Trailfinders, which has received top marks from Telegraph Travel throughout the years, comes second and continues to impress with its reassuring service and reliability. The company’s ViewTrail mobile phone app allows clients to view travel plans and live flight details and even has GPS tracking. The company considers travellers’ needs before the trip even starts, offering add-on services such as vaccination, visas and insurance cover.
Audley, the winner both in 2017 and the previous year, scored highly for service. The tailor-made specialist is best known for long-haul destinations including the US, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand but is also now focusing closer to home, having introduced itineraries to Italy, its first short-haul destination, this November. Highlights include Venice, Florence and Rome.
Best Escorted Tour Operator
- Titan Travel
- Martin Randall Travel
Escorted tours are a firm favourite among The Telegraph’s core demographic, particularly to destinations which are difficult to navigate on one’s own. Even luxury tailor-made specialists such as Abercrombie & Kent now offer group tours, confirming travellers’ appetite for shared experiences led by expert guides who really understand a destination and can bring it to life.
This year, we have seen increased bookings to Japan, Central Asia and the Middle East, specifically Jordan and Oman, highlighting increasing confidence in the region’s security. Wellness holidays are coming into focus in response to growing interest in physical and mental health, and solo tours also continue to blossom, with more than one in six people now going on holiday by themself – up from 12 per cent in 2017.
Titan Travel, which wins the trophy as this year’s best escorted tour operator, is taking note. The company, which offers premium trips to all seven continents, has recently launched a new programme of solo tours with no single supplements, with the first departures due in 2019. Italy, the UK and the US are Titan’s bestselling destinations in 2018. It is a decidedly generalist operator, but its focus on thoughtfully designed itineraries and the passenger experience – including complimentary door-to-door transfers from anywhere in the UK – means customers are satisfied, happy and likely to rebook.
Following closely behind Titan is arts and culture specialist Martin Randall Travel. The company employs some of the world’s most renowned academics and experts to lead trips focusing on music, architecture and the visual arts.
Last but not least is last year’s winner, APT. Many will be more familiar with its river cruise offerings, but its escorted tours programme, ranging from food-focused tours to wilderness adventures, brings the same sense of luxury and insider experience.
Best Specialist Tour Operator
- Aardvark Safaris
- Llama Travel
Specialist operators generally receive significantly higher ratings from you than bigger rivals which offer a more general programme of holidays. And so they should, of course. The best will have developed a deep, detailed knowledge of the destinations and/or activities they focus on and the most useful contacts on the ground.
The winner this year is Fleewinter, a leading member of AITO (the Association of Independent Tour Operators). For a specialist, it offers quite a broad range of destinations. It started out with a few holidays to Cape Town 15 years ago and has steadily expanded since, with an emphasis on characterful and traditional properties.
Fleewinter “encourages clients to get off the beaten track… and to explore”, and prides itself on offering “impartial” one-to-one advice. Most of its programme is long-haul, with a particularly strong offering in winter sun destinations in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, Africa and south-east Asia.
In second place, Aardvark Safaris focuses on the key African safari destinations, offering stays in small, owner-run camps and lodges which give the best opportunities to see the animals and the bush without the crowds.
In third place, Llama Travel is, as you might have guessed, a South America specialist offering an imaginative programme of trips to all the key destinations on the continent.
Best Rail Operator
- Rocky Mountaineer
The idea of train travel may not be one that fills every commuter with joy, but it certainly appeals to a growing number of holidaymakers. We love the relative ease, comfort and sociability of rail journeys. We like to sit and stare at passing scenery; to read and reconnect. And if possible, we like an added touch of glamour, to be transported back to an unashamedly rose-tinted view of the world and the way things used to be.
Step forward Belmond, winner of our Best Rail Operator award for the second year running. The company’s flagship train, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, needs no introduction and remains a perennial favourite for those with something special to celebrate, something smart to wear and a champagne glass to raise.
Those with very deep pockets have, as of this year, been able to stretch out due to the addition of three considerably more spacious Grand Suites with private bathrooms and double beds.
Further afield, refinements in the Belmond train offering in 2018 include a massage zone on the train to Lake Titicaca in Peru – the Belmond Andean Explorer. The train was introduced in 2016, as was the Belmond Grand Hibernian in Ireland, the embodiment of frictionless travel between North and South.
Our runners-up are Rocky Mountaineer, a stellar company with a luxurious offering, exceptional fine dining and wondrous views of some of Canada’s most spectacular scenery, and Eurostar, a firm favourite for speedy getaways to Paris, Brussels and, as of this year, Amsterdam.
Best Ski Operator
- Scott Dunn
- VIP Ski
The catered chalet holiday is a perennial favourite for Britons wanting to ski in the Alps, and this year’s winner and runners-up have catered chalets at the core of their business. They all also offer pricier, high-end holidays – the most resilient area of the market since numbers of British ski travellers declined after the 2008 financial crisis.
YSE leads the pack. Its expansion from 12 chalets when founded 35 years ago to 19 now, plus one chalet hotel, mirrors the growth and ever-rising popularity of the only resort where it operates – Val d’Isère in France.
As the firm’s website says: “Concentrating on one resort allows us to know the resort and our accommodation perfectly, to have enough weight in town to negotiate the best prices on ski hire or get the pharmacy opened at 2am, while remaining small enough to offer a genuinely personal service.”
What really helps to set YSE apart is founder John Yates-Smith being based in the resort day and night throughout the winter season, to make sure the company delivers the personal service of which it so proudly boasts.
Following YSE is Scott Dunn, with luxury chalet holidays offered in Courchevel, St Anton and Val d’Isère. Its wide-ranging portfolio extends to upmarket hotels, holidays to North America and Japan, and bespoke heli-skiing adventures.
In third place, VIP SKI runs 66 of its own luxury chalets and two luxury ski hotels in 10 resorts in France and Austria.
Best Villa Operator
- Simpson Travel
- The Thinking Traveller
- Vintage Travel
While most of us have fond memories of self-catering holidays in childhood, today’s villa stay is entirely different. The best operators plonk you in the heart of a destination and take on luxury hotels for design and quality of concierge services. Fancy an on-site chef? A truffle-hunting guide? A choir? All of this is available in an increasingly sophisticated market.
Leading the pack is Simpson Travel, with high-end self-catering in Corsica, Mallorca, France, Puglia, Turkey and 10 Greek islands. Its diverse range of properties and bespoke concierge services is impressive. Age-specific on-site child care is offered at many of Simpson’s properties. Activities such as sailing lessons and horse riding compete with the best on offer at hotel kids’ clubs, and creche care from six months helps make this a standout operator.
Following close behind is The Thinking Traveller, purveyor of beautiful properties in Corsica, Sicily, Puglia, the Ionian and Sporades islands. Each destination has particular “experiences”, such as yachts to charter for snorkelling excursions or private guided tours of Unesco World Heritage sites.
Finally, our readers praised Vintage Travel, an operator also commended last year, which offers villas, all with private pools, in quiet rural locations around the Mediterranean, Canary Islands and United Kingdom.
Its categories include villas near beaches, near golf courses, and with fenced pools. And with small-party rates available, it’s easy to find a suitable property for your group.