Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards 2020: The results

You've ranged far and wide, thumbed many guidebooks, put a lot of gear to the test and generally proved yourself the most well-travelled lot around. Now, we reveal your top picks...

Camelthorn Trees in Deadvlei, Sossusvlei (Shutterstock)

Top country

Gold: Namibia (96.47%)

Dune 45, Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia (Shutterstock)

Dune 45, Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia (Shutterstock)

'BORING!' shouts absolutely nobody, as Namibia takes your top spot for the second year in a row, and as it has done on multiple occasions in the history of these awards. Namibia – wild, wonderful, diverse, conservation-dedicated Namibia – is a worthy winner every time. 

It’s a neat birthday present too – Namibia celebrates its 30th year of independence in 2020, and it’s ageing well. Of course, many of its attractions are timeless – the ancient apricot deserts, the Big Five wildlife, the untamed Skeleton Coast, the gaping Fish River Canyon.

But there’s more.This is a country that seems, largely, to be getting it right in terms of protecting its natural assets. An emphasis on community-focused conservation is seeing species thrive and local people benefit. It’s a beacon of hope in these most worrying of times. 

Talking of the times, perhaps that’s another part of Namibia’s appeal. The world’s second least densely populated country – with only three people per sq km – it’s the perfect place to escape the tech-noisy, overcrowded, in-your-faceness that dominates elsewhere. Come to Namibia to find the antidote; to find space, peace and stars. 

Silver: Peru (96.33%)

Totora boat on Lake Titicaca near Puno, Peru (Shutterstock)

Totora boat on Lake Titicaca near Puno, Peru (Shutterstock)

It’s great to see Peru rising back up the list, too – up from ninth in 2019.

The enticing Andean nation has been a victim of its own success, suffering from overtourism as we all clamour to its headline acts.

But the government is increasingly trying to change that by encouraging travellers to choose different hikes to Machu Picchu – such as the newer Quarry Trail – and to branch out to the country’s less-heralded but also-impressive archaeological sites such as Chavín de Huántar and the huge complex of Kuélap. 

Bronze: Laos (96.25%)

Night Market at Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

Night Market at Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

Lovely Laos rounds out the top three. Probably because it sums up laid-back South-East Asia just right.

Laos is smiley, scenic, good value and offers delicious cuisine, with a pleasing amount of characterful hotels and modern comforts.

Not so much that it’s lost its charm and soul, though. Long may that last.

More of your favourites 

4. New Zealand (96.19%)

5. Japan (95.63%)

6. Tanzania (94.84%)

7. Canada (94.71%)

8. Kenya (94.59%)

9. Vietnam (94.49%)

10. India (93.33%)

Top emerging destination

Gold: Kyrgyzstan (100%)

Kurgan stone near Burana tower in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Kurgan stone near Burana tower in Kyrgyzstan (Shutterstock)

Would you look at that? Kyrgyzstan didn’t just win this most feet-itching of categories, it scored a perfect 100%. Those of you who visited were utterly blown away. Though we’re hardly surprised – we love Kyrgyzstan, from its rich nomadic culture to its excellent activity potential, from its massive mountains to its appealingly low prices.

While Silk Road fave Uzbekistan – top of this list last year – has perhaps made the transition from ‘emerging’ to ‘emerged’, lesser-visited Kyrgyzstan remains the sort of destination you can still brag about around the water-cooler. You’ll find fewer other tourists here, despite Joanna Lumley’s best efforts. It’s the more secret but no less spectacular strand of the Silk Road, if you like. 

It’s good to see even more offbeat Tajikistan nudging into the top five, too. If you’re the sort who thinks Kyrgyzstan HAS become over-touristed, then the Pamir-ruptured reaches and remote cultural sites here – UNESCO-listed Sarazm, Hissar Fortress, Khulbuk Palace – might be for you. In 2018, Tajikistan welcomed over one million visitors (itself, a massive rise from just 413,000 in 2017) compared to Kyrgyzstan’s three million. 

Sadly Iran, which has retained its second place with an even higher satisfaction rating than it scored in 2019, is currently deemed off-limits by the FCO. A huge pity for this most historic and hospitable of countries. Let’s hope the situation changes for the better soon. 

Silver: Iran (96.36%)

Ruins at Persepolis (Shutterstock)

Ruins at Persepolis (Shutterstock)

Bronze: Uganda (94.67%)

A mountain gorilla in Uganda (Shutterstock)

A mountain gorilla in Uganda (Shutterstock)

4. Bolivia (94.55%)

Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia (Shutterstock)

Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia (Shutterstock)

5. Tajikistan (94.29%)

Hisor Fortress in Tajikistan (Shutterstock)

Hisor Fortress in Tajikistan (Shutterstock)

Top equipment brand

Gold: Rab (88.03%)

As ever more emphasis is placed on the value of ‘buying local’, it’s perhaps no surprise that British brand Rab – founded by climber Rab Carrington in his Sheffield attic in 1981 – has topped this list again. That, and the brand’s consistently high quality, unfussy, fit-for-purpose kit. Rab works hard to minimise its environmental impact too.

The category is filled out with brands that have truly proved their worth, all performing well in our gear tests. For instance, in our latest Gear of the Year review, outdoor clothing specialist Craghoppers bagged our Best Travel Trousers category – ‘the best in legwear’ according to judges, while Páramo won Best Travel Insulated Jacket.

Silver: Craghoppers (86.77%)

= Bronze: Osprey (86.23%) & Patagonia (86.23%)

5. Páramo (85.77%)

6. The North Face (84.41%)

7. Jack Wolfskin (84.06%)

8. Rohan (83.71%)

9. Keen (82.22%)

10 Berghaus (82.12%)

Top city

Gold: Kyoto (96.92%)

Sannen Zaka Street in Kyoto (Shutterstock)

Sannen Zaka Street in Kyoto (Shutterstock)

For many, Kyoto embodies the essence of Japan: an abundance of temples, palaces and shrines, teahouses and townhouses, cherry blossom and zen gardens.

The city dropped to seventh last year but, given the boom in popularity of Japan – tourist numbers are up 21% over the past three years – it’s no shock to see it back on top. This presents some overtourism issues, but canny travellers can find ways to escape the crowds – for instance, the city’s popular Fushimi Inari Shrine is technically open 24 hours a day, so consider visiting at sunrise to have it to yourself. 

A slight surprise in second place, Singapore proves it’s more than just an excellent airport. The Asian hub has long been known for its skyscraper-slick style but there’s been a recent shift towards experiential tourism, with ‘Passion Ambassadors’ showcasing more unusual offerings – for instance, take a Disappearing Trades tour to learn about old crafts or try modern street food on a Next Generation Hawker tour.

Cusco is also back on the list. Having been a perennial favourite with readers over the years, the Inca capital is back in third place. 

Silver: Singapore (94.4%)

Singapore city skyline (Shutterstock)

Singapore city skyline (Shutterstock)

Bronze: Cusco (93.64%)

Sun rising over Plaza de Armas, Cusco (Shutterstock)

Sun rising over Plaza de Armas, Cusco (Shutterstock)

More of your favourites

4. Seville (93.08%)

5. Cape Town (92.76%)

6. Amsterdam (92.09%)

7. Istanbul (91.88%)

8. Siem Reap (91.43%)

9. New York (90.91%)

10. Vancouver (90.71%)

Top airline

Gold: Singapore Airlines (95%)

Are airlines upping their game? Perennial fave Singapore Airlines – back on top after coming third last year – has won this category with a whopping 95% satisfaction rating, with flyers raving about its roominess and attentive service.

Meanwhile, KLM has a higher score than 2019’s 10th place carrier. As airlines fight for our custom – especially as more people question whether we should fly at all – are standards on the up?

As usual, it’s the Asian, Australasian and Middle Eastern brands that are generally proving the most impressive – though Virgin has crept up a place to rank sixth this year. It’s also good to know that safety levels are high pretty much across the board: despite the fact that more people are flying than ever – around 4.59 billion journeys anticipated in 2019 – last year ranks as the third safest in aviation history, with only 14 accidents involving passenger flights recorded 

Silver: Air New Zealand (92.73%)

Bronze: Emirates (92.07%)

More of your favourites

4. Qatar Airways (88.77%)

5. Cathay Pacific (87.27%)

6. Virgin Atlantic (87.19%)

7. Qantas (85.00%)

8. Thai Airways (84.57%)

9. Turkish Airlines (84.44%)

10. KLM (84.06%)

Top UK Destination

Gold: Scottish Highlands (98.33%)

Red stag in the Scottish Highlands (Shutterstock)

Red stag in the Scottish Highlands (Shutterstock)

Congratulations to the bonnie Scottish Highlands for taking top UK spot again – with an even higher satisfaction rating than last year. From Fort William in the west, around to John O’ Groats, down to Inverness and sneaking in some of the Cairngorms, this is an area of drama and diversity – no wonder it ticks so many boxes.

And with 2020 named Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, this is the time to embrace the Highlands’ delightful damp patches, from Sutherland’s beaches to whale-watching in the Pentland Firth to monster-spotting in Loch Ness.

Brighton didn’t even feature in the top 10 in 2019; now the East Sussex city has bagged second place, maybe because it combines sea air, an independent spirit, starling murmurations and – bang on trend – being the vegan capital of the country. Personally, we don’t want to choose between any of these entries.

The only option? A north-south odyssey between your favourite two, stopping at all the others en route. 

Silver: Brighton (96.67%)

Brighton Pier, Brighton (Shutterstock)

Brighton Pier, Brighton (Shutterstock)

Bronze: New Forest (95.22%)

New Forest, Hampshire (Shutterstock)

New Forest, Hampshire (Shutterstock)

More of your favourites

4. Edinburgh (94.55%)

=5. South Downs (94.00%) & York (94.00%)

7. Cornwall (93.66%)

8. Northumberland (92.86%)

9. Lake District (92.00%)

10. Peak District (91.43%)

Top UK Airport

Gold: Southampton (84.40%)

Southampton takes the UK airport crown, finally knocking London City – winner for the past four years – off top spot. Maybe that’s down to the fact that, unusually for an airport, it aims to foster something of a ‘community spirit’.

For instance, in 2020 a pack of therapy dogs – the Canine Crew – will patrol once a week to help calm nervous flyers and passengers with hidden disabilities. The airport has also raised £100,000 for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance. 

Bigger airports always seem to prove less satisfying than the smaller regionals. That said, although Heathrow has slipped from fourth place last year to sixth in 2020, its percentage rating is actually higher this time around. 

Southampton (Shutterstock)

Southampton (Shutterstock)

Silver: Newcastle (83.93%)

Bronze: London City (83.62%)

4. Leeds (81.61%)

5. Edinburgh (81.58%)

6. London Heathrow (80.80%)

7. Bristol (78.05%)

8. Birmingham (77.11%)

9. London Gatwick (73.83%)

10. Glasgow International (70.21%)

Top TV/Radio programme

Gold: The Americas with Simon Reeve

You love Simon Reeve, wherever he goes. Last year his Mediterranean series topped the polls. This year, The Americas was your stand-out TV choice, charting Reeve’s journey from Alaska to Costa Rica; in his smiling but investigative style, he covers everything from climate change to poverty to missing migrants.

Stay tuned: the second part of the series, which sees him continue southwards, down to the tip of Argentina, is set to air later in 2020. 

You also like to take a trip with Richard Ayoade. Seeing a popular city through the eyes of the comedian and his celebrity guest gives a different take on the tourist attractions. This year, after nine series, Ayoade is hanging up his boots, and comedian Joe Lycett is taking over presenting duties. Will it have the same appeal? 

Special mention must go to Seven Worlds, One Planet, too – a glorious look at every corner of the globe, showcasing the cutting edge of filming tech. Breathtaking stuff. 

 

More of your favourites

Silver: Travel Man: 48 Hours In...

Bronze: Japan with Sue Perkins

4. Seven Worlds, One Planet

5. Great Railways – Michael Portillo

Top Worldwide Airport

Gold: Singapore Changi (95.28%)

Changi Airport (Shutterstock)

Changi Airport (Shutterstock)

Will any airport anywhere EVER topple the aviation colossus that is Singapore Changi? The airport is yet again your favourite – as it has been ever since we started asking for your thoughts on the subject.

You’d think other hubs might have caught up but, if anything, Changi is pulling away in the popularity stakes: this year it scored a satisfaction rating almost seven percent higher than its nearest rival. It seems to be going from strength to strength. 

It’s good to see that Tokyo’s main international airport is scoring well, too: it will need to be a well-oiled machine to cope with the influx of visitors expected for the Olympic Games this summer. Indeed, Haneda is due to add 50 flight slots a day to its schedule in 2020 as, from late March, aircraft will be allowed to fly over central Tokyo during the daytime. 

Last year, there were four European airports in the top ten but this time only Amsterdam Schiphol makes the grade, slipping slightly from fifth place to sixth. 

Silver: Tokyo Narita Airport (87.44%)

Duty Free shopping at Narita airport (Shutterstock)

Duty Free shopping at Narita airport (Shutterstock)

Bronze: Dubai International (87.30%)

Dubai airport terminal at night (Shutterstock)

Dubai airport terminal at night (Shutterstock)

More of your favourites

4. Hong Kong International (87.17%)

5. Vancouver International (84.92%)

6. Amsterdam Schiphol (84.61%)

7. Sydney (82.73%)

8. Auckland (87.71%)

9. Doha Hamad International (80.73%)

10. Toronto Pearson (80.20%)

Top guidebook series

Gold: DK Eyewitness (83.64%)

Maybe it’s symptomatic of the Instagram age. Or maybe they’re just really good guides.

This year your top spot goes to DK, purveyors of highly visual guides filled with beautifully detailed illustrations that transport you right into city streets and historic buildings. The series got a revamp in 2018, to celebrate DK’s 25th anniversary, and it seems you like the new look. 

Lauded travel guide publisher Lonely Planet remain ever-popular in second place and last year’s winners, pioneering publishers Bradt, have slipped to third, but promise a strong 2020. New titles hot off the press include first edition guides to Northern Greece and the Inner Hebrides plus new editions of lesser-trodden destinations such as Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Suriname and Gabon. 

Silver: Lonely Planet (81.95%)

Bronze: Bradt (81.73%)

4. Rough Guides (78.05%)

5. Insight (77.52%)

6. Time Out (77.04%)

7. Footprint (75.71%)

8. Blue Guides (75.22%)

9. Cicerone (74.78%)

10. Marco Polo (74.19%)

Top tour operator

Gold: Selective Asia (99.14%)

Wat Muang Angthong, Thailand (Shutterstock)

Wat Muang Angthong, Thailand (Shutterstock)

When you spend your hard-earned cash on your next adventure, you want to know your trip is being planned by people who know what they’re talking about – which is why you’re such a fan of specialists.

Take Selective Asia, category winners after coming third last year: they know Asia intimately. In 2019, they added India to their portfolio, and many of the team have been to the subcontinent ten-plus times. 

It’s clear you’re keen on expertise in all its forms too. This list recognises great tailormade specialists – Holiday Architects, Imagine Travel, Audley – whose knowledgeable teams focus on creating unique trips from scratch. But also featured are the likes of KE Adventure and Explore, who offer thrilling small-group tours on which you benefit from well-paced itineraries and excellent guides. 

Silver: Llama Travel (99.13%)

Machu Picchu, Peru (Shutterstock)

Machu Picchu, Peru (Shutterstock)

Bronze: Holiday Architects (98.64%)

Camels in Oman (Holiday Architects)

Camels in Oman (Holiday Architects)

More of your favourites

4. Imagine Travel (98.50%)

5. Bamboo Travel (97.78%)

6. KE Adventure Travel (96.67%)

7. Wild Frontiers (95.44%)

8. Audley Travel (94.38%)

9. Trailfinders (93.20%)

10. Explore Worldwide (88.11%)

Most popular destination online

Vietnam

Rice farmer in Vietnam (Shutterstock)

Rice farmer in Vietnam (Shutterstock)

There’s a lot of content on the Wanderlust website. A. Lot. Got a travel query or curiosity? You can likely find the answer on there. And it turns out that the place you seem most curious about is Vietnam. The most read article on wanderlust.co.uk in 2019 was ‘10 of the best things to do in Vietnam’, a run-down of some of the country’s highlights and secret corners.

For instance, you were eager to know that, while Halong Bay might be marvellous, ‘Bai Tu Long Bay, just a few miles away, offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors’. And you enjoyed discovering that some of the very best pho in Hanoi can be found at Pho Thin, an ‘unassuming pho house, with wooden benches and laminated tables, [that] does things a little differently’. 

Indeed, every post we put up about the South-East Asian super-star always does well. Vietnam, with its seemingly endless coastline, hilltribe villages, war history, ancient past, lush jungle, activity possibilities and amazing food, is a phenomenal all-rounder.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed: since 2010, the number of international tourists has grown from five million to more than 15 million. Fortunately, if you keep reading the insider tips at wanderlust.co.uk, you should be able to see bits of Vietnam away from the crowds. 

Back on the map

Sri Lanka

Fisherman in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Fisherman in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

At the beginning of 2019 Sri Lanka was on a high. Dominating ‘where’s hot for this year’ lists, and placed in the top ten of these very awards, it seemed the dazzling teardrop isle was THE destination du jour. And then, in April, a series of terrorist attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels saw 250 people killed and the flourishing tourist industry left in tatters. 

Travel advisories were issued, trips were cancelled. It was a devastating blow for a country where tourism brings in around $4.4 billion a year – the industry is the country’s third-biggest foreign exchange earner. 

But Sri Lanka rallied. Arrests were made, do-not-travel warnings were swiftly downgraded and hotel rates slashed. The message that the country was open for business – at a great price – was loudly disseminated. 

Tourist numbers are still down, but bounce- back has been encouraging. Much of that is down to travellers themselves wanting to show their support, being eager to return. And with good reason: Sri Lanka, with its cultural richness, dazzling beaches, rolling hills and tea plantations, exquisite food, warmth, colour, charm and some of the best safaris outside of Africa, is too good to stay off the radar for long. 

Conservation heroes

Caiman Ecological Refuge, Onçafari

A jaguar near the Caiman Ecological Refuge, Brazil (Simon Chubb)

A jaguar near the Caiman Ecological Refuge, Brazil (Simon Chubb)

‘Minutes later Mario got the call about the jaguars, and we then enjoyed three or four hours of the most extraordinary wildlife watching I’ve ever experienced...’

So wrote Wanderlust Editor-in-Chief Lyn Hughes of her first afternoon at Caiman Ecological Refuge in Brazil’s southern Pantanal. Indeed, last year 98% of guests staying here saw jaguar. But Caiman is more than a spectacular safari spot. It’s also doing incredible work to conserve the wildlife of the region, and hopes to inspire other ranches in the area to do the same. 

Operating within the refuge, Onçafari is a non-profit jaguar (onça) habituation project – the first of its kind in South America – that aims to develop ways of stopping conflict between jaguars and farmers by showing that a jaguar is worth more alive than dead; that it can have a positive socio-economic impact on the region through tourism. It’s great for visitors too, who – with luck – get incredibly close encounters with big cats. 

In autumn 2019 a devastating fire raced through the Pantanal, scorching 60% of Caiman’s grounds. But none of the accommodation was damaged and, incredibly, most of the wildlife survived. Green shoots are already growing from the burned earth; nature rebounding – with a little help from this award-winning team.

How each category was scored

Customer satisfaction is one of the best guides to quality – especially when it comes to travelling. This is how the Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards are largely scored and why the results have become so respected within the travel industry.

This year’s awards were based on your travels from December 2018 to November 2019. In many categories you were asked to list up to four entries and score each one on its merits.

The results were based on an average score (converted to a percentage) – so results are based on satisfaction rather than the number of votes. In categories where no percentage is shown, the results were simply based on the number of votes counted. 

Thanks to everyone who took the time to share their travel highs and lows with us, to help give a true picture of what travellers really think. 

Related Articles