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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. 800/654-6559; 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 Conde 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 there a deposit required?

  • Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews in this book, and check rates online for your specific dates of travel. Also find out what types of rooms are offered.

  • Request a complete schedule (for escorted tours only).

  • Ask about the size and demographics of the group (for escorted tours only).

  • For escorted tours, discuss what's included in the price (transportation, meals, tips, airport transfers, and so on).

  • 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 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 jam-packed with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on many a lesser-known gem.

Special-Interest Trips

One rewarding way to spend a vacation is to learn a new outdoor skill or add to your knowledge while on holiday. You can find plenty of options in northern New England, ranging from formal weeklong classes to 1-day workshops.

There are lots of options; here are three of the best:

  • Learn to fly-fish on New England's fabled rivers. Among the region's most respected schools are those offered by Orvis (tel. 888/235-9763), in Manchester, Vermont; and L.L.Bean (tel. 800/343-4552), in Freeport, Maine. (L.L.Bean also offers a number of shorter workshops on various outdoor skills through its Outdoor Discovery Program; call tel. 888/552-3261.)

  • Learn about birds and coastal ecosystems in Maine. Budding and experienced naturalists can expand their understanding of marine wildlife while residing on 333-acre Hog Island in Maine's wild and scenic Muscongus Bay through the Maine Audubon Society, 20 Gilsland Farm Rd., Falmouth, ME 04105 (tel. 207/781-2330; www.maineaudubon.org). You're brought by boat, and then stay on the island for 3 to 7 nights. Famed birder Roger Tory Peterson once taught birding classes here; and I can personally vouch for Maine Audubon's other outdoors and educational programs, too. Call or visit their lovely headquarters near Portland.

  • Sharpen your outdoor skills. The Appalachian Mountain Club, 5 Joy St., Boston, MA 02108 (tel. 800/372-1758 or 617/523-0636; www.outdoors.org), offers a full roster of outdoor adventure classes, many taught at the club's Pinkham Notch Camp at the base of New Hampshire's Mount Washington. You could learn outdoor photography, wild mushroom identification, or backcountry orienteering. In winter, ice-climbing and telemark-skiing lessons are taught in the White Mountains. Course fees often include accommodations, and most are reasonably priced. Call or write for a catalog.

Northern New England also especially lends itself to outdoorsy adventures that combine fresh air and exercise with Mother Nature as your instructor in a vast, beautiful classroom.

For Those Who Love Historic Homes -- Historic New England is a nonprofit foundation that owns and operates 36 historical properties around New England, ranging from places built in the 17th century to the present, including a number of properties profiled in this book. Members get into all of the organization's properties for free, and receive a number of other benefits including a subscription to Historic New England magazine; a guide to the group's properties; and invitations to members-only events and other perks. Memberships cost $45 per year for individuals, $55 for households. For more information on Historic New England and its properties, visit the group's website at www.historicnewengland.org, or call the organization's Boston headquarters at tel. 617/227-3957.

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.