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.
There are many escorted tour companies to choose from, each offering transportation to and within Portugal, prearranged hotel space, and such extras as bilingual tour guides and lectures. Many of these tours to Portugal include excursions to Spain.
Some of the best escorted tours to Portugal are offered by Blue Danube Holidays (tel. 800/268-4155 or 416/362-5000; www.bluedanubeholidays.com in the U.S.), a long-established company since 1983. It offers a Grand Tour of Portugal along with any number of beach holidays (from Madeira to the Algarve), and even city tours of Lisbon.
Some of the most expensive and luxurious tours are run by Abercrombie & Kent International (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com), including deluxe 15-day tours of the Iberian Peninsula by train. Guests stay in some of the country's finest hotels.
Alternative Travel Group Ltd. (tel. 01865/315678; www.atg-oxford.co.uk) is a British firm that organizes walking and cycling vacations in Portugal and Spain. Tours explore the scenic countryside and medieval towns of each country. If you'd like a brochure outlining the tours, call tel. 01865/315665.
Petrabax Tours (tel. 800/634-1188 in the U.S.; http://petrabax.com) attracts those who prefer to see Portugal by bus, although fly/drive packages are also offered. A number of city packages are also available, plus trips that try to capture the essence of Portugal and Spain.
Many people derive a certain ease and security from escorted trips. Escorted tours -- whether by bus, motorcoach, train, or boat -- let travelers sit back and enjoy their trip without having to spend lots of time behind the wheel. All the little details are taken care of, you know your costs upfront, and there are few surprises. Escorted tours can take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle -- you don't have to sweat over the plotting and planning of a vacation schedule. Escorted tours are particularly convenient for people with limited mobility.
On the downside, an escorted tour often requires a big deposit upfront, and lodging and dining choices are predetermined. As part of a cloud of tourists, you'll get 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 only on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on the lesser-known gems.
Before you invest in an escorted tour, ask about the cancellation policy: Is a deposit required? Can they cancel the trip if they don't get enough people? Do you get a refund if they cancel? If you cancel? How late can you cancel if you are unable to go? When do you pay in full? Note: If you choose an escorted tour, think strongly about purchasing trip-cancellation insurance, especially if the tour operator asks you to pay upfront.
You'll also want to get a complete schedule of the trip to find out how much sightseeing is planned each day and whether enough time has been allotted for relaxing or wandering solo.
The size of the group is also important to know upfront. Generally, the smaller the group is, the more flexible the itinerary is and the less time you'll spend waiting for people to get on and off the bus. Find out the demographics of the group as well. What is the age range? What is the gender breakdown? Is this mostly a trip for couples or singles?
Discuss what is included in the price. You might have to pay for transportation to and from the airport. A box lunch might be included in an excursion, but drinks might cost extra. Tips might not be included. Find out whether you will be charged if you decide to opt out of certain activities or meals.
Also ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews in a Frommer's guide and check their rates for your specific dates of travel online. You'll want to find out what type of room you get, too. If you need a certain type of room, ask for it; don't take whatever is thrown your way.
Finally, if you plan to travel alone, you'll need to know whether a single supplement will be charged and whether the company can match you up with a roommate.