If you want a special travel experience, you should try one of the these specialist travel companies.
As the big names in travel increasingly dominate the market, it’s easy to forget the little guys – the small independent operators that stick to a single destination and know it inside out.
Many of these companies are owned and managed by true enthusiasts, who can take you beyond the brochure clichés to an authentic and unspoilt part of the country. Here are six of the best.
Best for Italy: Bellini Travel
Who they are: founder Emily FitzRoy provides insider tours of Italy, getting under the skin of the country and offering unique experiences. She works with only about 70 clients a year.
Why they’re good: Bellini can achieve what might appear to be impossible, whether it’s a royal box at La Scala or a private evening visit to the Sistine Chapel. But it’s not all glitz: FitzRoy knows Venice backwards and enjoys taking clients off the tourist trail to trattoria in the working class district of Cannareggio and to eat seafood at fishermen’s huts on the lagoon.
Best for Greece: Travel à la Carte
Who they are: founded in 1979 by Tony Wells and his late wife Mary, it is one of the last remaining family-owned holiday specialists to the Mediterranean. It has survived by focusing on small islands including Symi, Halki and Paxos.
Why they’re good: with two directors living year-round in Greece, Travel à la Carte knows its islands intimately and provides great customer service (it claims a client satisfaction rating of 9.9 out of 10). With no charter flights to sell, it can also offer total flexibility on arrival and departure dates.
Best for Japan: Inside Japan Tours
Who they are: founders Alastair Donnelly and Simon King met at university, worked as English teachers in Japan then decided to set up a specialist travel company. They offer private travel, group tours and self-guided tours for all budgets.
Why they’re good: the core team all speak Japanese, travel regularly to the country and have great local contacts – handy if you want to enter the Tokyo Marathon or arrange an evening with a geisha in Kyoto. They provide honest expert advice and go the extra mile. For one client staying at a luxury hotel in Tokyo, they hand-delivered gluten-free soy sauce from Nagoya, a round trip of 600 miles.
Best for America: Bon Voyage
Who they are: US fanatics Alan Wilson and Alan Orsmond started the company as a specialist travel agency in the late 1970s then focussed on creating their own tours to America.
Why they’re good: the company only employs staff that have lived or travelled extensively in the States and share the founders’ love of the country. Knowledgable sales staff combined with keen pricing keep the clients coming back.
Best for India: Greaves
Who they are: founded in 1973, Greaves is a family-owned company that offers private escorted tours of the Indian subcontinent. Managing director Mehra Dalton campaigns actively for sustainable tourism and is co-founder of Jaisalmer in Jeopardy.
Why they’re good: travel in India can be – shall we say – unpredictable. Greaves has a reputation for total reliability, ensuring every client is met on arrival with a private car and chauffeur, and ironing out every detail of every trip.
Best for Croatia: Completely Croatia
Who they are: founder Alison Jago spent 20 years in the travel industry before deciding her employers were getting it wrong and she could do better on her own. Completely Croatia specialises in small boutique properties and family-run hotels neglected by the larger tour operators.
Why they’re good: clients enjoy the personal service, with the same consultant dealing with them at every stage from initial enquiry to post-holiday follow-up. Good relations with hoteliers mean lots of free upgrades and surprise extras. Jago claims to have had just one customer complaint in five years of operation.
Images of Venice, Tokyo and India by Mark Hodson