Spain (Practical) Trip Report

Sep 14th, 2014, 07:19 PM
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Spain (Practical) Trip Report

Back from 3 weeks in Spain with a report that's more geared as a practical one for anybody who's heading there for the first time...

1. Madrid airport: It's huge and spans over a large area. Terminal 4, where most intl. flights land, is particularly spread out; arriving travelers will need to walk a lot, and then take a commuter train to the other part of the Terminal (4S) to pick up their luggage.

2. Phone: SIM cards are available everywhere and inexpensive. They say the best is from MoviStar as it has the best coverage (which may be more crucial if one plans to drive out of the big cities), though I was told it's also more expensive. We had Orange, but not the best coverage. We bought 1 GB of data for 10 Euros, which was plenty, as long as I was careful not to download video clips, and turned off apps that use data extensively.

3. Stay in Touch: While still at home, allow yourself some time and learn the subject: Things have been changing lately.... There's a great app called "Google Voice" that needs to have "Hangouts" (another app from Google) added. You obtain a local, US number and once abroad, no matter where you are, you can call home FREE (and your friends and family will make a local call to you)... There are quite a few apps that pretend to do the job, one of them claims to be part of Google (Mo+ but really it is not!), and after an extensive search I found this one to really do the job. While you are "on the road" people calling you might need to leave you a message. Once you're back at your hotel, or in a Wi-Fi environment — you'll get the message and be calling them. It really made life quite easy.

4. Wi-Fi: Or as they pronounce it "WeeFee". It was free in all the hotels and B&B's we stayed at, but the reception was very spotty. Most restaurants offer it, but their passwords were so long it was impossible to follow. This was where having 1 GB of data for 10 Euros came in handy, turning out to be a great buy.

5. Driving in Spain: Not sure about the South. We were driving from Madrid up north and the coastal towns and villages along the Atlantic. Roads are excellent, well-maintained, and with good signage (even if one speaks no Spanish). Even the small, narrow winding roads were very good and very safe, safer than the narrow roads we rode in the mountains of Provence, France, 3 years ago, I must say...

6. English: Spaniards, especially in the small towns and villages, do not feel obligated to recognize English as the international language... Very few of them knew any English and some of them were communicating to us something to the effect of "this is Spain here" using hand-language to make it clear... Of course, the youngsters were more familiar with it. I got a couple translating apps for my iPhone that were VERY helpful, best was "Google Translate" which allowed me to type or record the word or full sentence in English — and it would translate it to Spanish (or Basque, or Catalan, they are NOT the same!) and allow me to LISTEN TO THE RECORDING, or even let the local guy at the store listen to it, which, of course would bring a big smile to his face and make him very cooperative... At one restaurant I let a waiter record his message to my phone so I could translate it to English, he was very friendly thruout the rest of the evening...

7. Train: The most popular train in Spain connects between Madrid and Barcelona and it also costs quite a lot... I changed my original plan and reserved a Barcelona-Valencia-Madrid train (spending 2 nights in beautiful Valencia), and saved quite a lot of money. Those super-fast trains travel at up to 200 mph (the speed is showing on the digital board on the car's wall), and they are very nice, clean and smooth. Due to the 2004 terror attacks on Madrid's trains, security is taken more seriously in Spain and any purse, bag or luggage must be scanned before boarding the train, which means one needs be at the gate 20-30 minutes before departure (for the popular Madrid-Barcelona train one might need to be there earlier, not sure).

8. Metro: Both in Barcelona and Madrid the metro covers the cities very well, and they are very clean and efficient. The only thing one needs to be careful about, especially in Barcelona -- are pickpockets.

9. Pickpockets: We were stuck in a Barcelona metro next to 2 gentlemen who were looking suspiciously at us (never in our eyes, but instead "scanning" our belt area), and later we were told by locals that they were in fact professional pickpockets. They usually go into the more crowded cars, position themselves near the doors, and jump out with one's wallet just as the doors are closing... As long as one is aware of the problem and knowledgable (lots can be read on this site and elsewhere), one should feel safe.

10. Uber: We like using Uber (currently the best alternative to taxi cabs) in the USA. We used it extensively in Barcelona, where Uber is still relatively new and not very known to the locals, but was always available when needed it anywhere around the city. An average 10-minute ride would cost us about $10. Surprisingly, Madrid still has no Uber, at least as of Sept. 2014...

11. Paying w/CC: When paying with Visa or MC (most would not take AMEX) one can usually elect to pay in Euros or US$. My bank (Capital One) does not charge foreign transaction fees, so I was adamant on being charged in Euros, since our bank's exchange rate was always a lot better than what the locals would offer. As far as those "chipped CC" that the Europeans are used to, again, Capital One has none to offer, but in 95% of the time our Visa was accepted, sometimes they would ask for our pin number to which I would say no (I don't have one), sometimes we would be asked to show an ID, to which I responded with showing my US driver license...

12. Tips: Surprisingly, unlike the US, they don't expect tips in Spain. The bill that the waiter would bring at the end of a meal would never have an extra line for adding the tip... In some cases when the service was exceptionally good we would leave an extra couple of Euros on the table.

13. Prices: Spain, like most (or all?) of Europe is expensive, quite more than the US. Especially when looking to fill one's stomach, not even at a fancy restaurant... A simple lunch for two could cost us $40 or more...

14. Food: Spain (at least Madrid-Barcelona and the North), is all about: seafood, Tuna, Anchovy, cheese, ham (very little chicken, but they've never heard of Turkey as a bird or meat...), eggs, olive oil, wine, orange juice, and yes, bread, lots of superb, crusty bread... On Spanish cuisine, and the wonderful Spanish restaurants and bars that are part of the local culture, one can read about elsewhere. But a great solution for a cheap yet tasty meal on-the-go is the so popular Spanish sandwich (Bocadillos), which is mostly ham and cheese inside a wonderful French-style baguette. Spaniards also love sweets and their pastries are heaven on earth, while their coffee is a blessing to humanity. As a tourist you'll NEVER go hungry in Spain!

15. What to buy: Nothing... Too expensive. OK, the only good buy in Spain would be leather goods; mostly jackets, which are considerably less than in the US, handbags and maybe shoes (there's an area in Madrid that offers "really cheap shoes," which were cheap, but when I checked closely — they were all made in China...). We love leather goods, and so we found a store in Madrid just around Puerta de Toledo (I don't think I'm allowed to post the name of the store here), that's popular among the locals... We bought a jacket and 2 shearling coats and got a really great deal (yes, we negotiated a little bit...).

16. A/C: Like in most of Europe, this one is not as obvious as in the US... Many large public places like airports and train stations have no A/C, and so do many of the smaller stores and even some restaurants... When planning a trip in the Summer, it's always a good idea to double-check whether the place you plan to sleep in has A/C...

mamamia2 is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 08:59 PM
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Heading to Spain early October. Thank you for all the excellent information.
violetduck is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 08:59 PM
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" Spaniards, especially in small towns and villages,, do not feel obligated to to recognize English as the international language..."


how about visitors learning a bit of the language of the host country .
danon is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 09:43 PM
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Danon, true, when we first entered places like a restaurant or a gas station up North my first question to the guy was "English?" to which he responded with "no, España!" pointing down with his finger. Then I started using some greetings and phrases I learned in advance... Yes, the locals were more cooperative.
mamamia2 is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 10:25 PM
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Damon beat me to it, it is a bit arrogant to think that people in another country should speak your language. As you found out the Spanish are quite gracious when a visitor tries to speak their language. You leave, it is still there home.

You also create a number of straw men.

You are surprised about their custom of tipping. Even Rick Steve's covers this. Anyone who has been out of the country knows that tipping customs vary substantially.

As far as the cuisine is concerned chicken is commonly found throughout the country, but you are right turkey (pavo)and duck (pato) are rarely found. And pork products are also very common, though the style and preparation can vary from region to region. But then again there are many Spanish foods that are rarely found in the US including the ubiquitous tortilla española and pata negra. I am not sure why you think Spain should mimic Ameican cusine. A cheap way to eat is to have tapas where in the cities there is an embarrassment of variety.

As far as finding cheap this or that, it is often a matter of not being familiar with a city. Most visitors find NY very expensive because basically they stay in tourist areas. NY'ers know how to find all sorts of bargains. The same is true in Spain.
IMDonehere is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 10:56 PM
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Surely the rantings of a novice traveler, although she said she had been in France a few years ago, where very few French in the countryside will speak English unless you tell they your French skills are rather limited. No different than in Spain.

Since the op was traveling in the north (Basque country, Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia) she would have seldom encountered Castilian Spanish, especially in the País Vasco.
Robert2533 is offline  
Sep 14th, 2014, 11:00 PM
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#6 - this is true of any place. People in villages don't have the opportunity to practice foreign languages and don't have the need to speak them.

#12 - I don't know of any place in Europe where tips are common. Before I knew this I tried to tip a bartender in England. He asked what the money was for and told me that if people tipped they wouldn't have as much money for drinks!

In some places tips are expected as the waitstaff is used to some foreigners tipping and have accepted it as the norm for certain cultures.

#13 - it's hard to believe that you think Spain is expensive when you live in Chicago. I thought Barcelona was more expensive than I thought it would be but not more than NYC prices. I never paid E40 for 2 people for lunch in Barcelona. I thought E10 to E12 (per person) was too much. I would have walked away from an E40 lunch restaurant/bar.

Prices in many European countries are very inexpensive when compared to the US.

#16 - that's why I don't travel to Europe in the summer.
adrienne is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 12:15 AM
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I am joining this thread in light of mamamia's apparent intent to educate future travelers. I appreciate the effort to share these insights, but feel compelled to note that ALL of these things would have been covered in even a lousy guidebook. You could have saved yourself time, energy, and money by investing in a good guidebook or two as you planned your trip, and since guidebooks can be consulted at libraries, you probably could have learned all of these things without spending a penny. Thanks for your report, mamamia, but let it be a tribute to the value of guidebooks!
kja is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 12:37 AM
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I will comment on Uber: Please do not use it in Spain.
There have been many protests by the local taxi industry. You never know if the person is uninsured to drive a uber taxi service. Car insurance laws do not normally allow paying passengers.
This is what could happen if you use a uber service taxi.
ribeirasacra is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 12:54 AM
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***** but they've never heard of Turkey***
Maybe you should have used the word Pavo.
Here is some in a jar:
and look at the 5th photo down the page:
"Ensalada de pollo crocante y bacon (3 uds). 9 €."
ribeirasacra is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 02:14 AM
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"Spaniards, especially in the small towns and villages, do not feel obligated to recognize English as the international language."

Because English absolutely isn't.

Not just in the 85% of the world that doesn't have incomes over $10,000 per head (try telling a Chinese market stallholder, even in HK, she should recognise English as the international language).

I'm writing this above a major NW Italian lake. Menus etc are universally in Italian and German, and rarely anything else: casual encounters assume, if they think I don't understand Italian, that German is my language. We still find French is the language to use in parts of Romania when our Romanian doesn't run to a specific problem. In parts of Finland, Mrs F has found understanding a bit of Swedish essential if you don't know Finnish.

An astonishingly high number of Spaniards - especially those speaking Castilian - are as limited in their understanding of any foreign language as most Italians under 50. But those monolingual Spaniards - correctly - see no point in understanding foreign languages when theirs is exceeded only by Mandarin as the world's most spoken language.

Oddly, Spaniards don't write patronising gibberish about how Americans don't recognise Spanish as the world's major international language.
flanneruk is online now  
Sep 15th, 2014, 03:38 AM
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You certainly CAN post the name of the store here! That's always helpful and appreciated.

What people are not to allowed to do is to promote their business. Sharing recommended stores, restaurants, hotels and other services helps other travelers on these boards!
progol is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 05:28 AM
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see no point in understanding foreign languages when theirs is exceeded only by Mandarin as the world's most spoken language.


While this is statistically correct, it is misleading for the sake of this argument. Mandarin is generally limited to China, Singapore and Taiwan, while Spanish and English, are of course, spoken in numerous countries and are the official and unofficial languages of many countries. In fact in the all important business center of Hong Kong, Cantonese and English are the official languages by law.
IMDonehere is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 06:40 AM
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Totally agree with everyone else, especially kja. Look up "tipping" in your guidebook before arriving (or slog through one of the many (!) threads here). And use the language section (if it doesn't have one you have the wrong guidebook) for hello/goodbye, please/thankyou, yes/no, excuse me, do you speak English.

But the language issue is also a matter of manners, which are more formal in Europe, especially Spain and France, than in the US. Walking into a shop or restaurant and just saying "English" is rude. Flat out rude. And even in the US - how do you think someone walking into a (non-Spanish or Central/South American) restaurant in New York or Washington and barking out "Espanol?" would be treated?
thursdaysd is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 08:27 AM
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When we visited Bilbao and San Sebastian, everyone we had contact with spoke Castillian...
(perhaps because they are tourist centers.)

I visited New York with a French speaker who tired to use it - just as an experiment.
The only person able to converse with him was a taxi driver originally from Haiti.
danon is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 09:17 AM
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Hang in there mamamia2-you sure have aroused the ire of some posters.I am sure however there are people who will appreciate your attempt to share your observations!
chapla is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 09:36 AM
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Great tips.
Taltul is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 09:39 AM
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Reports are always appreciated, but some attitudes do get the posters " going".

Perhaps, some of us who speak other languages and travel often have learned that no one
is "obligated " to speak English .
danon is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 09:58 AM
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I've also heard French and German tourists complaining that no one understood English in Spain; it's not only Americans and Brits who expect it to be considered the international language. My Italian husband certainly expected to be able to use his limited English there and was surprised that it was so little understood.

We also thought that perhaps Spaniards would understand Italian if we spoke slowly and carefully, but that didn't fly at all. We got nothing by blank stares. Most Italians can understand Spanish fairly well. We once took a Spanish language tour in Rome, when there weren't enough people at a catacomb to form an Italian language group, and we really understood about 90% of it. (I studied Spanish in my youth, which helped.) The first time I ever visited Italy, I got by fairly well with English and Spanish. I've also known Spaniards who studied in Italy and said that nearly everyone understood them when they spoke Spanish. I don't really understand why it works in one direction and not in the other.

The first time I visited Spain, in 1986, I still spoke Spanish fairly well. I remember meeting a dual French-American citizen who was trying to get home to France because of a family emergency. He was complaining that no one understood either English or French, both of which he considered international languages.

I tried my best to speak Spanish on this more recent trip, but it's been years since I've used it, and by now the Spanish neurons in my brain have been overlaid with a thick layer of Italian. We really had more difficulty communicating there than in any other European country we've visited. We could usually understand them, but they almost never understood us.

I remember in one hotel there was a misunderstanding. The man at the desk thought we were trying to check in and we couldn't get him to understand that we had checked in earlier in the day and just wanted the key to our room. We tried "key", "chiave", and even "clave", on the theory that it was a little closer to Latin. (The letter l in other Romance languages usually becomes i in Italian.) Nothing doing. He finally called his daughter on the phone, and asked us to explain the problem to her, and then she explained it to him.
bvlenci is offline  
Sep 15th, 2014, 12:20 PM
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I was planning to respond but once I bumped into this "Surely the rantings of a novice traveler" I decided fuggedaboutit, just not worth it.

Progol, the name of the leather coat store I mentioned above is Chollopiel (
mamamia2 is offline  

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