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Tailored to suit your taste
Tailored to suit your taste

You can go just about anywhere in the world at just about any time, as long as you are in good, professional, safe hands. You can join a well-run, small group and feel both companionable and still the traveller, finding private moments and thoughts within the general camaraderie of it all.

This is the heart of what we like to call bespoke touring. Intimate groups, careful planning, knowledgeable and attentive personnel, professional companies, quality experiences.

These are the touring companies that specialise in "that bit extra", taking travellers to the more unusual corners of the world, or to familiar corners of the world in a more unusual way. Their tours might be themed - food, art, or simply just luxury - but culture is as important as comfort. A little learning is as important as relaxing.

There are more companies offering this style of touring. New companies are being launched as I write, big existing companies have launched "bespoke" touring off the side of their big touring itineraries - a higher price, but more individuality, more personal attention.

And one reason that what we might call "velvet class" of highly engaged, small group touring is growing is that it breeds loyalty among the tourers. Travellers convert into "repeaters" - they like the way they are treated and looked after, become loyal to that company, and return to go on a number of trips with them. Find the right fit, and some travellers will decide their next holiday by company, rather than by destination. They will wait to see what their favoured company comes up with next and decide from among those itineraries. Maybe that is already you.

There are clear advantages in small-group touring.

Being in a group means you don't have to organise anything - just be in the right place at the right time.

It also brings enormous economies. And I don't just mean dollars. So often I have realised that, much as I might like to think of myself as pretty experienced and independent, I probably couldn't have got round everything covered on a group trip if I had been on my own. It would have taken more time, or at least been a lot more difficult and far more expensive. So, the economies are in time as much as dollars spent.

Flights, transport, accommodation, usually most meals and "laid-on experiences" will be included in many bespoke touring itineraries.

I have been with travel professionals recently on a couple of reconnoitring trips, while they have been working out precisely this type of bespoke tour. They will meet local agents and travel with local guides, visit many hotels to decide on the best, work out what should be in an itinerary and what's a waste of time. They'll experience the transportation and work out the most efficient timings. Then they'll negotiate prices, put the whole thing together and advertise it.

There are costs in all of this - and to have an experienced person do this so that travellers can go on a seamless holiday should not be underestimated.

Even though the groups are small, the buying power that a touring company has, because it will book many groups, means they get good rates on centralised hotels -and surely we all know that the location of the hotel is vital. You want to be able to step out of the door and into the heart of a place.

But when you are considering trips, really visualise the itinerary. Take note of how many single-night and two- night, or longer, stops there are. If it's a faster itinerary, and you like slower travel, will you feel like getting up and moving on on those mornings? If you like to see and do a lot, will three nights in one place feel too slow?

Let me give you some examples of the places where small-group touring works.

Experienced organisation, reliable accommodation, local communication and good regional guides make a difference in India.

Burma is still new to our touring scene, opening up under a more democratic process, and having people who know it helps. Bespoke touring really suits African countries, particularly for wildlife tours.

But, as I have said, it isn't necessarily about more unusual places, but being in familiar places in a more unusual way.

The blockbuster venues in Europe can get so busy in the northern summer that if you're travelling solo you're likely to be in big queues, which are often bypassed by bespoke touring companies.

For, laid-on "experiences" will be included in many itineraries - though some companies don't like listing these highlights, but prefer to spring them on their guests. And there will be features on some trips that a traveller alone simply couldn't arrange - time with an art historian in Florence, an icon restorer on the Greek island of Patmos, an after-hours private dinner in the Vatican Museums in Rome, a private and informative olive-oil tasting.

So, from a dinner in a European castle to a champagne breakfast by a river full of hippos in the Masai Mara, travellers benefit from being in good hands by experiencing extraordinary moments.

Yet for all the "scripting", it's a clever aspect of the good companies that their guests so often remember the trip as personal and spontaneous - words that I have heard many times. It is a mark of their polish and professionalism.

A small group travelling together becomes a family, with all the joys, camaraderie and hiccups a family can have.

Many people will like the sociability - making new friends, travelling with others and sharing experiences. They will even - dare I say it - like not being just with their usual partner. And now I've opened this particular kettle of fish, I'd better carry on . . .

Three men on one bespoke tour told me that they had formed a "bit of a club" and were having fun together - just as their three wives had done. The women were enjoying a little shopping together, the men a quiet beer and a local paper.

Each couple had been married for between 30 and 45 years, and were enjoying both being together and (dare I say it again) having a few hours apart during the trip. They all seemed to feel that, in their own way, it was improving things.

On another trip, two single and elderly men were clearly enjoying one another's company. They told me that, many years ago, they had been "billeted" together, as agreeable strangers, on a bespoke tour, each happy to avoid paying the dreaded single supplement to each have their own room. They got on well and have holidayed together, on this basis, every year since. They lived in different States, don't socialise in between, and find the arrangement very amenable.

Most companies will go to lengths before a trip to "match" single travellers who wish to share a room with someone else. Some say that if they can't find someone suitable, they will forgo the single supplement.

Yes, a tour group can become a family.

And in the middle of all of this (and part of what travellers pay for) is the tour director. The best of them have an impressive mix of organisational skills, patience, kindness and humour. They love what they do.

They will hover over everything, making it all work. And a lot of what they do, the traveller won't even be aware of. They will be the ones smiling out the front, and frantically organising things out the back.

If ever I could truly describe someone as a duck, it is the tour director. Calm on the surface, paddling furiously underneath.

They will instruct the driver and local guides, who are there to give insight into culture, history and environment.

And they are generally more than worth their money.

They will be organising seeing that those with special dietary requirements are catered for. They will be there for any emergencies. They will be the ones rotating the coach seats - occasionally a bug-bear on a tour - making sure that all is fair.

There are a few moments, of course, when being in a group doesn't work for you. There are a few moments when you might like to stay longer, but the group has to move on. There might be moments when you'd like to move on, but there's still a little time until departure.

But then, that's just like being in a family, isn't it.

And speaking of families, more companies are catering specifically for parents and children with bespoke touring itineraries.

I've had some interesting feedback from readers on this. One reader rang to tell me of his decision to take the family on a bespoke tour, rather than driving, and how it completely took the weight off his shoulders (arranging, navigating, driving) so that he could just enjoy time with his wife and children.

And senior travel industry people tell me how they see independent travellers getting to the age where they want to travel with their children, and a burgeoning market in providing bespoke tours for them.

Some companies are taking the next step along this route by offering bespoke touring for "groups" of two or more.

And there are many bespoke touring companies now - too many to mention but a few in this story and remain fair.

How do you find them? Certainly you can take the advice of a good travel agent, but Travel Directors, Peregrine Reserve, Tauck, Insight Vacations may be among them. Look out also for advertisements in these pages for tours by individuals with a specific tour because of their own knowledge and interest.

Look for low numbers, inclusions and highlights, and gauge the company also by your ability to really discuss with them what you want before you buy it.

If ever I could truly describe someone as a duck, it is the tour director. Calm on the surface, paddling furiously underneath.

It isn't necessarily about more unusual places, but being in familiar places in a more unusual way.