The road less travelled: Holidays for free spirits

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

According to the experts, if you want to see the world, you should leave the big tour firms behind and do your own thing. Simon Calder and Sophie Lam pick ten of the best 'tailor-made' trips

For the most enjoyable and fulfilling holiday, you may be advised to look beyond some of the biggest names in the business.

Thomas Cook, Airtours, First Choice and Crystal Holidays – all owned by the two big tour companies, Thomas Cook and TUI Group – have come bottom of a survey of customers by the consumer group Which?.

Increasingly customers are satisfied by online planning, that allows them to pick and choose what they want, and by specialist operators that focus on a specific country or type of holiday. The big package companies were criticised for poor journeys and resort representatives, with customer satisfaction scores of 62 per cent or less. By contrast, holidaymakers most enjoyed breaks organised by operators not owned by the "big two" – such as escorted holiday specialist Titan, which came top with 91 per cent.

Some 3,916 Which? members ranked their journey, accommodation, resort, organisation and tour reps. Cosmos came bottom overall, followed by companies from the big two: Thomas Cook and Airtours, owned by Thomas Cook Group, and First Choice and Crystal Holidays, owned by the TUI Group. Combined, the two German-owned groups take 14 million Britons abroad each year – 20 per cent of the market.

Riviera Travel, the internet booking service Expedia and Inghams were rated best for short trips, while customers deemed Kuoni, Saga and Trailfinders best for long haul.

Lorna Cowan, editor of Holiday Which? magazine, said: "With the rise in the number of do-it-yourself holidays, none of the tour operators can rest on their laurels. However, it's great to see the independent tour operators performing so well in the face of big competition."

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) criticised the survey as unrepresentative – unlike its own Mori polling, which found 88 per cent satisfied with package holidays. "The people who decide to respond do not result from a random approach and may not be representative of package holidaymakers in general," said Abta's chief executive Mark Tanzer.

Martin Hickman

Beyond the beach Cuba

A kind of touristic apartheid prevails in Cuba, with most holidaymakers coralled into all-inclusive resorts, offering limited contact with local people and providing a wonky perspective of the Caribbean's largest island.

The antidote is a three-week trip that takes in Old Havana, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada (visiting the hide-out of Che and Castro, from which they fought half a century ago) and the beautiful backwater of Baracoa in the far east of Cuba. Accommodation is partly with local families, offering an insight into the good humour – and dismal diet – of the average Cuban. The price of £1,098 includes local transportation but not flights.

Journey Latin America: 020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk

Total Eclipse China

Roughly once a year, a stripe of the Earth's surface is flung into darkness as the moon blots out the Sun in a total solar eclipse. The remarkable coincidence in relative size of the Sun and the moon means that, for a few minutes, an observer in the right place at the right time can experience the phenomenon. The right time is 1 August 2008, and the right place – according to Explorers Tours – is the village of Ding Xin Zheng, north of Jiuquan in western China. A few places are still left on a one-week trip that includes visits to Shanghai and the Great Wall, price £1,699.

Explorers Tours: 01276 406877; www.explorers.co.uk

Wine weekend South Africa

With just a two-hour time difference from the UK, South Africa has extended the domain of the short break. An overnight flight will get you to Cape Town in time for breakfast, where Original Travel, long haul-short break specialists, arranges a sensual visit of the country's winelands. Visitors sip their way around the vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek and relax in some of Cape Province's finest hotels. This four-day trip costs from £895 per person, which includes return flights from Heathrow to Cape Town, car hire and accommodation at Le Quartier Francais and Birkenhead House Hotel; wine tastings can also be arranged.

Original Travel: 020-7978 7333; www.originaltravel.co.uk

Private jet tour India

Some of us regard India as the ultimate "slow travel" destination, trundling across the nation aboard Indian Railways. But if you are prepared to bear the shame of a carbon footprint the size of a country, then Greaves Travel will arrange a private jet tour. A taste: "From Delhi, you can fly to Agra to see the gorgeous Taj Mahal for the day, or stay overnight and have your jet waiting to whisk you off to any other city on your tour." You can also access wildlife reserves that usually take many uncomfortable hours to visit. And the price? A day trip from Mumbai to the Sula vineyards costs £3,285 per person, based on two sharing.

Greaves Travel: 020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com

Mountain palace Morocco

For three decades, Discover Ltd has been helping people push at their limits, and there are few better locations to start than the Kasbah du Toubkal, a restored palace in the Atlas Mountains 40 miles south of Marrakech. Hollywood stars seek seclusion here, while more adventurous travellers can use it as the most indulgent kind of base camp for an ascent to North Africa's highest peak, Mount Toubkal (4,167m). A remote trekking lodge also allows for more adventurous itineraries – led by guides from the local Berber community. Mountain luxury from £850 for five nights.

Discover Ltd: 01883 744392; www.discover.ltd.uk

Odessa Ukraine

"Baku, Belgrade, Bratislava..." – the list of city breaks on offer from Regent Holidays is far from the average brochure. The company that brought you the first package holidays to Albania, Cuba and China specialises in city breaks to places that your neighbours will not have been already. Odessa, the elegance of which belies its status as a leading naval port, offers plenty of sightseeing, excellent restaurants and beaches – in addition to the Potemkin Steps, iconic location for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Ukraine also offers outstanding value – three nights in Odessa for £415, including flights on Czech Airlines from Heathrow (or Manchester for a £20 supplement).

Regent Holidays: 0845 277 3317; www.regent-holidays.co.uk

Cast adrift Turkey

Cruises don't usually allow for more than a blink at their ports of call. But Exclusive Escapes takes a different view with its luxury gulet cruising along Turkey's unspoilt Lycian coastline. The traditional wooden sailing vessels can be booked out by the cabin or in their entirety and sleep up to 14. The leisurely routes take in ancient sites such as Phaselis, Myra and the sunken city of Kekova, pausing to cool off in the clear waters of the Mediterranean. A crew prepares fresh local food during the day; dinners can be taken on deck under the stars, or at restaurants on shore. Weekly cruises start at £620 per person based on 10 people sharing, including all meals, flights from Heathrow and transfers.

Exclusive Escapes: 020-8605 3500; www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk

Altai Mountains Russia

Forget the Urals, which provide the bookend for Europe and mark the start of Asia; the great mountain range in Siberia is the Altai, which "acts as a vast draught-excluder to hold the chilled Arctic air over Siberia, instead of letting it sink to Asia". That's the view of Neil McGowan, the Moscow-based director of The Russia Experience. He includes the Altai in a pan-Siberian trip that lasts nearly a month and includes Moscow, the deeply mysterious Lake Baikal and Mongolia, finishing in Beijing. The first trip of this year departs on 2 June, price £2,890 for 26 days; international flights are extra.

Russia Experience: 020-8566 8846; www.trans-siberian.co.uk

Baltic beach Lithuania

In the 1300s, Lithuania (with its dependencies) was the largest country in Europe, but these days enjoys less illustrious status. While the capital, Vilnius, vies for stag-weekenders, the tour operator Black Tomato is encouraging visitors to the coast. Here, the Curonian Spit forms a blue lagoon to the east and sandy dunes lapped by the Baltic to the west. Aside from the white sand and pine forests, the town of Palanga provides a nightlife competitor to the capital. Black Tomato's "best- kept secret in beach breaks" costs £599 per person, which includes SAS flights via Copenhagen, four nights at the Hotel Palanga and hire car.

Black Tomato: 020 7610 9008; www.blacktomato.co.uk

Le Corbusier trail France

France is the biggest tourist destination on the planet, but specialist tour operators can help you see it with different eyes.

In May, a maximum of 22 people will be escorted on the trail of the visionary architect Le Corbusier. After the Eurostar train journey to Paris, the itinerary takes in Corbusier's hilltop chapel at Ronchamp and other notable sites in eastern France and Switzerland, ending in Marseilles. Travellers will visit structures and archives normal-ly closed to the public. The price of £2,090 includes accommodation, travel (by rail) and expertise.

Martin Randall Travel: 020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Extras
indybest
News
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
people
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home