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Before you start your search for the lowest airfare, you may want to consider booking your flight as part of a travel package. Package tours are not the same thing as escorted tours. Package tours are simply a way to buy the airfare, accommodations, and other elements of your trip (such as car rentals, airport transfers, and sometimes even activities) at the same time and often at discounted prices -- kind of like one-stop shopping. Packages are sold in bulk to tour operators -- who resell them to the public at a cost that usually undercuts standard rates.

One good source of package deals is the airlines themselves. British Airways' Holidays (tel. 800/AIRWAYS; www.britishairways.com) offerings tend to incorporate the scenery and architecture of Austria with similar attractions across the border in Germany and Switzerland. BA can arrange a stopover in London en route for an additional fee, and allows extra time in Vienna or Zurich before or after any tour for no additional charge.

The airlines are good sources of package deals. Most major airlines offer air/land packages, but among airline packagers, Lufthansa Airlines (tel. 800/399-5838 or 01/805-83-84-26 in Germany; www.lufthansa.com) leads the way. You may also wish to try American Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com), Delta Vacations (tel. 800/654-6559; www.deltavacations.com), Continental Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/301-3800; www.covacations.com), and United Vacations (tel. 888/854-3899; www.unitedvacations.com).

Several big online travel agencies -- Expedia.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, Site59, and Lastminute.com -- also do a brisk business in packages. If you're unsure about the pedigree of a smaller packager, check with the Better Business Bureau in the city where the company is based, or go online to www.bbb.org. If a packager won't tell you where it's based, don't fly with it.

Travel packages are also listed in the travel section of your local Sunday newspaper. Or check ads in national travel magazines such as Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Escorted General-Interest Tours

Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, admission costs, and local transportation.

Many people derive a sense of ease and security from escorted trips. Escorted tours -- whether by bus, motorcoach, train, or boat -- let travelers sit back and enjoy the trip without having to spend lots of time behind the wheel or worrying about details. You know your costs up front, and there are few surprises. Escorted tours can take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle -- you don't have to sweat over the plotting and planning of a vacation schedule. Escorted tours are particularly convenient for people with limited mobility. They can also be a great way to meet people.

On the downside, an escorted tour often requires a big deposit up front, and lodging and dining choices are predetermined. You'll have few opportunities for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jam-packed with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they also often focus only on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on lesser-known gems.

American Express Vacations (tel. 800/335-3342; www.americanexpressvacations.com) is one of the biggest tour operators in the world. Its offerings are comprehensive, and unescorted customized package tours are available, too.

Brendan Vacations (tel. 800/421-8446; www.brendanvacations.com) has a selection of 8- to 16-day tours. Accommodations are at the better hotels, and rates include everything except airfare. Collette Vacations (tel. 800/340-5158; www.collettevacations.com) has 14 tours that cover Austria and various other European cities. Globus & Cosmos Tours (tel. 800/338-7092; www.globusandcosmos.com) offers 9- to 16-day escorted tours of various parts of Austria. It also has a budget branch that offers tours at lower rates. Maupintour (tel. 800/255-4266; www.maupintour.com) has a selection of upscale tours, such as a 14-day Blue Danube Discovery Tour, which take in such cities as Vienna, Linz, Dürnstein, Melk, and Salzburg, and an unusual, upscale (and very expensive) tour operator, Abercrombie and Kent (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com), known for its carriage-trade rail excursions through eastern Europe and the Swiss and Austrian Alps.

The oldest travel agency in Britain, Cox & Kings, 30 Millbank, London SW1P 4EE (tel. 020/7873-5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk), specializes in unusual, if pricey, holidays. Offerings in Austria include organized tours through the country's many regions of natural beauty and tours of historic or aesthetic interest. Also available are opera tours to Salzburg and Vienna.

Other companies featuring offbeat adventure travel include HF Holidays, Catalyst House, 720 Centennial Ct., Elstree, Hertfordshire WD6-35Y (tel. 020/8732-1220; www.hfholidays.co.uk). It offers a range of 1- to 2-week packages to Austria. Sherpa Expeditions, 131 A Heston Rd., Hounslow, Middlesex TW5 0RF (tel. 020/8577-2717; www.sherpaexpeditions.com), offers treks through off-the-beaten-track regions of Europe, especially the Alps.

Travel packages are also listed in the travel section of your local Sunday newspaper. Or check ads in the national travel magazines such as Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Package tours can vary by leaps and bounds. Some offer a better class of hotels than others. Some offer the same hotels for lower prices. Some offer flights on scheduled airlines, while others book charters. Some limit your choice of accommodations and travel days. You are often required to make a large payment up front. On the plus side, packages can save you money, offering group prices but allowing for independent travel. Some even let you add on a few guided excursions or escorted day trips (also at prices lower than if you booked them yourself) without booking an entirely escorted tour.

Before you invest in a package tour, get some answers. Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews in a Frommer's guide, and check their rates online for your specific dates of travel. You'll also want to find out what type of room you get. If you need a certain type of room, ask for it; don't take whatever is thrown your way. Request a nonsmoking room, a quiet room, a room with a view, or whatever you fancy.

Finally, look for hidden expenses. Ask whether airport departure fees and taxes, for example, are included in the total cost.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.