From the Basques in the north to the Andalucians in the south to the Catalans in the east, Spain is an exciting mishmash of customs, colors, and languages. Add in the Moorish influence from northern Africa, and you’ve got a recipe for a fascinating place with no shortage of things to explore. If you are planning a visit to Spain, here are some tips to help you focus less on logistics and more on savoring everything this beautiful country has to offer.
You will spend a lot of time on a train
Spain is the second largest country in Europe (after France), and much of it is very rural. That means that metropolitan areas are pretty far from each other, and if you are relying on train transportation as we did, you will spend a lot of time on the rails. Trips between major cities can take ten hours or longer. Thankfully, the trains are clean and comfortable, but you’ll definitely want to bring something to entertain yourself—a book, a journal, games to play with your travel companions, etc.
Another option to consider is taking a night train so you can do your traveling while you sleep. The price tag can seem high, but when you consider that it’s both a travel expense and accommodations for the night, it feels much more reasonable. Leslie and I took a night train from Lisbon to Madrid, which saved us an entire day of travel. Night trains aren’t available on all routes, but it’s worth looking into.
[box title=”Bonus Tip” border_width=”2″ border_color=”#dd3333″ border_style=”solid” icon=”star” icon_style=”bg” icon_shape=”circle” align=”center”]If you don’t speak Spanish, be sure to book your train tickets before you arrive in Spain. The Renfe website has a built in translator that lets you read it in English, but if it detects that you are in Spain, it will default back to Spanish every time the page loads. Ordering tickets is a multi-step process, so this constant battle can get old quickly. [/box]
Apartments can be cheaper than hostels
Accommodation in Spain is remarkably affordable—so affordable, in fact, that in Madrid, we were able to rent a private apartment with a washer and dryer for less than we could get two beds in a hostel. We really enjoyed staying at hostels for most of our trip, but it was also nice to have more privacy every once in a while. And there’s something about staying in an actual home that makes you feel more like you’re actually immersing yourself in the every day life of the place you’re visiting.
The subways are hot, but full of fun buskers
Leslie and I visited Spain in late September, and the weather was mostly perfect. But when we descended down into the bowels of the metro system, it was ridiculously hot. Bringing a folding fan might seem like a silly tip, but trust me: you’ll want it.
But the nice thing is, the metro also has a lot of very entertaining buskers. On one trip, a man with an orgamonica jumped onto our subway and played “Hit the Road, Jack!” At least, that’s what we think he was singing. We couldn’t understand most of the lyrics through our giggles. So while you may sweat to death on the subway through Hades, at least you’ll enter the afterlife with a smile.
The Orgamonica Player
Get the Combo Ticket
This tip comes courtesy of a friendly subway staffer in Barcelona, who told us that we could buy a combination ticket for 10 rides, and use it for both of us. Individual tickets cost €2.15, but the T-10 card cost €9.95. We could send one of us through the turnstile first, then pass it back over the gate to the second traveler to use a second time.
The ticket prices were a little different in Madrid and the savings weren’t quite as significant there—but when you’re traveling on a budget, every penny counts, right?
Get a Ride to the Top
Spain has lots of mountains. While Madrid was relatively flat, both Granada and Barcelona were very hilly, and the main attractions we were interested in (Alhambra and Parc Guell) were both at the top of very tall, very steep hills. Hitching a ride on a bus to Alhambra and taking the outdoor escalators up to Parc Guell will let you save your energy for exploring—and I guarantee that you’ll still get your steps in even without hoofing it up the hills.
No street signs
One thing that most Mediterranean countries appear to have in common is that they don’t seem to believe in street signs. This was especially true in Spain, where relying on street signs to get you anywhere was downright futile. Make sure you have a detailed map, and get ready to count streets as you walk around.
No wifi anywhere
Many of the countries we visited had free wifi hot spots at train stations and restaurants. Not so with Spain. If you don’t have a phone with a SIM card for Spain, you’ll definitely want to save anything to your phone that you might need access to while you’re out and about.
Get your tickets in advance
Spain has some spectacular attractions, and people come from all over the world to gawk at them. That means that tickets tend to go quickly, and if you don’t book in advance, there is a very high chance that you won’t get it. We felt so bad for the group in line ahead of us at Alhambra that didn’t know you had to get tickets early, and we missed out on getting into Sagrada Familia because we hadn’t booked in advance. We just barely managed to get tickets to Parc Guell. If you are interested in any of the big attractions in the country, definitely definitely definitely get your tickets before you arrive, and make sure you can get there within your assigned time slot. Even if you have tickets, if you arrive late, they won’t let you in.
Don’t take any “free” gifts
In Paris, we were accosted by a gang of young men who tried to tie “friendship bracelets” onto our wrists for “free”. Thankfully, we had heard about this scam before our trip, and knew that this “gift” was a scam: once the string was on your wrist, they’d demand payment. While we didn’t run into an friendship bracelet weavers in Madrid, we did encounter a lot of sweet old women who wanted to “give” us flowers for our favorite saints. If anyone offers you anything for free, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s a scam. Even people who approach you to offer directions usually want payment for their services.
Look out the window
Spain is a gorgeous country. Like I mentioned at the beginning, you might spend a lot of time on a train. Don’t be so absorbed in the entertainment you bring for yourself that you miss out on this chance to enjoy the Spanish countryside without having to keep your eyes on the road.
And I learned about half way into our trip that hostel windows often provided incredible views of our host cities. It’s so easy to come back after a day adventuring and just crash on your bed, but don’t miss an opportunity to admire the landscape and breathe for a minute or two. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Have you been to Spain? What advice would you give to fellow travelers?