The days of following a set itinerary you found in a guidebook are gone. With documentaries, YouTube vlogs and social media unveiling never-before-seen parts of the world to the masses, even travel companies are catering mostly to globetrotters choosing destinations based on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, according to data from Expedia. And Pelorus — named for the navigational tool used to maintain the bearing of a sea vessel back in the golden era of travel and discovery — is one of the leaders in the experiential travel market for the super-rich.
Co-founders Geordie Mackay-Lewis and Jimmy Carroll plan their trips — whether that’s diving at the incredible reefs within the Dhalak Archipelago off the coast of Eritrea or heli-skiing the volcanoes in Kamchatka on the western edge of Siberia — with military precision. The duo draws on their unique experience as captains in a British Army reconnaissance regiment to provide adventurers with incomparable experiences in the most epic destinations.
Mackay-Lewis says he and Carroll vet every element of a trip themselves, traveling to the ends of the earth in the name of research — and Mackay-Lewis is still doing it in the Altberg Jungle boots that saw him through two tours in Afghanistan. While scoping out new destinations, you’ll also find him roughing it with a Gerber Mini Knife (likely tied to his shoe or the back of his pants), a Inmarsat satellite phone (for peace of mind), a Sony a7 III camera (to capture the memories), Bose noise-canceling headphones (“to block out everything from screaming kids on airplanes to a bus full of Bolivian locals and chickens”), and an Anker battery pack (“so I know I can totally veer off the grid”), in his pack. Pelorus trips, though, are planned with every comfort in mind (they’re aimed at the super-rich, starting at $30,000).
What sets Pelorus apart is their emphasis on prioritizing experiences over destinations — and building trips from scratch using a global network of local experts. But “anyone, with or without budget, can avoid defaulting to guidebooks and mass travel companies,” says Mackay-Lewis. Here are his best tips for planning a priceless vacation you’ll never find in a guidebook.
1. Nail Down What You Want From Your Vacation
The traditional travel method is a) find amazing hotel b) plan itinerary around it. “But once you do that, you’re only going to experience what’s in the direct vicinity of that place; you’re never going to get a really authentic experience,” says Mackay-Lewis.
Think about what’s wowed you during your last five years of travel, whether that’s taking in the epic view over a site like Machu Picchu or just sitting around a campfire with your friends in the woods — those are the kinds of experiences you should be targeting.
“We always start planning from the best possible experiences somewhere has to offer,” he explains. “That could be anything from viewing wildlife species, a tribal or cultural event, a geographical phenomena or something equally extraordinary.” Once you’ve got your priorities in mind, you can always figure out logistics like where to sleep and how to get around.
2. Layer Your Trip
You may be going somewhere for one reason (say, to see the one-of-a-kind sunken petrified forest in Kazakhstan), but think about what you can layer on top of that experience (like driving a half-day to get to a guy who will take you free-diving in said sunken lake).
“We want people to experience a country three-dimensionally: on the ground, above it and below it when possible,” says Mackay-Lewis. “It gives you an entirely different perspective on a place.”
Iceland is a great example of a destination that’s made this approach easy: “The island itself is already extraordinary, but now you can put on a suit to explore the insides of a volcano, race buggies across black sand beaches or drive Formula Off Road cars through the extreme terrain,” he explains.
3. Do Your Own Research
There’s a whole, wide world out there — one that’s easier to know than ever before thanks to the abundance of material from travel writers, influencers, photographers and videographers. To flesh out your itinerary, you should be using input from multiple sources. “There’s no excuse to rely on one guidebook or one travel operator,” says Mackay-Lewis.
Most Americans get just two weeks of vacation (if they even take all their days, but that’s another story); time is your most precious commodity. That means doing the research ahead of time so you’re not left fumbling for ideas (and wasting time) on the ground.
“If you’re not prepared to put at least half the amount of time that you’re going to spend on the ground in to research and planning, then you’ve only got yourself to blame,” he says. Life is short; make those PTO days count.
4. Find a Legit Guide
It’s hard to have an authentic experience when you aren’t with someone who knows the area. “You need someone to bring an experience to life,” says Mackay-Lewis. Sure, you could opt for Airbnb Experiences or trust that “guide” that commented on your Instagram post, but you’re hiring someone to do a job — treat the task like you would hiring someone at your actual job.
Mackay-Lewis suggests getting three references from other travelers or people who have worked with that person in a professional environment — and actually trust them. But you’ve still got to interview them. “Get them on the phone, test them and challenge them on things,” says Mackay-Lewis. “If they’re really good, they’ll be happy to dedicate that time.”
One red flag to watch out for: People who say “anything’s possible.” That’s a great attitude, but likely a bit over-ambitious.
5. Assess the Risk
Traveling to exotic destinations or remote regions comes with an inherent risk — you’re far from your comfort zone, and it may be difficult to extract yourself in an emergency. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe or that you shouldn’t go, but it’s a reason to tread carefully in planning a trip and booking excursions.
Mackay-Lewis relies on his military tools and networks to assess risk, but you can create your own intelligence report using four or five reputable sources. “Government travel advisories are always going to be more cautious [because] they’re protecting their citizens, but you can start there,” he says. “Then, talk to people who are actually living there. It could be an ex-pat you know, someone who owns a company there that you found through LinkedIn, even people on Instagram who live there or have traveled there recently.”
Ask questions like: How many tourists have been there in the last six months? Where are they going within the area? Where are they not going? “When you put all that info together, you’ve got a pretty good sense of what’s going on,” says Mackay-Lewis. “These people are on the ground, so they know what it’s really like.”
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