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Iberia: Still the best for bargains

Blistering sunshine, long airport queues, crowded beaches... summer in Iberia isn't all it's cracked up to be.

But if you have school-age children or just crave a dose of intense heat, it's still far and away the best-value destination in Europe, especially if you opt for a self-catering holiday.

A new survey on vacation expenses shows that Spain and Portugal win hands down when it comes to the cost of food, drink and other essentials.

The 'Self-Catering on a Shoestring' report, carried out by European specialists Meon Villas and the Post Office in Britain, looked at the cost of 16 common supermarket purchases, including bread, eggs, milk, beer and suncream, and found that Majorca is the cheapest place to shop in Europe, followed by Portugal, the Costa Blanca and Corfu.

At the other end of the scale, your weekly shop in Crete, Tuscany and Cyprus will cost almost double.

Overall, Portugal emerged as the cheapest place in the world to take a holiday after a sharp fall in prices, followed by Spain, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

If you're thinking of going further afield this year, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Mexico are the best-value long-haul destinations to take a holiday in, while Australia, Hong Kong and Canada are the most expensive.

Unrest in the Arab world has led to a huge drop in the sale of holidays to Egypt and Tunisia, yet these countries, and places such as Turkey and Morocco, have all seen rising costs for tourists.

The cheapest place to take a city break is the Latvian capital Riga, famous for its cobbled streets and bustling nightlife. Along with Dublin and Copenhagen, its museums and art galleries also had the best prices, according to the survey.

If you still yearn for the traditional beach holiday and have no choice but to travel during high season, there are ways of keeping costs down and dodging the masses on the Med.

Consider a stay at one of Spain's magnificent state-run paradors, where prices have been slashed by almost half this summer.

If you're going to the Balearics, don't splash out on car hire for your entire stay but use the excellent local bus network instead, which reaches into some of the remotest villages, especially in Majorca

On that island, the train service from the capital Palma to the port of Soller is one of the prettiest train journeys in Europe.

Mainland Spain has shrunk in size due to the advent of high-speed rail. The newest AVE line, from Valencia to Madrid via Cuenca and Albacete, reaches dizzying speeds of 220mph. If you're staying on the Costa Blanca, a day trip to the capital can now be done in 90 minutes.

If Portugal is your number-one choice this year, head to the far west of the Algarve to the Martinhal Beach Resort (martinhal.com), near Sagres, the most talked-about place for a family holiday this year in that country. It has a good selection of self-catering villas and boutique hotels built around a village square with restaurants, bars, playgrounds and pools.

Travellers in search of a quieter holiday might head for the Alentejo's Vicentine coast, reached using the motorway west from Faro. Tall cliffs and long, sandy strands make for a relaxing base, unscarred by mass tourism.

The best beaches are in the villages of Almograve and Zambujeira do Mar. But get there fast -- it won't be long before the bulldozers move in.

Weekend Magazine