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Trip Report Spain (Practical) Trip Report

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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...


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