Imagine traveling in the following manner: a sleek, dark and shining luxury limousine whisks you from your hotel to the airport. The speed limit is of no concern to your driver. In any case, there is hardly a traffic cop who would dare interfere after a quick glance at the license plates identifying the car as part of the royal or presidential motor pool. The thick, tinted windows prevent onlookers seeing who is being chauffeured. In fact, policemen along the way halt traffic to ease you safely through intersections.
Instead of stopping outside of the departure terminal the car drives around to an exclusive and private section of the airport. While you sip a cup of freshly served coffee, someone is taking care of your travel documents, luggage and ticketing. All you need to do is to present yourself at the airplane door, well after the final boarding call has been made, at which point your uniformed escort hands you your briefcase and boarding pass as he bids you farewell.
Or better yet, at other times the limousine drives onto the tarmac, stopping at the foot of a private jet, where once you board, a flight attendant serves you a glass of chilled champagne as the pilot switches on the engines and readies for takeoff.
There is luxury travel and then there is a class beyond. Luxury travel is open to anyone who can afford it — from first class, available to the “common variety” business executive. Or then again, mixing in with the fancy business suits in first class is the seasonal traveler who has saved up enough air miles to splurge on an occasional upgrade, allowing the traveler to see how the other half lives. (Air miles accumulated perhaps after five cross-Atlantic trips cramped in the back of the bus.)
One step above first is luxury travel, accessible to only the rich and famous of this world, for whom cost is no concern. Those who possess their own Lear Jets, sleek cars, and travel frequently between New York, London, Paris, Rome and other locations around the globe for business or pleasure, or both.
Those are the travelers who will reserve the royal suite to the tune of several thousands of dollars a night. Dinner in the best restaurants, where the common mortal may require about three months notice to get in, and will need three months of his salary in order to pay for the dinner.
Anybody with enough money can purchase a first class airline ticket, but that does not get one passed the ever-growing security lines at airports, the repeated body searches and as is the case in most U.S. airports, the added humility of having to take off shoes, belts and vests and being herded like cattle.
Nor does it get you past the inevitable, interminable immigration line upon arriving at once destination.
That class above is reserved to a very particular elite with clout far beyond that of the traditional jet setter. Money alone will not suffice: political influence or the proper connections are a prerequisite for this kind of travel.
Not being a millionaire, unless you count my savings in pre-euro Italian lire or Belgian francs, much of my travels to the 78 countries I was fortunate enough to visit were carried out either in economy class or, during the heydays of journalism when expense accounts were never an issue, in business class. But as a foreign correspondent covering the political movers and shakers of this world, I was often able to sidestep to the luxury class and mingle with the mode of travel reserved to the chosen few, even if quite often the chosen few are self-appointed.
Arriving as a guest of the country’s ruler, emir, leader, king or president is just as pleasant and exciting. You are met right at the aircraft door, escorted along a separate corridor away from the rest of the crowd into a VIP lounge while someone is taking care of getting your passport stamped and your suitcase magically appears at your side.
Years ago I had a wristwatch that included a stopwatch function. Upon landing in one of the Gulf emirates, I decided to see how long it would take from the moment I stepped out of the airplane door, was escorted past customs and immigration and ushered into a waiting limousine: just under three minutes. The mad dash to the fancy five-star hotel hardly took a few minutes more.
This is the kind of travel money cannot buy — or if it does, it requires oodles of it.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC.