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."
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:/
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
* Avanti Destinations, 888-274-7245, http:/
* Eurobound, 888-672-7476, http:/
* Smolka Tours, 800-722-0057, http:/
* Gate 1 Travel, 800-682-3333, http:/
* Cross-Culture Journeys, 800-491-1148, http:/
* BeerTrips.com, 406-531-9109, http:/
* Elegant Cruises and Tours, 800-683-6767, http:/