The destinations you love, the tour operators you trust, and the guidebooks you won’t leave home without: meet the Travel Awards winners, crowned by the best-journeyed bunch of all – Wanderlust readers...
Is it the otherworldly red deserts? The unique tribal culture? The desert-adapted elephants and black rhinos that roam the wild plains? For all these reasons – and countless more – Namibia has always featured high in our Reader Travel Awards, and this year it has reclaimed top spot from 2018’s winner, Canada.
A trip to Namibia is always rich in spectacle, from the raw, elemental beauty of the Skeleton Coast and the shape-shifting dunes of Sossusvlei, to the lush Epupa Falls on the Kunene River – a welcome respite after a dusty desert safari. It has its isolated corners, and a visit to the wilderness area of Kaokoland (as Wanderlust did in 2018) reveals a land where the nomadic Himba people still live a traditional life. But Namibia is largely very accessible, and whether touring the colonial cities of Swakopmund and capital Windhoek or rhino tracking in the Damaraland, it’s easy to take the wheel and explore under your own steam, which is perhaps why you find it so irresistible.
For the past few years, Japan has been quietly gaining momentum in our awards, and has finally scooped silver this year. Quite frankly, we’re surprised it hasn’t crept up sooner: from the ancient temples and Geisha culture of Kyoto, to Hokkaido’s steamy hot springs and Tokyo’s urban energy, Japan never fails to surprise and delight. Meanwhile, New Zealand – which has made your top three for the past 18 editions – continues to enthral.
But it’s not all perennial favourites: Indonesia features in our top ten for only the second time. While it’s most famous for its pearl-white beaches, the archipelago is a Wanderlust favourite for its wildlife-rich jungles, Komodo dragons and far-flung islands (over 17,500!). Recent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions may have affected visitor numbers, but we wouldn’t be a surprised if the South-East Asian nation climbs even higher in 2019 – especially with Garuda Indonesia recently launching new direct flights from London to Bali.
Bronze: New Zealand
6: Costa Rica
7: South Africa
10: Sri Lanka
‘The Silk Road’ – has there ever been a more evocative phrase? It conjures visions of spice-laden caravans, vast trains of camels and sprawling desert trails leading to the most opulent cities on Earth. While its might and majesty faltered centuries ago, this ancient commerce route still has the power to cast a spell – which is perhaps why this year’s top three emerging destinations are linked by their rich Silk Road heritage.
Uzbekistan makes its Travel Awards debut at the top of this list – no doubt thanks to its trio of historic cities: Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. Here you can bathe in 15th-century hammams, haggle for saffron and cinnamon in dusty bazaars, trace your fingertips over hypnotic mosaics, and, with only a dash of imagination, be transported back to the days of the Silk Road’s prime. Having recently announced that UK nationals no longer require a visa to visit, Uzbekistan is likely to grow even more in popularity this year.
Together with Iran – a perennial favourite – and last year’s victor, Kyrgyzstan, this year’s top three emerging destinations reveal what a discerning, adventurous bunch Wanderlust readers are. And with the success of Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure TV series in 2018 (a close runner-up in this year’s ‘Top TV and Radio Programme’ category) raising the area’s profile even more, perhaps next year they’ll all be vying for the ‘Top Country’ title instead.
Gold: Luang Prabang
The UNESCO-listed city of Luang Prabang – in northern Laos – is spiritual and spectacular in equal measure. For years, this hilltop kingdom of gilded temples and crumbling colonial architecture has held gold in this category; now, after a three-year hiatus, it has regained its crown.
While most travellers come to see Luang Prabang’s glittering wats (temples) and amber-robed monks, it’s the laid-back way of life that tempts you to stay longer – to glide around the Royal Palace museum, feast in the night market and cool off in the spray of the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls.
Elsewhere, Spain has made its mark in the top three, with only a whisker separating Granada and the ever-present Seville. Meanwhile, your favourite cities are dominated by European entries – showing your appetite for exploring close to home as well as further afield – we’re particularly delighted to see two British spots in the top ten: York and Edinburgh. Proof that there are plenty of adventures on your doorstep.
4: Cape Town
Gold: Scottish Highlands
It’s a close call between your top five UK destinations, but for the first time ever, the Scottish Highlands takes the crown, having narrowly missed out last year. Whether you’re hiking the West Highland Way, driving the superb North Coast 500 or riding the rails through forests, peaks and moors, there’s plenty of wilderness to tempt you. Throw in medieval castles, a wild and wonderful coastline and an abundance of animals, ranging from red deer to ‘Nessie’, and you have the ultimate British break. It’s more than enough to nudge Northumberland, last year’s gold winner, from top spot.
With satisfaction ratings high across the board, it’s clear that you love exploring your home turf – and with untamed beauties such as the Lake District, Snowdonia and the New Forest making the grade yet again, it’s clear that the wilder the spot, the better.
Silver: Lake District
4: New Forest
5: North Yorkshire
6: Peak District
If this category reveals one thing, it’s that what you prize the most in a tour operator is expertise, whether it’s a specialism in a region or a way of travelling. Holiday Architects, for example, are a popular go-to for tailormade trips, while Llama Travel know every inch of Latin America. Incredibly, this is the second year that both operators have jointly held the top spot, each securing a 100% satisfaction rating, while Asia authorities Selective Asia and Bamboo Travel both follow closely behind with sky-high approval.
Something else that links all of our top tour operators? They each specialise in small group tours. These typically help you to get closer to the action, and it’s testament to their expert guides and unique knowledge that you rate them so highly. Bravo to all.
5: Intrepid Travel - 91.78%
6: Wild Frontiers - 90.33%
7: Trail Finders - 88.57%
8: G Adventures - 86.75%
9: Exodus - 86.25%
10: Audley - 85.08%
Gold: Air New Zealand
For the last two years, Air New Zealand, Emirates and Singapore Airlines have occupied this category’s top spots in various orders, with the Kiwi carrier now claiming the crown for the second year running. What sets 2019’s awards apart, however, is the satisfaction rating that you’ve given them: in 2018, gold-winner Air New Zealand received 90.59%, and a score of 89.49% was enough to give Emirates a bronze award – but the ratings are significantly higher this year. They’ve all upped their game, which is great news for travellers.
Newcomers on the block include KLM, Lufthansa and Sri Lankan Airlines, with the latter two carriers making their first-ever appearance. And while there are no British airlines in the top ten, KLM and Lufthansa are flying the flag for Europe; the respective Dutch and German airlines replace last year’s sole representative, Swiss International Air Lines.
Bronze: Singapore Airlines
4: Qatar Airways - 90.223%
5: Turkish Airlines - 88.780%
6: Qantas - 87.507%
7: Virgin Atlantic - 86.552%
8: Sri Lankan Airlines - 86.142%
9: KLM - 82.533%
10: Lufthansa - 82.159%
Drumroll please… you may have seen this coming, but the unrivalled champion of this category is Singapore Changi. As winner of this award every single year (literally, since records began), Changi is clearly close to your hearts – and for good reason. With its free cinema and city tours, butterfly garden and rooftop swimming pool, it’s always a joy to travel through, setting an example that all airports should follow.
Hong Kong International Airport is your second-favourite gateway to Asia – an ever-expanding base that welcomed 74.7 million passengers last year. An interesting addition to the list is Turkey’s Istanbul Ataturk, which closed to passengers at the end of 2018; this has been replaced now by the newly opened Istanbul International, which is claimed to be the world’s largest airport, so it’ll be interesting to see where that appears in your estimation next year. Indeed, the six most popular airports are all big international airline hubs, which means that long-haul travel is, perhaps, improving for all of us.
Silver: Hong Kong
4: Istanbul - 83.42%
5: Amsterdam Schiphol - 82.81%
6: KualaLumpur - 82.47%
7: Copenhagen - 81.47%
8: Sydney - 81.36%
9: Beijing - 81.24%
10: Barcelona - 80.45%
Gold: London City
London City, our top UK airport for the fourth consecutive year, welcomed a record-breaking 4.8 million passengers last year, proving yet again that it’s a top-notch UK hub. With new flight routes launching to Vilnius (May), Split (June) and many more locations, together with British Airways raising its presence here, this diminutive airport looks set to go from strength to strength.
Southampton seals second place yet again, while Newcastle bumps last year’s bronze winner, Bristol, from the rankings. As for Heathrow, this hectic hub soars into fourth place after languishing at sixth for the last two years, with rival Gatwick climbing from tenth to seventh place.
4: London Heathrow - 80.356%
5: Edinburgh - 79.686%
6: Birmingham - 76.709%
7: London Gatwick - 76.612%
8: Liverpool - 75.203%
9: Belfast City - 75.139%
10: Aberdeen - 75.079%
Your top travel companions for 2019? Bradt takes the lead once again. Adventurous destinations, high-quality research and in-the-know authors are the hallmark of this 45-year-strong brand. And if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Bradt, they’re also the only publisher to offer individual guidebooks to all five of our ‘Top Emerging Destinations’.
Elsewhere, Lonely Planet has climbed up the rankings from fourth place last year, while Blue Guides – an in-depth series specialising in art, architecture and archaeology – makes a welcome return to the top ten. Their books delve into the history and detail of a destination, rather than where to stay or eat, helping you squeeze the most out of culturally complex places such as Greece, Jordan and Turkey.
Gold: Bradt - 84.50%
Silver: Lonely Planet - 83.40%
Bronze: DK Eyewitness - 81.80%
4: Rough Guides - 79.40%
5: Time Out - 77.60%
6: Cicerone - 77.10%
7: Insight - 77.00%
8: Marco Polo - 75.00%
9: Footprint - 74.30%
10: Blue Guides - 70.10%
Wherever he ventures, Simon Reeve always has us glued to the box, and last year’s Mediterranean series was no exception. Revealing the darker side of the region – such as mafia rule, terrorism and the plight of refugees – this was no happy-holidays travelogue, but it had you utterly enthralled nonetheless. As did Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure: proof, yet again, that you can’t get enough of this legendary trade route – or Lumley’s inimitable presenting style.
Meanwhile, last year’s spectacular victor, Blue Planet II, clearly lives on in your memory (or some of you noticed that its last episode was in December 2018, thus making it eligible for this year’s awards). Another familiar face is Sir Michael Palin (see Icon of Travel), who made a triumphant return to screens last year with his excellent North Korea series on the lesser-seen Channel 5 – perhaps the only reason that he doesn’t feature higher.
Gold: Mediterranean with Simon Reeve
Silver: Joanna Lumley's Silk Road Adventure
Bronze: 48 Hour Travel Man
4: Blue Planet II
5: Michael Palin in North Korea
When it comes to specialist hiking and travelling gear, British brand Rab has clearly taken your eye. The company – founded by leading Scottish climber Rab Carrington – has long featured in our top ten, though after falling to fourth place last year, it reaches the summit for the first time since 2015.
All of your favourite labels feature high in our gear tests, delivering on practicality, durability and looks. Interestingly, Pacsafe – which specialises in gear with anti-theft features – has risen up the rankings, suggesting that more of us are looking beyond the classic moneybelt for nifty ways to keep our valuables safe.
Gold: Rab - 90.80%
Silver: Osprey - 89.90%
Bronze: Patagonia - 89.30%
4: Pacsafe - 87.30 %
5: Rohan - 87.00%
6: Arc'Teryx - 86.90%
7: Fjallraven - 86.60%
8: Smartwool - 85.60%
9: The North Face - 85.50%
For this year’s Icon of Travel award, there could be no worthier recipient than Sir Michael Palin, the Python-turned-presenter whose hilarious yet deep-diving travelogues have had us gripped for almost 30 years. Since 1989’s Around the World in 80 Days first hit the small screen, he’s traversed everything from Himalayan peaks to Saharan sands, as well as a tough trip between the Poles. It is an enviable set of adventures in anyone’s book, made all the more compelling by Palin’s yarns and easy presenting style, which paved the way for many of the shows that followed.
It always seemed like Palin’s former life in comedy was the perfect testing ground for some of the absurdities that the world had in store, while his generosity of spirit still makes him the ideal travelling companion. Indeed, who else could explore the realities of life in North Korea in such a human and honest way as he did in his recent Channel 5 documentary, Michael Palin in North Korea?
“Once you’re bitten by the travel bug, it’s always itching away,” he once told Wanderlust’s editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes in an interview; “I will always go somewhere!” We can’t wait to see where he ventures next, and to travel – albeit from an armchair – alongside him once again.
Customer satisfaction is one of the best guides to quality – especially when it comes to travelling. This is what the Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards are largely scored by and why the results have become so respected by the travel industry.
This year’s awards were based on your travels from December 2017 to November 2018. 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.