Dear Nora: Travel Splurges – Are They Worthwhile?

Monday 20th, August 2018 / 08:00 Written by
Dear Nora: Travel Splurges – Are They Worthwhile?

Are you considering a travel splurge but are worried that it’s going to be a waste of money? Learn what this collection of travellers has splurged on, how they paid for it, and whether they’d do it again.

Dear Nora,

Is paying for luxury travel actually worth it? When I could take the same money and travel longer or more often, I don’t see the point. Then again, a little pampering might be nice. I’m just afraid it’s gonna be a waste.    – Karen

I think the short answer is (as usual!) that it depends. It depends on your budget, and how far out of range your chosen travel splurge is going to be. It also depends on how important the experience is to you. If it’s a lifelong bucket list item, then more often than not, I would say yes! It’s totally worthwhile.

At the same time, I urge caution if it will plunge you into debt you can’t get out of. And under no circumstances do I approve of cashing in your retirement savings for travel splurges.

See also: Got Debt? Here’s the Most Effective Way Out of It and 11 Financial Moves in Your 20s That Set You Free


Me? I’ve splurged a few times in my travels, and some experiences were amazing, while others were mediocre.

One experience that comes to mind was a month-long trip to South Africa that I took with a friend (predating my full-time travel career). She had won a week-long safari trip through a silent auction, and invited me to come along. We built an entire vacation around this safari experience, exploring many parts of the country over the month.

Because my friend was wealthy, she was accustomed to a certain level of travel opulence. And because I was earning a decent income at the time, I splurged on a vacation that far exceeded any level of luxury I had experienced to date (and ever since).

We stayed in 5-star hotels with magnificent views. We ate at the finest restaurants. We hired a private tour guide who was our chaperone for a week-long “road trip”. And after staying at the safari lodge that my friend had won, we capped off the trip by spending a few days at an extremely exclusive air-only access safari lodge (think: $1,000/night).

All in all, my month in South Africa cost me $10,000. While it was a life-changing experience (it was indirectly the catalyst for me to decide to sell everything and travel full-time, I didn’t necessarily understand the actual value of what we were getting.

For example, the hotel we stayed at in Cape Town was one of the best in the city. While it was of course beautiful and well-located, and included perks like a concierge who had the power to reserve the best table in any restaurant on a moment’s notice, and a BMW chauffeur service at our disposal, I wasn’t accustomed to spending that kind of money. I think I expected more; like I wanted somebody carrying me around on a pedestal and peeling grapes for me! And perhaps because I didn’t yet have an accurate barometer for the level of travel luxury I received, I may not have appreciated the subtler aspects of what was happening.

Do I regret it? Not a chance. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one that I appreciate even more as the years have passed.

But would I do it again? Mmm…..I’m not sure. If I had a whole heck of a lot more disposable income than I currently earn, and if it was a really special experience, then perhaps.

But now, knowing the finer elements of “travel hacking” and how to get an exponentially larger amount of value from a relatively small expenditure, I’d have to be pretty flush to just spend the money outright. For example, I know how to fly in business class for less than the price of an equivalent economy ticket. So, why would I ever pay full-price again? But….sometimes that business class deal isn’t always available; in which case if the flight is long-haul and the cost to upgrade is reasonable, you’d better believe I’m willing to spend the money.


Below are the tales of people who have splurged on a variety of travel experiences; some big, some small, but all just outside of their regular financial comfort zones. Let’s see what they have to say about whether travel splurges are worthwhile!


A Transatlantic Cruise

Splurge: Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe has done some pretty spectacular trips with his wife as part of their travel-centric lifestyle and career. But their big out-of-pocket travel splurge has been transatlantic cruises on the Queen Mary 2, travelling from New York to Southhampton (and the other way too).

“It’s definitely not a “budget” experience, but it’s a heck of a way to cross the Atlantic, with black tie dinners, formal balls, and everything to remind you of how travel used to be.”

Cost: For this travel splurge, they generally pay $2,500-$3,500 for two people. It’s a week-long voyage that includes all meals and seven or eight nights of accommodation.

How did you pay for it? Credit Card

Verdict: “We’ve done it twice, and will probably do it again next year.”


Private Jet Membership

Splurge: Dan Nainan is an entertainer who travels constantly for work. (In 2016 for example, he took 110 flights). So he splurged on a private jet membership which, in the last year and a half, has allowed him to enjoy this slice of true luxury on over 50 flights all over North America!

“I’ve always loved flying, I’m an elite flyer on Delta and get upgraded to first class on the cheapest coach tickets, but private is another level entirely! There is none of this TSA nonsense, and one can get to the FBO (private jet terminal) 10 minutes before takeoff!”

Cost: Dan uses the company JetSmarter, which has a few different pricing programs. He pays an annual membership of $11,000 which allows him to fly as much as he wants. Current rates on the site for new members show a one-time $3,000 initiation fee, a $5,000 annual membership fee, and then you pay approximate commercial rates for each flight you take. For frequent fliers, this all equates to about the cost of first class tickets. Except….it’s a private jet. Dan notes that the portion of membership used to fly for his business is tax deductible. See also: Managing Canadian Legalities While Abroad 

How did you pay for it? Credit Card

Verdict: Dan plans to renew his membership for a third year. “Once you taste what it’s like to fly private, it is very difficult to fly commercial again.”


Ethical Elephant Experience

Splurge: Anna of La Travelista was in Chiang Mai Thailand and wanted an ethical experience with elephants. After doing her research, she selected a company that doesn’t allow you to ride the elephants; only to feed and wash them, as came recommended by other people in Chiang Mai who are vocal about ethical elephant tourism. Unfortunately she didn’t get what she had hoped for.

“The price was four times more than other companies, so I thought it would be the right place. While it is true that you can only feed them and wash them, you can still see some elephants with chains and in jails (they said it is because the animals were ill and for safety reasons for the other animals). I started looking more carefully and some staff were whispering to the elephants (giving instructions). It is not as ethical as they say it is. People are blind, just because they pay more and think it is better due to a higher price.”

Cost: 60 Euros per person

How did you pay for it? “I used the money I was going to invest in a nice hotel for this experience instead.”

Verdict: “I would not do it again. I learned that any activity with animals that involve touching them is not really ethical.”


Private Balinese Villa

Splurge: Erin Clarkson of Sand Sun and Messy Buns was given a free round-trip ticket anywhere in the world and she made the best use of it she could by booking a trip to Bali. Once there, she splurged on a private villa in the jungles of Ubud.

“The villa is still – to this day – my favourite place I’ve ever stayed! I felt very safe there. I also felt completely immersed in the local community, since it was so close to neighbourhoods where people were actually living and working. There was a rice paddy bordering the villa, and I was able to watch workers tend to the fields from my private infinity edge pool which was tucked into the hillside. The hotel staff was the friendliest I’ve ever encountered and they worked hard to ensure every moment of my stay was incredible. The spa was incredible, and the meals from the various restaurants on site were all delicious.”

Cost: “I believe it was around $200 per night. I booked the trip well in advance and received an early booking discount.”

How did you pay for it? “I charged it to my credit card (to earn airline miles for another trip, of course!) and then paid it off with money from my checking account plus a tax refund.”

Verdict: “YES! Absolutely. I would love to go back and I WILL go back as soon as my daughter graduates from college and I’m no longer responsible for her hefty tuition fees. I can’t wait!”


Flight Upgrades

Splurge: Claire O’Brien of Direct From the District upgraded her flight to Iceland on IcelandAir’s Saga Class.

“We had great seats, and fun Icelandic meals, and they gave us care packages filled with Blue Lagoon cosmetics, socks, etc. It was worth every penny.”

Incidentally, a few other travellers interviewed here commented that flight upgrades are worthy travel splurges, especially for longer flights. In my experience, low-cost transatlantic carriers like IcelandAir and Norwegian offer upgraded fares for much less than standard carriers would charge. The quality is about what you’d expect from a regular airline’s premium economy class, which is to say you’ll get a roomier seat, better meal, and decent entertainment. Click here for more travel tips to get flight upgrades.

Cost: An extra $200/ticket, for each leg.

Verdict: “It was TOTALLY worth it!”


Birthday Vacation to Aruba

Splurge: Annick of The Common Traveler went all-out with her boyfriend to celebrate his 50th birthday.

“We traveled to Aruba and splurged on two things: the hotel and a private tour of the island. We stayed at the Manchebo Beach Resort – not the priciest resort on the island, but at almost $400 per night (including taxes) it was a splurge for us. Because I wanted to go to Flamingo Beach, we also booked a night at the Renaissance Aruba (which was an additional $200 without having checked out of Manchebo Beach Resort!) so that we were guaranteed admission.”

And because no one tour went to exactly the places they wanted to see, they also splurged on a personal UTV tour so they could tackle their wish list.

“It wasn’t a lot more than booking two separate tours (we would have needed at least two tours at $79 per person). We could stay as long as we wanted at the sites we really liked and left quickly from the ones we thought were meh.”

Cost: The hotels were $400-$600 per night, and the tour was almost $400 for two people.

How did you pay for it? “Credit cards (to get the points), which we paid off on our return.”

Verdict: “It was a special trip and I would totally do it again! I got to see what I wanted to see and we stayed on the prettiest beach I’ve ever seen. I can’t afford to do it all the time (if I want to keep travelling and retire!), but it certainly made this 50th birthday ultra memorable.”


Japanese Traditional Accommodations

Splurge: Jessica Korteman and Hai Huynh of Notes of Nomads are seasoned travellers who don’t usually spend a lot on accommodation; preferring instead to put that money towards interesting experiences. However, when the accommodation becomes an experience in and of itself, they are more than willing to pay more for it.

“Ryokan, or Japanese-style inns, are our top travel splurge. They allow you to have a number of quintessential Japanese experiences at the same time – such as sleeping in tatami rooms on futons, indulging in multi-course ‘washoku’ meals (which have UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status), wearing yukata and bathing in traditional baths, and experiencing the high-level of hospitality Japan is renowned for.”

Cost: Ryokan usually average ¥25,000-30,000 ($250-300) a night, but they can be a lot more.

How did you pay for it? They paid for it by saving up and spending less on other aspects of the trip.

Verdict: “Absolutely. We stay in ryokan on many of our trips in Japan and never seem to tire of them. However, unless it’s a very special occasion, we tend to book for only one night since it is a big step up price-wise from what we are usually willing to pay.”


Antarctic Expedition Cruise

Splurge: Matilda Geroulis of The Travel Sisters chose a travel splurge that’s a bucket-list item for many travellers: a 14-day expedition cruise to Antarctica with National Geographic!

“In addition to seeing icebergs and the beautiful natural landscape, we also got to see tons of wildlife up close including various species of penguins, seals, whales and seabirds. Most of our time was spent at sea where we got to enjoy the scenery from our boat and also attend educational lectures. The best part of our trip was when we were able to get off the boat and make landings on Antarctica.”

Cost: “The cost of a trip to Antarctica varies depending on the boat and cabin you select and your travel dates. I chose one of the more affordable cabins so the cost of my trip was approximately $12,500 USD including airfare (prices have since increased).”

How did you pay for it? “I paid for the trip from my savings. I don’t spend a lot of money in my everyday life so most of my savings goes to travel.”

Verdict: “Yes my trip to Antarctica was definitely worth it for me and I would do it again. There was no other way for me to travel to Antarctica as a tourist other than taking a cruise or expedition boat so splurging for this trip was my only option. I am actually planning to do it again; I travelled to Antarctica with my sister but I am hoping to visit again in a few years with my son when he is old enough to appreciate the experience.”


African Safari

Splurge: Suzanne Wolko of PhilaTravelGirl approached her trip to Africa differently than me.

“I redeemed points for a 27-day solo trip to Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe) and worked with a travel agent in Capetown who convinced me to go to the Okavango Delta of Botswana to an eco-camp with tents and ensuite with bucket shower. It involved bush flights in/out of camp and I had my own private guide with mokoro boat for our walking safari as we tracked animals.”

Cost: “It added nearly $2,000 to the trip but the first time an elephant walked past me and I watched the sunset from the mokoro boat was life changing.”

How did you pay for it? “I paid cash for this and it helped that I used points to save on other parts of the trip so I could add luxury options along the way within my budget.”

Verdict: “Absolutely, I recommend everyone add the Okavango Delta of Botswana into their Africa safari plans. For a city girl, the outdoor bucket shower was **interesting** and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”


Nile Cruise

Splurge: Ben McLaughlan of Horizon Unknown did a year-long trip around the world in 2013, which included Egypt.

“I had enough money to live quite comfortably for the year I was travelling, but enjoyed the backpacking style of travel from the very beginning. During my tour through Egypt, I was lucky enough to have an option of a cruise down the Nile river. I upgraded from a sailboat style catamaran, to a 5-star cruise liner.”

Cost: $250

Verdict: “Looking back, I would say that no, it wasn’t worth the extra couple hundred dollars. I discovered I much prefer the more intimate settings while on the road. I don’t regret spending a little extra, but wouldn’t do it again.”


5-Star Hotel in Thailand

Splurge: Lindsay Tigar is a travel journalist and no stranger to nice hotels. But for her, a travel splurge at the Ritz Carlton in Thailand’s Phulay Bay topped her list.

“It was hands-down the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at. They went above and beyond my expectations, with attention to detail, personalized trips, and the best bed I’ve ever slept in. Because food and any type of ‘tourist’ experience is super-duper cheap in Thailand, the majority of your budget can be toward a nice accommodation.”

Cost: “All in, the cost was about $5,000 with flights from the U.S.”

How did you pay for it? “Because everything else was so cheap, I was able to use the majority of my budget on airfare and accommodations.”

Verdict: “100% worth it and would highly recommend!”


Gorilla Trekking

Splurge: Valerie Bowden of Backpacking Africa for Beginners made her travel splurge a gorilla trek in Uganda.

“As a budget traveller, it was a big decision knowing that one hour with the gorillas would shorten my trip by a month! In the end, I decided I had to do it. There are only 800 wild gorillas left in the world, and I wanted to see them up close. I also knew that part of the fee was going towards conservation efforts which made me feel good about my impact.”

Valerie also suggests researching before splurging: “See if there is a cheaper option for your big travel splurge. For example, I almost went gorilla trekking in Rwanda until I realized Uganda was $200 cheaper. You can still splurge, but try and get the best deal when you do!”

Cost: $500

Verdict: “Trekking gorillas turned out to be an experience I will always treasure. I can’t believe how close I got to them. They are amazing creatures to behold.”



Photo Credit: Pexels Thorsten technoman

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