Escorted tours almost don't exist, and special-interest trips beyond eco-tours are rare. Nearly every visitor seems to arrive on some package deal. For value-conscious travelers, packages are the smart way to go because they can save you a ton of money. Especially in the Dominican Republic, package tours are not the same thing as escorted tours. You'll be on your own, but in most cases, a package will include airfare, hotel, and transportation to and from the airport -- and it may cost you less than just the hotel alone if you booked it yourself. A package deal might not be for you if you want to stay in a more intimate inn or guesthouse, but if you like resorts, read on.
You'll find an amazing array of packages. Some packages offer a better class of hotels than others. Some offer the same hotels for lower prices. Some offer flights on scheduled airlines, and others book charters.
Before booking a charter flight, be aware of the downside. These flights are less frequent than the major airlines and may be canceled at the last minute for some reason. Refunds are much harder to acquire should the need arise. Expect off-hour departure times. Once you arrive at your destination, baggage claim is often a much slower process. Some charter outfitters have also gone bankrupt, leaving passengers stranded at a destination. Remember to comparison-shop among at least three different operators, and always compare apples to apples.
Most land-and-air packages include meals, and you'll find yourself locked into your hotel dining room every night if your meals are prepaid. Most of the all-inclusive resorts in the D.R. break this monotony by offering a series of different restaurants, ranging from Italian to Chinese, under one roof.
If you're seeking a more varied dining experience, avoid, if you can, AP (American Plan), which means full board, and opt for MAP (Modified American Plan), meaning breakfast and either lunch or dinner. That way, you'll at least be free for one main meal of the day and can sample a variety of the island's regional fare. However, this is often difficult to arrange since most of the major resort hotels in the D.R. book guests on the all-inclusive plan that includes lunch. At certain key times of the year, especially over the long Christmas and New Year's season, AP may be mandatory.
The best place to start your search is the travel section of your local Sunday newspaper. Also check the ads in national travel magazines like Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, National Geographic Traveler, and Travel Holiday.
Liberty Travel (tel. 888/271-1584; www.libertytravel.com) is one of the biggest packagers in the Northeast, and it usually boasts a full-page ad in Sunday papers.
Another good resource is the airlines themselves, which often package their flights together with accommodations; another good choice is American Express Travel (tel. 800/335-3342; www.americanexpress.com). Among the airline packagers, your options include American Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com) and US Airways Vacations (tel. 800/455-0123; www.usairwaysvacations.com). American usually has the widest variety of offerings because it's the major carrier to the region.
The biggest hotel chains and resorts also offer package deals. If you already know where you want to stay, call the resort itself and ask if it offers land/air packages.
To save time comparing the prices and value of all the package tours out there, contact TourScan, Inc. (tel. 800/962-2080; www.tourscan.com). Every season, the company computerizes the contents of travel brochures that contain about 10,000 different vacations at 1,600 hotels in the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic. TourScan selects the best-value vacation at each hotel and condo. Two catalogs are printed each year, which list a choice of hotels.
Some of the leading North American tour operators still featuring tours include Apple Vacations (tel. 800/517-2000; www.applevacations.com), focusing on package vacations from Boston to Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, Santo Domingo, and La Romana.
Travel agents can save you time and money by uncovering the best package deals, airfare, and rental-car rates. Most are professional, but the occasional unscrupulous agent may push deals that bag the juiciest commissions, so shop around and ask hard questions. Arm yourself with the information in this guide, and don't let anyone pressure you into a vacation that's not right for you.
If you enlist a travel agent, use one that's a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), 1101 King St., Ste. 200, Alexandria, VA 22314 (tel. 703/739-2782; www.astanet.com). Call ASTA or visit their website for a list of members in your area.
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.