado mountain. One guide remarked that the last time he’d witnessed a similar event, the guest of honor was Barack Obama. (Another TCS tour that included Namibia went even further: en route to the hotel, guests were transferred to waiting dune buggies as camels arrived, bearing baskets of fluted glasses, and a team of skydivers descended with bottles of champagne.)
At every hotel — most of which were Four Seasons properties — staff would offer hot towels for madame, tea for madame, pastries for madame. A local gift awaited us in every room, eliminating the need to shop for souvenirs (in Rio, for example, glossy bowls handcrafted from calabash gourds). The pace of the tour bordered on dizzying — so much so that reboarding the plane was actually a relief. The crew gave us a warm welcome back, my coconut water was waiting, and my bags were still in the overhead bin, just where I’d left them.
After Rwanda, which also included a day in sparkling, vibrant Kigali, a heart-wrenching trip to the Genocide Memorial, and a presentation from Rwanda’s top college for women, we spent one night in Casablanca (Hassan II mosque, quick stroll on the beach, dinner) and from there flew to Rio. We capped the trip with a four-day cruise in the Galápagos Islands, which was a whirlwind of nature walks, boat excursions, and snorkeling with hammerhead sharks.
Our schedule’s velocity made for a killer Instagram feed. (“Are these highlights from the past year?” one friend wondered.) But box-checking is not how I normally choose to travel, and racing from place to place can rob you of the depth of experience that makes a trip satisfying. After the Corcovado breakfast wrapped up, people were immediately ushered into waiting helicopters to see Rio’s top landmarks from the air. Off you go! In Rwanda, I returned from gorilla sighting in my dusty trekking gear, exhilarated and exhausted, and went directly to a dance performance and drinks, followed by dinner and a presentation from a Volcanoes National Park veterinarian. Often, I didn’t make it to my hotel room for the entire day.
As sublime as it was to have a good proportion of my bucket list taken care of in a mere two weeks—and to have every need catered to along the way — when I think back on those heady days, what lingers in my memory most was a night in Rio when I opted out of the hotel dinner and wandered over to a nearby grilled-chicken joint. Scarfing down a plate of garlicky poultry, I was surrounded by chattering families wearing flip-flops, feet still sandy from the beach. Babies squalled, beers were passed. Happily chicken-addled, I stepped outside and was pulled into a raucous pre-Carnival street party — a bit of surprise and delight I conjured up all by myself.
tcsworldtravel.com; private-jet itineraries from $51,950 per person for 14 days; around-the-world private-jet expeditions from $85,950 per person for 24 days.