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Packages for the Independent Traveler

Package tours are not the same thing as escorted tours. With a package tour, you travel independently but pay a group rate. Packages usually include airfare, a choice of hotels, and car rentals; and packagers often offer several options at different prices. In many cases, a package that includes airfare, hotel, and transportation to and from the airport will cost you less than just the hotel alone had you booked it yourself. That's because packages are sold in bulk to tour operators, who resell them to the public at a cost that drastically undercuts standard rates.

Recommended Package Tour Operators

One good source of package deals is the airlines. Most airlines offer packages that may include car rentals and accommodations in addition to your airfare.

Among the airline packagers, Iberia Airlines (tel. 800/772-4642 or 90-240-05-00 in Spain; www.iberia.com) leads the way. Other packages for travel in Spain are offered by United Airlines (tel. 800/241-6522; www.united.com), American Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com), and Delta Vacations (tel. 800/872-7786; www.deltavacations.com). Also worth a look is Continental Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/301-3800; www.covacations.com). Several big online travel agencies -- Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Lastminute.com -- also do a brisk business in packages.

Another good place to start your search is the travel section of your local Sunday newspaper. Also check the ads in the back of national travel magazines like Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler. One of the biggest packages in the Northeast U.S., Liberty Travel (tel. 888/271-1584; www.libertytravel.com), usually boasts a full-page ad in Sunday papers. American Express Travel (tel. 800/941-2639; www.travelimpressions.com) is another option.

Solar Tours (tel. 800/388-7652; www.solartours.com) is a wholesaler that offers a number of package tours to Madrid.

Club ABC (tel. 800/456-5050; www.clubabc.com) is known for searching for low-cost airfare deals to Spain. The tour agent also features air and land packages to Madrid.

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, motor coach, 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 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 jampacked with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure; and they often focus on the heavily touristed sites, so you may miss out on many a lesser-known gem.

Recommended Escorted Tour Operators

There are many escorted-tour companies to choose from, each offering transportation to and within Spain, prearranged hotel space, and such extras as bilingual tour guides and lectures. Many of these tours to Spain include excursions to Morocco or Portugal.

Some of the most expensive and luxurious tours are run by Abercrombie & Kent International (tel. 800/323-7308 or 630/954-2944; www.abercrombiekent.com), including deluxe 13- or 19-day tours of the Iberian Peninsula by train. Guests stay in fine hotels, ranging from a late medieval palace to the exquisite modern Hesperia on Avenida Castellana.

Trafalgar Tours (tel. 800/854-0103 or 212/689-8977; www.trafalgartours.com) offers a number of tours of Spain. One of the most popular offerings is an 18-day trip called "The Best of Spain" (this land-only package is from around $1,900; with land and air, it's from $2,799).

Insight Vacations' "Highlights of Spain" is an 11-day tour that begins in Madrid, sweeps along the southern and eastern coasts, and concludes in Madrid. The company offers the tour for $1,370 to $1,830 including airfare, accommodations, and some meals. For information, contact your travel agent or Insight International (tel. 800/582-8380; www.insightvacations.com).

Petrabax Tours (tel. 800/634-1188; www.petrabax.com) attracts those who prefer to see Spain by bus, although fly/drive packages are also offered. Tours feature stays in paradores (high-standard, state-run hotels -- some modern, some in historic buildings). A number of city packages are available, plus a 10-day trip that tries to capture Spain in a nutshell, with stops in places ranging from Madrid to Granada.

Spanish Language Classes

Madrid is the ideal city to study Spanish. One of the best schools is International House, Zurbano 8 (tel. 91-310-13-14; www.ihmadrid.com; Mon-Fri 9am-8:30pm; Metro: Alonso Martínez). In addition to teaching English to Spanish students, International House also has regular Spanish classes for foreign visitors given by local Spanish teachers. All levels are offered. Most suitable for short-stay visitors are weeklong intensive courses, generally with small groups of five or six students, that last 20 hours and cost 197€. Immersion, one-to-one courses, at 36€ per hour, are also available to fit the student's schedule.

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.