By Sara Clemence
July 08, 2020
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Credit: Austin Mann/Courtesy of Ker & Downey

This year’s World’s Best Awards survey closed on March 2, just before widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The results reflect our readers’ experiences before the pandemic, but we hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your trips to come — whenever they may be.

Discerning travelers know that the best tour operators in the world are like magicians. They can arrange meals at secret restaurants, private viewings in wildlife reserves, and after-hours visits to top museums. One day they might surprise you with a sundowner on a secluded beach, a helicopter ride to lunch, or a walking safari.

These are the kinds of trips and flourishes that would be difficult, if not impossible, to put together on your own, even with a meticulous personality and an abundance of free time. The best tour operators have the connections, experience, and know-how that are essential to planning a seamless journey. They know the most keen-eyed safari guides and how to get you expedited through the airport. Booking the best trattoria in Rome — as well as the most coveted table and a personal meeting with the chef — is all in a day’s work.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated tour operators and safari outfitters based on their staff and guides, itineraries and destinations, activities, accommodations, food, and overall value.

The companies that made this year’s list are largely boutique operations. Some run just a handful of trips each year — like No. 3 Terra Incognita Ecotours, whose clients are passionate about wildlife and willing to go off the beaten path to destinations such as Borneo and Patagonia. Others focus on certain hobbies or interests. For instance, No. 6 DuVine organizes cycling trips for travelers who relish the yin-yang of exertion and indulgence. Still others have geographic concentrations, such as No. 2 Greaves India, which is known for its custom itineraries in India, Nepal, Tibet, and neighboring countries. No. 8 Classic Journeys earns raves for its walking trips.

Then there are companies that span the globe and almost any style of travel. Their clients may long to see Boston or Botswana, seek hard-charging adventure or a serious wellness retreat. Artisans of Leisure, Black Tomato, and its peers are able to tailor trips to almost any interest. They’re also skilled at planning celebratory and multigenerational trips, where the expectations are often sky-high.

If you want to guarantee a once-in-a-lifetime experience, these are the best tour operators to call, according to T+L readers. Find the full list below, and details on what makes each company so special.

1. Ker & Downey

Credit: Tangulia Mara/Courtesy of Ker & Downey

Score: 99.10

More information: kerdowney.com

“Completely personalized, stellar guides, fabulous recommendations, unforgettable trips,” is how one T+L reader summed up the Ker & Downey experience. The company has been serving travelers for more than 50 years, and though it’s especially known for safaris, the advisors are adept at planning custom trips with a “wow” factor anywhere in the world. Little wonder that many of the readers who rated it so highly are repeat customers, especially for landmark celebrations.

2. Greaves Tours

Credit: Oleh Slobodeniuk/Getty Images

Score: 98.96

More information: greavesindia.com

For more than 40 years, the Cambata family has been planning impeccable custom trips to destinations that require extensive planning — not only India, but Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. “Excellent itineraries,” one T+L reader said. Past travelers also complimented Greaves’s enthusiastic guides and unflappable, knowledgeable drivers.

3. Terra Incognita Ecotours

Credit: Courtesy of Terra Incognita Ecotours

Score: 98.92

More information: ecotours.com

Founder Gerard “Ged” Caddick has serious ecotourism cred, having led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society, American Museum of Natural History, and National Audubon Society. His company only runs about half a dozen wildlife-focused tours each year, visiting a wide array of destinations, including Peru, Namibia, and Arctic Norway. Each trip is limited to 16 guests, and as one reader pointed out, Caddick often joins, too: “One of the perks of traveling with this company is the owner and his wife go on many of the tours themselves. You know absolutely everything will be taken care of.”

4. Jacada Travel

Credit: Lucy Laucht/Courtesy of Jacada Travel

Score: 98.30

More information: jacadatravel.com

“They can handle the most complicated itinerary and find the most intriguing and delightful places to visit,” one T+L reader raved about this London-based group. The company started out planning trips to Brazil in 2008 and has since expanded to orchestrate private, once-in-a-lifetime journeys around the globe. Jacada staffers have experience living and working in the destinations they specialize in, so their knowledge is deep and personal.

5. Artisans of Leisure

Credit: Courtesy of Artisans of Leisure

Score: 98.26

More information: artisansofleisure.com

This company plans customized private journeys packed with five-star-hotel stays and insider experiences in dozens of countries. Trips are tailored to suit travelers’ interests, including food, photography, genealogy, gardens, adventure, and more. “The itineraries are always the perfect balance of famous highlights, off-the-beaten-track spots, and special behind-the-scenes experiences,” one World’s Best voter wrote. “They’re also exceptionally good with organizing family travel, and everyone from the grandparents to the grandchildren always has such a great time.”

6. DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co.

Credit: © Patitucci Photo

Score: 98.02

More information: duvine.com

DuVine is all about travel on two wheels — though it does have some trips that combine its signature cycling with sailing on a private yacht. The local guides are pro cyclists, chefs, and winemakers, and though there are plenty of itineraries for advanced riders, they’re far from spartan training missions. “Absolutely amazing, over-the-top tours!” one T+L reader enthused.

7. Boundless Journeys

Credit: Mike Carrasco/Courtesy of Boundless Journeys

Score: 97.92

More information: boundlessjourneys.com

For more than 20 years, Boundless Journeys has been leading locally guided tours — capped at 16 travelers but often clocking in at eight or 10 — with a focus on the outdoors. It covers destinations from Vermont to Vietnam, and is especially known for walking, hiking, and trekking trips.

8. Classic Journeys

Credit: Courtesy of Classic Journeys

Score: 97.86

More information: classicjourneys.com

When the company began in 1995, it offered walking tours in three countries. Twenty-five years later, it has more than 100 cultural, walking, culinary, family, multisport, and river-cruising itineraries — both small-group and custom — on six continents. Classic Journeys specializes in taking new approaches to familiar destinations and was an early entrant into American travel to Cuba. “Classic Journeys made sure we didn’t miss some of the must-see sights,” one pleased voter wrote, “but they also gave us opportunities for some unique visits.”

9. Quasar Expeditions

Credit: Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Score: 97.54

More information: quasarex.com

Founded by an Ecuadoran couple in 1986, Quasar pioneered luxury cruising in the Galápagos Islands and expanded to land travel that includes the rest of Ecuador, Patagonia, and Peru. It’s still run by the same family, who ensure that no detail of their small-group trips goes overlooked. “The two naturalist guides for our Galápagos cruise were incredibly knowledgeable,” one reader reported. “Their love for their islands shined through every single activity.”

10. Black Tomato

Credit: Courtesy of Black Tomato

Score: 97.44

More information: blacktomato.com

Launched in 2005 by a trio of travel-loving friends, Black Tomato caters to deep-pocketed clients looking for bespoke experiences that are edgy and luxurious. Think pairing dancing salsa in Santiago, Chile, with an Antarctic expedition, or being purposely “lost” in a remote destination in order to plot your way home — with an indulgent reward along the way, of course.