What does luxury travel mean?

Hiking from Armed to Imlil, Morocco

Any blogger with their eye on the ball will know in order to be successful they must represent a particular niche, rather than being a Jack of all trades, or in this case, travels. I spent a long time working out just what the Conversant Traveller brand is, and came up with this:

Adventure by day, authentic luxury by night

It was the word ‘luxury’ that caused me the biggest dilemma. Used alone, it immediately brings to mind marble-clad city hotels with the latest bathroom fixtures and room service club sandwiches that cost a small mortgage. Yet that was far from what I wanted to convey. In the end I settled on ‘authentic luxury’, which hopefully suggests that there is more to the word than simply elegant furnishings. It’s about personality and experience as well.

So what does luxury travel mean to me?

I was recently challenged by Best at Travel to consider this very subjective question and it wasn’t long before I realised there is no easy answer. So what better way to start than see if I agreed with dictionary wisdom. The best they could come up with can be summed up by the following:

A state of supreme comfort or elegance involving great expense that is rarely obtained or difficult to acquire.

What do you think? Have they got it right? Once upon a time in my former life as a backpacker I might have agreed with this, but now I personally feel this approach is rather narrow-minded. So without wanting to sound like an English teacher, let’s disassemble the quote above…

Supreme Comfort and Elegance

It strikes me that many people define luxury in physical terms, concentrating on material comforts without giving the emotional side of things a second thought. Sure, everyone enjoys a bit of Egyptian cotton in their bedding, the latest minerals in their spa sessions and food that looks more like a work of art than something to actually eat. Hubbie and I are constantly impressed by the effort behind comfort in many of the top end hotels we’ve stayed in on our travels. From printed menus identifying exotic fruit in Bangkok to the crisp white linen that came with our room service burgers (!) in Kuala Lumpur, we’ve certainly been pampered.

Sophisticated and exotic - fruity room treats, Bangkok style
Sophisticated and exotic – fruity room treats, Bangkok style

Yet whilst all this is very pleasant, for me the physical side is secondary to the emotional experience. Luxury for the Conversant Traveller is waking up in the desert and seeing the sunrise, without it mattering that I slept on the hard ground and had to defecate in full view of the breakfasting camels. Luxury is being able to sneak out of camp in the night with my hubbie to admire millions of stars we’ve never seen before. This is what makes me happy, and I’d take this experience over a posh hotel any day.

Breakfast Saharan style at Erg Chigaga, Morocco
Breakfast Saharan style at Erg Chigaga, Morocco

Service is also far more important than physical trappings. The lodging can be opulent and gleaming, but without top-notch staffing it all verges on pointless. Although we’ve been treated like royalty in 5* city pads, the service does sometimes feel a little contrived and we often haven’t felt any more special than the couple in the next room.

On the other side of the fence, we’ve been treated to service that has moved me to tears (in a good way!), usually in rural guest houses. One of the reasons we so often return to Kasbah Ellouze in Morocco is the staff, who treat us like family and go out of their way to ensure we’re happy and relaxed. They always anticipate our needs before we even know them ourselves. On our last visit we arrived very late in the evening, and I was devastated that we wouldn’t have time for the traditional mint tea and pastries, and a refreshing swim in the pool before dinner. Yet the staff told me of course we had plenty of time to do as we wished, and they’d hold dinner for us until we were ready. It was all about us.

We love the staff at Kasbah Ellouze, Tamdaght, Morocco
We love the staff at Kasbah Ellouze, Tamdaght, Morocco

Luxury is as much about the experience and the service as it is about comfort and elegance.

Great Expense

Can you really put a price on luxury? Is the quality of a holiday really judged on how expensive the mini-bar is? It seems to me that people often label luxury as something at the very peak of their affordability scale. We feel that because something costs a fortune it therefore must be good, yet just because we spend money on something doesn’t necessarily make it luxurious. Personally I think luxury should be spoken of in terms of value, rather than expense. For me, it’s often the little extra touches, the added value if you like, that swings it for me. It can come in the form of thoughtful little gestures, like personalised welcome notes in the room, complimentary homemade cookies or perhaps some local jam to take home afterwards.

Luxury is complimentary Turkish Delight at the Kelebek Cave Hotel in Turkey!
Luxury is complimentary Turkish Delight at the Kelebek Cave Hotel in Turkey!

There is also perhaps an element of showing off involved. I’ve never considered myself boastful, quite the opposite in fact. Yet when another traveller friend told me she sometimes secretly enjoyed pretending to be rich on holiday it made me think. I’ve been known to book a VIP transfer in the latest BMW, and it isn’t beneath me to order room service at 3 a.m. Not because I’m hungry, but because I can. Perhaps I just want to feel important if only for a few days. I look back on our recent trip to South Africa and with hindsight cringe at the number of times I dropped the Virgin brand name into conversations with friends at home. It’s really quite vulgar. Was I trying to impress them that we were able to stay in such expensive and ‘luxurious’ places? You bet. And whilst it’s embarrassing to admit it, I think it’s just human nature.

We're not above a bit of showing off! Enjoying a bush breakfast at Richard Branson's South African spot!
We’re not above a bit of showing off! Enjoying a bush breakfast at Richard Branson’s South African spot!

Yet I think there comes a point where great expense becomes uncomfortable and stifling, and the pressure to enjoy this experience increases due to the outlay. In our quest for luxury we’ve sometimes gone too far, and have ended up feeling uncomfortable, in a world where we really don’t belong. Our most expensive and overly indulgent dining experience ever was also one of the worst. In an effort to provide supreme service, the venue assigned an attendant (one for every diner!) to stand silently behind our chairs, ready to pull them out if we needed to leave the table to revisit the buffet. They also kept topping up the glasses after every single sip of wine and were so close they could hear every word we spoke. It was stifling and we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Yet they saw this as providing a luxurious experience. I hated it.

Luxury is something that is valuable to you as an individual and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. What is luxurious to one person is not for another.

Rarely obtained and difficult to acquire

It is reasonable to think of luxury as something most of us can’t do all the time, such as flying business class (one day!!) or chartering a super yacht for a birthday party (does a rowing boat count?). I think for something to be luxurious it has to be a bit of a treat, allowing ourselves to experience things we wouldn’t normally, guilt free.

Treating ourselves to dinner at the world's most famous roof restaurant - Vertigo, Banyan Tree, Bangkok
Treating ourselves to dinner at the world’s most famous roof restaurant – Vertigo, Banyan Tree, Bangkok

The harder something is to acquire, the fewer the people who will experience it, and with that comes the golden concept of exclusivity. Going with the notion that luxury is rarely obtained, having to work a little harder for it can only be a good thing. It will put off those who don’t want it enough and make the experience more unique. We all like a bit of unique. And that is a luxurious concept!

Yet I feel that this is sometimes taken too far, particularly amongst the truly wealthy. There is a certain rather opulent hotel in Dubai which boasts a revolving bed and ships in thousands of rose petals from all over the world to decorate it’s suites. To me, the former is a completely ridiculous and pointless gimmick, and while the hotel itself may perhaps agree, they understand that such quirks are necessary to attract those in search of something that no-one else has! As for the rose petals, I find this horrifyingly wasteful rather than luxurious. Striving for rarity on this level is madness!

You don’t have to break the bank to find something unique. You just have to put in a little extra effort. Hike up that mountain with a tent in your backpack and enjoy the solitude of the hills long after everyone else has gone home for dinner. They’ll never know that food tastes so much better outdoors cooked over a campfire, or how invigorating it is to wash under a waterfall before breakfast. But we do, and it didn’t cost us a penny. And it was luxurious because we earned it!

Having the hills to ourselves whist wild camping in the Lake District
Having the hills to ourselves whist wild camping in the Lake District

Or if camping isn’t your cup of tea, next time you’re in Thailand sharing the beach with hundreds of others, make the effort to walk a bit further around the coast to the next secluded bay. The empty sands and swaying palms are all yours, simply because you tried a bit harder than everyone else. Now that is luxury!

Thailand's beaches can be crowded but a little extra effort had us enjoying a picnic of fresh pineapple and figs on our very own island sandbar!
Thailand’s beaches can be crowded but a little extra effort had us enjoying a picnic of fresh pineapple and figs on our very own island sandbar!

So to the dictionary I say this…

Luxury travel does not always have to be about supreme comfort or elegance. The emotional element is much more important. It’s about keeping the spirit happy as much as the body.

Great expense does not necessarily equal luxury. Some of the most luxurious experiences in this world can be found for free.

I do agree luxury needs to be a little unique, but you can have it as often as you like if you’re willing to put in a bit of effort.

In other words, what does luxury travel mean? It’s simply a state of mind!

This article was sponsored by Best At Travel. As always, words and opinions are my own.

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  1. says: Frank

    I like luxury but not put on, extravant, nouveau-riche luxury. I don’t like being bowed to in Thailand or have some guy pulling out my chair for me, just makes me feel uncomfortable. But we’ll splurge to go to a nice restaurant.
    Don’t get me started on people who feel the need to spend money to feel important. That’s like people who have to take a 2nd mortgage so that they can go out and buy a fancy sports car to impress the neighbors. That’s boring.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Agreed! I also don’t like the bowing thing, I just want to tell them ‘I’m not more important than you’ but I guess we have to respect their culture. nd as for sports cars…how many holidays could you have with that amount of money? Obscene.

  2. says: Dannielle Lily

    Great post! I’ve never experienced really fancy luxury travel but hope to one day. For now, I’m happy slumming it for the sunsets!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Thanks 🙂 I have to say make the most of it…once you get a taste for luxury then there’s no going back (which isn’t always good for the bank account!!)

  3. says: Anne Klien ( MeAnne)

    Great read! Sometimes its good to have some luxury when travelling but the most important is we really enjoy the experience when travelling its either luxury or on a budget 🙂

  4. says: Beverly Burmeier

    I travel to learn and appreciate other cultures and enjoy spectacular scenery, not to feel more important than anyone else.

  5. says: Rose

    I agree with you 100%! However, when I do my reading of the blogs, I still skip most of the luxury stuff, because most of the time it will be about things I can’t afford or simply things I don’t agree with.

    As you said, luxury is indeed a state of mind, a way to treat yourself to something nice, which doesn’t have to expensive. In that way, I consider traveling itself to be luxurious 🙂

  6. says: Cristina Luisa

    You make some excellent points here. To me, “luxury” has always meant the opulent, over-the-top, wastefully elegant. I’m much more of a how-cheap-can-I-possibly-make-this-trip sort, but I do agree with you on several points. Luxury IS about comfort, value, emotional satisfaction, and a feeling of spoiling yourself. And that doesn’t always have to have a hefty price tag on it.

    1. says: Heather Cole

      I think it’s so difficult to define travel with neat labels such as ‘budget’ or ‘luxury’. Each word means something different to different people.

  7. says: MAD Travel Diaries

    Loved this! It was like reading my own thoughts. I’ve been trying to define my own way of luxurious travels because like you rightly say, the highest price doesn’t mean it’s the best. Over the years travel has taught me and defined luxury for me…and it is exactly as you have pointed out!

  8. says: Andrea

    I completely agree with this article, and your specific definition of luxury, As you’ve said, luxury is something not easily acquired but readily enjoyed. Expensive for a reason, it’s quality over quantity!

  9. says: Revati

    I absolutely agree with you 100% Only difference is you’ve managed to write a beautiful article, while I’ve struggled to put this point of view in words!

  10. says: melody pittman

    You summed it up exactly and I couldn’t agree more. Luxury travel for me is the little things that make my travel extra special. I think that little things, as small as a newspaper delivered to my door daily or a charging station for my electronics, are “luxurious” and things that the hotel doesn’t have to offer but does to make you feel special. I have so many things that just make me happy and I could all those things as a luxury rather than “included”.

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Luxury is definitely all about happiness! And I have to agree charging stations make me happy too, what with all the cameras and laptops we cart around 🙂

  11. says: Elena

    So true! Luxury has the same meaning to me too, it depends how you travel and what is valuable for you…but I think many people will disagree here – I have quite a few friends who wouldn´t consider a night in the desert in a tent luxurious at all, especially if there is not at least a 4-star hotel involved (to them I am a real hippie…and I am so far from a hippie:)))

    1. says: Heather Cole

      People are allowed to disagree 🙂 It’s all about personal perception, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, hippies or not!! 🙂