In this survey we don't claim to offer the cheapest last- minute bargains; special offers come up every day. But we have set out what travellers can expect if they shop around and can be flexible. We have listed flights and holidays between April and early June, which are in many ways the best months to travel, well before the summer hordes, when pavements and tempers are cooler, tourist sites less crowded and prices much lower. It is the season when landladies, taverna owners, even taxi drivers are delighted to welcome you, and when spring flowers carpet the slopes of the Atlas mountains, the Peloponnese and the Tyrol, the temples of Agrigento and the ruins of Carthage.
There is often a price to pay for reduced fares, however. In most cases there are restrictions and conditions over dates, limit of stay or advance booking requirements. The prices quoted on the opposite page are not 'fill-up' last-minute bargains - they come on the market sometimes only days before the departure date and are excellent value for those able to make a quick getaway. Although passengers like the extra room that a few empty seats create, for the airlines and charter companies there's nothing as perishable as a seat without a passenger, so they sell them off for the best price they can get.
The city breaks we've quoted are not necessarily the cheapest either, but all are good value and pre-booked accommodation can help to take the strain. There's a great choice beyond the golden triangle of Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, including lesser-known treasures such as Granada and Oviedo in Spain, Bologna in Italy, and Carcassonne in southern France. Package holidays, too, can offer some excellent bargains; it's possible to fly to Greece, the Canary Islands or Turkey, with a transfer to a resort, accommodation for a week or even a fortnight, with breakfast included, and still have change from pounds 250. That's what you can pay for a couple of nights in a top London hotel.
The accommodation, in hotels, pensions and apartments, that we have quoted at the budget end of this market is unlikely to win any awards for luxury, but it can be used as a base for exploration. On one of my first-ever packages to the Greek island of Aegina, in early June, the heating in my pension had been turned off, so I slept in my socks and sweater, the loo in my private bathroom flushed intermittently, but the room was clean, the owner's fisherman brother used to bring in the fresh swordfish and squid to the taverna each day, and with the money I'd saved by not taking a scheduled flight I was able to island- hop to Hydra and Spetses, take a day-trip to Athens and even an overnight one to Delphi - and I still came out on top.
Some of the holidays, flights and breaks featured opposite and overleaf may already have been sold when this article appears, but there will be others in their place - so shop around for some very exciting and affordable spring holidays.
AT=Airtours (0706-260000); ATAB=Air Travel Advisory Bureau (071-636 5000); BA=British Airways (081-897 4000 or 0345-222111, local rates throughout); Campus=Campus Travel (Europe: 071-730 3402, Worldwide: 071-730 8111); Falcon=Falcon Travel (061-745 7000); FB=Flightbookers (071-757 3000); Scan=Sovereign Scanscape (0293-599922); Sky=Sky Shuttle (The Air Travel Group: 081-748 1333); STA=STA Travel (071-937 9962); Sun=Sunworld Skybargains (0532-360361); Thomson=Thomson Air Fares (081-200 8733, 021-632 6282 or 061-236 3828); Viva=Viva Air (071-830 0011)
* Featured as one of our spring highlights, see pages 61-65
IT CAN take time and patience to find the best air fare to suit your requirements, and this Independent on Sunday listing will be an invaluable guide on where to look and what to look for. The prices quoted are a selection of spring off-peak fares - they are not necessarily the cheapest available, but they do give guidance on some of the excellent bargains on the market.
We have considered fares from scheduled airlines; they have various names, mainly Apex, Super Apex and Saver Fares. The ones we've quoted are from British Airways; other national airlines usually have similar prices, although they can be cheaper, so it is worth shopping around. We have also looked at charter flights. These are sold by the package-tour companies, to sunshine or sightseeing destinations, often to those parts that the scheduled airlines don't reach, such as the Greek islands and the Turkish coast. Tour operators with large programmes of flights include Thomson Holidays, Owners Abroad, Airtours, Sunworld and companies such as the Air Travel Group, which specialises in flights and holidays to Italy. The large high-street travel agents, including Thomas Cook, Lunn Poly, Going Places (as well as some of the independents), also provide fare information.
Other good sources of bargain fares are the flight bureaux and flight brokers. Flightbookers offers seats from various sources and cuts the holiday-maker's costs by negotiating direct with airlines with spare capacity. The Air Travel Advisory Bureau (ATAB) doesn't sell tickets but refers travellers on to agencies offering the best value air fares to a wide range of destinations.
Although they started as specialists in youth and student travel, STA and Campus Travel have access to a wide range of competitively priced fares open to all travellers. They are also an excellent source of information on YHAs, budget accommodation, travel passes and route planning, with offices throughout Britain. (We have not quoted youth fares in this article). Trailfinders is another specialist agency for independent travellers. It is best known for long-haul destinations, particularly Australasia, but it also offers good discounted fares to many European and US destinations as well.
Where phone numbers are not given below, travel agents can supply details.
pounds 100 AND UNDER
1Amsterdam (ATAB) pounds 78
Bilbao (ATAB) pounds 80
Cologne (BA) pounds 94
Faro (ATAB) pounds 89
Madrid (Campus/STA) pounds 84
Palma (SV) pounds 85
Paris (STA) pounds 67
pounds 150 AND UNDER
2Berlin (BA) pounds 144
Bordeaux (FB) pounds 135
Brussels (BA) pounds 128
Copenhagen (FB) pounds 139
Frankfurt (BA) pounds 120
Fuenteventura (SV) pounds 145
Geneva (FB) pounds 139
Hamburg (BA) pounds 130
Las Palmas (AT) pounds 119
Leipzig (BA) pounds 140
Luxembourg (BA) pounds 147
Malta (Falcon) pounds 139
Monastir*(Thomson) pounds 140
Nice (FB) pounds 125
Oslo (Campus) pounds 150
Prague (STA) pounds 144
Tunis* (AT) pounds 119
Turin (STA) pounds 150
Vienna (STA) pounds 148
Zurich (Campus) pounds 149
pounds 200 AND UNDER
3Arecife (Falcon) pounds 189
Athens (STA/Campus) pounds 189
Barcelona (STA) pounds 166
Basle (BA) pounds 165
Bologna (Sky) pounds 159
Bordeaux (BA) pounds 172
Budapest (STA) pounds 176
Casablanca* (STA) pounds 196
Catania (Sky) pounds 199
Cyprus (ATAB) pounds 179
Dalaman* (Campus) pounds 200
Florence (STA) pounds 197
Funchal (STA/Falcon) pounds 198
Gibraltar (STA) pounds 154
Gothenburg (STA) pounds 162
Istanbul (STA) pounds 186
Izmir (Campus) pounds 193
Lisbon (BA) pounds 164
Luxor* (Thomson) pounds 195
Malaga (STA) pounds 170
Montpelier (BA) pounds 172
Munich (BA) pounds 154
Palermo (Sky) pounds 199
Pisa (STA) pounds 177
Porto (STA/BA) pounds 170
Rome (Sky) pounds 175
Santiago de Compostela (Viva) pounds 191
Stockholm (Campus) pounds 160
Tangier (STA) pounds 196
Tenerife (Falcon) pounds 180
Toulouse (STA) pounds 156
Tromso* (Scan) pounds 199
Venice (Sky) pounds 165
Verona(Sky) pounds 159
pounds 250 AND UNDER
4Boston* (ATAB) pounds 220
Bucharest (STA) pounds 225
Cagliari (STA) pounds 236
Cairo (STA) pounds 240
Gambia* (Sun) pounds 229
Helsinki (BA) pounds 210
Kiev (STA) pounds 240
Marrakesh* (STA) pounds 228
Moscow (STA) pounds 2404
Naples (Sky) pounds 215
New York (ATAB) pounds 220
St Petersburg (STA) pounds 240
Tel Aviv (STA) pounds 230
Toronto* (Campus) pounds 233
Vilnius* (STA) pounds 240
Warsaw(STA) pounds 219
Washington (FB) pounds 235
When time is at a premium a city break can clear the cobwebs; when money is tight there's no beating a package. Sample some of Europe's finest centres of culture and cuisine for a few days or, at a bargain price, lounge on a beach for a week or take to the hills
Spring in Holland means crocuses, hyacinths and daffodils as well as tulips in thousands of acres of bulb fields. Order your own bulbs there, too. Thomson Holidays (081-200 8733, 021-632 6282 or 061-236 3828) has three-night, half-board packages in April and May from several airports - pounds 232 to pounds 292.
Spring cleaning in the Tyrol - it's real Sound of Music stuff. Three- and four-night holidays in traditional farmhouses in St Johann, Kitzbuhel and Kirchberg give a taste of the summer to come. B&b accommodation, flights from Gatwick and Manchester, pounds 149 to pounds 171, from Austrian Travel Service (0920-487575).
Prices rocket after April and early May in Taormina in Sicily as the summer festive season (films, ballet and music) warms up. Views and charm galore, pricey extras. A seven-night package b&b in a three-star hotel from Gatwick in April costs pounds 240 from Italian Impulse (081-741 9007).
One of the prettier and less developed resorts in Turkey with a good beach is Olu Deniz. A week's b&b at the Hotel Aygulf in May from several airports costs pounds 228 from Enterprise (0293-560777). In Kusadasi (near Ephesus), which is often intolerable in high season, 14 nights at the Hotel Xelike b&b costs pounds 247 from Thomson's 'Discover Turkey' (see above for telephone numbers).
A fast growing pop resort, Tolon in the Peloponnese still has some character, and is also a convenient beach resort for spring visits to Mycenae, Corinth and Epidaurus. Thomson's 'Simply Greece' (see above) offers a week's b&b in May for pounds 215.
Anyone who loves Crete will know how wonderful it is in spring, packed with touring, exploring and walking opportunities. A typical fortnight's self-catering package in Chania from Gatwick and other airports costs pounds 221 from Martyn Holidays (081-577 9733).
Some of the most reliable spring sunshine and temperatures are in the Canaries. Fuerteventura has magnificent sandy beaches, ideal for escapist sunlovers. There's little sophistication or sightseeing, but it's a world away from the horrors of Tenerife's Playa de las Americas and much of Grand Canary. Sunworld (0532- 360361) offers seven nights in self-catering apartments in Corralejo for pounds 245.
A very wide range of packages for less than pounds 250 in Spain and the Balearics. Majorca's resorts vary in their appeal from blaring pop to exclusive. Puerto de Pollensa on the lovely northern coast is renowned in spring for its birds, flowers and walks, with something for everyone: beaches, restaurants, nightlife, scenery. The Travel Club of Upminster (0708-22 5000) offers a variety of hotels, self-catering studios and flats from pounds 218 to pounds 248 per week.
May and June are the best months for the Italian lakes, with prices and crowds rocketing in July and August. Lake Garda offers sightseeing possibilities to Verona, even Venice if the weather turns grouchy. Eclipse Direct (0293- 554444) offers seven nights half-board in May from Gatwick and Manchester for pounds 247.
Budget-priced packages serve several Moroccan destinations including Tangier and Agadir. Good roads make it possible to use the hotel as a base for further exploration. One week b&b at the four-star Hotel Tangier costs pounds 239 from Inspirations 0293-820207.
These prices are representative of the destinations; other general and specialist tour operators offer similar packages at similar prices. Last- minute bargains for immediate travel may offer considerable reductions on these prices.
A few nights in Lisbon? A weekend in Florence? Sample some of Europe's finest centres of culture and cuisine for a snip this spring
THE LOW COUNTRIES
Paris, Bruges, Brussels and Amsterdam are all well within our pounds 250 limit; a two- to three-night break to Paris, flying from Gatwick for example, will cost between pounds 150 and pounds 180, from most of the short break specialists we've listed below. And for those preferring to go overland, there are cheaper inclusive breaks to these destinations by rail and sea, coach or self-drive - and once the Channel Tunnel service gets going, there will be budget options there too.
Among the more unusual French destinations, Travelscene (telephone numbers below) offers two nights in the Hotel Donjon in the walled city of Carcassonne for pounds 249, while Cresta Short Breaks has come up with a two- night break to the U Castagnetu hotel near Ajaccio in Corsica from Gatwick for pounds 242.
SPAIN AND MAJORCA
Spanish specialists Mundi Color offers a range of city breaks under the pounds 250 barrier including Seville, Zaragoza, Barcelona and Alicante; a three-night break at the three-star Anacapri Hotel in Granada, including not only b&b and flights but also car hire, costs pounds 244.
Madrid offers some of the best value in city breaks. From specialist Time Off: two nights in the one-star Hotel Cliper for pounds 180; three nights in the two-star Hotel Regente for pounds 228. Two nights at the two-star Hotel Asturias with Sovereign costs pounds 198, while Cresta comes up with two nights at the three-star Cason de Tormes for pounds 216, all of course including flights.
Travelscene offers some lesser known Spanish cities in the northern province of Asturias, including the capital, Oviedo, with a three- night break for pounds 234 in the Hotel Campana; three nights at the Hotel Aguera in coastal Gijon for pounds 246, or pounds 232 for the three nights at the Hotel Los Lagos in Cangas de Onis, the old provincial capital at the foot of the Picos mountains and close to the Covagonda National Park.
Among Thomson Holidays' range of city breaks is four nights in their own-graded 3T hotel in Palma, capital of Majorca, for pounds 249; three nights from Manchester at pounds 247.
In Portugal, weekend and short breaks to the fascinating old port wine city of Oporto, which lies on the banks of the River Douro, also offer opportunities for trips to port lodges, pilgrimage towns and the attractive coast and countryside of the Costa Verde. Three nights at the three-crown Hotel do Porto from Heathrow costs pounds 226 from Sovereign Cities.
Lisbon is covered by a number of city-break firms. Sample prices include two nights at the one-star Hotel Borges with Time Off at pounds 222; three nights at the three-crown Hotel Roma cost pounds 238 from Sovereign, and two nights at the three-star Hotel Rex from Premier Cities for pounds 239, all from Heathrow.
Heading for Italy, Venice, Florence and Rome are the most expensive of the Italian city destinations, though there are some under- pounds 250 breaks available from city specialists, usually using pensions, one- or two-star hotels.
Specialists Italian Escapades offers a range of two- and three-night breaks to other Italian cities - three-nights in Bologna, which has excellent shopping and cultural interests, and is only an hour by train from Florence, costs pounds 218; three nights in Verona costs pounds 218; at Venice Lido pounds 212. In the Italian Impulse programme of city breaks (which includes three- star hotels and airport transfers) Florence costs pounds 245 and Milan pounds 229.
CZECH REPUBLIC AND
Interesting packages to Eastern European cities in June from Campus Travel take in trendy Prague and Budapest; the price of pounds 219 includes a return ticket to Budapest, one night's accommodation there, a rail ticket to Prague and one night's accommodation there, and flying back from there. Extra nights can be booked for pounds 25 in Budapest and pounds 16 in Prague.
CITY BREAK SPECIALISTS
Amsterdam Travel Service 0920-467444
Belgian Travel Service 0920-467345
British Airways Holidays 0293-615353
Campus Travel 071-730 3402
Cresta Holidays 0345-125333
Italian Escapades 081-748 2661
Italian Impulse 081-741 9007
Kirker Holidays 071-231 3333
Mundi Color 071-828 6021
Paris Travel Service 0920-467467
Premier Cities Holidays081-390 9900
Sovereign Cities 0293-599900
Thomson City Breaks 071-387 9321
Time Off 071-235 8070
Travelscene 081-427 8800
Most city breaks include bed and breakfast; only some include transport between the airport and hotel, others only from the airport on arrival, and some do not provide transfer at all. Flights from regional airports usually carry supplements.
Travelling can be a misery in summer, with hot and anxious crowds crammed into sticky airports. But in spring, with space to move, a journey to Africa or the Arctic, Cape Cod or Kairouan, Luxor or Lithuania, is a pleasurable - and affordable - prospect
A guaranteed sun-sizzler with temperatures in the nineties and a rainy season that doesn't start until July and August. Late spring is a good time for hotel bargains, just outside the Christmas to Easter peak season. This is a beach holiday destination with hotels that are comfortable rather than luxurious. It's a tiny country only 20 miles wide, with sightseeing more or less confined to river and wildlife trips, and the capital, Banjul, for the local markets. Most British visitors go on inclusive packages, adding around pounds 100 to the air fare within our pounds 250 limit.
Good roads and rail links at low prices help travellers; the ubiquitous hassling of foreign tourists does not. Most visitors, however, will put up with the latter to see the imperial cities - Fez, Marrakesh and Rabat - the lovely walled town of Taroudant or the oasis of Ouarzazate. There is a large range of adventurous possibilities too: camel treks and Sahara safaris, Legionnaire routes, Land-Rover drives and horse-riding in the Atlas mountains. The beaches are magnificent, but it would be missing out on the real Morocco to spend too much time on them.
Between 29 May and 21 July, the sun does not set in Tromso, in Norway, the world's northernmost city and the only one that lies within the Arctic Circle. This is the traditional starting place for polar explorations. Sovereign Scanscape (0293-599922) offers an overnight trip to see the midnight sun at Tromso, with a cable car journey 1,260 feet up Mount Storsteinsfjellet. The price is pounds 199, children pay pounds 145, with departures from 19 May until 11 August on scheduled flights from Heathrow.
BOSTON AND OTHER US CITIES
Our research showed that US cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Pittsburg and Washington are available for pounds 238 (Travelpack, 061-707 4404) until early May, with Boston and New York as the best buys later in spring. As a gateway to the US, Boston gets my vote; stimulating, snobbish, picturesque in its own right, it also opens the door to New England, Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, at this time of the year just rolling back the clapboard shutters for a fashionable summer season. Boston has always been a cockpit of political rivalries, social contention and clashing opinions, with more to do and see than any other US city, apart perhaps from New York and San Francisco. Follow the Freedom Trail to see all the sites on foot, including Quincy market, one of the world's first indoor markets. Cambridge, a walk across the river, is the home of Harvard and MIT. (If you are travelling between 17 June and 17 July, it would be advisable to check the dates of World Cup fixtures before booking.)
There are excellent-priced flights to Monastir and several packages for less than pounds 250 to the nearby beach resorts: Hammamet is the prettiest and Sousse, with its port, the largest and liveliest. Monastir is perhaps typical of the somewhat bland Tunisian resorts where the beaches are superb, the hotels modern, locally styled (many with excellent sporting facilities), but where non-beach addicts can get restive after a few days. The two most interesting excursions from Monastir are to the Islamic citadel of Kairouan, a former capital of the Maghreb, and the amphitheatre of El Jem, possibly the most impressive Roman building in Africa. Tunis, to which there are also flights but few packages, is perhaps a more interesting base for travellers, with a fine Medina, the Bardo Museum and ruined Carthage, as well as touristy but charming Sidi Bon Said, reached by a local railway. For independent travellers, public transport within Tunisia (it includes coastal train services, buses and louages, large shared taxis), is comprehensive and economical.
Many returning Lithuanians still clap when their flight lands at Vilnius, and officials at the airport still look pleased to see visitors from the West. Tourism is in its infancy (the country first started welcoming visitors in March 1990) and travellers from the West are feted because they bring much- needed foreign currency. Some commodities are in short supply, such as maps, modern guide books, hot water, petrol and food - most meals are based on pickled cabbage, smoked pork and sausage. But there are cheap taxis, beer, vodka; traffic-free streets; Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque spires and cupolas in abundance - and plenty to see of historical, architectural and political interest in Lithuania's capital. While hotel accommodation and service standards are lower than in the West so are the prices, which provide excellent value. Not for anyone seeking bright lights and modern amenities, but an interesting and sometimes moving experience.
There are flights below pounds 250 to several cities, including Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax until May, and to Toronto until June. Canada is often overlooked as a holiday destination, the must-see pull of its neighbour's cities drawing most of the transatlantic travellers. Toronto, however, is one of the most underrated and dynamic North American cities and is long overdue for recognition. For years Toronto was eclipsed by the trendier Montreal in French-speaking Quebec, but in the last few years it has come into its own. It has the ethnic districts and restaurants of a San Francisco, the smart shopping malls, art exhibitions and musical events to rival New York, and a glittering waterfront and lively, youthful and vibrant atmosphere all of its own. If all this doesn't grab you, Toronto is easy to get out of by train, coach or car. Within easy reach are other Canadian cities, Niagara Falls, and best of all the marvellous great outdoors such as Algonquin National Park. But there is too much in the city itself to rush through it.
A good choice both of flights and packages during late April, May and early June, before historic sites such as Ephesus, Troy and Pergamon are overrun by the summer crowds. Unnecessary to pre-book accommodation at this time, but it is worth looking at the packages even if you only use the accommodation for bed and breakfast for a couple of days before moving on. Those on a stay-put holiday should choose the resort with care - some were thrown up in the Eighties to cater for the mass boom. Others are idyllic. Kusadasi (overrun in summer) is well placed (only 10 miles from Ephesus). Picturesque Bodrum is also tolerable in May and early June, providing one keeps clear of scruffy Gumbet next door. For an escapist holiday Olu Deniz is pretty, simple, unsophisticated and the beach excellent for families. Further south, Kalkan and Kas are both small and pretty but without sandy beaches, Kemer lacks character, while larger Antalya and Side are busy. The Roman remains nearby are well worth a visit out of high season.
Despite threats to tourists, the low prices which have made Egypt the holiday bargain of the decade are continuing to attract large numbers of visitors. There's price-cutting in Luxor, even in the luxury hotels, the spring climate is delightful and there's a wealth of sightseeing, with more antiquities than any other place in the world. The highlights include the temples in Luxor itself and in nearby Karnak with their colossal decorated pillars. Carved into the limestone hills on the west bank of the Nile are the underground tombs of the pharaohs, the queens and the nobles, their extraordinary wall paintings preserved in the dry desert air - among them that of the boy king Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922. The treasures found there are now on show in the museum at Cairo. For additional sightseeing Luxor has frequent internal flights and regular inter-city air-conditioned trains which link it with Cairo to the north, and Aswan and the colossal temples of Abu Simbel in the south.-Reuse content