I received in the mail a glossy travel brochure from the Northwestern Alumni Association with an offer to join a three-week trip to Africa and South America. The journey, called “Cape to Cape: An Expedition by Private Jet,” looked so impressive on the cover that I looked inside to see whether it might be too fantastic to turn down.
It was. Too fantastic, that is. Fantastic to the tune of $69,950 per person — and that’s for double occupancy! If you want to sleep alone, you have to fork over an additional $8,650. Alas, not included in the price is the cost of getting to London, where the trip starts, and getting home from Orlando, Fl., where the trip ends. Laundry isn’t included either.
Clearly this trip is not for everyone. It’s not even for the 1 percent but rather for a tiny subset. In the greater Washington area, it took household earnings of almost $520,000 to be part of the 1 percent in 2010, according to this article. That’s a great income, for sure, but not exactly an amount that would allow a couple without other resources to plop down at least $140,000 for a three-week trip.
Accustomed to reading about alumni trips costing a few thousand dollars, I looked to see if Northwestern is alone in offering such an expensive trip. It isn’t. It turns out that if the price is a little too steep, you can opt for the “Around the World by Private Jet” journey being offered by schools including the University of Virginia and Princeton University and the University of Michigan (whose alumni are currently on the voyage). Cost for the three-week trip to nine countries on five continents, starting in late October: $67,950 per person, double occupancy. The single supplement is $8,500, just slightly less expensive than the Northwestern trip. Physical Activity Level: Moderately Active
What’s going on? These trips are among the hundreds that are offered annually by the alumni associations of colleges and universities across the country, designed to bring together graduates who can bond and remind themselves of their glory days in college — and come to realize why they should support their alma mater with very large donations.
But there are trips — say, the University of Maryland Alumni Association’s 2013 “Italian Inspiration 7-Day Cruise” starting at $1,799 per person; or Stanford University’s 2013 “Galapagos Family Adventure” costing $7,995 for adults and $7,395 kids; or Georgetown University’s classic summer “Kenya & Tanzania Safari” which cost $9,067 per person from New York, double occupancy — and then there are trips.
The biggest-ticket trips above are run by tour operator is TCS & Starquest Expeditions, a luxury travel agency that has gotten a hold on university and college travel business and, according to its website, provides:
… the ultimate in service, comfort and convenience by flying direct and landing as close to our destinations as possible. We stay at some of the best hotels and resorts in the world. We provide insider access to the most iconic places on the planet, all while showing you the hidden gems. Many of the world’s foremost experts travel with us to share their knowledge, and local guides provide invaluable information on our destinations.
I asked Northwestern’s Alumni Association why they would offer a trip that only a very few people could afford. This is part of the response from Jay Mastin, senior director of the association:
The Northwestern Alumni Association offers our alumni a wide variety of group educational travel opportunities, ranging from historical and natural tours in the U.S. to trips to Europe, Asia, South America and even Antarctica. Since you’re an alum, I’m sure you know that Northwestern graduates tend to be an adventurous and intellectually curious group with widely varying interests. So in an effort to provide travel learning opportunities to all types of alumni travelers, we partner with several different companies which specialize in alumni group educational trips.
The trip that you’ve inquired about undoubtedly appeals to a fairly small number of our alums because of its length and cost, but we have had alumni takes advantage of similar offerings in the past. I wouldn’t be able to share with you the exact number of travelers, as we don’t reveal that information publicly, but as I said, what we try to do is offer many kinds of educational travel opportunities.
Understood. In these days of tight budgets, public and private schools must raise private funds from their alumni, and that, of course, means in part attracting their wealthiest graduates. Still, there’s something just too 1 percent about these wildly expensive trips. At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, and when the child poverty rate in the United States stands at 22 percent, universities have to ask themselves if arranging $60,000 and $70,000 trips for some of the world’s most fortunate people is really part of the public image they want to project as they go about the very important job of raising money. Aren’t there less ostentatious ways to ask really rich people to give back to their alma maters?
(For those who were wondering, here’s the itinerary for the Cape to Cape trip: You board a private jet in London and then spend three weeks hopscotching to Madeira Island in Portugal; Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso; Walvis Bay or the Namib Desert in Namibia; and Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Then, you fly across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, then Usuaia in Argentina, where you take the Cape Horn Cruise to Punta Arenas, Chile. Then you fly to Buenos Aires, then Iguacu Falls in Brazil, then Managua, Nicaragua, and finally to Orlando to bid adieu. Dream on.)