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When you check into a hotel, you'll see the official rates posted in the main lobby and somewhere in your room, perhaps at the bottom of the closet. These rates, dictated by the Directorate of Tourism, are regulated and really are a form of rent control. They include the 13% service charge and 18% value-added tax (VAT).

If an infraction such as overcharging occurs, you can demand to be given the Official Complaints Book, in which you can write your allegations. The hotel manager is obligated to turn your comments over to the Directorate of Tourism. The directorate staff reviews them to see if punitive action should be taken.

The government rates hotels in Portugal from five stars to one. The difference between a five-star hotel and a four-star hotel will not always be apparent to the casual visitor. Often the distinction is based on square footage of bathrooms and other technicalities. When you go below this level, you enter the realm of the second- and third-class hotel. Some can be decent and even excellent places to stay. Third-class hotels are bare-bones accommodations in Portugal.

Coastal hotels, especially those in the Algarve, are required to grant off-season (Nov-Feb) visitors a 15% discount. To attract more off-season business, a number of establishments offer this discount from mid-October through March.

Prices & Ratings in this Guide -- Unless otherwise indicated, prices in this guide include service and taxes. Breakfast might or might not be included; individual write-ups reflect various hotel policies about breakfast. All references in Portugal to "including breakfast" refer to continental breakfast of juice, coffee or tea, croissants, butter, and jam. If you stay at a hotel and order bacon and eggs or other extras, you'll likely be billed for them as a la carte items. Parking rates are per day.

Pousadas

When traveling through the countryside, plot your trips so you'll stop over at the government-owned pousadas (tourist inns). The Portuguese government has established these inns in historic buildings, such as convents, palaces, and castles. Often they occupy beautiful physical settings. Generally (but not always), the pousadas are in regions that don't have many suitable hotels -- everywhere from Henry the Navigator's Sagres to a feudal castle in the walled city of Óbidos. The rates are not low but, for the quality and services offered, are moderate. A guest can't stay more than 5 days because there's usually a waiting list. Special terms are granted to honeymoon couples.

Travel agents can make reservations at pousadas, or you can contact Pousadas de Portugal, Av. Sta. Joana Princesa 10, 1749 Lisboa (tel. 21/844-20-01; www.pousadas.pt).

Country Homes

Far more exciting -- at least to us -- than the pousadas is the chain of farm estates, country homes, and restored manor houses that have opened to the public here. These properties are the most highly recommended in this guide, and they offer grand comfort and lots of charm, often in a historic setting.

The best and most extensive network is in the region of Viana do Castelo, where you can sometimes board with the poor but proud Portuguese aristocracy. Many of these manors and farms are called quintas. The association Turismo de Habitação (Country House Tourism), which mostly operates in the north, has been formed to publicize and link these unique accommodations. In recent years, areas such as the Beiras and Alentejo have been included. Local tourist offices provide directories that include color photographs and maps with directions. All of these properties are privately run, and breakfast is always included. Praça da República, 4990 Ponte de Lima (tel. 25/874-28-27; www.solaresdeportugal.pt).

Other Special Accommodations

Tourist inns not run by the government are known as estalagens. Often these offer some of the finest accommodations in Portugal; many are decorated in the traditional Portuguese, or típico, style and represent top-notch bargains.

The residência is a form of boardinghouse, without board. These establishments offer a room and breakfast only. The pensão is a boardinghouse that charges the lowest rates in the country. The "deluxe" pensão is a misnomer; the term simply means that the pensão enjoys the highest rating in its category. The accommodations are decidedly not luxurious. A "luxury" pensão is generally the equivalent of a second-class hotel. The boardinghouses are finds for the budget hunter. Many prepare generous portions of good local cuisine. There are both first- and second-class boardinghouses.

Another addition to the accommodations scene is the solare. Most are spacious country-manor houses, formerly property of the Portuguese aristocracy, that are now being restored and opened as guesthouses. Many date from the Age of Exploration, when navigators brought riches back from all over the world and established lavish homes that were passed down to their heirs. The inns are all over the country, but most are along the Costa Verde, between Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo.

Information on the solares program is available from the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 590 Fifth Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10036 (tel. 800/PORTUGAL [767-8842] or 212/354-4403; www.portugal.com).

One of the best associations for arranging stays in private homes is Privetur, 42 Lupus St., London SW1V 3EB (tel. 020/7096-0210; www.privetur.co.uk). It represents manor houses and country homes in all the major tourist districts. Privetur can arrange accommodations in circumstances that are sometimes more personalized than stays in large hotels.

Reservations

Reservations are essential for peak-season summer travel in Portugal, when many hotels fill with vacationing Europeans. Unless you're incurably spontaneous, you'll probably be better off with some idea of where you'll spend each night, even in low season.

Most hotels require at least a day's deposit before they'll reserve a room. You can usually cancel a room reservation 1 week ahead of time and get a full refund, but check your hotel's policy when you book. It's important that you enclose a prepaid International Reply Coupon with your payment, especially if you're writing to a budget hotel. Better yet, call and speak to a staff member, or send a fax.

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.