08/11/2010 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Does Luxury Mean to You?

If you had all the riches in the world, what would you do with it? Would you up your lifestyle, or hoard your cash? Buy a new house, upgrade your car, or take an around-the-world vacation? Maybe you'd pay off your debts and head into early retirement. Then what would you do? More importantly, how would you know that what you're spending your riches on was legitimate?

Think about the amount of knockoffs we encounter on a daily basis and then ask yourself if you could really tell the difference. From the outside, the object looks the same -- it has the same stitching, same coloring, same shape and is likely the same size, but what's on the inside makes the difference -- that's the luxury of the product.

Johan Lehrer of Wired recently wrote about this same thing saying, "The pricing of fakes reveals something important about how the human mind calculates value. In many instances, we crave authenticity as an end unto itself. We want the real iPhone not because it works better but because it's the real one. The same logic explains why we splurge on Hermes bags, Rolex watches, Prada T-shirts, fancy Bordeaux, and expensive art. (How much would you pay for a fake Picasso print?) While a Rolex is a lovely piece of time keeping machinery, the value of the watch has nothing to do with its function. Instead, it depends on the intact authenticity of the brand."

The same holds true for the travel industry.

Some travelers choose where to stay based on price, others choose based on performance. If you've stayed at a particular hotel brand in the past and you enjoyed it, what are the chances you would stay there again even if it was slightly higher than a lesser-class hotel located in the same destination? Chances are you would book the same hotel because you're not ready to risk your money on something unknown.

The economic recovery hasn't been easy and the travel industry has suffered along with the consumer. The New York Times reported that today's consumers are saving more and spending less than they have in decades; on the other hand, there's a new trend in the spending purchases of consumers -- they are buying what makes them happy, regardless of the price. Consumers may be buying less, but they are buying better.

Exterior aesthetics aside, it's easy to tell the difference between budget travel and luxury travel services. No one can argue the service in first-class is better than in the back of the plane. You can't argue that a stay at a 5-star hotel will offer you more amenities and individualized service than a stay at a budget motel. What you can argue is the price, and that's where your "luxury limit" comes in. How much will you pay to be treated well? The difference is in the brand; the brand is, essentially, what matters.

Let's take a look at a few:

Kimpton Hotels appeals to women travelers, thanks to their Women InTouch program. Conceived by Niki Leondakis, Chief Operating Officer, the program ensures that women travelers have all the amenities and services they need when on the road. Are the Kimpton's a bit pricier? Yes. Is it worth it when you need an entirely new set of business proposals printed at 3 a.m. before your 7 a.m. board meeting and the only 24-hour copy service is in a bad part of town? Yes. The program comes with added safety, and that alone is priceless.

Starwood Hotels -- which includes Sheraton, W Hotels, Westin, Aloft and the St. Regis -- runs the gamut of star-ratings. The Sheraton isn't in the same star-rating as the St. Regis, but because both hotels are under the branding of Starwood, the concept is that travelers can expect the same service (not necessarily the same amenities) from all hotels in the brand. If you've stayed with the Starwood family before and enjoyed it, chances are you'll spend money to stay there again instead of risking it on another property.

5-star hotels including The Ritz-Carlton and The Four Seasons are often considered the crème de la crème of top-tier hotels for US travelers. Did you know that both of these hotel brands have non-branded hotels in their family? The non-brands have the same management and expertise as the branded hotels, but they offer a little anonymity to the guest without comprising the very essence of what makes them a trusted brand. In other words, you can buy a Gucci bag without the big "G" label on the front and rest assured it's still a Gucci, made with Gucci quality and guaranteed Gucci service. Or, you can save a few bucks and buy the knock-off, and run the risk that it will fall apart after a few months. Quality not assured.

I'm not advocating people live outside of their means, but what I am suggesting is that you reconsider what a luxury brand is to you. The definition lies in the beholder -the problem most people face is vanity. While indulging in a little luxury might come off as pretentious or snobbish, the question you should ask yourself is: are you worth it?