What are the top tour operators worldwide?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: PhotoDisc
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 15, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: vacation package, Zak Patten.

If you've always dreamed of exploring the Amazon or the pyramids of Egypt, a guided tour may be for you. Escorted trips can take the stress and anxiety out of planning a vacation by allowing a tour operator to create an itinerary for you. But how do you find the right tour operator?

We've picked one top agency for each of five major regions worldwide, based on the number and diversity of trips offered, as well as the value for your travel dollars. Because one tour company may not have everything you need, we've listed runners-up that we think are worth considering as well. Note that we are not endorsing any one provider over another; our intention is to provide a good starting point for your search.

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Remember to think about the kind of tour you want before you even start searching. Are high-end accommodations on your agenda? How much free time will you want? Would you prefer to see the sights from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus?

Once you've answered these questions, it's time to ask some questions of your tour operator. For example, find out whether the provider is a member of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). The USTOA is an association of American travel providers that agrees to ethical business conduct and truth in advertising, and can demonstrate financial stability. Booking with a member is one way to put your mind at ease when you put your money down.

Another way to determine quality is by finding out how a particular tour operator is regarded by its former customers. You can start by asking the operator itself for past guest reviews (these may even appear on its website). Travel message boards may also contain such reviews, or you can post questions about operators on those same boards. Visit any of the following for this purpose: Frommer's, IgoUgo, or Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.

The U.S. and Canada

When we checked, Trafalgar Tours featured 69 tours across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Just about all of the major destinations are covered. There is also a range of prices, with 10 starting at under $1,000 per person. A good example of one of these tours is Trafalgar's "Canada's Rockies" tour, which includes visits to Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefields, and Banff National Park, nine meals, and six nights' accommodations, priced from $999.

Globus features what it calls "Open Doors Vacations," which include stays at distinctive hotels and special local cuisine.

Maupintour caters to all types of travelers, but has a special brand of trips for "gutsy women." Such tours range from spa getaways to national park hikes.

Collette Vacations offers a choice between independent and guided vacations to destinations around the world.

Europe

Just as Trafalgar Tours tops our list of North America providers, it is the most impressive for Europe tours, too. Trafalgar offers a stunning number of Europe trips: 335 when we searched. At the lower end of the price scale are city stays that include guided sightseeing by bus. The more expensive trips may be longer and include tours of multiple countries. The Grand European is a good example of this variety, with 10 nations visited and a starting rate of $3,650.

Insight Vacations boasts more comfort than the competition with its promise of fewer seats and extra legroom on "all European, British and USA and Canada premium itineraries."

In addition to its many Europe tours, Tauck World Discovery operates its own cruise line, with sailings to ports across the continent (and around the world).

Go Ahead Vacations has its own frequent traveler club, which awards discounts and other special services to repeat customers.

Latin America

Go South Adventures specializes in small group tours to beautiful (though environmentally sensitive) areas of Central and South America. Destinations include the Amazon, the Galápagos Islands, and Peru's Inca Trail. We found five-day/four-night Amazon River trips starting at $885.

Latour offers packages to 16 different countries across Latin America, with single-country, multi-country, and a-la-carte options.

Travcoa is a luxury tour operator that will suit travelers who don't mind spending more to get more. For instance, the company's Amazon River & The Pantanal package spans 17 days, with prices starting at $8,595.

Like Travcoa, Abercrombie & Kent specializes in high-end travel, though we did find Costa Rica trips for about $2,500.

Asia

Pacific Delight World Tours is a clear leader in travel to the Far East. With tours from Turkey to the South Pacific and many countries in between, this agency has an equally wide range of prices. At the budget end, we found air-and-land packages to Beijing from $561, though these include just three nights' lodging. For a more luxurious vacation, Pacific Delight sells "premium tours" that are longer and include components such as Yangtze River cruises. However, prices on those types of trips are still reasonable; we found air-and-land packages from $2,689.

Gate 1 Travel offers both independent and guided tour itineraries for travel throughout Asia, including a 10-night Thailand package from $899.

General Tours is a good resource for trips to many Asian countries, such as India, to which it offers eight escorted packages.

Africa

African Travel, Inc.'s tours span the continent, from Egypt to South Africa, and are divided into two main types: safaris and dreamscapes. The former are packaged itineraries with frequent departures throughout the year. Dreamscapes are sometimes shorter, and can be "linked together" to create a full vacation. Overall, the company's prices range from slightly more than $1,000 for a Kilimanjaro trek to $11,895 for a 17-day safari.

Bargain hunters may want to check Lion World Tours' "Affordable Africa" deals, none of which exceeds $1,999 in starting price.

Pacific Delight World Tours specializes in travel to Asia (see above), but it also offers a wide variety of Africa itineraries.

Like Pacific Delight, Travcoa's tours are not limited to one geographic area. And, just as its Latin America packages are geared toward luxury tastes, the agency's Africa tours don't come cheap: Great Empires of West Africa lasts 19 days and carries a price tag of $8,995.

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