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A guide to the best tour operators to travel to India with. By Gill Charlton, Telegraph Travel s expert guide.
As more hotels offer online reservations, it can seem a good idea to cut out the agent and book direct. Do so only if you are well-travelled and happy to sort things out should the room turn out not to be as described or to be double-booked.
It can be more secure to book through an online agent such as booking.com especially out of season or in out-of-the-way places. If travelling alone book a room for two (the price is often similar) otherwise you may be assigned a broom cupboard with a view of a wall.
British tour operators use their own Indian agents to make reservations on their behalf. This gives security at busy times when overbooking is a regular occurrence. The first guests to be bumped are those who have booked independently as it’s easier to upset a couple than a valued travel agent who brings business all year. (I have sat with a hotel manager doing just this at a top heritage hotel.) Independent travellers often end up in the worst rooms.
There are three main types of quality hotel in India: heritage properties (former Raj guesthouses, royal palaces and forts), glitzy modern hotels often set in beautiful gardens, and boutique guesthouses and homestays, which are often family-run.
Some of the best heritage properties, tented camps and boutique city hideaways are represented by MAhout (01295 758150; mahoutuk.com ), which can advise on itineraries. Its website also has links to some of Britain’s top tour operators to India.
Many forts and country homes are wonderfully photogenic but don’t deliver on service or, in some cases, on basic things such as hot water or a decent mattress. Owners may spend much of their time in the city (where their children are at school), leaving guests in the hands of old family retainers who are not up to the job. It pays to use a tour operator with up-to-date knowledge of such properties.
Most specialists in holidays to India offer both escorted tours and private car-based journeys tailor-made according to your interests. A local agent or tour guide will meet you off every flight and train and escort you to the hotel, help you check in and discuss any concerns or additional guiding you need.
Expect to spend around £3,000 per person, based on two sharing, for a two-week private journey around Rajasthan staying in four-star hotels or top heritage properties.
Here is a selection of tour operators with a strong focus on India:
Ampersand (020 7819 9770; ampersandtravel.com ) is a company that has widely travelled consultants and an easy-to-browse website with a big choice of carefully chosen hotels around which to build private journeys, from top-notch palaces to simple places in great locations.
Audley (01993 838000; audleytravel.com ) has a team of over 20 India specialists who work with customers to put together tailored itineraries countrywide including rural homestays in heritage properties and arranging excursions and activities to suit your interests.
Cox Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk ) is India’s oldest travel agency and a pioneer of private journeys by car. Drivers setting out from the main cities are employed by the company and accompanied by guides for all excursions and local transfers. The company also has a selection of escorted tours for groups of up to 25.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com ) offers both escorted and tailor-made tours combining luxury hotel-trains with rides on interesting local services.
Greaves (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk ) is a family-owned specialist with three offices in India. Known for rolling out the red carpet in Rajasthan and organising special experiences, it has also introduced cheaper boutique hotels and b bs for those on a budget.
Kerala Connections (01892 722440; keralaconnect.co.uk ) is a small specialist focusing on southern India. It has a portfolio of more than 150 hotels, many of them small boutique properties or private houses in tea and coffee country.
Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com ) offers high-brow cultural tours covering aspects of Indian art, architecture and history. Essential India is a good first-timer choice as it covers the main sights. Other itineraries include Gastronomic Kerala and Architecture of the British Raj. The lecturers are all learned India specialists.
Pettitts Travel (01892 515966; pettitts.co.uk ) Over 25 years’ experience in arranging bespoke tours of India. In March 2016 award-winning historian John Keay will be leading 17-day journey across central India.
Riviera Travel (01283 742300; rivieratravel.co.uk ) has well-regarded escorted tours based on larger four-star hotels and for groups of up to 38, which keeps prices down. Its classic “India and Shimla extension” takes in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, as well as the former British hill station of Shimla; from £1,749 including flights and some meals.
SD Enterprises (020 8903 3411; indiarail.co.uk ) offers good-value rail/hotel packages, as well as selling Indian Railpasses. A two-week North India Sampler trip taking in the Golden Triangle, Varanasi and Jaisalmer costs £349 in two-star hotels (£667 in four-star hotels); all meals, transfers and international flights extra.
Steppes Travel (01258 787 560; steppestravel.co.uk ) offers both tailor-made independent tours and expert-led group tours. For 2016 it is offering the chance to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in the company of William Dalrymple and a textile tour of Gujarat with the V A’s curator Rosemary Crill.
Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com ) is a reliable flight specialist which offers further discounts on international fares booked as part of a private tour; an 11-night Classic Rajasthan tour costs from £1, 850 including some meals, guiding and all flights.
Transindus (0844 879 3960; transindus.co.uk ) has keenly priced private journeys and escorted tours for groups of 12 to 16 countrywide. It keeps costs down by mixing in smaller rural heritage properties and train rides. It has its own offices in Delhi and Cochin.
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3582 9211; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk ) arranges tailor-made holidays across the country featuring some of India’s most seductive palaces and hotels aimed at those who want every aspect of the holiday beautifully organised. It also runs several themed escorted tours each year.
Village Ways (01223 750049; villageways.com ) organises private walking trips and small-group holidays in the Indian Himalaya staying in village communities that benefit directly from tourists’ visits. It has recently introduced similiar trips in rural Rajasthan, Karnataka in the south, the Pindar Valley in the Himalayas. It has recently introduced similiar trips in rural Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala and Satpura in Madhaya Pradesh.
Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontiers.co.uk ) runs some of the most interesting small-group tours (maximum 12 people), with a focus on “village India”. They’re good value at around £2,000 for two weeks, including heritage or four-star accommodation, all meals and entrances (international flight extra). Itineraries range from a tour of southern Rajasthan in open-top cars (“India in Slow Motion”) to wild walks in Kashmir. It also offers stay-put Christmas and Easter house-party style holidays in a palace near Udaipur, and can tailor-make private journeys countrywide from its Dehli office.
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