washingtonpost.com
Tour Operators
What they do, how to find them and why you might want one.

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."

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.

* Kutrubes Travel, 800-878-8566, http://www.kutrubestravel.com. Balkan vacations and cultural travel are its specialty, via scheduled small-group tours as well as customized itineraries for individuals and groups. On tap for Croatia in 2008 are a "Grand Tour," "Discover Croatia" and "Treasures of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina."

* Abercrombie & Kent, 800-652-2405, http://www.abercrombiekent.com. This deluxe operator puts together independent and group itineraries around the world. Its "Signature Croatia" nine-day independent trip includes a ferry ride along the Dalmatian coast and a stay in the walled citadel of Dubrovnik.

Czech Republic

* Isram World, 800-223-7460, http://www.isram.com. One of the oldest and largest tour operators in the United States, Isram is best for groups and individuals who like general interest packages. Its "Splendors of Central Europe" tour travels to Prague, Budapest and Vienna.

* Panorama Travel, 800-204-7130, http://www.panoramatravel.com. Full-service specialists in individual and group travel in Russia and Eastern Europe, Panorama is increasingly known for its health-spa packages, which integrate medicine and tourism at resorts, such as the Czech Republic's Karlovy Vary.

* Tatra Travel, 800-321-2999, http://www.tatratravel.com. Czech natives staff the New York office of this company, which has been in business since 1932, expertly planning independent trips to central Europe; its current roster lists at least nine Prague packages.

France

* Air France Holidays, 800-237-2623, http://www.airfranceholidays.com. France's main carrier offers all-inclusive vacation packages for destinations throughout France and elsewhere in Europe, with a host of options from visiting vineyards in Bordeaux to touring towns in Provence. For independent travelers.

* Discover France, 800-960-2221, http://www.discoverfrance.com. Specialists in hiking and biking tours, Discover France lists more than 30 self-guided itineraries, as well as a number of custom-designed and themed tours.

* Enchanted France, 866-313-2856, http://www.enchanted-france.com. Parisian-born owner organizes culinary, wine, hiking and other special-interest tours, as well as regional excursions and custom itineraries for individuals and groups.

Germany

* Brendan Worldwide Vacations, 800-421-8446, http://www.brendanvacations.com. Escorted motor coach group travel is Brendan's specialty, with itineraries named "Best of Germany" and "Bohemian Highlights" among those covering German territory.

* Globus and Cosmos, 800-221-0090, http://www.globusandcosmos.com. One of the largest escorted-tour companies, in business since 1928, Globus also plans independent travel and river cruises. Of note: Its specially designed "German Heritage" vacation offers an in-depth taste of German culture.

* Trafalgar Tours, 800-854-0103, http://www.trafalgartours.com. This London company (in business since 1947) caters to first-time travelers, people traveling alone and families or groups. Trafalgar's tours are all escorted and of endless variety: It offers 79 Germany tours.

Great Britain

* CIE Tours International, 800-243-8687, http://www.cietours.com. Founded 75 years ago, CIE specializes in escorted travel to Ireland but also arranges travel through England, Scotland and Wales -- and Rome, Croatia and Russia. Offers combo tours of Britain and Ireland, indie London trips and group travel.

* Image Tours, 800-968-9161, http://www.imagetours.com. Founded in Holland in 1939, Image has had a U.S. base since 1960. Escorted European tours are its specialty and include a 16-day "Heart of the British Isles" itinerary that takes you to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. You must book through a travel agent.

* Go-Today, 800-227-3235, http://www.gotoday.com. Sets itself apart by offering vacation packages at affordable prices, including a six-day "London at Its Best" package and another independent tour that goes to the Lake District and Scotland.

Greece

* Homeric Tours, 800-223-5570, http://www.homerictours.com. "America's Number 1 Choice to Greece" has been in business since 1969, arranging Greek Island stays, cruise and land packages, air and tour deals, and independent, hosted and escorted tours. Also goes to Italy, Cyprus, Egypt and Jordan.

* Tourlite International, 800-272-7600, http://www.tourlite.com. Another longtime tour operator to Greece, Tourlite specializes in yacht cruises, honeymoon tours and Greek Isles packages, as well as vacations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Hungary

* General Tours, 800-221-2216, http://www.generaltours.com. Now in its 61st year, General Tours offers escorted, privately guided and small-ship tours worldwide. Six of its tours travel to Hungary, including an eight-day "Treasures of the Danube" luxury cruise that also stops in Germany, Austria and Slovakia.

* Kompas Holidays International, 800-233-6422, http://www.kompas.net. This specialist in central and Eastern European travel offers a number of escorted tours that take in Hungary, including the "Eastern European Panorama," which stops in Budapest. Tours for independent travelers also available.

* Tradesco, 800-448-4321, http://www.tradescotours.com. Operates escorted and hosted travel to central and Western Europe, and to parts of Africa. Among its Hungary tours, spa resort packages predominate.

Ireland

* Celtic Journeys, 877-361-0518, http://www.celtic-journeys.com. Escorted tours include an 11-day trip from Killarney to Belfast and a 10-day trip that includes stops in Dingle and Dublin. Also offers custom tours.

* Isle Inn Tours, 703-683-4800 or 800-237-9376, http://www.isleinntours.com. Since Ireland is its sole destination, this D.C. area company offers lots of options, including fly-drive vacations, castle rentals and custom golf itineraries.

* CIE Tours International, 800-243-8687, http://www.cietours.com. Motor coach tours of Ireland remain CIE's focus 75 years on, although packages to other European destinations are also available. City-stay deals, self-drive independent packages and escorted highlight tours of Ireland are among the options.

Italy

* Grand European Tours, 800-552-5545, http://www.getours.com. With more than three decades of experience, it excels at escorted (air-land and land-only) tours, offering 40-plus throughout Europe, including a 16-day "Grand Tour of Italy" trip. Itineraries usually allow at least two nights at each location.

* Perillo Tours, 800-431-1515, http://www.perillotours.com. This family operation, in business since 1945, plans fully escorted tours, mostly to such landmark locations as Rome and Florence. Another option is the "Roman Holiday," in which a traveler can sightsee on his or her own but consult daily with the company's expert, on-site at the hotel.

* Visit Italy Tours, 800-255-3537, http://www.visititalytours.com. Native Italians, who are "specialists in all things Italy," plan your pleasure, from the Amalfi Coast to Sicily, arts and architecture tours to biking, luxury to budget, custom trips to escorted travel. Villa stays in Tuscany and Siena are an option.

Netherlands

* Viking River Cruises, 800-304-9616, http://www.vikingrivercruises.com. This popular company's "Tulips and Windmills" 10-day package cruises past tulip fields and other Holland landmarks and into Belgium, returning to Amsterdam. Book individually, but you'll be part of the group.

* Gate 1 Travel, 800-682-3333, http://www.gate1travel.com. Escorted, independent, custom and cruise tours are all available, but this large operator is especially known for its good deals for independent travelers. Its six-day Amsterdam package includes flights and hotels and the option to tour on your own or add affordable bus and boat tours as you like.

* VBT Bicycle Tours, 800-245-3868, http://www.vbt.com. See Holland by bike with this bicycle tour operator, in business since 1971. Biking and barging tours through the Netherlands are available, with departure dates from April through October.

Poland

* American Travel Abroad, 800-228-0877, http://www.amta.com. Since 1946, this company has specialized in tours of Eastern Europe and Russia, with a focus on Poland. AMTA tours are all-inclusive motor coach trips, ranging from overviews to religious or spa focuses.

* Exeter International, 800-633-1008, http://www.exeterinternational.com. Luxury tours to Poland are not common, but Exeter provides exactly that, in small-group tours that travel to cities in Poland and other Eastern European cities, and in specially designed tours for individuals visiting Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk.

Portugal

* Abreu Tours, 800-223-1580, http://www.abreu-tours.com. Opened in 1840, Abreu handles escorted and independent packages, golf tours and river cruises. Offices in New York, Portugal, Spain and Brazil.

* Central Holidays, 800-935-5000, http://www.centralholidays.com. This Mediterranean travel specialist's focus in Portugal is on tours for independent travelers, fly-drive packages and river cruises.

* UniWorld Grand River Cruises, 800-733-7820, http://www.uniworld.com. UniWorld offers 30 itineraries on 12 rivers in 20 countries. In Portugal, UniWorld is most famous for jointly operating the Douro Queen, a luxury river cruise ship that travels between Lisbon and Porto.

Russia

* Exeter International, 800-633-1008, http://www.exeterinternational.com. Luxury small-group escorted tours travel to "Hidden Russia" and "White Nights" cities. Exeter also works with individuals to design independent tours.

* Picasso Tours by Picasso Travel, 800-995-7997, http://www.picassotours.com. This tour operator's Nordique Tours department offers seven trips to Russia in 2008, including a three-night "St. Petersburg by Train" package. Picasso has an office in Washington.

* Tour Designs, 202-554-5820, http://www.tourdesignsinc.com. This small Washington-based company custom-

designs tours for groups and individuals (no escorted, scheduled-departure group tours) throughout Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Also travels to northern and Eastern Europe.

Scandinavia

* Brekke Tours & Travel, 800-437-5302, http://www.brekketours.com. This Midwest company, founded in 1956, organizes mostly escorted, general interest, heritage and customized itineraries in Norway, including trips to less-visited areas.

* Hurtigruten, 866-257-6071, http://www.hurtigruten.us. Formerly known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Hurtigruten's fleet of modern, first-class cruise ships travels along Norway's coast to Greenland and above the Arctic Circle.

* Passage Tours of Scandinavia,800-548-5960, http://www.passagetours.com. The 30-year-old company's tours travel to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Russia and the Baltics. Passage Tours offers 100 escorted, guaranteed-departure tours May through September and independent travel packages year-round. A winter package highlight is hut-to-hut skiing; traditional excursions might tour the fiords or arrange stays in Danish castles.

* Scandinavian American World Tours, 800-545-2204, http://www.scanamtours.com. Scandinavian-owned and -operated, ScanAm has long-standing travel connections throughout the region, with a variety of packages available. Check out its online top 10 list of places to visit in Scandinavia.

Spain

* Central Holidays, 800-935-5000, http://www.centralholidays.com. Offers a great variety of tours, including a "Splendors of Spain" escorted tour and a "Romance of Castles and Wine" independent tour.

* Key Tours, 800-576-1784, http://www.keytours.com. Based in Fairfax, this operator covers Mediterranean destinations. Sample package: the five-day "Memorable Barcelona," which puts all the details together for you, including hotel, airport transfers, city tours of Barcelona and Montserrat, seaside dinner and a flamenco show.

* Petrabax, 800-634-1188, http://www.petrabax.com. High-end escorted and independent travel; arranges stays in historic castles, inns and hotels. Also travels to Portugal and Morocco.

Switzerland

* Alpine Vacations, 800-755-1330, http://www.alpinevacations.com. Luxury ski vacations. Switzerland's packages are based in at least seven locations, including St. Moritz and Davos.

* Collette Vacations, 800-340-5158, http://www.collettetours.com. This big outfit is the United States' oldest tour operator, around since 1918. Collette goes just about everywhere, by escorted tour or cruise. In Switzerland, its 11-day "Train Journey of the Alps" trip is one possibility. Collette also partners with Smithsonian Journeys to offer various learning vacations.

* Tauck Tours, 800-788-7885, http://www.taucktours.com. These upscale escorted tours are studded with ultra-cool highlights. For instance, the "Alpine Interlude" tour offers a resort stay in St. Moritz, travel into the Alps by private observation rail car and a private boat tour on Lake Maggiore.

Turkey

* Troy Tours, 800-748-6878, http://www.troytours.com. Specializes in escorted and independent travel to Turkey, Greece and Italy. Its classic and highlights tours of Turkey are quite comprehensive. An Istanbul city package is one of its independent tours.

* Key Tours, 800-576-1784, http://www.keytours.com. Based in Fairfax, Key Tours covers Mediterranean destinations. At least eight Turkey vacation packages are offered, including a 10-day tour to Istanbul, Ephesus and other locales.

* Pacha Tours, 800-722-4288, http://www.pachatours.com. "The Turkey Specialist" posts a very long list of escorted travel packages on its Web site. Its 14-day "Cultural Heritage" program is one of its most popular. Also arranges custom trips and cruises.

NORTH AMERICA

For travel within the continental United States, contact the convention and visitors bureau of the state you wish to visit for recommendations of good tour operators.

Alaska

* All Alaska Tours, 866-317-3325, http://www.alaskatours.com. Offers hot springs and huskies tours, Arctic excursions and bear viewing for fully guided groups or individual tours. Coordinates with Alaska Railroad to arrange tours by rail across the state.

* Explore Tours, 800-523-7405, http://www.exploretours.com. Arranges motor home rentals, small-ship cruising, bear camp tours with a salmon bake.

* Alaska Wildland Adventures, 800-334-8730, http://www.alaskawildland.com. Offers varied packages, from small-group exploration of Denali National Park to multi-day hiking and backpacking for the independent traveler.

Bermuda and the Caribbean

* Apple Vacations,800-517-2000, http://www.applevacations.com. Apple puts together all-inclusive vacation packages for the Caribbean, Mexico, the Bahamas, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Europe, but its focus is Mexico and the Caribbean, with Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica its top draws. In business since 1969, Apple emphasizes affordability in travel.

* Caradonna Dive Adventures, 800-328-2288, http://www.caradonna.com. This 20-year-old company arranges diving vacations on 19 Caribbean islands and Bermuda (and elsewhere around the world). For every budget and diving ability.

* Funjet Vacations, 888-558-6654, http://www.funjetvacations.com. In business since 1974, this family-owned operation plans trips for all budgets to Caribbean islands and to Bermuda. Family, group, wedding and other deals are available.

Canada

* Julian Tours, 800-541-7936, http://www.juliantours.com. This Alexandria-based firm works exclusively with student groups to plan trips. A Quebec City and Montreal package is one of its offerings.

* Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, 877-460-3200, http://www.rockymountaineer.com. Offers year-round scenic vacation packages by rail throughout Canada, customizable with city stops along the way.

* Caravan, 800-227-2826, http://www.caravantours.com. Fully escorted tours since 1952. Known for planning affordable vacations, Caravan's options in Canada include a nine-day Canadian Rockies and Glacier Park trip and an eight-day Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island trip. Many scheduled departures starting in June.

Hawaii

* Classic Vacations, 800-635-1333, http://www.classicvacations.com. Offers luxurious vacations, including limo pickup planeside and escorted tours. Hotels are top-notch. Hawaii was this company's only destination when it debuted in 1978, but it now plans trips to Mexico, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

* Pleasant Holidays, 800-742-9244, http://www.pleasantholidays.com. In business since 1959, this is one of the largest, most experienced travel companies serving Hawaii. Trips typically include air and hotel arrangements, such as a recent Waikiki special offering a condo studio oceanview for four nights.

* United Vacations, 888-854-3899, http://www.unitedvacations.com. This United Airlines arm travels to six islands; packages includes air, hotel and car options, with the chance to participate in tours or take advantage of various promotions, such as an extra night's stay. Check out special Web deals.

Mexico

* Austin-Lehman Adventures, 800-575-1540, http://www.austinlehman.com. In operation since 1984, this adventure operator limits its adult trips to 12 people, family trips to 18 people. Destinations are in Africa and North and South America. In Mexico, the outfit offers "Oaxaca, Authentic Mexico: Food and Festivals" and "Mexico-Chiapas, Rainforest to Ruins."

* Lindblad Expeditions, 800-EXPEDITION, http://www.lindbladexpeditions.com. Lindblad and National Geographic Expeditions are now partners offering exotic (and expensive) travel. Among the Mexico offerings: an eight-day "Among the Great Whales" trip to Baja California.

* Vacation Express, 800-309-4717, http://www.vacationexpress.com. Package trips to Cancun, Cozumel and other Mexican destinations, with optional sightseeing tours.

CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA
Argentina

* Kontiki Tours & Travel, 877-566-8454, http://www.kontiki.org. Kontiki states flatly, "We are the Latin American tour specialists. That is all we do." Covers all countries in South and Central America, with Argentina one of its most popular destinations. These are all custom-designed, guided tours. You choose the highlights: Buenos Aires, wineries, Patagonia . . .

* Limitless Argentina, 202-536-5812, http://www.limitlessargentina.com. Custom-

designed travel for individuals, couples and small groups, incorporating full services and best-of-the-destination details, from skiing to fly-fishing.

* Tourlite International, 800-272-7600, http://www.tourlite.com. In business since 1971, Tourlite offers affordable escorted and independent itineraries covering different regions in Argentina.

Belize

* International Expeditions, 800-633-4734, http://www.ietravel.com. This "world leader in nature travel" goes all over the globe; Belize tours include a nine-day "Rainforests, Reefs, and Ruins" escorted land journey.

* Magnum Belize, 800-447-2931, http://www.magnumbelize.com. Magnum represents 45 resorts, offers specials and discount airfares, and helps plan trips.

Brazil

* Borello Travel & Tours, 800-405-3072, http://www.borellotravel.com. Plans trips all over Latin America and is especially active in Brazil. No escorted, scheduled-departure tours; Borello custom-designs each trip, with recommendations including Rio de Janeiro, the Pantanal region and the beaches of the northeast.

* Brazil Nuts, 800-553-9959, http://www.brazilnuts.com. Hotel deals, eco-adventures and city tours are available, but its packages offer best value and most appeal, such as a nine-day "Taste of Brazil" tour.

* Tourlite International, 800-272-7600, http://www.tourlite.com. Among the packages is a nine-day "Brazil Heritage" tour of Rio, Bahia and Salvador including air, hotel and cultural excursions.

Chile

* Explora,866-750-6699, http://www.explora.com. Features far-out trips to remote destinations in the southern tip of South America such as the Atacama Desert and Patagonia, as well as Easter Island.

* VisitChile.com,800-560-2340, http://www.visitchile.com. An array of options for touring Chile, from tailored trips to hotel and tour packages, covering every possible destination, from Easter Island to Patagonia.

Costa Rica

* Costa Rica Connection, 800-345-7422, http://www.crconnect.com. Plans for individuals, families or groups. Suggests itineraries for first-time travelers and seasoned visitors, with emphasis on wildlife and active adventures.

* Costa Rica Expeditions, 011-506-257-0766, http://www.costaricaexpeditions.com. Award-winning outfitter organizes group trips, such as "Costa Rica Connoisseur/Explorer" (includes visits to a volcano, rain forest and butterfly preserve) and customized "Family Nature Experience."

AFRICA

* Abercrombie & Kent, 800-554-7016, http://www.abercrombiekent.com. Started as a safari outfitter in 1962, this luxury travel operator is active throughout the world. Safaris are still very big, but A&K also offers a variety of escorted and independent trips in Africa that cover other interests and parts of the continent.

* Explore Africa, 888-596-6377, http://www.exploreafrica.net. Primarily a safari outfitter, but there's also a long list of cultural, adventure, diving and romantic trips with custom itineraries.

* Premier Tours, 800-545-1910, http://www.premiertours.com. African-owned and decades-old, Premier plans wildlife safaris and overland tours to Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania.

AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND AND SOUTH PACIFIC

* ATS Tours, 888-781-5170, http://www.atstours.com. For independent, escorted or self-drive travel, or a combination. ATS serves most of the South Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti. Go with a preplanned itinerary or create your own.

* Big Five Tours and Expeditions, 800-244-3483, http://www.bigfive.com. Featured tours of this luxury operator include an escorted 16-day "Australia Discovery Tour" and a three-day "Diving the Great Barrier Reef" excursion.

* Swain Australia Tours, 800-227-9246, http://www.swainaustralia.com. Escorted, individual and group tours to New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific. Itineraries range from the basic five-night "Sydney Sampler" to the 17-night "Aussie Adventure," from Melbourne to Adelaide to Kangaroo Island, and on.

MIDDLE EAST

* Caravan-Serai Tours, 800-451-8097, http://www.caravan-serai.com. Mostly custom tours for individuals and groups, but also scheduled escorted trips. Travels to Dubai, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle East locations.

* Gate 1 Travel, 800-682-3333, http://www.gate1travel.com. This discount operator offers escorted and guided packages to Israel, Egypt and Morocco.

* Travcoa, 866-591-0070, http://www.travcoa.com. "Ancient Roads of Syria and Jordan," "The Nile Revealed" and "Mystical Israel" are three escorted tours through the Middle East. This 50-year-old luxury operator also plans custom trips.

ASIA
China and Hong Kong

* China Travel Service, 888-486-9981, http://www.intertrips.com. Plans scheduled group and individually designed tours to China and Hong Kong, with moderate rates, group size limits (two to 18) and knowledgeable, English-speaking guides.

* Pacific Delight Tours, 800-221-7179, http://www.pacificdelighttours.com. Pacific Delight Tours has arranged China trips and Yangtze River boat tours for more than 37 years. Offers many other excursions throughout Asia and elsewhere.

* Wild China, 011-86-10-6465-6602, http://www.wildchina.com. Specializes in culture and adventure tours for individuals, small groups, and corporate and education clients. Based in Beijing with no U.S. office, so correspond by e-mail or by calling China (Beijing time is 13 hours ahead of Washington).

India and Nepal

* Intrepid Travel, 800-970-7299, http://www.intrepidtravel.com. Affordable small-group trips with assorted approaches, from traditional to active. Offers great variety, low prices and authentic experiences.

* SITA, 800-421-5643, http://www.sitatours.com. Established in 1933, this company plans trips for all kinds of travelers. It offers at least 22 Indian itineraries, including 12 for those who like to go on their own and two for luxury-seekers.

* Travel Corporation India,866-674-8687, http://www.tcindia.com. Around for nearly 50 years, this operator covers all of India, plus cruises, short holidays, pilgrimage tours and trips to Nepal.

Indonesia

* Absolute Travel, 800-736-8187, http://www.absolutetravel.com. Custom luxury tours can focus on particular regions such as Borneo, or themes such as architecture or rain forests. Trips are tailored to your desires.

* Bali Barong Tours, 866-462-2254, http://www.balibarongtours.com. Custom trips to Bali and other parts of Indonesia. Tours offer surfing, trekking and volcano climbing for the active; spa treatments and villa stays for the luxury-seeking; and excursions to temples, art centers and fishing villages for everybody.

Japan

* General Tours, 800-221-2216, http://www.generaltours.com. The Japan National Tourist Organization says this tour operator sells more trips to Japan than any other. Its variety of tours and experience make this a good choice for the first-time traveler to Japan.

* Kintetsu International Travel Consultants,800-422-3481, http://www.japanforyou.com. Based in Japan but with U.S. offices, Kintetsu offers discount airline and railway tickets, package tours and group tours. Suggested itineraries on the Web site include a sake brewery tour.

* Tauck Tours, 800-788-7885, http://www.tauck.com. This upscale operator's escorted "Essence of Japan" trip takes you off the beaten path -- for instance, to the Shirakawa-go region, where traditional thatched-roof A-frame farmhouses dot the mountain landscape.

Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia

* Artisans of Leisure, 800-214-8144, http://www.artisansofleisure.com. Specializes in luxury travel, private and tailor-made, emphasizing the region's arts, cuisine, people, landscape and traditions. One example: an 11-day "Vietnam for foodies" tour.

* Asian Passages, 800-419-4446, http://www.asianpassages.com. This Washington area firm was founded in 1992 to promote cultural exchange between Vietnam and the United States. These experts in Southeast Asia feature 35 itineraries in eight countries.

SPECIALTY TRAVEL
Adventure

* Above the Clouds, 802-482-4848, http://www.aboveclouds.com. Organizes and conducts trekking adventures of varying degrees of difficulty in the Himalayas, Patagonia and Europe.

* Adventure Center, 800-228-8747, http://www.adventurecenter.com. This 30-year-old outfit says it offers "world-class adventure travel experience at affordable prices." Packages 2,000 trips for travel in 100 countries, from hiking in Provence to safaris in Africa. Travel is in small groups.

* Backroads, 800-462-2848, http://www.backroads.com. Extensive offerings for biking, walking, hiking and camping throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

* National Geographic Expeditions, 888-966-8687, http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com. The travel program of the nonprofit National Geographic Society operates 200 trips a year all over the globe with assorted themes.

Culinary

* International Kitchens, 800-945-8606, http://www.theinternationalkitchen.com. Ninety programs offered in Italy, France and Spain. Trips include hands-on instruction in regional cuisine.

* Les Liaisons Delicieuses, 202-966-1810 or 877-966-1810, http://www.cookfrance.com. D.C. firm organizes gastronomic adventures, including hands-on cooking, to France, Canada and Morocco.

* Rustico Cooking,917-602-1519, http://www.rusticocooking.com. Milan-born Micol Negrin, a cookbook author, leads small groups of food and wine enthusiasts on week-long sojourns to such locations such as Tuscany and Liguria for cooking classes and tours of the surrounding area.

Disability Travel

* Accessible Journeys, 800-846-4537, http://www.disabilitytravel.com. Group, independent and cruise trips for slow walkers and wheelchair travelers.

* Flying Wheels Travel, 507-451-5005, http://www.flyingwheelstravel.com. A full-service travel agency offering escorted and independent tours around the world for those with disabilities.

* The Guided Tour, 800-783-5841, http://www.guidedtour.com. Around since 1972, this company organizes trips for physically and developmentally challenged travelers. A nurse often accompanies tours.

Eco Tours

* International Expeditions, 800-633-4734, http://www.ietravel.com. This eco-tourism and nature travel operator leads environmentally responsible expeditions worldwide, focused on conservation and nature.

* Journeys International, 800-255-8735, http://www.journeys-intl.com. Operating since 1978, this is one of the oldest global eco-tourism companies in the United States. Its hundreds of trips worldwide range from photography safaris in Costa Rica to a tree-planting trek in the Himalayas.

* Oceanic Society Expeditions, 800-326-7491, http://www.oceanic-society.org. Recognized as a leader in eco-tourism, the society offers natural history, research, student and family expeditions worldwide, inviting travelers to "enjoy and explore the natural world while contributing to its preservation."

Educational

* Academic Travel Abroad, 202-785-9000, http://www.academic-travel.com. D.C. firm, established in 1950, is a pioneer of educational tours. Partners with institutions such as the Smithsonian and the Phillips Collection to develop creative tours.

* TraveLearn, 800-235-9114, http://www.travelearn.com. Draws on its network of 300-plus university and college members and overseas representatives to provide expert guides, escorts and lecturers for each trip.

* Smithsonian Journeys, 877-338-8687, http://www.smithsonianjourneys.com. Escorted tours with Smithsonian study leaders. Features more than 250 (quite pricey) learning vacations worldwide.

Gay and Lesbian

* Alyson Adventures, 800-825-9766, http://www.alysonadventures.com. Arranges hiking, biking, diving and other active adventure trips worldwide for an exclusively gay and lesbian clientele.

* Ocean Voyager,800-321-8264, http://www.oceanvoyager.com. Escorted and independent gay and lesbian group cruises.

* Olivia, 800-631-6277, http://www.olivia.com. This "premier travel and entertainment company for lesbians" features cruise and resort vacations.

Seniors

* Elderhostel, 800-454-5768, http://www.elderhostel.org. This nonprofit organization offers 8,000 learning adventures in 50 states and 90 countries for travelers 55 and older.

* Grand Travel, 202-785-8901, http://www.grandtrvl.com. This D.C.-based division of Academic Travel Abroad organizes luxury vacations exclusively for grandparents and their grandchildren. Diverse worldwide destinations and themes include "Trains of the Wild West" and "Italy's Splendors."

* Vantage Deluxe World Travel, 800-322-6677, http://www.vantagetravel.com. According to its executive vice president, the average age of Vantage's clientele is 72. The company's upscale escorted tours go to destinations both exotic (Tunisia) and traditional (European river cruises). Services include roommate matching.

* Also see AARP's Web site, http://www.aarp.com/travel, for travel discounts, deals and vacation information.

Volunteer Tourism

* Cross-Cultural Solutions, 800-380-4777, http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org. Volunteers can choose stints of one to 12 weeks in 12 countries, where they work side by side with locals on volunteer projects.

* i-to-i Meaningful Travel, 800-985-4852, http://www.i-to-i.com. Its many programs offer travelers a chance for cultural immersion through volunteer work in various forms: as a group, family, intern, working with children or with a community.

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