After my trip to Spain in May there were several things I’m glad I did, and a few things I wish I would have known. So I’m going to share them all with you so when you travel to Spain, you can be fully prepared!
15 TRAVEL TIPS BEFORE YOUR TRIP TO SPAIN
1 // Get a SIM card for your phone to use data.
Getting a SIM card was so easy and NECESSARY, for me at least. We used my phone to navigate everywhere the entire 16-day trip. Then I could also look things up while we were out and about, and yes use Instagram, Snapchat, and check my email. But I would say I primarily used my data for navigating, looking things up like restaurants and when things were open, and taking photos.
The first phone store we stumbled upon was Orange. One of Spain’s biggest phone companies. I asked them if they had locations in all the cities I was visiting, they said yes, so I knew it would be a good fit. It took about 20 minutes to get an account. They will take the SIM card out of your phone (give it to you as you will need it when you get home) and put a new one in. Everything on your phone stays the same (apps and such) except you now have a Spanish phone number for calling and texting. You can give it to friends back home, or just use iMessage, email, and wifi for communication. Or just not talk to anyone at home.
It cost $20 for a phone, text, and data plan, although I didn’t care about the phone and text. I would use wifi whenever I could, but we used my phone for navigating the entire trip and I only had to go back to an Orange store one time to buy more data, which cost $10. I’m pretty sure that $30 for two weeks of data is cheaper than any international plan with a US wireless company.
When we got back to the airport in the US, I just walked into a phone/tech store at the airport and asked them if they could put my SIM card back in. Super easy.
2 // Exchange money at a bank.
The day we arrived in Spain was a national holiday, so the banks were closed. The concierge at the hotel was nice enough to tell me that the rates at the banks are always the cheapest for exchanging money. The hotel had the highest rate, so he recommended only exchanging a little bit of cash at an exchange store and going to the bank the next day.
3 // Bring a few snacks with you.
The Spaniards eat at different times than we do here in the U.S. Half of the time we were starving and not much was open, so I recommend bringing a few granola bars or nuts or something with you so you have some snacks on hand for those times you get desperate. We only brought a few snacks and we ate every morsel of them.
4 // Research breakfast spots.
It’s hard to find what we consider a normal healthy breakfast in Spain. I never once saw an açaí bowl or a smoothie place. Breakfast was always bread with a tomato spread or some sort of pastry. Most of the hotels will serve a more American style buffet, but it’s really expensive. Usually $25 minimum per person. So if you are a breakfast person — especially if you want something healthy — I recommend doing some research in advance to find some places to go.
5 // Know your terminal.
If you got to the bottom of my trip recap post, you might have read this already, but when you are flying out of Madrid (and probably any international airport for that matter) make sure you know your terminal before you go. We didn’t realize that the terminal we flew in and out of was a few miles away from the rest of the airport. So when our cab driver asked us which terminal we needed to go to we were like ummmmm…
In the US there are signs before you get to the airport that say which terminal has which airlines, and which one is international. This is not the case in Madrid, and we easily could have missed our flight because of it. My phone was fresh out of data, so it took 15 minutes on my phone before I could pull up the American Airlines site to see what terminal our flight was leaving from. We figured it out as we were pulling up to the other terminals, and then had to drive another 5-10 minutes to the right terminal.
6 // Pack layers.
Our trip was in May, and the temperature in Madrid and Barcelona was much colder than it was in the south of Spain. The south was beach weather and in Barcelona I was wearing long sleeves half of the time. So if you are traveling around the country, I recommend layers!
7 // Plan out your trip.
I highly recommend doing research, planning things out, and having a list of options of recommended places to go before you leave on your trip. Especially if your Spanish isn’t good or you get severe jet lag and will be tired the first few days. I don’t like spending time while on my trip trying to figure out where to go, I’d rather use every moment of my trip actually going to all those places. I had a huge list of recommendations for each city we visited (thanks to all of you and some of my friends!), however, I didn’t have time to organize it by neighborhood and I do wish I would have done that. Probably would have saved a little data on my phone and a little frustration, but overall I did enough research to make everything go pretty smoothly. We only had one or two bad meals when we were desperate for food and didn’t go to a recommended spot.
8 // Use Google Translate.
Even though I speak pretty good Spanish, I haven’t done it in a while, so when they talk fast or in slang or words I didn’t know, it can be hard to understand. Anytime I needed a little help I would use the Google Translate app. I could either look up what I wanted to say, or type it in in English and show the Spanish translation to the person I was talking to.
9 // Cheap train tickets are fine.
I read on a few blogs that the Renfe website (main train company in Spain) was a little wonky, and several bloggers recommended Loco2 when booking train tickets. I used them and it was so much easier! I also read about the different classes on a train. We bought the cheap tickets (in advance) and they were totally fine. Unless you are going really far, there’s no need to spring for the first class tickets if you are looking ways to save money.
10 // Take time for rest days.
Since I had never been to Spain, I wanted to maximize what I was going to see while there. The only problem with that is that you become exhausted! I knew we were going to need a few days to recharge, but I could have used at least one more day of rest in the middle of the trip. We had one full lazy day at the pool at the W in Barcelona, another lazy day at our resort in southern Spain, and one more half day of beach time. But when you are walking anywhere from 5-10 miles a day and your brain is exploding with inspiration, rest is a good thing.
11 // Tipping isn’t required, but is appreciated.
Tipping is something that is just starting in Spain. It’s not expected, but sometimes there is a service fee already on your bill so make sure to check so you don’t double tip if you are tipping. If the service was good, we would sometimes tip around 10% where in the US we always tip around 20% unless the service is awful.
12 // Food service is completely different.
Eating in Spain is entirely different than in the US. Do not expect your waiter/waitress to be constantly checking on you. One thing I didn’t catch on to for a few days was that when they take your food order, they also ask you if you want another drink, but typically you just got your first drink. In the US you would usually wait until you were almost done with your first one to order another. In Spain, if you know you are going to want more than one drink, order it when you have the opportunity. Chances are the waiter isn’t coming back anytime soon to check on you, your food, or if you want another drink.
There were many occasions where I would have liked another drink but I never had the opportunity to order it. Half of the time your waiter doesn’t deliver your food, and you barely see them. There’s never a rush for you to leave, and you always have to ask for the check if you can flag down your waiter at some point.
While not having any pressure to leave so they can turn the table and not having an annoying waiter asking you how your food is a million times is nice, I much prefer the American style of service. I missed the ability to get a condiment or another drink when I wanted one and not spending half of my meal trying to flag down a waiter. I didn’t feel the need to tip much because the service was just so different. If you aren’t used to it you would probably say it was bad, but it’s just how they do things there. It’s not bad service to them because they aren’t working for tips.
13 // Book tickets in advance online for large attractions.
I recommend booking tickets to big attractions online so you can skip the lines as those lines can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. Places like the Sagrada Familia or the Prado — it would have been helpful to book those online in advance and save ourselves a few hours. People will start lining up well in advance of the opening, so don’t think you can get there right when it opens and get right in.
14 // Don’t overpack.
If you are going to multiple cities, even though I recommend taking layers, don’t overpack like I did. Dragging multiple suitcases around is annoying. If you can do one roller bag and one additional bag (tote or backpack) I think that is the best way to go. It will save you time repacking when you go from place to place, and is much more manageable.
15 // Bring a few travel adapters.
In Spain you will need the two-prong version like this. If you have a computer charger, you will most likely need one that has the 3-prong plugin so check for that. I always like to have several adapters with me — one for my computer/phone/camera gear, and one in the bathroom for hair tools. I hate only having one adapter and moving it from room to room.
Hope you found these tips helpful for your next trip to Spain!
If you have any additional tips, I’d love to hear them. Leave them in the comments for me!
Photo of the Alcazar in Seville by Meg Biram