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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 often undercuts standard rates.

Before you book your package through a tour company, remember that with a few phone calls and e-mails, you can often organize the same thing on your own without having to pay the sometimes hefty service fee. This guide contains all the information and resources you need to design and book a wonderful trip, tailored to your particular interests and budget. Moreover, package vacations are still a nascent industry in Guatemala and do not offer the kinds of amazing bargains as those to Cancún or the Caribbean. In fact, many come with hidden charges and costs, so shop carefully.

Your best bet is often to do it yourself or to go with a Guatemalan-based specialist; many of these companies emphasize adventure travel or ecotourism and can put together a complete custom itinerary for you.

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 upfront. 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.

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

Ask Before You Go -- Before you invest in a package deal or an escorted tour:

  • Always ask about the cancellation policy. Can you get your money back? Is a deposit required?
  • Request a complete schedule. (Escorted tours only)
  • Ask about the size and demographics of the group. (Escorted tours only)
  • Discuss what is included in the price (transportation, meals, tips, airport transfers, and the like). (Escorted tours only)
  • Finally, look for hidden expenses. Ask whether airport departure fees and taxes, for example, are included in the total cost -- they rarely are.

Escorted General-Interest Tours

Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare, hotels, and meals to 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 sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle. They're particularly convenient for people with limited mobility and can be a great way to make new friends.

Escorted tours are also a good bet in Guatemala, since safety and the conditions of internal travel can be daunting for many independent travelers

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

Before you invest in a package tour, get some answers. Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. You'll also want to find out what type of room you get. If you need a certain type of room, ask for it. Also ask about the group size and demographics, as well as the company's cancellation policy.

Recommended Escorted-and Package-Tour Operators

North American-Based Tour Operators -- These agencies and operators specialize in well-organized and coordinated tours that cover your entire stay. Many travelers prefer to have everything arranged and confirmed before arriving in Guatemala, and this is a good idea for first-timers.

  • Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com) is a luxury tour company that offers upscale trips around the globe. Their 12-day "Guatemala & Honduras: A Cultural & Photographic Sojurn" hits all of the major sites and destinations, and includes 2 days at the Copán ruins in Honduras. Cost is around $6,995 (£3,498) per person, airfare not included.
  • Caravan Tours (tel. 800/227-2826; www.caravantours.com). If you don't mind sharing your vacation with up to 45 fellow travelers, this is a great value. See six places (Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlán) in 11 days for around $1,000 (£500) per person. Airfare not included.
  • Overseas Adventure Travel (tel. 800/493-6824; www.oattravel.com) offers good-value natural history and "soft adventure" itineraries, with optional add-on excursions. Tours are limited to 16 people. The "Route of the Maya" 14-day package includes 8 days in Guatemala, and also visits Copán in Honduras and ruins in Belize. Around $2,345 (£1,173) per person including round-trip airfare from Miami or Houston.

U.K.-Based Tour Operators --

  • Imaginative Traveller (tel. 0800/316-2717 or 44/147-366-7337; www.imaginative-traveller.com) is a good-value operator specializing in budget student, group, and family travel. Their offerings focus on the larger Maya world, and spend time in parts of southern Mexico and Belize. They do two different 14-day trips and a 28-day trip, which combines the two. Around $1,170 (£585) to $2,098 (£1,049) per person. Airfare not included.
  • Journey Latin America (tel. 44/208-747-8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) is a large British operator specializing in Latin American travel. They offer a range of escorted tours around Latin America, with some that spend much of the time in Guatemala. They also design custom itineraries, and often have excellent deals on airfare.

Guatemalan Tour Operators -- Because many U.S.-based companies subcontract portions of their tours to established Guatemalan companies, some travelers like to set up their tours directly with these companies, thereby cutting out the middleman. While that means these packages are often less expensive than those offered by U.S. companies, it doesn't mean they're cheap. You still pay for the convenience of having all your arrangements handled for you.

Scores of tour agencies in Guatemala City, Antigua, and the other major tourist destinations offer a plethora of sightseeing and adventure options. These agencies, and the tour desks at most hotels, can arrange everything from tours of the Maya ruins to village market shopping sprees. While it's generally quite easy to arrange most of these popular tours and adventures at the spur of the moment during your vacation, some are offered only when there are enough interested people or on set dates. If you have a specialized tour or activity in mind, it pays to contact the hotel you will be staying at or a few of the companies listed here before you leave home to find out what they might be doing when you arrive.

  • Clark Tours (tel. 502/2412-4848; www.clarktours.com.gt) has been operating for more than 70 years in Guatemala, making it the oldest tour company in the country. They have several offices and are the official representatives of American Express in Guatemala. They offer many tours, including an afternoon in Antigua for around Q225 ($30/£15) per person; 2- to 4-day archaeology trips starting at around Q3,000 ($400/£200) per person; and the 14-day Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Chichicastenango, and Tikal trip for around Q13,500 ($1,800/£900) per person.
  • Martsam Tour and Travel (tel. 866/832-2776 in the U.S. and Canada, or 502/7867-5093 in Guatemala; www.martsam.com) based on the island of Flores, these guys are hands down the best operators for Tikal and the Petén, although they also have an office in Antigua and can book tours for the entire country.
  • Maya Vacations (tel. 502/2426-1400; www.mayavacations.com) is a smaller and newer company run by very knowledgeable local operators. Their standard itineraries run the gamut from a 4-day/3-night circuit of Guatemala City, Antigua, and Chichicastenango and Tikal for Q5,993 ($799/£400) per person to an 8-day/7-night highlight tour for around Q10,200 ($1,360/£680) per person. They also offer a wide range of active and adventure tours.
  • Via Venture (tel. 502/7832-2509; www.viaventure.com). This well-run operation specializes in custom-designed itineraries using the finest high-end hotels in the country, as well as an excellent team of guides and ground transport services. They are also particularly strong in the area of adventure tourism and theme vacations. In addition to Guatemala, these folks run trips and combined itineraries into Belize and Honduras.

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.