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Tour Operators

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

When my sister Claire traveled to Mongolia in 2001, her tour incorporated elements that made the trip "one of the most memorable moments" of her life, she said. "Our Mongolian guide took us to her mother's ger tent [yurt] out in the middle of nowhere. The 'neighbors' came from all over the countryside to meet us. We witnessed the sacrifice of one of their sheep for that night's dinner, put up a ceremonial tent together, then sat and enjoyed the sacrificial mutton and Russian vodka, took turns singing Mongolian and American songs, and danced into the wee hours of the night."

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Don't have the time, energy or connections to plan your own memorable moments? From luxury outfitters such as Abercrombie & Kent to firms that put basic hotel and airfare deals together, tour operators do the work for you. You can go with a group or on your own, travel by motor coach or drive yourself, have the operator handle every detail or only some, design your own itinerary or follow the operator's plan.

Tour operators use their experience and relationships within the travel industry, along with insider's knowledge of a country, region or specialty, to design and package trips. Because tour operators represent steady, often bulk, business to other segments of the travel industry, and because they are steeped in the trade, they are able to pull all the pieces of a vacation together more cost-efficiently and expeditiously than an individual might. Some tour operators act as their own travel agents, booking trips for travelers; others turn to travel agents to sell the trips they've organized. The best tour operators have often been around for years and belong to an accredited organization such as the National Tour Association or the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Both organizations allow public access to membership information on their Web sites, http://www.ntaonline.com and http://www.ustoa.com.

And here's another source: this list of tour operators organized by country, with contact info and details about the types of trips and expertise they offer. To come up with our picks, we contacted embassies and tourism offices for about 40 popular destinations, requesting the names of suggested tour operators -- including Washington-based firms, when available -- that are expert in that particular location. The list concludes with a range of specialty travel categories, with names of tour operators we've gathered from industry experts, the Internet and frequent travelers.

-- Elise Hartman Ford

EUROPE

Austria

* Avanti Destinations, 888-274-7245, http://www.avantidestinations.com. In business since 1981, Avanti (formerly DER Travel) is a solid, midrange option for the independent traveler. Themed trips (for example, "Austria Wine and Spa") and general tours are available.

* Eurobound, 888-672-7476, http://www.eurobound.com. Offers city packages and custom tours for individuals and groups. Services include gay and lesbian trip planning. "Highlights of Austria" is one itinerary offered to individuals.

* Smolka Tours, 800-722-0057, http://www.smolkatours.com. European, multilingual staff tailors tours to accommodate budget and desires of individual travelers and groups. Specializes in music and art tours, including a "Sound of Music" package.

Belgium

* Gate 1 Travel, 800-682-3333, http://www.gate1travel.com. This large operator offers excellent deals worldwide, especially for independent travelers. In Belgium, a five-day, tour-on-your-own Brussels vacation allows add-on, reasonably priced options, such as escorted coach tours in various cities.

* Cross-Culture Journeys, 800-491-1148, http://www.ccjourneys.com. Known for its educational tours, this operator also offers small-ship river cruises. Its nine-day "Cruise Holland and Belgium in the Springtime" tour has four departure dates in April. For individuals and small groups.

* BeerTrips.com, 406-531-9109, http://www.beertrips.com. Don't laugh: Brewery tours are a big draw in Belgium. This company recommends its nine-day "Farmhouse Ales of Belgium and France" for "somewhat adventurous, beer-loving travelers" who enjoy brewery visits, castles and pub crawls.

Croatia

* Elegant Cruises and Tours, 800-683-6767, http://www.elegantcruises.com. This company's yachts and cruising vessels are small enough to follow Croatia's 1,200-mile Adriatic coast around and about the Dalmatian archipelago to places not typically accessible by larger ships.


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