3 Travel Planners Offering Trips of a Lifetime

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- In an age of longer work hours and social media that has made a once fabulous trip to Paris or Rio look rather ordinary, more and more U.S. clients are forsaking their Expedia and Priceline for boutique travel specialists that offer bespoke travel planning beyond the reach of your home-based operation.

In Switzerland, Babel Travel's website claims of "speaking the language of the adventure traveler." The company specializes in small-group adventures of no more than a dozen people per trip to destinations in Africa, Middle East and Asia. A staunch supporter of sustainable travel, Babel organizes most trips around local guides and traditional if not altogether five-star lodgings for fully inclusive travel arrangements divided into safety and comfort categories -- going around geo-political dangers and ranging from cutting-edge and bare-bones to more comfortable if not quite luxurious. Most trips average between a week to two weeks in length.

The man behind Babel Travel is Kevin Pollard, a lifelong backpacker, adventure guide and one-time DJ who started the company in 2008. Trips are offered in four languages, including English, French, German and Italian -- ideal for those looking for a life-changing, out-of-the-ordinary adventure that can vary between quiver-in-your-boots dangerous to spiritually inspiring. Recently, the company even teamed up with author Robert Young Pelton, of The World's Most Dangerous Places, who operates a website aptly called Comebackalive.com.

Babel itineraries include the Eternal North Korea, which takes between four and a dozen guests into the Communist capital of Pyongyang to see Kim Il Sung Square, Martyr's Cemetery and the Arch of Triumph before traveling to the south to visit the Tomb of King Kongmin. Communism too tame? More adventurous types can explore Iraq and the ruins of Babylon as well as the holy cities and Kurdish north with an intensive exploration before and after Baghdad. Still too tame? The independent republic of Somalia is at your service, with a firsthand account of Hargeisa from the Somaliland president as well as a visit to the fighter jet crash site that inspired the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. Danger, however is not as cheap as you'd expect; trips range from $7,000 to $25,000.

Closer to home but equally dangerous, Storm Tours organizes six- and 10-day storm-chasing holidays that hunt down North America's most extreme weather phenomena. Trips originate from Kansas City or Oklahoma City and seek their twisty tornado subjects with the help of staff that includes a meteorological expert and a world-renowned extreme weather photographer to make sure you get the perfect postable images. Storm Tour's vans are also equipped with the latest technology, including live weather mapping and quad-tracking GPS systems to pinpoint potential twisters within a 500-mile radius.

But Storm Tours, which offers itineraries from May through July, prime twister season (select dates are already on sale for 2012 tornado chasing), isn't glamorous. With a mantra of "Early to bed, early to rise -- it's the only way to stormy skies," wake-up calls come as early as 4:45 a.m. after evenings spent in Comfort Inn-, Holiday Inn-style hotels. Meals are fit in where possible, with better options on sunny days than prime storm days.

For those looking for a little less near-death adventure, on the opposite end of the travel spectrum is Wanderlist, pedigree travel planning that treats your holiday downtime like estate planning. For those that tally lists of all the places they've never been, Wanderlist incorporates your most important travel destinations in the ultimate of bucket lists, taking into account age, financial restrictions and even a savings plan. Created by Minnesota-based Travel Beyond, your ultimate Wanderlist looks at international destinations, cruises, safaris and customized tour notions close to a client's heart.

"Most of us know the places we want to visit," says Jim Bendt, president of Travel Beyond. "Yet we inefficiently plan our trips one at a time and may never make it to every destination on our list. Looking at a traveler's bucket list offers a wealth of information that can help clients travel smarter and get more for their money."

The planning allows clients to take advantage of things such as the best currency exchange rates, frequent-flier miles and time of year when you get the most bang for your buck. Those looking to improve their travel dharma are advised not to backtrack to previously visited destinations and combine trips, even if that means more time on the road, to minimalize airfare expenses.

—For more tips and tricks for summer travel, visit MainStreet’s “Travel” topic page for our latest coverage!

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