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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 rental, airport transfers, and sometimes even activities) at the same time and often at discounted prices making it kind of like one-stop shopping. Packages are sold in bulk to tour operators who in turn resell them to the public at a cost that usually undercuts standard rates.

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. 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 at www.bbb.org. If a packager won't tell you where they're based, don't fly with them.

Travel packages are also listed in the travel section of your local Sunday newspaper. You can also 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 run the gambit of services and prices. Some offer a better class of hotels than others, while 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' review 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 need to enjoy your trip. If the provider of the package is not willing to accommodate your needs, perhaps you need to look elsewhere.

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.