The Independent Parent: your questions answered

Can we have a bargain break that's not a package? And where do I find a country cottage for New Year?


Q My 20-year-old daughter is studying Spanish at university and has gone to live in Asturias, Spain. I am planning to meet up with her in Madrid for a weekend. We are hoping to share a twin hotel room, but "city break" special offers tend to require two people to be flying out together. Can you suggest a way around this problem? We also both like museums and anything cultural and love watching flamenco dancing, so suggestions of where we could find it would be appreciated.

Q My 20-year-old daughter is studying Spanish at university and has gone to live in Asturias, Spain. I am planning to meet up with her in Madrid for a weekend. We are hoping to share a twin hotel room, but "city break" special offers tend to require two people to be flying out together. Can you suggest a way around this problem? We also both like museums and anything cultural and love watching flamenco dancing, so suggestions of where we could find it would be appreciated.

Mrs L Curtis, via e-mail

A The solution is for you to fly out on a cheap ticket, and to book a room separately - either locally or through a UK agent. You can easily find a range of hotels using guide books or the internet. In addition, a number of city-break operators offer the chance to book accommodation only in return for a handling fee. This can be very useful, firstly because big tour operators can often negotiate favourable rates, and may have availability when almost all beds are fully booked, and secondly because it gives you a degree of protection (if the hotel is overbooked, for example, you should be found an alternative).

In any other circumstances, you are probably on your own. The Atol rules and Package Travel Regulations provide excellent protection for anyone who buys a flight plus accommodation (or another element such as car rental) from a single supplier in one transaction. Basically, the package travel law says you are entitled to the holiday as promised, while Atol guarantees your cash if the holiday company goes bust. But if you buy elements separately, this does not apply - and robust travel insurance is a good idea.

A company that offers a hotel-only service is Travelscene (020-8424 9648; www.travelscene.co.uk). It is currently offering a twin room at the four-star Hotel Lope de Vega, 49 Lope de Vega (00 34 91 360 0011) for £43 per person per night including breakfast. This modern hotel is located in the heart of the famous museum triangle, moments from the Museo del Prado, Museo Reina Sofia and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and would be a perfect starting point for some cultural exploration. Another option is the three-star Hotel Los Condes, 7 Los Libreros (00 34 91 521 5455). This will cost £49 per person per night for a twin room including breakfast and, while it's a little more expensive, it is located on a street in the heart of historic Madrid.

The Midas Hotel Network (0870 445 0050; www.midashotels.com), also specialises in accommodation-only bookings. It is currently offering a twin room in the two-star Rafael Hotel in Atocha just south of the museum district for £39.25 per person per night, which works out at £157 per room for two nights including breakfast.

You certainly won't be stuck for cultural attractions, either. The Museo del Prado (00 34 91 330 2800; http://museoprado.mcu.es) on the Paseo del Prado is one of Europe's great museums. Among a vast array of exhibits, it displays an extensive collection on 12th- to 19th-century European painting and sculpture, and masterpieces such as a series of rooms devoted to Goya and Las Meninas by Velazquez. From now until 11 January, it is also staging a special exhibition dedicated to the works of Manet. Pre-booking is required; timed admissions between 9am and 5.45pm cost €6 (£4.20) per adult. The museum opens daily from 9am-7pm, except Monday, when it is closed. Admission costs €3 (£2) per adult and under-18s go free. Your daughter can get a reduced admission of €1.50 (£1.05) if she brings her student card.

You might also enjoy a visit to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (00 34 91 467 5062; http://museoreinasofia.mcu.es). This is Spain's national museum of modern art, housing an impressive collection of 20th-century Spanish art including works by Picasso and Dali. Don't miss the former's polemical anti-war masterpiece Guernica. It opens Monday to Saturday from 10am-9pm, Sunday 10am-2.30pm and is closed on Tuesday. Admission costs €3 (£2) per adult and again, your daughter will get a discount.

Finally, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (00 34 91 369 0151; www.museothyssen.org), also on Paseo del Prado, houses a wonderful collection of 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings by the likes of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein. This is believed by many to hold one of the best private art collections in the world. The museum opens daily from 10am to 7pm and is closed on Mondays. Admission costs €4.80 (£3) per adult. If you plan on visiting all three, it might be worth investing in the "Paseo del Arte" card, which allows an adult entry to all three for €7.66 (£5).

To see some flamenco, there are hundreds of bars and theatres all around the city offering regular performances. The Corral de la Moreria restaurant (00 34 91 365 8446) at Calle Moreria 17 offers lively tableside flamenco shows included in the price of its set menu, starting at €30 (£21) per person. The show usually starts at about 7pm, but it is advisable ring ahead.

One final thought: Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has started flying to Valladolid, about half way between Asturias and Madrid. You are guaranteed a cheap flight, low-cost accommodation and a much more manageable city than the Spanish capital.

For further information and to find out about events and exhibitions that you may like to visit, contact the Spanish Tourist Board on 020-7467 5505 or see www.tourspain.es.

Q I will be visiting my parents in the UK over Christmas with my wife (who is American) and our three children (ranging in age from six to 14). My wife loves quaint English villages so I'd like to surprise her and my parents with a cottage for a week over New Year.

A Barber, via e-mail

A The good news is that there is a wide range of companies such as English Country Cottages (0870 787 4713; www.english-country-cottages.co.uk), Country Holidays (0870 442 5235; www.country-holidays.co.uk), Classic Cottages (01326 555555; www.classic.co.uk) and Hideaways (01747 828170; www.hideaways.co.uk) that all have plenty of country cottages in areas such as the Cotswolds and the West Country on their books.

The bad news is that, as far as New Year goes, you are cutting it fine. All the properties I have mentioned below are available to rent for a week commencing 27 December, but the quaint ones tend to go first - we all seem to want the log fire, thatched roof and pub within walking distance at this time of year.

However, if you move quickly you can still rent a 16th-century thatched mill cottage on the river Taw near Winkleigh in Devon through Holiday Rentals (020-8743 5577; www.holiday-rentals.com) for £1,404. The cottage includes free fishing rights for guests, plus one thing you don't find in many country cottages - an eight-person hot tub. The internet-based rental company www.cottages4you.co.uk also has a 17th-century thatched cottage sleeping eight, three miles from Lulworth Cove in Dorset for £872.

If you are prepared to compromise, you will be afforded slightly more choice. Applewood is part of a barn conversion on a working farm, near the village of Coverack on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. It sleeps seven and costs £687 through Classic Cottages. English Country Cottages offers St Cloud, a property that sleeps seven in the village of Golant on the Cowey estuary near the town of Fowey. It's a Victorian house rather than a country cottage, but it's well located on the edge of a village and only 15 minutes' drive from the Eden Project. A week here will cost £1,575.

If none of the above appeal, you might like to take a look at the last-minute section of Premier Cottages ( www.premiercottages.co.uk). This is an umbrella internet site for some very picturesque houses and cottages for rent all over the country that gives full details and links to the individual owners.

Send your family travel questions to SF Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS. Or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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