Madrid in early summer is magnificent. People in other regions of Spain dismiss the climate of the high-altitude capital as “nine months of winter and three months of hell”. But the slur is misplaced at this time of year.
The sun beams down on the Plaza del Sol at the heart of the city. Flowers from across the colour spectrum spill across the ample parks and boulevards. And the cobbled lanes at Madrid’s core lead the traveller blissfully astray into antique bars.
So I salute Jeremy B, who emailed me on Thursday morning, for seeking a city break at the very end of May. But his plans were scuppered by high prices: “Flying out from Heathrow on 31 May, coming back on 2 June costs £1,300 on British Airways.
“How can the airlines charge such outrageous prices for flights?” The culprit, I told him gently, was football – and specifically both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur overcoming adversity to defeat their Champions’ League semi-final opponents.
On just the weekend selected by Jeremy, Madrid will host the final of Europe’s biggest club match, and tens of thousands of fans from Merseyside and north London will converge on the city.
Madrid won the right to host the final 20 months ago. Calls are increasing for the venue to be decided only when the finalists are known: in the case of two English clubs, Wembley looks a more accessible location for both sides, and would dramatically reduce the carbon cost of the tie.
Chelsea and Arsenal, too, would more conveniently play their Europa League final in the northwest London area rather than Baku, northeast of Baghdad in Azerbaijan, where they meet on 29 May. But unless and until Uefa changes its policy of deciding the location for its flagship matches well in advance, we are where we are – and Madrid is where it is, right in the middle of Spain, pleasingly 777 miles from London and 888 miles from Liverpool.
The surge in fares began almost as soon as Liverpool scored their fourth goal against Barcelona to take a 4-3 lead on Tuesday night. I watched prices from northwest England to the Spanish capital rise by the minute.
Twenty-four hours later, when Spurs beat Ajax with a last-gasp goal, British Airways priced all its prime Heathrow-Madrid flights at £1,300 return.
So is the airline’s Spanish boss, Alex Cruz, unashamedly exploiting desperate fans? No. He is running a business that has (in the short term at least) a fixed supply of planes, pilots and cabin crew. BA is not forcing fans to pay high fares.
The harsh reality of markets is that when demand surges the price of an asset – in this case a seat on a flight to Madrid and back – soars.
Mr Cruz's airline is putting a product on sale at a particular price. No-one is obliged to buy. Those willing and able to pay a fare that many will consider unreasonable and/or unaffordable can buy a ticket. The rest of us can find other options.
Fortunately, you can reach the match of the decade by all manner of means. My current favourite is a one week Tui package to Torremolinos, departing Gatwick on 29 May, price £333. Abandon the resort for 24 hours halfway through the holiday, and board a bus or train to Madrid. Or fly from Stansted to Biarritz in southwest France, take a train to the Spanish border at Irun and rent a car.
Some fans may choose to hang on in the hope that travel firms will come up with other ideas – either finding extra planes (difficult in a summer when the Boeing 737 Max has been grounded) or, for an airline such as British Airways, replacing the small Airbus with a Jumbo jet holding twice as many passengers.
With increased supply, the price should fall. And if not, there is always the standby of filling a car with fuel and fans, and investing 24 hours in the long drive south. Thankfully, the travelling supporter has a vast range of choices. And if, like Jeremy, you’re not a football fan, it’s just a matter of timing. A week after the show leaves town, the lowest return fare for a weekend in Madrid on British Airways and its sister airline, Iberia, is just £83.
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