Original article By Elaine Glusac on sanjuandailystar.com
Owners of a Mexican tile import company in Austin, Texas, Nick Barreiro and Canan Kaba have had to travel for business during the pandemic. But the opportunity to stay as the sole guests of the five-room Hotel Amparo in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for $500 a night last summer satisfied two of the couple’s goals: to enjoy a hotel they had discovered on a previous trip and to ensure they weren’t contributing to the spread of the virus.
They missed meeting other travelers and having more menu choices, but, Barreiro said, “all of that is easily outweighed by having the hotel completely to yourself.”
In these socially distant times, many travel companies are adapting to offer their lodgings, tours and experiences to private groups of families or friend pods. Most of these buyouts tend to target one-percenter travelers — the 20-room Greydon House on Nantucket, for example, goes for $20,000 a night in summer — but savvy planners will find more affordable options for private travel to sate their wanderlust now or in the postvaccine future.
“We found if we can keep it somewhat affordable on a per room or per guest basis, then it’s something in the range of a normal vacation and people get very intrigued,” said Brent Reynolds, chief executive of Nolan Reynolds International, which runs a few small hotels in Costa Rica where private bookings have quadrupled since the pandemic. Its Casa Chameleon at Mal Pais, which accommodates 20 adults in 10 villas, on the Nicoya Peninsula costs $3,000 a night.
Keeping a buyout affordable depends on hitting the maximum number of travelers to spread the costs out. In some cases, per-person rates may seem budget-friendly, but depend on larger groups — the laid-back Hotel San José in Austin, for example, sells for $15,000 a night, accommodating 80. The new 17-room Dubbel Dutch hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where rooms start at $150, has done buyouts to host small weddings and retreats.
Some destinations limit group bookings based on COVID-19 restrictions; California, for example, currently only allows lodging for essential travelers in regions under stay-at-home orders. But because private bookings tend to require planning up to six months in advance, now is a good time to think about a bubble trip for summer or beyond when more vaccine distribution may allow for safer travel.
Beyond renting a private vacation home, the following are some ways that creative travel operators are making buyouts realistic for many travelers.
Take your private group on tour
Group tour operators have had a very rough pandemic year. But some of them have adapted to the demand for social distancing and isolation by reconfiguring their tours for small private groups, often not much bigger than the average American household.
Over the summer, Escape Adventures, which specializes in biking trips in the American West, dropped its private-tour minimum from 10 people to five in response to the pandemic, making the tours more affordable for groups of families and friends. Its four-day trip following the 100-mile White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park in Utah — described as a “natural roller coaster” for its dips and climbs — starts at $999 a person, including meals and two guides: a savings of $1,900 a person compared with pre-COVID private tours. Bring your own camping gear or rent it for about $100 each.
The tour operator Backroads has created a division of trips somewhere between buyouts and group tours. The new Rendezvous option allows a small group — up to seven in Europe and nine in North America — to have its own support van and guide and the option to check in and out of events scheduled for the larger group. The semiprivate option triggers a supplemental fee per group of $2,400 in Europe and $2,900 in North America. A four-day hiking tour in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park starts at $2,699 a person, before the Rendezvous supplement.
The small group specialist G Adventures has added 80 tours for private departures called the “Book Your Bubble Collection” designed for eight to 12 travelers. Options include eight days in Morocco from $671 a person, and 16 days exploring Costa Rica from $1,423 a person (both Morocco and Costa Rica are open to American travelers with some restrictions).
As always, before booking a private group tour, check the cancellation policy to understand its terms and any penalties. G Adventures is currently offering a flexible cancellation policy that allows rebookings up to 30 days before departure.
Buying out the great outdoors
Most affordable lodgings, such as hostels, tend to make the finances work by housing a lot of rooms or guests, which make them expensive to buy out. (One exception is the relatively small Cache House in Jackson, Wyoming, where groups can buy out a 24-bunk room for $199 a person at full capacity, including a ski pass and dinner).
Getting a full campground to yourself offers privacy, social distancing and communion with the outdoors.
“In terms of COVID bubbles, camping is potentially the only way some groups can get away and be observant of the regulations in place,” said Dan Yates, founder and managing director of Pitchup.com, a booking site for campgrounds in over 50 countries.
About a quarter of Pitchup listings have fewer than 10 campsites and close to another 20% have between 10 and 25 sites, putting them in the feasible realm for buyouts. Not all campgrounds accept groups — about 40% on the site are open to them — but among those that do, the off-grid Glamping Canyonlands, about 40 miles south of Moab, Utah, will offer four platform tents from $85 a piece with toilets, showers and a communal cooking area.
For a true glamping experience, including a chef and guided hiking excursions and yoga classes, the New Mexico-based Heritage Inspirations offers pop-up camps above the Rio Grande Valley in Taos, accommodating up to 14 guests in furnished tents for three days at $1,250 a person.
Seek short-term experiences
In addition to challenging budgets, buyouts are usually a big commitment of time. But operators in the day-trip and attractions arenas are coming up with creative ways to indulge for an afternoon.
At the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, devoted to displaying castoff neon signage from the Strip and environs, private parties of 20 can buy out an admission slot for $20 each, giving them 45 minutes alone with the relics.
Free Tours by Foot normally offers free walking tours (travelers are encouraged to pay what they like) in dozens of cities around the world. But they also offer relatively affordable private tours for groups. In New Orleans (where public tours are currently suspended through March, because of the pandemic) a two-hour private tour is $25 a person for up to six people.
You can take your wellness goals private at the Sound View hotel in Greenport on the North Fork of Long Island in New York where a private yoga class for five, followed by a three-course lunch, starts at $700, or $140 a person.
Foreign exchange discounts
Booking where the dollar is strong is one way to get more value out of any trip, in this case turning a luxury like a buyout into something attainable.
In Mexico, which is open to American visitors arriving by plane despite a surge in coronavirus infections, $1 is currently worth more than 19 Mexican pesos. So, while rates at the five-room boutique hotel Casa Delphine in San Miguel de Allende are stated in U.S. currency at $1,250 for a full buyout that accommodates 10 people, local expenses including dining deliver more purchasing power for the dollar.
“Down here, everything is reasonable compared to American prices, so it’s not an outlandish vacation,” said Amanda Keidan, the hotel owner.
Though considerably larger at 25 rooms, Casa Salles Hotel Boutique in Tequila, Mexico, is available for buyouts at $4,053 a night, about $162 a room (or about $330 if you want to limit your bubble to a dozen rooms). The property, including an outdoor pool, spa, restaurant and bar, resides on the grounds of El Tequileño’s distillery and is about a 10-minute walk from the town center.
A boat of your own
Chartering your own small ship is a reach for most budgets, but fares in some areas are low during the travel slump. Rainforest Cruises, an agency that specializes in small ships, is offering the six-passenger Amazon EcoBoat on the Amazon River in Brazil for $8,400 for four days, or about $350 a person a day, including meals and daily naturalist-led excursions (Brazil is currently open to international arrivals by air with some requirements, including a negative coronavirus test).
Inquiries to sail privately are up, though most travelers are waiting for the fog of the virus to clear.
“Not everyone is ready to pull the trigger,” said Jeremy Clubb, founder and director of Rainforest Cruises. “We find people are doing the research and gathering options but are inclined to book close to travel.”