A vacation in Spain certainly is not like living here but it’s the closest you can get. The trick is to see beyond the fiesta y siesta ideas here and truly dive deep in the day-to-day culture. Instead of running around frantically with a must-see list try exploring the narrow cobblestone streets, following the sound of flamenco cries, or following your nose to garlic sauteing in olive oil at one of the many …many bars.
Before you make your way to the land of siesta, tapas, and seemingly never ending streams of wine, it’s a good idea to brush up on the things you should know. Here, I’ll cover information about getting your visa, insurance, what to pack, and a few other tips and handy things to know.
U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter Spain for stays up to 90 days. You do need your passport and I’d make a copy or two just in case it gets stolen. Make sure your visa won’t expire before you plan on returning home too! Also, bring your government issued ID and/or drivers license with you too in case you plan on renting a car. You can also get an international driving permit from any AAA office in the USA for only $15. If you do need a visa (if you plan on staying longer than 90 days) you’ll have to figure out which type you’ll need. I’ve only ever applied for student visas and if you will be using the Chicago consulate I wrote about all the steps and information here. This was written about a year ago so check the consular services website of the consulate. Also, depending on your state you could have a different consulate so hit up the Google search bar to find out your correct location. I’d also check out travel.state.gov and check yourself in to the online data base for global travelers just in case something were to happen.
Your credit card will work here in Spain but just make sure you notify your card companies about your travel plans. I have both Wells Fargo and Capital One and they have handy links on their websites to put in when and where you’ll be traveling and for how long. It takes a good 10 minutes but it’ll save you headaches later. Also, be aware that when you use a card in Spain 9 times out of 10 they will ask for your ID. Your drivers license should work fine but keep a copy of your passport just in case. My credit cards do not have international fees but my debit card does so just check with your bank to see what your rates are.
Most medical policies in the USA will cover emergencies in other countries but talk to yours and make sure that it does. You might get an option to select a medical insurance plan when you book your flights or if you travel through a travel company. If you find yourself without insurance before your trip check out Travel Guard, Worldwide Insure, or Travel Insure which are all major companies that offer medical and travel insurance. Travel insurance is very helpful in case you lose your luggage, any changes to your flight happens, or theft/loss.
If you bring any electronics make sure that the charger can handle 220 voltage and get yourself a European converter. I bought a two pack on Amazon for about $6 and they work great! If you’re all the way over here already you can pop into a hardware store and pick one up for about 2 euros.
Spain is a part of the European Union and therefore uses the euro. They come in 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 euro notes//bills; 1, 2 euro coins; and also in .50, .20, .10, .05, .02, and .01 cents. It’s a lot and your wallet will definitely feel a lot heavier but don’t mistake your 2 euro coin for chump change. You can get your bills exchanged for euros at any bank, at the airport, and at various shops here in Spain but your best bet is to just withdraw your money from an ATM. You will pay a little fee of course so just check with your bank to see just how much it’d cost but I found that it was much easier going that route. If you don’t speak Spanish the ATM’s give you the option for English as well. Even though we use our card for almost everything in the US even the five dollar freaking coffee, Starbucks I’m looking at you, it hasn’t really adopted yet in Spain. People prefer you pay in cash or coins so be sure you always carry some bills with you. You’re not going to want to whip out your card for a 1,60 euro coffee and an .80 cent croissant anyway.
In big cities all over the world pick-pocketing is inevitable but in cities like Madrid or Barcelona it’s unfortunately very common. I like to keep my bills and cards in the inside zipper of my purse where it might be a little harder to dig for and when I walk through heavy crowds (like in puerta del sol or el rastro in Madrid) I always keep my hand on my purse. Do not carry your cell phone or valuables in your pocket and don’t put them on the table either. My friend in Madrid told me that she had her iPhone on the table while she was at a restaurant and a little kid came and stole it but no one could do anything because a child had committed the crime and there’s some law that prevents adults from grabbing kids. I’m not 100% sure about this law and what it actually entails but better be safe than sorry. Keep that device in your bag. Be wary of some of the “gypsies” that roam this part of Europe too. I absolutely think stereotyping is unfortunate but by the stories I’ve heard from people and the things that I’ve personally seen have got me a little nervous. I of course do not mean that every single “gypsy” is like this. If you do have an open mind…or you grab the sprig of rosemary they force upon you just smile and listen to what they have to say then give a little tip to them. They don’t expect much so one euro would be sufficient.
Speaking of tipping here’s something great about Spain; tipping is not expected nor required. In restaurants and bars, a small fee is included in the prices (I.V.A) In fact, during my first few times getting a coffee in Madrid, my coffee ended up being 1,30. I only had 1,50 so I gave it to the man as a tip and prepared to leave but he stopped me saying (in broken English) lady you forgot money! I laughed and said “no it’s for you” and he gave me a weird look and shrugged his shoulders. That happened to me three times. You obviously can and should leave a tip if it’s exceptionally great service as a way to say thank you because that doesn’t usually happen too often here. (More on that later). Usually in a taxi I’ll just round up to the nearest euro and give that as a tip.
I believe that all major cities should have access to public transportation. My little town of 10,000 people definitely didn’t need a public bus system but I’m so surprised that more cities in America don’t offer more trains or buses. It could have changed since I have been there but last time I checked the two trains that we had in Minneapolis, Minnesota was basically only an “x” figure and it’s a huge city. Not to mention that it’s basically connected to all the suburbs around so I think they should add more tracks to fully cover that area. Also, it would be nice to have trains to other big cities in the state and more to connect it with other states. That all being said, Spain’s transportation system is awesome. At least for me. I think that the metro, the buses, and the trains are very easy to figure out and there is always someone to help you. The metro in Madrid has their own app on all smartphones and the bus companies have them too. You can easily find public transportation from Vigo all the way down to Alicante effortlessly. Also, there are many cities that have their own airports and all cities are within an hour flight from Madrid.
Hopefully you find this post helpful and if you’re more curious about how to prep for the cultural differences check out the latest post from one of my good friends in Madrid Finding Bridget! She has laid out the main characteristics of Spanish culture and it’s a good idea to get familiar before your trip!