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.
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
"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