Airline services in Spain

Flights, fares and airports

Airline services in Spain

Most major international airlines provide scheduled services to Madrid and many also fly to Barcelona and other major cities such as Valencia. Inexpensive charter and budget flights to Spain are common from many European countries, particularly the UK and Germany.

In recent years, the number of so-called ‘no-frills’ budget airlines has increased greatly and competition is fierce. Most transatlantic flights from North America travel via Madrid. If you’re unable to get a direct intercontinental flight to Spain, it’s usually advisable to fly via London, from where there are inexpensive daily flights to airports throughout Spain.


In general, the earlier you book a seat with any airline the cheaper it is. If you’re able to book more than six months in advance, bargains are available and many scheduled airlines (particularly budget) have ticket ‘sales’ at certain times of the year. Cheap seats are also available if you book literally at the last minute, but you run the risk of not getting a seat at all.

The cheapest Spanish destinations from the UK are Malaga, Alicante and Palma de Mallorca. Flights from other European countries are generally more expensive than those from the UK, Ireland and Germany, and may cost up to 50 per cent more, although several budget airlines now offer cheaper inter-European flights (e.g. Air Berlin and Vueling).

It may be cheaper for North Americans, and others travelling on intercontinental flights, to fly to London and get a charter or budget flight from there, particularly outside the summer season.

If you’re buying a ticket online, before confirming your booking, make sure the quoted price includes everything; on most airline websites the final price isn’t quoted until the end of the booking process, making it difficult to compare prices between companies.

Budget Airlines

Budget airlines, e.g. Air Berlin, Easyjet and Ryanair, offer some advantages, including flights to and from smaller airports and no seat allocation. Fares are generally lower, although they’ve risen in recent months and are often no cheaper than scheduled flights (particularly if you’re able to take advantage of special offers from BA and Iberia).

Budget airlines often advertise very cheap seats, although these are usually limited in number and involve travelling at unsociable times or at short notice. Flights in high season or on popular routes are generally as expensive as those offered by scheduled airlines, but you can save money by travelling out of season and avoiding weekends.

Budget airlines’ advertised prices usually don’t include airport taxes, which can be high, and they normally make a ‘fuel surcharge’. In addition, they charge for any changes to flight details and further charges are levied for items such as golf clubs.

Luggage allowances are generally low, and some budget airlines have even started charging per item of luggage (as if you would travel without it!). Shop around and don’t assume that travelling to Spain is cheaper by budget airline.

Scheduled Flights

Fares on scheduled flights to Spain have fallen dramatically in recent years due to increased competition, particularly from budget airlines (see above) and formerly domestic airlines such as Air Europa (Spanish owned). Major airlines including Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia offer year-round scheduled flights to the larger Spanish airports and flights can be booked at travel agencies, by telephone or online. An advantage of the major airlines is that they often allow changes in your flight details (e.g. dates or destination) free of charge, although you must usually pay for last-minute changes and cancellations. Major airlines also tend to have higher weight allowances for luggage and will transport large items, e.g. golf clubs, free of charge.

Budget airlines tend to offer flights to and from smaller airports, but flights on these airlines can only be booked through the airline itself via their customer telephone service or online, and they charge extra for practically everything, including luggage and fuel (see above).

Few scheduled airlines offer free in-flight services such as meals and newspapers on flights under four hours’ duration – Monarch scheduled services are one of the few exceptions to this.

Almost all scheduled airlines now operate a ‘no-ticket’ policy and you simply give your name, showing identification (e.g. passport or driving licence), or a code provided when you book.

British Airways & Iberia

Iberia, British Airways (BA) and its subsidiary GB Airways operate daily flights to the main Spanish airports from several destinations in the UK. BA and Iberia are both members of the One World Alliance ( ) along with several other major airlines such as American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. This allows them to offer flights to most destinations in the world via other airlines in the alliance at competitive fares. Travel agents are the best source of information for the cheapest seats on One World flights.

The Spanish national privatised airline, Iberia, is Spain’s major international carrier. Although it isn’t rated as one of the world’s best airlines, it has an excellent safety record and its standard of service has improved considerably in recent years. Iberia’s fares have become more competitive and the company has been in the black for the last few years. However, in the light of increased competition from the high-speed train network and budget airlines, Iberia needs urgently to implement cost-cutting measures. These include re-negotiating salaries, particularly pilots’ (who have a habit of going on strike every summer), and cutting non-profit flights. In common with many airlines, Iberia has been badly hit by the rise in fuel prices.

Iberia provides good connections to Central and South America and throughout Europe, but few connections to North America (New York and Miami only) and the rest of the world apart from Tel Aviv and a number of destinations in North and West Africa.

Charter Flights

Since the advent of budget airlines, seat-only bookings on charter flights to Spain have become less common, at least from the UK. Among the largest charter companies operating from the UK are Avro, Cosmos, First Choice, Monarch and Thomson Fly, which nevertheless offer good flight deals to Spain from a wide range of UK airports, particularly if you book well in advance. Tickets for flights (and package holiday deals) can be purchased from travel agents, by telephone or online. Charter flights are available to most Spanish resorts, but tend to run from April to October only (longer to the Canaries).

As a general rule, the further in advance you buy your ticket, the cheaper it is (and the greater the penalty for cancelling), although late bookings can also be good value. The main disadvantage of charter flights is that they usually have fixed return dates and a maximum of four weeks between the outward and return flights. Most charter flights restrict stays to 7, 14, 21 or 28 days, although you can always throw away the return ticket (it may still be cheaper than a single fare on a scheduled flight). Charter tickets aren’t transferable and it’s illegal to use a ticket issued in someone else’s name; tickets are checked against passports and if the names don’t match you’re refused boarding (and you can be prosecuted). It’s advisable to take out insurance against missing your flight, as there are no refunds for charter flights.

Domestic Flights

There are a number of airlines offering domestic services in Spain, including Iberia (902-400 500, ), Air Europa ( 902-410 501,  – tickets can also be purchased at Halcón Viajes travel agencies) and various small airlines such as Air Nostrum (902-400 500, ) and Binter Canarias (902-391 392, ) – both subsidiaries of Iberia.

Air Europa and Spanair cover most of the same routes as Iberia and are generally cheaper. Youth fares are also available at large discounts. Flights to the Balearics from the mainland are only slightly more expensive than ferries, although you must usually book well in advance during the summer season. Residents in the Balearics or Canaries are entitled to discounts of 33 per cent on flights between the islands and the mainland.

Many domestic flights are routed via Madrid or Barcelona, so it can be difficult to get a direct flight between regional cities. There are frequent flights between Spain’s international airports and regional airports, Iberia operating flights from Barcelona and Madrid to around 20 domestic airports. There’s a half-hourly or hourly ‘air bridge’ ( puente aéreo) shuttle service between Barcelona and Madrid, which carries over 2m passengers a year. Tickets for Iberia domestic flights can be purchased from machines at airports (using a credit card). Private aircraft and helicopters can be rented from most Spanish airports to almost anywhere in Spain.


Spain’s busiest airport with around 42m passengers a year is Madrid’s Barajas airport ( aeropuerto de Barajas). Barajas is Spain’s main airport for intercontinental flights and is also served by direct flights from most European and North and South American cities. Madrid is the hub of Spanish domestic flights and typical flight times are: Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca and the Canary Islands. Barcelona’s airport is Spain’s second busiest airport with around 27m passengers a year. Palma de Mallorca airport handles around 20m passengers a year (mainly summer charter flights) and Malaga over 11m a year.

International flights are available from many of Spain’s ‘regional’ airports, including Alicante, Almeria, Asturias, Bilbao, Fuenteventura, Gerona (Costa Brava), Granada, Gran Canaria, Ibiza, Jerez de la Frontera (Costa de la Luz), La Coruña, Lanzarote, Las Palmas, Malaga, Melilla, Menorca, Murcia, Palma de Mallorca, Reus (Tarragona), San Sebastián, Santander, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Tenerife, Valencia, Vigo, Vitoria and Zaragossa. Other domestic airports include Ampurias (Gerona), Badajoz, Burgos, Cáceres, Cordoba, Logroño, Mahón (Menorca), Puigcerdá, Pamplona, Salamanca, Seu d’Urgell and Valladolid.

Madrid’s Barajas airport is located 15km (9.3mi) outside the city on the A-2 and is one of Europe’s five major airports and has recently undergone extensive modernisation, including the building of a second runway. A new terminal, Terminal 4 (T4), opened in early 2006, meaning that the airport now has three terminals for international and domestic flights (T1, T2 and T4) and its capacity has increased to around 70m passengers a year. T4 is some distance from the other terminals and cannot be reached by public transport, so if you have a flight or connecting flight in T4 allow extra time for your journey. A free 24-hour bus service running every three minutes connects the three terminals.

There are various ways of getting to Madrid city centre: by bus running every 10 to 18 minutes from around 5am to around midnight to the Avenida de América; metro to Nuevos Ministerios station (where check-in facilities are available) open from 6am to 2am. AeroCity also offers the useful option of advance booking by phone or internet (917-477 570, ). Flight information is available from 902-404 704.

Barcelona’s airport ( El Prat de Llobregat), located 14km (9mi) from the city centre, is one of the finest airports in the world and currently under expansion. The fastest and cheapest way to the city is by RENFE train, and services run from 6am to around midnight. There’s also a bus service ( aerobús) running every 11 to 15 minutes from 6am to midnight. A telephone number for flight information is available (932-983 838).

Many Spanish airports have been expanded and modernised in recent years, including Barcelona, Malaga and Seville, although you should expect delays at major airports during the summer season (the worst airports for delays in summer include Alicante, Malaga, Palma, Ibiza and Mahon, particularly at weekends). Always carefully check your luggage on collection and report any damage immediately. Most airports have sufficient luggage trolleys, and porters (who charge an official rate per piece of luggage) are also usually available to carry bags. All major Spanish airports have duty-free shops, although some are open only during the main tourist season.

Note that it’s usually cheaper to buy alcohol in a local off-licence or supermarket . There’s no airport departure tax in Spain. Secure 24-hour parking is provided at most Spanish airports, where parking fees are usually reasonable, with discounts for two weeks or longer. There are also parking areas near to airports, but not within the grounds. Information about all airports in Spain, including flight arrivals and departures in English and Spanish is available from AENA (  – go to ‘ elija aeropuerto’ or ‘choose airport’ on the left and scroll down to the airport you’re looking for).

Holiday & Visitors’ Passes

Two holiday passes for air travel are offered by Iberia and are for non-residents only. If you buy a return international ticket with Iberia, you’re entitled to purchase an Iberiabono España, which includes a minimum of two coupons valid for domestic flights in Spain. The pass must be purchased a minimum of five days before your arrival in Spain and some flights have restrictions, e.g. they must be booked in advance or are available only on certain days of the week. Iberia also offers an Iberiabono Europa for non-residents arriving in Spain from North or South America, Senegal or South Africa. This pass allows the purchase of at least two coupons valid for flights to around 25 European cities. The pass must be purchased a minimum of five days before your arrival in Spain and you must be in possession of a return ticket. Information regarding the Iberiabono España and Iberiabono Europa is available on Iberia’s American website ( ) under ‘Products & Services’ or from travel agents in Canada and the US.

There are a variety of train tickets for visitors to Spain and Spanish residents travelling by train in Europe. A wide range of rail passes are also available, some of which are sold only in certain countries, e.g. Canada and the US, or to non-residents of Europe. Passes include a Eurodomino pass, Eurail Spain Pass and Eurail Spain and Portugal Pass (see below). A range of Eurail passes, allowing travel in 17 countries and valid for 15, 25, 30, 60 or 90 days, are available for those with their permanent residence outside Europe, including the Eurailpass, the Eurailpass Flexi, Eurailpass Youth (under 26), the Eurailpass Saver and the Eurailpass Flexi Saver. The Inter-rail Pass is valid for 12 or 22 days for the first zone of travel and for one month for further zones. It allows unrestricted, second-class travel by train in 27 European countries, including the UK, Ireland and Morocco, and discounts of up to 50 per cent in the country where it’s purchased. The Inter-rail pass is better value than Eurailpasses and is available to those with their permanent residence in Europe (but must be purchased in your country of permanent residence). Comprehensive information about Inter-rail is available on its website .

Inter-rail and Eurail passes are valid on all RENFE trains, although supplements are payable on a Talgo or AVE (unless you’re resident in Spain) and sometimes on expreso and rápido trains or on rail bus services. Surcharges seem to be random and may depend on individual conductors. It’s advisable to reserve a ticket in advance, in return for which you receive a computer-printed ticket that usually satisfies conductors. Note that international rail passes aren’t valid on Spain’s private railway lines, such as those operated by Ferrocarriles de Via Estrecha (FEVE). Free Eurail/Inter-rail timetables and a wide range of brochures and maps are available from offices selling passes.

A Eurodomino pass allows unlimited first or second class travel for three, four, five, six, seven or eight consecutive days’ travel on trains within Europe, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Spanish residents cannot use Eurodomino for travel in Spain. Travellers who aren’t resident in Europe can buy the Eurail Spain Pass and Eurail Spain and Portugal Pass, which allow unlimited travel within Spain or within Spain and Portugal for between three and ten days. You can buy the passes at authorised travel agents abroad or at main line RENFE stations. Further information is available on the RENFE website ( ) under Viajes internacionales.

An excellent book for European travellers is Europe by Train by Katie Wood (Robson Books). It covers accommodation, visas, food, sights, customs and even the idiosyncrasies of local transport. Europe by Eurail by Laverne Ferguson (Globe Pequot Press) provides tips on planning a European tour using a Eurailpass and other passes, making day trips from selected base cities. The European Rail Guide website also provides comprehensive information ( Thomas Cook publish a wide range of books, guides and maps for train travellers. These include a European Rail Timetable, which is much more than a collection of train times and contains information on shipping services, customs regulations, visa requirements and town plans. Thomas Cook Publications publish a number of other useful maps and timetables for European and world travellers, including a    Rail Map of Europe. All publications are available direct from Thomas Cook Publishing, PO Box 227, Peterborough PE3 8SB, UK (01733-416177).

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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