"So you're going to go here," he said, circling on the map a small monastery tucked into a sleepy neighborhood in Venice, "and knock on the door. They don't usually get visitors, but they'll be happy to let you in. Walk to the back and you'll find an incredible garden along the water." I shook my head in amazement. In five minutes, Igor, my Local Guide—a standard feature on Monograms trips—had turned a common tourist map into a trove of unique and wildly off-the-beaten-path treasures in one of the world's most explored cities. He had helped me find my very own Venice.
This experience got me thinking about how sometimes, it's not where you go, it's whom you go with. There are dozens of reasons to opt for a package or a tour rather than totally independent travel—among them access to places you can't get to on your own, simplified planning, and the chance to join a group of like-minded travelers. But with hundreds of providers to choose from, it helps to know which companies are setting themselves apart with service-boosting extras and cool chances for personalized experiences.
From local experts to airport pickup in a private car, here are 10 great offerings from companies delivering services above and beyond what you'd expect from a tour operator or vacation packager.
Monograms: Local Hosts
Monograms simplifies independent travel. The company, which creates customized vacation packages, draws on the vast network of its parent company Globus to get good deals on airfare, centrally located hotels in cities around the world, intercity transportation, and activities. Since it offers independent travel, you don't get a tour leader, but you will benefit from the wisdom of the Monograms Local Guide who stations himself or herself in your hotel lobby at key points during the day. These handpicked local experts help guests find the absolute best of a city, from mainstream to obscure.
(Photo: Stevie Mann/Abercrombie & Kent Photo Library)
Abercrombie & Kent: Access to World-Renowned Experts
As a company, Abercrombie & Kent is a true citizen of the world. With 52 offices around the globe, the luxury tour company prides itself on its ability to maintain deep roots in many countries. This strong network of local connections paves the way for incredible insider access to some of the world's foremost experts. Consider tango lessons in a Buenos Aires mansion with Tony Award-winning dancers or discovering Machu Picchu with the personal help of the site's former resident archaeologist.
Collette: Private Car Service
Anyone familiar with the frazzled rush to the airport knows that too many trips begin in a whirlwind of stress. With nearly 100 years of tours under its belt, family-owned Collette has had time to really understand how to make people's vacations better: for instance, by offering private sedan service from home to airport (and from the airport back home at the end of the trip) for all guests who book air-inclusive tours and live within 50 miles of a major airport. Now that's bringing vacation home.
(Photo: G Adventures)
G Adventures: Empowering Independence
Driven by a desire to help travelers experience authentic adventures in a responsible manner, G Adventures leads small-group adventure trips to far-flung destinations around the globe. At the helm of each trip is not just a guide but a Chief Experience Officer (CEO), whose job it is to teach guests the skills they need to feel confident exploring on their own, rather than only as part of a group. G Adventures tends to attract more independent travelers, and by teaching guests how to manage the customs and navigate local transport early in a trip, the company empowers independent exploration in addition to offering prebooked, shared experiences.
(Photo: Butterfield & Robinson)
Butterfield & Robinson: The Best Pace for Everyone
Butterfield & Robinson manages to do the impossible: Orient each group trip to suit the needs and speeds of guests with different interests who move at different speeds. If you've ever been on a group trip and been frustrated by how a single slowpoke can derail a day (or maybe you're the slowpoke who desperately wants people to stop rushing through every moment), you'll likely appreciate this particular bit of tour-leader magic. B&R guides are experts at creating a rich itinerary for people moving at different speeds, and they have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves, including arranging alternate transfers, using extra vehicles, and filling unanticipated downtime with new adventures.
(Photo: Backroads/Brenda Ernst)
Backroads: Turn Any Trip Private
Backroads has been specializing in active travel for 35 years, fueled by the belief that the best way to see the world is to experience it with your senses … and your muscles. With trips that feature hiking, walking, rafting, kayaking, and even snowshoeing, the company helps travelers explore gorgeous destinations around the world. And while group trips are the most common, Backroads also offers guests traveling with eight or more family members or friends the chance to make any of its 2,500 yearly departures into a private trip. No strangers—just a knowledgeable guide and your nearest and dearest. It's an intriguing prospect.
(Photo: Country Walkers)
Country Walkers: Personalized Guest Experiences
On Country Walkers trips, the personalized service starts even before you pack. Prior to departure, the company reaches out to each guest to learn more about their special interests. This small but impressive step gives tour leaders the ability to craft outings that will be as interesting as possible to individuals. Small group size and a 1:7 guide-to-guest ratio keeps things personal and allows more behind-the-scenes access on tours. Country Walkers also prides itself on making special arrangements and crafting customized experiences for celebrations such as birthdays or anniversaries.
(Photo: Road Scholar)
Road Scholar: Answers to Every Question
To travel is to learn about the world. It's a worldview embodied by Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which has been offering educational trips since 1975. All programs feature instructors who are not only experts in their field but also lifelong learners, and they approach each trip with contagious curiosity. Authors, scholars, engineers, and scientists lead Road Scholar trips. This particular quality won't appeal to everyone—but for the curiosity-driven traveler, guides who take the time to answer every question and engage in further exploration are a treasured perk.
(Photo: Pleasant Holidays)
Pleasant Holidays: A Hawaiian Welcome
Pleasant Holidays knows Hawaii. The vacation-package provider, which specializes in Hawaii (and other beachy destinations), has more than 50 years of experience and regularly wins industry awards for the services it provides to its guests. With 24-hour emergency assistance and a complimentary orientation breakfast that includes food, a presentation on local activities, traditional island entertainment, and prizes, its dedication to customer service sets it apart from other vacation-package providers.
(Photo: Insight Vacations)
Insight Vacations: Small-Group Dining
One of the usual downsides of packaged tours is that large travel groups tend to make for uninspired eating. Insight Vacations, which specializes in premium and luxury tours in Europe, North America, India, and Nepal, has a clever solve for the anonymity of large-group dining. Its dine-around program offers guests the chance to eat in small groups at local establishments. Travelers choose one of three restaurants and are escorted there by the tour director. Prix fixe menus are standard (though people are free to order off the menu as well), and Insight covers the bill. Voila: dining like a local without any of the hassle or intimidation factor.
You Might Also Like:
22 Photos That Will Make You Fall in Love with Alaska
10 Best Bucket-List Safaris in Africa
Best Airlines for Free Stopovers
This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Great Tour Companies with Service-Boosting Extras.
Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Lead Photo: G Adventures)