Sunday, February 1, 2009
You lust for a supreme, away-from-it-all experience, exploring cool Croatia, for example, or enjoying a culinary tour of Italy, relaxing on a beach in the South Pacific or backpacking in Alaska. But you don't have the time, energy, expertise or inclination to coordinate all the pieces. Who ya gonna call?
Whatever your desired destination, Austria to Zambia, or particular passion, adventure travel to voluntourism, you can be sure there is a tour operator that covers it. Experience, relationships within the travel industry, and insider knowledge of individual areas and specialties help a tour operator craft packages and customize tours to please all kinds of travelers. Best of all, because of those very alliances, tour operators often are able to offer great deals, less expensive, in fact, than you might be able to arrange on your own.
Before choosing a tour operator, you need to pin down your travel preferences. Do you like to travel independently or as part of a group? Do you want a full escort, guiding you every step of a set itinerary, or would you rather design your own tour? Do you want to focus on one location or take in several? Participate in hands-on activities or survey the general highlights of a region?
To help you answer these questions, consult the U.S. Tour Operators Association Web site, http://www.ustoa.com, and click on "Choose the Tour That's Right for You," which explains tour operator jargon and distinguishes the different touring options available. The USTOA is an accredited organization for member tour operators, as is the National Tour Association (http://www.nta.travel); both organizations allow public access to membership information on their Web sites and are excellent sources for tour operator recommendations.
You might also find useful this listing of established tour operators, organized by country, with contact info and details about the types of trips and expertise they offer.
-- Elise Hartman FordEUROPE
· 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 tailor tours to accommodate budget and desires of individual travelers and groups. Specializes in music and art tours, including a "Sound of Music" package.
· Tradesco, 800-448-4321, http://www.tradescotours.com. This Central and Eastern European operator specializes in planning independent, escorted and hosted tours for individuals and groups. Most popular among its Austria tours are the "Vienna Music" and the "Salzburg Music" packages.Belgium
· BeerTrips.com, 406-531-9109, http://www.beertrips.com. 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, castle touring and pub crawls.
· 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.
· 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.Croatia
· Abercrombie & Kent, 800-652-2405, http://www.abercrombiekent.com. This deluxe operator boasts "Deep Roots. Local Contacts. Extraordinary Access." in putting together independent and group itineraries around the world. Its "Signature Croatia" nine-day independent trip includes a ferry ride along the Dalmatian coastline and a stay in the walled citadel of Dubrovnik.
· Elegant Cruises and Tours, 800-683-6767, http://www.elegantcruises.com. This company's deluxe yachts and small cruising vessels traverse the Adriatic Sea, following Croatia's 1,200-mile coastline, around and about its Dalmatian Archipelago, to places not typically accessible by large ships. Caters to an older, sophisticated clientele.
· Kutrubes Travel, 800-878-8566, http://www.kutrubestravel.com. Balkan vacations and cultural travel are Kutrubes's specialty, via scheduled small group tours as well as customized itineraries for individuals and groups. Among the options on tap for Croatia in 2009 are the popular "Adriatic Paradise Cruise," "Discover Croatia" and "Treasures of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina" trips.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.
· Tatra Travel, 800-321-2999, http://www.czechvacations.com. Czech and Slovak natives staff the New York office of this company, which has been in business since 1932. Recently acquired by Panorama (see previous entry), Tatra's expertise lies in 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. Named by the French government as France's best tour operator for the fourth year in a row, this operator offers all-inclusive vacation packages for destinations throughout France and Europe. Options include visiting vineyards in Bordeaux and touring towns in Provence. For independent travelers.
· Discover France, 800-960-2221, http://www.discoverfrance.com. Specialists in hiking and biking tours throughout France, 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, 800-421-8446, http://www.brendanvacations.com. Guided motor-coach group travel is Brendan's specialty, with itineraries named "Best of Germany" and "Bohemian Highlights" among those covering German territory.
· Picasso Travel, 800-995-7997, http://www.picassotours.com. Within the umbrella Picasso Travel organization are several individual tour companies, including Nordique Tours, which arranges trips throughout Europe. Among its 2009 Germany packages is "Romantic Germany," which takes travelers to castles and the Black Forest and on a Rhine River cruise.
· Trafalgar Tours, 866-544-4434, http://www.trafalgartours.com. This London company (in business since 1947) caters to first-time travelers, people traveling alone, families and groups, and return travelers to specific destinations. Trafalgar's tours are all escorted, and of endless variety: It offers 83 Germany tours.Great Britain
· CIE Tours International, 800-243-8687, http://www.cietours.com. Founded 77 years ago, CIE specializes in escorted travel to Ireland but also arranges travel throughout England, Scotland and Wales -- and further, to Italy and Eastern Europe. Offers combo tours of Britain and Ireland, indie London trips and group travel.
· Go-Today, 800-227-3235, http://www.go-today.com. Sets itself apart by offering a variety of 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 to Scotland.
· Across the Pond Vacations, 310-791-6101, http://www.atpvacations.com. Brits and Americans staff this L.A.-based tour operator's office, planning travel for individuals and groups, mostly custom-designed itineraries. ATP focuses on U.K. and Ireland travel, often arranging two versions of the same itinerary; for example, its 10-day "English Highlights -- the Heart of It All" tour comes in a $6,000-per-person luxury experience and a classic version that costs about half that per person.Greece
· Globus Family of Brands, 866-313-2855, http://www.globusfamily.com. In business since 1928, the Globus Family of Brands includes Globus and Cosmos, which plan escorted tours; Monogram Travel, which plans independent travel; and Avalon Waterways, which arranges river cruises. The company organize worldwide travel. New among its Greece packages is "Taste of Greece," an escorted tour aimed at those who are short on time: all the highlights (Athens, Olympia, Delphi) in eight days; those with more time can add optional excursions, such as the "Aegean Discovery" cruise.
· 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, Turkey, Croatia, Egypt, Jordan and other locations.
· 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, and in South and Central America (see listings for Argentina and Brazil).Hungary
· General Tours, 800-221-2216, http://www.generaltours.com. Now in its 62nd year, General Tours offers small-group 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 available. Croatia is another major destination.
· Tradesco, 800-448-4321, http://www.tradescotours.com. Operates escorted, hosted and individual travel programs to Central and Eastern 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 a 10-day trip from Killarney to Belfast and an eight-day trip that includes stops in Dingle and Dublin. Also offers custom tours.
· CIE Tours International, 800-243-8687, http://www.cietours.com. Motor-coach tours of Ireland remain CIE's focus 77 years on, although packages to Italy and other European destinations are also available. Escorted highlight tours of Ireland, city-stay deals and self-drive independent packages are among the many options.
· Isle Inn Tours, 703-683-4800 or 800-237-9376, http://www.isleinntours.com. With Ireland its sole destination, this D.C.-area company offers lots of options, including fly-drive vacations, castle rentals and custom golf itineraries.Italy
· Italian Connection, 800-462-7911, http://www.italian-connection.com. Walking and cooking tours of Italy are this operator's focus, although several general "explore" tours are also on offer, allowing travelers to get to know a particular region, from the Dolomites to Sicily. Most are scheduled-departure tours for small groups, though custom trips are always an option.
· 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, 877-668-4546, 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 a 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 throughout the Netherlands are available, with departure dates from April through October. VBT offers bicycling vacations around the globe and has just been named by National Geographic Adventure magazine one of the world's top adventure-travel outfitters.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 countries, 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, 800-539-7098, http://www.centralholidays.com. This Mediterranean travel specialist's focus in Portugal is on tours for independent travelers, fly-drive packages and river cruises: 16 options in all.
· 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 luxury river-cruise ship the Douro Queen, which 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 to St. Petersburg during the fabled "White Nights" season. Exeter also works with individuals to design independent tours.
· Mir Corp., 800-424-7289, http://www.mircorp.com. Russia, Siberia, Trans-Siberian Railway and Ukraine are a few of the destinations to which Mir (Russian for "peace" and "world") travels, planning private and scheduled journeys for those going solo, in couples or in groups. Based in Seattle, this 23-year-old company works with local affiliates throughout Russia.
· Tour Designs, 202-554-5820, http://www.tourdesignsinc.com. Small local company custom-designs tours for groups and individuals throughout Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and 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, including trips to less-visited areas, in Scandinavia and particularly to Norway.
· Hurtigruten, 800-323-7436, http://www.hurtigruten.us. Formerly known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Hurtigruten's fleet of modern, first-class cruise ships travels along Norway's coast and up to the Arctic Circle, covering 34 ports of call along the way. Other excursions travel to Greenland and above the Arctic Circle.
· ScanAm 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, 800-539-7098, 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 Spain 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 medieval castles, historic inns and hotels. Also travels to Portugal and Morocco.Switzerland
· Alpine Adventures, 800-755-1330, http://www.alpineadventures.net. Luxury ski vacations in Europe, Canada, South America and the western United States. Switzerland packages are based in at least 10 locations, including St. Moritz and Davos.
· Collette Vacations, 800-528-0351, http://www.collettevacations.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 "Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures Train Journey of the Alps" trip is one possibility. (Collette sometimes partners with Smithsonian Journeys to offer learning vacations.)
· Tauck World Discovery, 800-468-2825, http://www.tauck.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. This L.A.-based company specializes in escorted and independent travel and private short excursions 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. Fairfax-based Key Tours arranges good-value trips for groups and individuals, mostly to Mediterranean countries. At least 11 Turkey vacation packages are offered, including the popular, escorted group "Glories of Turkey" tour, an in-depth, two-week exploration of the country.
· Pacha Tours, 800-722-4288, http://www.pachatours.com. "The Turkey Specialist" posts a 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 states in 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 group or individual tours. Coordinates with Alaska Railroad to arrange tours by rail across the state.
· Explore Tours, 800-523-7405, http://www.exploretours.com. Explore Tours mostly caters to independent travelers, arranging motor-home rentals, rail-tour packages, small-ship cruising, even bear-camp tours with a salmon bake. Most common request? Trips that include viewing of wildlife and glaciers.
· Alaska Wildland Adventures, 800-334-8730, http://www.alaskawildland.com. Offers varied packages, including small-group exploration of Denali National Park and multi-day hiking and backpacking for the independent traveler. Lodges available on the outskirts of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge and within the Kenai Fjords National Park.Bermuda and the Caribbean
· Apple Vacations, 800-517-2000, http://www.applevacations.com. Apple puts together all-inclusive vacation packages for most any destination, but its focus is Mexico and the Caribbean, with Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, and Cancun its top draws. In business since 1969, Apple emphasizes affordability in travel.
· Caradonna Dive Adventures, 800-328-2288, http://www.caradonna.com. This 21-year-old company arranges diving vacations on 19 Caribbean islands and Bermuda and does strong business in Micronesia and the Pacific as well. For every budget and diving ability.
· Funjet Vacations, 800-438-6538, http://www.funjet.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
· Arctic Odysseys, 800-574-3021, http://www.arcticodysseys.com. Offers land and cruise-based tours throughout Arctic Canada. For example, one expedition travels the wild coast of Newfoundland to Labrador, another voyages farther north up the Torngat Mountain Coast. Also travels to the North Pole from the Canadian Arctic.
· Caravan, 800-227-2826, http://www.caravan.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 eight-day Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island trip. Many scheduled departures starting in June.
· Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, 800-665-7245, http://www.rockymountaineer.com. Offers May through October scenic vacation packages by rail through western Canada, customizable with city stops along the way.Hawaii
· Classic Vacations, 800-635-1333, http://www.classicvacations.com. Offers luxurious vacations, including limo driver pickup planeside and escorted tours, as you desire. 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.
· Perillo Tours, 800-431-1515, http://www.perillotours.com. Best known for its trips to Italy, Perillo also plans travel to Hawaii. Current offerings include the fully escorted "Two Islander" (Oahu and Maui) and "Three Islander" (Oahu, Maui and Kauai), with the option to add three nights on the Big Island. Hotels, meals, tours and other activities are included.
· 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, car rental and hotel arrangements, with the option of incorporating activities, such as dinner cruises and tours.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 outfitter offers "Oaxaca, Authentic Mexico: Food and Festivals" and "Mexico: Chiapas, Rainforest to Ruins."
· Lindblad Expeditions, 800-397-3348, http://www.expeditions.com. Lindblad and National Geographic Expeditions are partners offering exotic (and expensive) travel expeditions. 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 the Caribbean and Costa Rica, as well as to Mexico, where Cancun and Cozumel are among the top destinations; sightseeing tours are an option. The concierge collection handles ultra-upscale trips.CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA
· 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 1970, Tourlite offers affordable hosted (a local guide greets you at each stop) and independent itineraries covering different regions in Argentina.
· Yampu Latin America Tours, 888-926-7801, http://www.yampu.com. Formerly known as Kontiki, Yampu claims that it offers "the largest variety of guided travel excursions and itineraries in Latin America." Argentina is one of its most popular destinations. These are all custom-designed, guided tours. You choose the highlights: Buenos Aires, wineries, Patagonia. . . .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.
· Wildland Adventures, 800-345-4453, http://www.wildland.com. Packages adventure trips to at least 19 destinations (South Africa to Turkey), including seven itineraries in Belize. Choose the nine-day, easy-hiking tour "Undiscovered Belize Adventures," or perhaps "Romantic Belize," eight days, no hiking but plenty of culture, beach time and exploration.Brazil
· Borello Travel & Tours, 800-405-3072, http://www.borellotravel.com. Plans trips all across 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.
· Kensington Tours, 888-903-2001, http://www.kensingtontours.com. This operator is known for arranging upscale trips around the globe, at quite reasonable prices. All tours are guided and customized and include a private car and driver. Itineraries come in three versions: value, premium and luxury. Tours can be long or short, focus solely on Brazil or be combined with travel to any other destination in South America.
· Tourlite International, 800-272-7600, http://www.tourlite.com. Among the packages is a nine-day "Brazil Heritage" tour of Rio, Bahia and Iguazu Falls, including air, hotel and cultural excursions.Chile
· Explora, 866-750-6699, http://www.explora.com. Features trips to remote destinations in the southern tip of South America, such as the Atacama Desert, Patagonia and Easter Island.
· VisitChile.com, 800-560-2340. This operation presents an array of options for touring Chile, from tailored trips to hotel-and-tour packages, covering such destinations as Easter Island and Patagonia.Costa Rica
· Costa Rica Connection, 800-345-7422, http://www.crconnect.com. Plans for individuals, families and groups. Suggests itineraries for first-time travelers and seasoned visitors, with emphasis on wildlife and active adventures.
· Costa Rica Expeditions, 011-506-2257-0766, http://www.costaricaexpeditions.com. Award-winning outfitter organizes group trips, such as "Costa Rica Connoisseur" (includes visits to a volcano, rain forest and butterfly preserve), but also customizes itineraries, working from the wish list you put together on the Web site. Click on "Table of Contents" on the site to get an idea of the fixed-departure trips and your travel options.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 Inc., 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, decades-old Premier plans wildlife safaris and overland tours to Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND AND THE SOUTH PACIFIC
· Qantas Vacations, 800-641-8772, http://www.qantasvacations.com. For independent, escorted or self-drive travel, or a combination. Qantas Vacations serves most of the South Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti. Go with a planned itinerary or create your own.
· Big Five Tours and Expeditions, 800-244-3483, http://www.bigfive.com. Big Five organizes customized luxury tours to Africa, Latin America, Asia and the South Pacific. Australia tours include the 16-day "Australia Discovery" and a three-day "Diving the Great Barrier Reef." Tours are hosted by expert guides. Big Five also offers regular-departure tours with minimum two, maximum 18 people.
· Swain Tours, 800-227-9246, http://www.swaintours.com. Specializes in customized vacations for independent travelers and special-interest groups as well as escorted trips, to New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific. Itineraries range from the basic five-night "Sydney Sampler" to the 17-night "Aussie Adventure," which explores Melbourne, Kangaroo Island, the Great Barrier Reef and beyond.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 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, 800-992-2003, http://www.travcoa.com. "Ancient Roads of Syria and Jordan," "The Nile Revealed," "Jewels of Arabia" and "Mystical Israel" are among Travcoa's escorted tours through the Middle East. This 51-year-old luxury operator also makes private arrangements and customizes trips for individuals and groups of families and friends.ASIA
· 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 38 years. Offers many other excursions throughout Asia and elsewhere; these are luxury trips for individuals and groups.
· WildChina, 888-902-8808, http://www.wildchina.com. WildChina specializes in creating culture and adventure tours for individuals, small groups, and corporate and education clients. The operator recently added small-group journeys of 10 to 16 people as an affordable alternative to customized trips; one goes to Tibet, with June and September departures in 2009. Based in Beijing, WildChina also has a Bethesda office, 301-652-8808.India and Nepal
· Greaves Tours, 800-318-7801, http://www.greavesindia.com. Specializes in innovative itineraries for small groups and for the independent traveler, including "Jungle Journey," a two-week sojourn in India's wildlife parks. Walking tours, visits to monasteries and mountains, and spa vacations are some of the many options. Tours are prearranged and private: You have your own car, driver and guide.
· 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 17 Indian itineraries, including 12 for those who like to go on their own and two for luxury-seekers. Also goes to Africa, Asia and South America.Indonesia
· Asia Transpacific Journeys, 800-642-2742, http://www.asiatranspacific.com. Heralded by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as a top travel specialist to Indonesia, this operator's small-group (18-person max) trips and custom journeys explore Bali to Borneo and some of the more than 300 distinct cultures of Indonesia. Plans travel throughout the Asia-Pacific area.
· Bali Barong Tours, 866-462-2254, http://www.balibarongtours.com. Custom trips to Bali and other parts of Indonesia. Tours arrange snorkeling, 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 has said that this tour operator sells more trips to Japan than any other. Its variety of tours and experience make this an especially good choice for first-time, as well as return, travelers 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 rail passes, package tours and group tours. Suggested itineraries include a sake brewery tour.
· Tauck World Discovery, 800-468-2825, 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 thatch-roofed A-frame farmhouses dot the mountain landscape.Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia
· Absolute Travel, 800-736-8187, http://www.absolutetravel.com. Travels to Africa, Asia, South America and Pacific Islands. Custom luxury tours can focus on particular areas such as Angkor Wat and Vietnam, or themes, such as architecture, culinary interests, honeymoon and family trips, all tailored to your desires.
· Global Spectrum Travel, 800-419-4446, http://www.globalspectrumtravel.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 six countries. Voluntourism is a growing focus.SPECIALTY TRAVEL
· The International Kitchen, 800-945-8606, http://www.theinternationalkitchen.com. More than 100 programs offered in Italy, France, Spain and beyond. Trips include hands-on instruction in regional cuisine.
· Les Liaisons Delicieuses, 877-966-1810, http://www.cookfrance.com. D.C. firm organizes week-long gastronomic adventures, including hands-on cooking, to France, Morocco, Vietnam and, soon, Umbria.Cultural
· Artisans of Leisure, 800-214-8144, http://www.artisansofleisure.com. Specializes in luxury travel, private and tailor-made, emphasizing a region's arts, cuisine, people, landscape and traditions. One example: a 12-day "Mingei (Folk Art) and Gardens of Japan" tour.
· Culturious, 888-840-1852, http://www.culturious.com. This new Travcoa brand for the "culturally curious" offers hands-on tours of Manitoba, Peru, Costa Rica, Tuscany, Provence, Vietnam and Cambodia, from orchid-hunting in Peru to playing a game of boules in Provence.Disability Travel
· Accessible Journeys, 800-846-4537, http://www.disabilitytravel.com. Group, independent and cruise trips for slow walkers and wheelchair travelers, families and friends.
· Flying Wheels Travel, 877-451-5006, http://www.flyingwheelstravel.com. A full-service travel agency offering escorted tours and customized independent programs 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 adults. 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.travel. 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.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.
· Hanns Ebensten Travel, 866-294-8174, http://www.hetravel.com. In business since 1972, this operator plans unusual and culture-focused trips to exotic locations for small groups of gay and lesbian travelers and their friends.