Everyone is looking for a good investment these days. And with stocks, currencies and companies all foundering, some are finding that taking the trip of a lifetime is actually a smart move right now. Prices are good, crowds are sparse and the dividends—expanded worldview, lifelong memories, the satisfaction of boosting the global economy—can't be easily snatched away. Sylvia and Paul Custerson, a retired couple from Cambridge, England, recently took a 16-day vacation to Namibia, where they went on safari and bird-watching excursions. Later this year, they are planning a trip to Patagonia. "We're using our capital now," says Sylvia, 64. "And why not? We're not getting any interest in the bank. If it's a place we really want to go, we're thinking, To hell with it! We may as well travel while we're fit and healthy—and before the airlines go bust."
Some travel agents are thriving in spite of the economy. "We've had more people booking in the first quarter of this year than last," says Hubert Moineau, founder of Paris-based Tselana Travel, which is planning to introduce a new program of longer adventure trips, including polar expeditions, gorilla tracking and cruises in the Galápagos. "We're hearing [our clients say] things like, 'We don't know what the situation will be in six months so let's travel now'." Ashley Toft, managing director of the U.K. tour operator Explore has been surprised to see an uptick in last-minute bookings of high-priced trips to such places as India, Bhutan and Nepal. "It seems people would rather give up something else than the big trip," he says. "Travel has become a necessity. It's just how we travel that is changing."
Indeed, though some travelers may be spending more time going longer distances, they do not necessarily have to spend more money. They can use cheaper alternatives like home stays instead of chain hotels, flagging down local taxis rather than reserve hotel cars and choosing family-run eateries over instantly recognizable global brands. "Yacht charters and private jets are dead," says George Morgan-Grenville of Abercrombie & Kent. "But what is remaining resilient is the traditional authentic experience."
A long trip is certainly more satisfying than a short one, but many also choose it because it's better for the environment. In terms of carbon emissions, they say, a clutch of weekend trips is more damaging to the planet than one round-the-world jaunt. Clive Stacy, managing director of the U.K.-based tour operator Discover the World, has just launched a 50-day trip around Iceland, which can be done in one stint or spread over three years (at 2009 prices). "We want to encourage people to go away less frequently," he says. "The boom in low-cost flying has meant a big rise in weekend breaks. I say fly less, stay longer, do more. If you focus on one or two holidays a year, you're really getting to know the country and achieving so much more."
Longer trips aren't necessarily pricier, either. "The airfare is a big proportion of the cost of a trip," Stacy says. "It means longer trips can even work out cheaper per day—say, in somewhere like New Zealand—than staying at home." Morgan-Grenville says that Abercrombie & Kent's clients, who come mostly from the U.S. and the U.K., are already traveling less frequently. "If they were taking four big trips a year, they are now taking two," he says. "What is important is they are not compromising on the duration of their holidays or the quality."
The downturn in the travel industry is already giving rise to some fantastic deals, which will continue at least in the short term. It could be the perfect moment to take that once-in-a-lifetime trip: a journey into Uganda's misty mountains to look into the amber eyes of a gorilla, or to see the white wilderness of Antarctica. Your financial adviser may not approve of that kind of investment, but what does he know anyway?