Destinations

The Solo Female Traveler Who Does It All in First Class

Jul 28, 2013 8:15 am

Skift Take

What occupies a smaller niche than the backpacking around-the-world traveler? The one who travels by private jet. If only she started a blog …

— Jason Clampet

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Betty Bright doesn’t exactly travel like the rest of us.

She has been around the world, “oh, I think it’s six or seven times,” she says.

Her latest trip was seeing the world’s most beautiful islands by private jet. If she has to fly commercial, she tends to choose a first-class aisle seat near the front of the plane to combat claustrophobia.

Yet the Bloomfield Hills inveterate traveler, 83, has one big wish on her bucket list.

“I’ve been to Timbuktu and Kathmandu, but I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon,” she says.

Most of us plan our vacations and trips with a skimpy budget and a limited eye. But there is a whole world of travel for people with means that puts the lux in luxury. It’s not cheap. In the past few years, Bright has taken two luxury private jet trips that tend to cost $70,000 and up — plus visas, insurance and a single supplement if you travel alone.

Five years ago, Bright took a round-the-world-by-private-jet trip called “Crossroads of History.” In April, she did “Extraordinary Islands” through TCS & Starquest Expeditions, a private-jet 24-day tour on a Boeing 757 from Hawaii to Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Maldives, Bali and Fiji. They crossed the equator six times.

These trips, sponsored by either specialty outfits or as a division of larger tour companies like National Geographic, appeal to a certain segment of travelers.

Luckily, these days Bright is one of them. It wasn’t always that way.

How She Got Started

Back in 1954 as a college student, the Harbor Beach native scraped together money to take her first trip abroad, to Europe. She visited 12 countries, including Andorra and Lichtenstein. She explored them wearing a proper hat and white gloves, the way young women dressed at the time.

Then known as Betty Suida, she took a job in the interior/styling department at Chrysler, where she worked as an executive secretary for 35 years. She kept traveling as far and as often as she could — skiing in the Alps, even venturing to the Soviet Union.

In 1980, the Republican activist was drafted by her party to run against incumbent Congressman James Blanchard in the 18th Congressional District. Though she lost (with a respectable 33% of votes), she enjoyed every minute of the battle. She has met and known Republican presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush. She has combined her love of politics and travel by taking 20 cruises sponsored by the conservative journal the National Review.

Single for most of her life and with no children, she fell in love at first sight with businessman Thomas Bright Jr. three decades ago. In retirement, the duo traveled the globe ever more avidly, including taking 14 trips with the Dartmouth alumni association. He died in 1998.

Seeing It All

By now, Bright has seen nearly every beautiful thing in every place. She has seen every grand monument, sometimes multiple times.

“The Taj (Mahal) is really just another mosque,” she says, unimpressed. She prefers the lesser-known royal mosques with gold domes she saw this spring in Brunei.

She has been on trips where she ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in three different countries on the same day.

She’s not afraid. She travels first class, but she knows it does not protect you from random disaster. (She once heard about a Kenyan train from Nairobi that she had taken as a first-class passenger. A bridge collapsed. All the train cars were rescued except one — the first-class car that plunged to its doom.)

She is fond of reciting a quote attributed to St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Ask her to name her favorite trip, however, and the answer might surprise you. It is one she took to England and France with her husband in 1994, marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He had fought in World War II, and she saw the sights through his eyes.

After he died, she didn’t really feel like traveling again. But her bereavement counselor said, “He would want you to.”

So she picked up her suitcase and kept seeing the world.

The VIP Way

Taking a trip by private jet is something few of us will ever get to do. So, what’s it like? Cushy, Bright says. There is someone to do everything for you — from filling out your arrival documents (all you do is sign) to putting stamps on your postcards. There are no airport lines. No luggage hassles.

Her most recent trip had 77 passengers and nearly as many staff. “They gave us an iPad with all the lectures on it, and a couple books,” she says. “They gave us $100 credit to put other things on it.”

In Fiji, her group got a VIP police escort. In some places, travelers didn’t even go through customs. A chef, a doctor, lecturers, and a host of travel coordinators go with the group. If it eliminates spontaneity, it also eliminates hassles. Hotels are luxurious.

“My room in Brunei was bigger than my whole apartment,” she says, gesturing at her spacious apartment with its white sofa, tasteful paintings and view of the woods.

Under the Radar

Seven years ago, Bright moved from her Franklin home to a retirement community.

She has some health challenges, including COPD, which makes traveling and taking medicine on time a trick when flying across time zones. Some of her meds crumbled in the heat of Papua New Guinea.

And she doesn’t really broadcast her trips.

“Last year, when I went to Albania, I had to tell the office I was going — you have to tell them — and most people who heard about it said, ‘Why in the world would you ever go there?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s there.’ ”

Mary Small of Northville, who once traveled with Bright through the Middle East, says Bright is not your average traveler.

“She takes my breath away,” Small says. “She can travel around the world with one small suitcase, and is always dressed to the nines. I travel a lot, but she tells me of places I’ve never even heard of. She is one of the most interesting people you can imagine. Her name should be Betty Brilliant.”

Still on the List?

Bright has long belonged to the Detroit chapter of the Circumnavigators Club, for people who have been around the world. She has been to all seven continents, many of them multiple times.

Her apartment is filled with only a few tasteful reminders of her travel passion — mostly glass globes and paperweights. She brings out a four-pronged small fork from Papua New Guinea she got in April. It’s a special fork for eating human flesh, according to the tag, which is still on it. But it will go back in the drawer.

She doesn’t really keep many photographs around. It’s in her memory, all of it, all her trips, even that first one when she went to Andorra.

Her only problem is she is running out of places to go. Most around-the-world-by-private plane trips include places Bright has been.

Still, “I’ve never been to Kosovo,” she says. “It’s a new country.”

And you can practically see the wheels turning as she figures out how to get there.

(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services. 

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