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Travel & Leisure's Top Tour Operators for 2014

By Clark Norton
October 14, 2014

Travel & Leisure Magazine has named its five top tour operators for 2014, as voted on by its readers. Three of the top five weren’t ranked in 2013, and this year, walking and biking tour operators swept the first three spots.  

Here are the readers'  top five picks:

 

1. Classic Journeys

Classic Journeys, which vaulted to the number one spot among tour operators after being unranked in Travel and Leisure’s 2013 poll, is a luxury soft-adventure travel company that specializes in small group, easy-going cultural walking tours in countries like Ireland, France, and Italy, but elsewhere around the world as well.

Walks average three to four hours a day, and explore a region’s villages, fields and countrysides using local guides -- aiming for spontaneity, flexibility, and a sense of personal discovery. Lodging is in fine inns, cuisine is regional, and emphasis is placed on meeting and mingling with the local people. Culinary tours and family-oriented trips are available as well.

Sample Classic Journeys Tour :   Burgundy and Loire

 

2. VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations

 VBT offers walking and bicycling vacations in Europe and some other scenic, far-flung places such as Machu Picchu and New Zealand. It also promises lower prices than any other active-vacation tour company without sacrificing quality. Most everything is included in the price, except for a few meals -- and that includes use of a customized bike on cycling tours or walking poles on walking tours, and special packages including international airfare.

Both cyclists and walkers travel at their own pace during the day, but local trip leaders and support vans are always available, and some guided sightseeing is included. Trips are rated easy to moderate -- nothing too strenuous -- and walking or biking is usually limited to two to six hours a day. Routes and custom maps are all planned out. VBT has been doing these types of tours for more than 40 years, and they seem to have it down to a science. Travel & Leisure Readers, who ranked them fourth last year, seem sold.

Sample VBT Walking Tour:  Peru: Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

 

3. Butterfield & Robinson

 Butterfield & Robinson specializes in higher-end guided and self-guided biking and walking tours to many of the world’s top destinations. While open to people of all ages and athletic abilities, their trips are geared towards 50+ cycling buffs and active travelers with a taste for the finer things. They have been ranked number three in this survey for two years in a row.

Group members can go at their own pace, and you can choose your own activity level, whether it’s a ramble through the Burgundy countryside in France or a more strenuous hike along the Inca Trail in Peru. (B&R’s tagline is “The Art of Slow.”) On cycling trips, bikes are customized to fit the riders, and they have a high staff and support vehicle ratio per guest -- making them a top choice for travelers seeking a high-service biking adventure.

Sample Butterfield & Robinson Tour:  Dalmation Coast Biking

 

4. Wilderness Travel

 Wilderness Travel, which has been arranging guided trips around the world for more than 30 years, is an adventure travel company that reaches beyond pure wilderness. As they put it, “itineraries range from indulgent to challenging” -- for instance, on the Iberian Peninsula you might take a river cruise on the Douro River in northern Portugal or trek northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

Their “small group adventures” -- no more than 16 per group -- encompass more than 150 journeys on six continents, including 26 countries in Asia and 17 in Africa. Some “rare” or periodic journeys -- called WT Expeditions and Repertory Trips -- include one-time-only departures, unique cultural adventures, or special trips offered just once every few years. Wilderness Travel will also plan private journeys for you or your group, and they run small ship cruises and family trips as well.

Sample Wilderness Travel Tour:  Hidden Rajasthan and the Holi Festival 

 

5. Tauck

 Tauck, a long-established high-quality tour operator, made the Travel & Leisure “best” lists in two categories -- Top Tour Operators and Top River Cruise Lines. A family-run business since 1925, Tauck has fashioned a reputation for offering high-quality  upper-mid-range-to-luxury group travel for ages 50+. While its staple has been European and North American land tours, Tauck has been increasingly expanding into special family trips, exotic locations, and recent award-winning European river cruising.

 Tauck destinations include all seven continents, and special themes may include food and wine, North American national parks, and African safaris. Some of its biggest growth has come on water, where Tauck operates a fleet of seven European river boats and a number of small ship cruises. Pricing is virtually all-inclusive, hotels are centrally located and of prime quality, and cuisine focuses on authentic local restaurants. The staff is known for its attentiveness and individualized service; land tour group sizes average 35-44 guests.

Sample Tauck Tour:  China, the Yangtze River, and Hong Kong 

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