SURVIVAL GUIDE SPAIN

Taking Off

For years the only economical way to fly to Spain was on a charter. This summer, though, the sums have changed radically. The Spanish national airline, Iberia (0171-830 0011), has been flying toLondon for 50 years - and is celebrating with a series of strictly limited offers.

The first was available on 1 April only, for the foolish fare of pounds 55 return to Madrid. Last Monday, Barcelona was on sale for a more realistic pounds 114. You can expect more low fares; watch these pages or call Iberia for details. Meanwhile, other carriers are cutting fares; Air UK (0345 666777) has a Stansted-Madrid return for pounds 104 on sale until 1 May. All these fares include Britain's pounds 5 Air Passenger Duty; Spain did away with its 50 peseta charge years ago.

British Airways (0345 222111) is expanding its route network to southern Spain, with GB Airways operating services on BA's behalf from Gatwick to Valencia (pounds 124 return), Jerez de la Frontera (starting 17 May, pounds 144) and Murcia (pounds 154). Weekend travel costs pounds 20 more.

Expect fares to Barcelona to fall in June, when EasyJet (01582 445566) begins low-cost flights from Luton airport. From 12 June, it will charge pounds 49 each way (plus pounds 5 UK tax on the outbound leg), though fares can rise to pounds 99 as the flights sell out.

For some destinations, the only prospect for a non-stop flight is to use a charter. We buy charter flights from a variety of companies, including Avro (01293 567916), The Flight Company (0181-977 9455) and Airtours (01706 260000).

Flights over the two May bank holiday weekends are extremely busy, especially to the south. Fares are consequently high and availability poor. To Malaga, British Airways's best fare travelling out 3 May, back 6 May is pounds 488; Gibraltar is a cheaper alternative at pounds 274.

Checking In

The parador (government-run hotel, usually in a historic property) remains the best travel bargain in Spain. The new one in Ronda has arguably the finest view of any hotel in Europe, though the panorama from the poolside in Aiguablava on the Costa Brava is a close second. Keytel International (0171-402 8182) represents the chain in the UK.

International Chapters (0171-722 9560) offers a range of villas and fincas on the mainland and in the Balearics. A restored farmhouse in San Carlos, Ibiza, costs pounds 4,200 for a week in late July or August, but sleeps 12.

The south east corner of Mallorca has the dual benefits of quiet countryside and good beaches. Accommodation in rural farmhouses around Santanyi is sold by Mallorcan Countryside Holidays (0181-747 1851). These sleep around a dozen people, and cost from pounds 600 to pounds 2,195 for a week according to season.

Getting Around

Rail remains the best way to combine comfort, speed and economy, though if you want to sacrifice the latter two for a good dose of the former then consider the Andalus Express, a pre-war train that trundles grandly through Andalucia. A five-night trip through Cox & Kings (0171-873 5000) costs pounds 1,299, including flights from London.

Domestic flights are still mostly overpriced and lacking in frills, though the introduction of competition means Aviaco (Iberia's domestic arm) has sharpened up its act. Madrid-Barcelona costs pounds 50 one-way. You can combine two centres with an Iberia "Bravo" fare; for pounds 214 you could fly London- Madrid-Ibiza-London.

Car rental is becoming phenomenally competitive, with the best deals booked from Britain. For a week picking up from Barcelona airport in August, Holiday Autos (0990 300400) charges pounds 139 fully inclusive and promises to undercut all comers by pounds 5.

Checking Out

The range of activity holidays in Spain is expanding rapidly. For example, the Field Studies Council (01743 850164) is offering a fortnight in the Pyrenees in July studying flowers and butterflies (pounds 1,200), or a week of birdwatching in Mallorca in September (pounds 720).

To visit Spain's newest and largest national park, sign up with Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) for an eight-day trip through the Picos de Europa. You pay pounds 395, including flights, accommodation and breakfast.

A short way south in the Emporda region, New Experience Holidays (01922 410909) has a two-centre walking holiday based on the medieval towns of Pals and Llafranc. A week in June costs pounds 605.

A more leisurely survey of the sights and scenery may be had on an Archers Tours coach trip; a week in Andalucia in May costs pounds 345 including flights.

Finding Out

The Spanish tourist office is at 57 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901).

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