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Is Private Travel an Option for the Everyday Traveler?

The era of social distancing produced a growing demand for what was once thought of as luxury travel experiences—private jets and private islands.

Travel-starved Americans are eager to island-hop this winter as travel destinations begin reopening their doors to tourists. What most travelers are not eager to do is shuffle through long airport security lines, wait to board planes in busy airport terminals, sit on overcrowded beaches, or stay at a large resort. The pandemic has forced travelers to rethink the safest way to travel and their conclusion? Private travel.

Hopping on a private jet to fly off to a secluded private island was once thought of as a luxury only experienced by the ultra-rich a la Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but during the past eight months, more everyday travelers are turning to the private travel industry in droves.

Tradewind Aviation has seen a 40% increase in new to private charter requests since the pandemic began, said co-owner David Zipkin. He attributes that increase to one driving factor: coronavirus.

“The private travel experience avoids the airline terminals and airline flights so the risk of exposure is minimized,” Zipkin said.

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Instead of hustling through a busy airport, waiting in line to check bags, waiting in another line to go through security, then sitting in an overcrowded gate area to board the plane, just to sit on a large jet with 60 other passengers, private jet passengers are escorted through a private security checkpoint, wait in private waiting rooms before boarding a plane with a small handful of passengers.

Private travel produces 20 touchpoints for a passenger as opposed to more than 700 touch points a passenger must pass through when flying commercial, according to aviation management company Global Air. Because of this, the company estimates that passengers on chartered flights have a 30 times lower risk for catching COVID-19 than commercial airlines.

“Safety and security have taken on new meaning in the form of coronavirus prevention and protection,” said Megan Wolf, chief operating officer at FlexJet. “We have seen an increased number of first-time fliers, attracted by the fact that private jets reduce the opportunities for coronavirus exposure and because of cuts in airline schedules that make private jets the most efficient way to reach many destinations.”

The private jet company is operating at about 85% of the travel levels of a year ago. This compares with commercial aviation, which in November was at 37.1% compared to the same month in 2019.

“We have seen an increased number of first-time fliers, attracted by the fact that private jets reduce the opportunities for coronavirus exposure and because of cuts in airline schedules that make private jets the most efficient way to reach many destinations.”

While travelers are ditching large commercial airlines for private jets, they are also ditching large beach resorts for intimate private islands.

The Gladden Private Island Resort, a one-acre island in the heart of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System that can accommodate up to four guests, is at nearly 100% occupancy for the winter and spring of 2021, said Sabah Memom, director of operations for Private Islands. 

The Ontario-based real estate company specializes in renting islands around the world. Like most travel companies, they saw an initial steep decline in international travel bookings at the beginning of the pandemic due to airport closures and other travel restrictions.

Business bounced back during the summer as the company saw an increase in domestic travel. Instead of hightailing it to the Caribbean, travelers were interested in American islands such as Clapboard Islands in Maine. The 13-bedroom home built in the late 1800s by a Philadelphia railroad tycoon became a hot summer island rental this summer. Guests had 22 acres of beach, gardens, and walking trails to distance themselves from potential coronavirus exposure. 

As each international destination started reopening in late summer and early fall, the company saw an immediate uptick in bookings for that area, Memon said.

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The Gladden Private Island Resort and the Kanu Private Island off the coast of Belize saw a surge in bookings when the Belize International Airport opened on October 1. Both properties are near 100% occupancy through Spring 2021.

Domestic island travel is still up over previous years. Travelers who are venturing internationally are still sticking closer to home. Americans living in the South are choosing Belize as a destination, while travelers on the west coast are looking at French Polynesia and Hawaii, Memon said.

Not surprisingly, renting a private island to oneself costs more than an all-inclusive mega beach resort. However, the average cost of island rental varies dramatically. On the more affordable end, small self-service islands in North America and Central America can rent for a few hundred dollars per night. Small boutique island resorts can range from $1,000 to $2,000 per couple per night. Couples or small families looking for a high end completely private island like Gladden can expect to spend between $3,500 and $4,500 per night. For larger groups, up to 30 guests can expect to pay anywhere from $4,500 to $100,000 per night.