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Packages for the Independent Traveler

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.

One good source of package deals is the airlines themselves. Most major airlines offer air/land packages, including American Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com), Delta Vacations (tel. 800/221-6666; 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, Travelocity, Orbitz, Site59, and Lastminute.com -- also do a brisk business in packages.

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.

Escorted General-Interest Tours

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

Despite the fact that escorted tours require big deposits and predetermine hotels, restaurants, and itineraries, many people derive security and peace of mind from the structure they offer. Escorted tours -- whether they're navigated by bus, motorcoach, train, or boat -- let travelers sit back and enjoy the trip without having to drive or worry about details. They take you to the maximum number of sites in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle. They're particularly convenient for people with limited mobility and they can be a great way to make new friends.

On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jam-packed with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on the heavy traffic sites, so you miss out on many a lesser known gem.

Abercrombie & Kent Private Journeys (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com) is U.S.-based and internationally recognized as a luxury travel company. A&K started as an African safari specialist in 1962 and now offers escorted and independent trips to more than 100 countries, including Russia and central and Eastern European nations.

Vega International Travel Service (tel. 800/FLY-THERE [359-8437]; www.vegatravel.net) specializes in travel to Eastern Europe for individuals and corporations. Vega also arranges pilgrimage tours to such popular Catholic shrines as Medjugorje in Bosnia and Czestochowa in Poland.

You can also get recommendations for reputable tour operators with expertise in the area you want to visit from the American Society of Travel Agents (tel. 859/226-4444; www.ntaonline.com).

Discovery on Foot -- Classic Journeys (tel. 800/200-3887; www.classicjourneys.com) is a specialty tour operator that offers unique, upscale escorted vacations to a variety of locations around the world. Their three Eastern Europe excursions run through Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, Istria, and the area from Prague to Budapest. It's up to you to arrange airfare from your home country; the package price is for the in-country experience, though Classic Journeys will help with flight details and extra hotel nights if you ask. The basic fee covers a local guide, first-class hotels, most meals, and all tips, admission fees, tours, and transfers. Tours average 10 people per adventure and the itineraries emphasize culture, history, and walking. We've found that Classic Journeys carefully plans every detail to spare guests unpleasant surprises, but the plan is also flexible in case the group decides there is something they really want to see or do. Classic Journeys can arrange family-oriented experiences or culinary trips, too.

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.