Spain conjures images of flamenco dancers, café-lined plazas, white hillside villages, and soaring cathedrals. Beyond these traditional associations, this modern country offers top-notch art museums, inventive cuisine, and exciting nightlife. From the Pyrenees to the coast, its landscapes and varied cultures are worth exploring. Especially enticing is the national insistence on enjoying everyday pleasures. The Spanish live life to its fullest whether they are strolling in the park, pausing for a siesta, lingering over lunch, or dancing until dawn.
Flying time from New York to Madrid is about seven hours; from London, it’s just over two hours.
Regular nonstop flights serve Spain from many major cities in the eastern United States; flying from other North American cities usually involves a stop. If you’re coming from North America and want to land in a city other than Madrid or Barcelona, consider flying a European carrier.
Most flights from North America land in, or pass through, Madrid’s Barajas Airport (MAD). The other major gateway is Barcelona’s Prat de Llobregat (BCN). From the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, regular flights also touch down in Málaga (AGP), Alicante (ALC), Palma de Mallorca (PMI), and many other smaller cities.
From North America, Air Europa flies to Madrid; American Airlines, part of the Oneworld Alliance, Iberia, and US Airways fly to Madrid and Barcelona; Delta flies direct to Barcelona, Madrid, and Malaga (June–September). Note that some of these airlines use shared facilities and do not operate their own flights. Within Spain, Iberia is the main domestic airline, but Air Europa flies most domestic routes at lower prices. The budget airline Vueling heavily promotes its Internet bookings, which are often the country’s cheapest domestic flight prices. The earlier before your travel date you purchase the ticket, the more bargains you’re likely to find. Air Europa also has flights from Spain to other destinations in Europe. Air Europa and Iberia Express also serve destinations within Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
Iberia runs a shuttle, the Puente Áereo, offering flights just over an hour long between Madrid and Barcelona, every 30 minutes (more often during peak travel times) 6:45 am–9:45 pm. You don’t need to reserve; you can buy your tickets at the airport ticket counter upon arriving or book online at www.iberia.com. Passengers can also use the self-service check-in counters to avoid the line. Puente Áereo departs from Terminal T1 in Barcelona; in Madrid, the shuttle departs from Terminal 4.
Taking bikes on Spanish intercity trains is restricted to overnight trains (bikes go under your bunk and must be packed in a special bike bag with the pedals off). Short-range daytime trains normally accept bicycles, although the conductor may decide that the train’s too crowded and bump you and your bike. The very expensive alternative is to courier them. Cycling on freeways is against the law. For bike rentals, contact local tourist offices or check with rural hotels; we list some in individual cities.
Regular car ferries connect the United Kingdom with northern Spain. Brittany Ferries sails from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander and Bilbao. Trasmediterránea and Balearia connect mainland Spain to the Balearic and Canary islands.
Direct ferries from Spain to Tangier leave daily from Tarifa on FRS and from Algeciras on Trasmediterránea. Otherwise, you can take your car either to Ceuta (via Algeciras, on Balearia) or Melilla (via Málaga, on Trasmediterránea)—two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast—and then move on to Morocco.
You can travel to Spain on modern buses (Eurolines/National Express, for example) from major European cities, including London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, and Prague. Although it may once have been the case that international bus travel was significantly cheaper than air travel, budget airlines have changed the equation. For perhaps a little more money and a large saving of travel hours, flying is increasingly the better option.
Within Spain, a number of private companies provides bus service, ranging from knee-crunchingly basic to luxurious. Fares are almost always lower than the corresponding train fares, and service covers more towns, though buses are less frequent on weekends. Smaller towns don’t usually have a central bus depot, so ask the tourist office where to wait for the bus. Spain’s major national long-haul bus line is ALSA.
Most of Spain’s larger companies have buses with comfortable seats and adequate legroom; on longer journeys (two hours or longer), a movie is shown on board, and earphones are provided. Except on smaller, regional lines, all buses have bathrooms on board; most long-haul buses also usually stop at least once every two to three hours for a snack and bathroom break. Smoking is prohibited onboard.
ALSA has four luxury classes in addition to its regular seating. Premium, available on limited routes from Madrid, includes a number of services such as à la carte meals and a private waiting room while Supra+ and Supra Economy include roomy leather seats and onboard meals. You also have the option of asientos individuales, individual seats (with no other seat on either side) that line one side of the bus. The last class is Eurobus, with a private waiting room, comfortable seats, and plenty of legroom. The Supra+ and Eurobus usually cost, respectively, up to one-third and one-fourth more than the regular seats.
If you plan to return to your initial destination, you can save by buying a round-trip ticket. Also, some of Spain’s smaller, regional bus lines offer multi-trip passes, which are worthwhile if you plan to move back and forth between two fixed destinations within the region. Generally, these tickets offer savings of 20% per journey; you can buy them at the station. The general rule for children is that if they occupy a seat, they pay full fare. Check the bus websites for ofertas (special offers).
At bus station ticket counters, most major credit cards (except American Express) are accepted. If you buy your ticket on the bus, it’s cash only. Big lines such as ALSA encourage online purchasing. Once your ticket is booked, there’s no need to go to the terminal sales desk—it’s simply a matter of showing up at the bus with your ticket number and ID. Smaller regional services increasingly provide online purchasing, but will often require that your ticket be picked up at the terminal sales desk.
During peak travel times (Easter, August, and Christmas), it’s a good idea to make a reservation at least a week in advance.
Alamo, Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz, and National (partnered in Spain with the Spanish agency Atesa) have branches at major Spanish airports and in large cities. Smaller, regional companies and wholesalers offer lower rates. The online outfit Pepe Car has been a big hit with travelers; in general, the earlier you book, the less you pay. Rates run as low as €15 per day, taxes included—but note that pickups at its center-city locations are considerably cheaper than at the airports. All agencies have a range of models, but virtually all cars in Spain have manual transmission. If you don’t want a stick shift, reserve weeks in advance and specify automatic transmission, then call to reconfirm your automatic car before you leave for Spain. Rates in Madrid begin at the equivalents of $45 per day and $135 per week for an economy car with air-conditioning, manual transmission, and unlimited mileage, including 21% tax. A small car is cheaper and prudent for the tiny roads and parking spaces in many parts of Spain.
Most rental agencies will not rent cars to drivers under 23.
Your own driver’s license is valid in Spain, but U.S. citizens are highly encouraged to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP may facilitate car rental and help you avoid traffic fines—it translates your state-issued driver’s license into 10 languages so officials can easily interpret the information on it. Permits are available from the American Automobile Association.
Driving is the best way to see Spain’s rural areas. The main cities are connected by a network of excellent four-lane divided highways (autovías and autopistas), which are designated by the letter A and have speed limits—depending on the area—of 80 kph (50 mph)–120 kph (75 mph). If the artery is a toll highway (peaje), it is designated AP. The letter N indicates a carretera nacional: a national or intercity route, with local traffic, which may have four or two lanes. Smaller towns and villages are connected by a network of secondary roads maintained by regional, provincial, and local governments, with an alphabet soup of different letter designations.
Spain’s network of roads and highways is essentially well maintained and well marked, but bears a lot of traffic, especially during the vacation season and long holiday weekends. Crackdown campaigns on speeding have reduced what used to be a ghastly annual death toll on the roads—but you still need to drive defensively. Be prepared, too, for heavy truck traffic on national routes, which, in the case of two-lane roads, can have you creeping along for hours.
Gas stations are plentiful, and most on major routes and in big cities are open 24 hours. On less-traveled routes, gas stations are usually open 7 am–11 pm. Most stations are self-service, although prices are the same as those at full-service stations. At night, however, you must pay before you fill up. Most pumps offer a choice of gas, including unleaded (gasolina sin plomo), high octane, and diesel, so be careful to pick the right one for your car. Prices vary little among stations and were at this writing €1.10 per liter for unleaded. A good site to monitor prices is www.energy.eu. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Parking is, almost without exception, a nightmare in Spanish cities. Don’t park where the curb is painted yellow or where there is a yellow line painted a few inches from the curb. “No parking” signs are also fairly easy to recognize.
In most cities, there are street-parking spaces marked by blue lines. Look for a nearby machine with a blue-and-white “P” sign to purchase a parking ticket, which you leave inside your car, on the dashboard, before you lock up. Sometimes an attendant will be nearby to answer questions. Parking time limits, fees, and fines vary. Parking lots are available, often underground, but spaces are at a premium. The rule of thumb is to leave your car at your hotel unless absolutely necessary.
Spain’s highway system includes some 6,000 km (3,600 miles) of well-maintained superhighways. Still, you’ll find some stretches of major national highways that are only two lanes wide, where traffic often backs up behind trucks. Autopista tolls are steep, but as a result these highways are often less crowded than the free ones. If you’re driving down through Catalonia, be aware that there are more tolls here than anywhere else in Spain. This can result in a quicker journey but at a sizable cost. If you spring for the autopistas, you’ll find that many of the rest stops are nicely landscaped and have cafeterias with decent but overpriced food.
Most Spanish cities have notoriously long morning and evening rush hours. Traffic jams are especially bad in and around Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. If possible, avoid the morning rush, which can last until noon, and the evening rush, which lasts 7–9. Also be aware that at the beginning, middle, and end of July and August, the country suffers its worst traffic jams (delays of 6–8 hours are common) as millions of Spaniards embark on, or return from, their annual vacations.
Rental agencies Hertz and Avis have 24-hour breakdown service. If you belong to AAA, you can get emergency assistance from the Spanish counterpart, RACE.
Rules of the Road
Spaniards drive on the right and pass on the left, so stay in the right-hand lane when not passing. Children under 12 may not ride in the front seat, and seat belts are compulsory for both front- and backseat riders. Speed limits are 30 kph (19 mph) or 50 kph (31 mph) in cities, depending on the type of street, 100 kph (62 mph) on national highways, 120 kph (75 mph) on the autopista or autovía. The use of cell phones by drivers, even on the side of the road, is illegal, except with completely hands-free devices.
Severe fines are enforced throughout Spain for driving under the influence of alcohol. Spot Breathalyzer checks are often carried out, and you will be cited if the level of alcohol in your bloodstream is found to be 0.05% or above.
Spanish highway police are increasingly vigilant about speeding and illegal passing. Police are empowered to demand payment on the spot from non-Spanish drivers. Police disproportionately target rental-car drivers for speeding and illegal passing, so play it safe.
Barcelona is the busiest cruise port in Spain and Europe. Other popular ports of call in the country are Málaga, Alicante, and Palma de Mallorca. Gibraltar is also a popular stop. Although cruise lines such as Silversea and Costa traditionally offer cruises that take in parts of Spain and other Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece, it is becoming increasingly common to find package tours wholly within Spain. Two popular routes consist of island hopping in the Balearics or around the Canary Islands. Among the many cruise lines that call on Spain are Royal Caribbean, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises.
The chart here has information about popular train routes. Prices are for one-way fares (depending on seating and where purchased) and subject to change.
International trains run from Madrid to Lisbon (10 hours 30 minutes, overnight), Barcelona to Paris (6 hours 20 minutes), and Madrid to Paris (9 hours 45 minutes).
Spain’s wonderful high-speed train, the 290-kph (180-mph) AVE, travels between Madrid and Seville (with a stop in Córdoba) in 2½ hours; prices start at about €58 each way. It also serves the Madrid–Barcelona route, cutting travel time to just under three hours. From Madrid, you can also reach Lleida, Huesca (one AVE train daily), Málaga, Toledo, and Valladolid.
The fast Talgo service is also efficient, but other elements of the state-run rail system (RENFE) are still a bit subpar by European standards, and some long-distance trips with multiple stops can be tediously slow. Although some overnight trains have comfortable sleeper cars, first-class fares that include a sleeping compartment are comparable to, or more expensive than, airfares.
Most Spaniards buy train tickets in advance online or at the train station’s taquilla (ticket office). The lines can be long, so give yourself plenty of time. For popular train routes, you will need to reserve tickets more than a few days in advance and pick them up at least a day before traveling. The ticket clerks at the stations rarely speak English, so if you need help or advice in planning a more complex train journey, you may be better off going to a travel agency that displays the blue-and-yellow RENFE sign. A small commission (e.g., €2.50) should be expected. For shorter, regional train trips, you can often buy your tickets from machines in the train station.
You can use a credit card for train tickets at most city train stations, but in smaller towns and villages it may be cash only. Seat reservations are required on most long-distance and some other trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are wise on any train that might be crowded. You need a reservation if you want a sleeping berth.
The easiest way to make reservations is to go to the English version of the RENFE website (www.renfe.com—click “Welcome” on the top line) or use the RenfeTicket smartphone app (to buy tickets using the app, you need to register and to have bought a RENFE ticket with your credit card). Go to “Journey Date,” and “Times,” but be aware that the site can often be wonky, with unpredictable broken links. Input your destination(s) and date(s), and the site will indicate seat availability; book earlier if you’re traveling during Holy Week, on long holiday weekends, or in July and August. (The site allows you to make reservations up to 62 days in advance, which is important in qualifying for online purchase discounts.) When you’ve completed your reservation, you can print out a PDF version of your ticket, with the car and seat assignment; you will also get a confirmation by email with a localizador (locator number) that you can use, in case you can’t access the PDF file, to pick up the tickets at any RENFE station (most major airports have a RENFE booth, so you can retrieve your tickets as soon as you arrive in Spain); central stations in most major cities have automated check-in machines. You’ll need your passport and the credit card you used for the reservation. You can review your pending reservations online at any time.
Caveats: You cannot buy tickets online for certain regional lines or for commuter lines (cercanías). Station agents cannot alter your reservations; you must do this yourself online. The RENFE website may not work with all browsers, but it does accept all major credit cards, including American Express.
If you purchase a ticket on the RENFE website for the AVE or any of the Grandes Líneas (the faster, long-distance trains, including the Talgo) you can get a discount of 20%–60%, depending on how far ahead you book and how you travel: discounts on one-way tickets tend to be higher than on round trips. Discount availabilities disappear fast: the earliest opportunity is 62 days in advance of travel. If you have a domestic or an international airline ticket and want to take the AVE within 48 hours of your arrival but haven’t booked online, you can still get a 10% discount on the AVE one-way ticket and 25% for a round-trip ticket with a dated return. On regional trains, you get a 10% discount on round-trip tickets (15% on AVE medium-distance trains).
If there are more than two of you traveling on the AVE, look for the “4M” symbol (in a navy square) quoting the price per person for four people traveling together and sitting at the same table. If you select the price, it tells you how much the deal is for one, two, and three people. You have to buy all the tickets at the same time, but they’re at least 20% cheaper than regular tickets.
If you’re coming from the United States and are planning extensive train travel in Europe, check Rail Europe for Eurail passes. Whichever pass you choose, you must buy it before you leave for Europe.
Spain is one of 24 European countries in which you can use the Eurail Global Pass, which buys you unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, your best bet might be a Select Pass, which allows you to travel on as many as 10 days of your choice within a two-month period, and among up to four bordering countries (e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Spain). Prices (for passengers 26 or older) run $423–$656, depending on the number of travel days and countries you select.
If Spain is your only destination, a Eurail Spain Pass allows between three and eight days of unlimited train travel in Spain within a one-month period for $280–$493 (first class) and $225–$396 (second class). There are also combination passes for those visiting Spain and Portugal, Spain and France, and Spain and Italy.
Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride: not so. Reserve seats even if you’re using a rail pass.
Internet cafés and locutorios (cheap international phone centers) are most common in residential and student precincts. If you can’t find one easily, ask at either the tourist office or a hotel’s front desk. The most you’re likely to pay for Internet access is about €3 per hour. You’ll also find free Wi-Fi in many cafés and bars, although you may have to ask for a code (or buy something) to access it.
Internet access in Spanish hotels is now fairly widespread, even in less expensive accommodations. In-room dial-up connections are gradually getting phased out in favor of Wi-Fi; some hotels will still have a computer somewhere in the lobby for the use of guests (either free or with a fee), but Wi-Fi hot spots are common.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In some countries you can phone from call centers or even the post office. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And then there are cell phones, which are sometimes more prevalent—particularly in the developing world—than landlines; as expensive as mobile phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel.
Spain’s phone system is efficient but can be expensive. Most travelers buy phone cards, which for €5 or €6 allow for about three hours of calls nationally and internationally. Phone cards can be used with any hotel, bar, or public telephone and can be bought at any tobacco shop and at most Internet cafés.
Note that only mobile phones conforming to the European GSM standard will work in Spain. If you’re going to be traveling in Spain for an extended period, buying a phone often turns out to be a money saver. Using a local mobile phone means avoiding the hefty long-distance charges accrued when using your own. Prices fluctuate but offers start as low as €20 for a phone with €10 worth of calls.
A cheap and usually free alternative to using a phone is calling via your computer with a VOIP provider such as Skype or FaceTime, or installing a free messager/call app on your smartphone, such as LINE.
The country code for Spain is 34. The country code is 1 for the United States and Canada.
Calling Within Spain
International operators, who generally speak English, are at 025.
Most area codes begin with a 9 (some begin with 8). To call within Spain—even locally—dial the area code first. Numbers preceded by a 900 code are toll-free in Spain; however, 90x numbers are not (e.g., 901, 902, etc.). Phone numbers starting with a 6 or 7 belong to mobile phones. Note that when calling a mobile phone, you do not need to dial the area code first; also, calls to mobile numbers are significantly more expensive than calls to landlines.
Payphones are increasingly less common nowadays, but you find them in individual booths, in locutorios, and in some bars and restaurants. Most have a digital readout so you can see your money ticking away. If you’re calling with coins, you need at least €0.50 to call locally and €1 to call a mobile phone or another province. Simply insert the coins and wait for a dial tone. Note that rates are reduced on weekends and after 8 pm during the week.
Calling Outside Spain
International calls are awkward from coin-operated payphones and can be expensive from hotels. Your best bet is to use a public phone that accepts phone cards or go to the locutorios. Those near the center of town are generally more expensive; farther from the center, the rates are sometimes as much as one-third less. You converse in a quiet, private booth and are charged according to the meter.
To make an international call, dial 00, then the country code, then the area code and number.
Before you leave home, find out your long-distance company’s access code in Spain.
Payphones require phone cards (tarjetas telefónicas) which you can buy in various denominations at any tobacco shop or newsstand. Some phones also accept credit cards, but phone cards are more reliable.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies than those used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. Overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, as text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢). If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new mobile phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your phone company to unlock it for you and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
Sitting around a table eating and talking is a huge part of Spanish culture, defining much of people’s daily routines. Sitting in the middle of a typical bustling restaurant here goes a long way toward building an understanding of how fundamental food can be to Spanish lives.
Although Spain has always had an extraordinary range of regional cuisines, in the past decade or so its restaurants have won it international recognition at the highest levels. A new generation of Spanish chefs—led by the revolutionary Ferran Adrià—has transformed classic dishes to suit contemporary tastes, drawing on some of the freshest ingredients in Europe and bringing an astonishing range of new technologies into the kitchen.
Smoking is banned in all eating and drinking establishments in Spain.
Meals and Mealtimes
Outside major hotels, which serve morning buffets, breakfast (desayuno) is usually limited to coffee and toast or a roll. Lunch (comida or almuerzo) traditionally consists of an appetizer, a main course, and dessert, followed by coffee and perhaps a liqueur. Between lunch and dinner the best way to snack is to sample some tapas (appetizers) at a bar; normally you can choose from quite a variety. Dinner (cena) is somewhat lighter, with perhaps only one course. In addition to à la carte selections, most restaurants offer a daily fixed-price menu (menú del día), consisting of a starter, main plate, beverage, and dessert. The menú del día is traditionally offered only at lunch, but increasingly it’s also offered at dinner in popular tourist destinations. If your waiter does not suggest it when you’re seated, ask for it: “¿Hay menú del día, por favor?”
Mealtimes in Spain are later than elsewhere in Europe, and later still in Madrid and the southern region of Andalusia. Lunch starts around 2 or 2:30 (closer to 3 in Madrid) and dinner after 9 (as late as 11 or midnight in Madrid). Weekend eating times, especially dinner, can begin upward of an hour later. In areas with heavy tourist traffic, some restaurants open a bit earlier.
Most prices listed in menus are inclusive of 10% value-added-tax (I.V.A.), but not all. If I.V.A. isn’t included, it should read, “10% I.V.A. no incluido en los precios” at the bottom of the menu. Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards are widely accepted in Spanish restaurants, but some smaller establishments do not take them. If you pay by credit card and you want to leave a small tip above and beyond the service charge, leave the tip in cash (see Tipping, for guidelines).
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places, it’s expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there’s no other way you’ll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Apart from its famous wines, Spain produces many brands of lager, the most popular of which are San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Aguila, Voll Damm, Mahou, and Estrella. There’s also a thriving craft-beer industry and most large towns and cities have bars specializing in local brews. Jerez de la Frontera is Europe’s largest producer of brandy and is a major source of sherry. Catalonia is a major producer of cava (sparkling wine). Spanish law prohibits the sale of alcohol to people age 18 or younger.
Spain’s electrical current is 220–240 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and cell-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) and require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “For Shavers Only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
The pan-European emergency phone number (112) is operative in all of Spain, or you can dial the emergency numbers here for the national police, local police, fire department, or medical services. On the road, there are emergency phones marked “SOS” at regular intervals on autovías and autopistas. If your documents are stolen, contact both the local police and your embassy. If you lose a credit card, phone the issuer immediately.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot; avoid vegetables and fruits that you haven’t washed (in bottled or purified water) or peeled yourself. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. Condoms can help prevent most sexually transmitted diseases, but they aren’t absolutely reliable and their quality varies from country to country. Speak with your physician and check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Specific Issues in Spain
Medical care is good in Spain, but nursing can be perfunctory, as relatives are expected to stop by and look after patients’ needs. In some popular destinations, such as the Costa del Sol, there are volunteer English interpreters on hand at hospitals and clinics.
In the summer, sunburn and sunstroke are real risks in Spain. Even if you’re not normally bothered by strong sun you should cover yourself up, slather on sunblock, drink plenty of fluids, and limit sun time for the first few days. If you require medical attention for any problem, ask your hotel’s front desk for assistance, or go to the nearest public Centro de Salud (day hospital); in serious cases, you’ll be referred to the regional hospital.
Over-the-counter remedies are available at any farmacia (pharmacy), recognizable by a large green cross outside. Some will look familiar, such as aspirina (aspirin), and other medications are sold under various brand names. If you get traveler’s diarrhea, ask for an antidiarréico (antidiarrheal medicine); Fortasec is a well-known brand. Mild cases may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. To keep from getting dehydrated, drink plenty of purified water or herbal tea. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution—½ teaspoon salt (sal) and 4 tablespoons sugar (azúcar) per quart of water, or pick up a package of oral rehydration salts at any local farmacia.
If you regularly take a nonprescription medication, take a sample box or bottle with you, and the Spanish pharmacist will provide you with its local equivalent.
Petty crime can be a huge problem in popular tourist destinations. The most frequent offenses are pickpocketing (particularly in Madrid and Barcelona) and theft from cars (all over the country). Never leave anything valuable in a parked car, no matter how friendly the area feels, how quickly you’ll return, or how invisible the item seems once you lock it in the trunk. Thieves can spot rental cars a mile away. In airports, laptop computers and smartphones are choice prey.
Distribute your cash and any valuables (including your credit cards and passport) between a deep front pocket or an inside jacket or vest pocket. Don’t wear a money belt or a waist pack, both of which peg you as a tourist. When walking the streets, particularly in large cities, carry as little cash as possible. Men should carry their wallets in their front pocket; women who need to carry purses should strap them across the front of their bodies. Leave the rest of your valuables in the safe at your hotel. On the beach, in cafés and restaurants, and in Internet centers, always keep an eye on your belongings.
Be cautious of any odd or unnecessary human contact, verbal or physical, whether it’s a tap on the shoulder, someone asking you for a light, someone spilling a drink at your table, and so on. Thieves often work in teams, so while one distracts your attention, another swipes your wallet.
As different countries have different worldviews, look at travel advisories from a range of governments to get more of a sense of what’s going on out there. And be sure to parse the language carefully. For example, a warning to “avoid all travel” carries more weight than one urging you to “avoid nonessential travel,” and both are much stronger than a plea to “exercise caution.” A U.S. government travel warning is more permanent (though not necessarily more serious) than a so-called public announcement, which carries an expiration date.
The ritual of a long afternoon siesta is no longer as ubiquitous as it once was. However, the tradition does remain, and many people take a postlunch nap before returning to work or continuing on with their day. The two- to three-hour lunch break makes it possible to eat and then snooze. Midday breaks generally begin at 1 or 2 and end between 4 and 5, depending on the city and the sort of business. The midafternoon siesta—often a half-hour power nap in front of the TV—fits naturally into the workday cycle, since Spaniards tend to work until 7 or 8 pm.
Traditionally, Spain’s climate prompted the creation of the siesta as a time to preserve energy while afternoon temperatures spiked. After the sun began to set, people went back to working, shopping, and taking their leisurely paseo (stroll). In the big cities—particularly with the advent of air-conditioning—the heat has less effect on the population; in the small towns in the south of Spain, however, many still use a siesta as a way to wait out the weather.
Until a decade or so ago, it was common for many businesses to close for a month in the July–August period. When open, they often run on a summer schedule, which can mean a longer-than-usual siesta (sometimes up to 4 hours), a shorter working day (until 3 pm only), and no Saturday-afternoon trading.
Banks are generally open weekdays from 8:30 or 9 until 2 or 2:30. From October to May the major banks and savings banks open on Thursday until 6:30 or 7:30. Currency exchanges at airports, train stations, and in the city center stay open later; you can also cash traveler’s checks at El Corte Inglés department stores until 10 pm (some branches close at 9 or 9:30). Most government offices are open weekdays 9–2.
Most museums are open from 9:30 to 2 and 4 to 7 or 8, every day but Monday. Schedules are subject to change, particularly between the high and low seasons, so confirm opening hours before you make plans. A few large museums, such as Madrid’s Prado and Reina Sofía and Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, stay open all day, without a siesta.
Pharmacies keep normal business hours (9–1:30 and 5–8), but every midsize town (or city neighborhood) has a duty pharmacy that stays open 24 hours. The location of the nearest on-duty pharmacy is usually posted on the front door of all pharmacies.
When planning a shopping trip, remember that almost all shops in Spain close from 1 or 2 pm for at least two hours. The only exceptions are large supermarkets and department-store chain El Corte Inglés. Most shops are closed on Sunday, and in Madrid and several other places they’re also closed Saturday afternoon. Larger shops in tourist areas may stay open Sunday in summer and during the Christmas holiday.
Spain’s national holidays, observed countrywide, are New Year’s Day on January 1 (Año Nuevo), Three Kings Day on January 6 (Día de los Tres Reyes), Good Friday (Viernes Santo), Labor Day on May 1 (Día del Trabajo), Assumption on August 15 (Asunción), Columbus Day on October 12 (Día de la Hispanidad), All Saints Day on November 1 (Todos los Santos), Constitution Day on December 6 (Día de la Constitución), Immaculate Conception on December 8 (Immaculada Concepción), and Christmas Day on December 25 (Navidad). Holidays observed in many parts of Spain, but not all, include Father’s Day on March 19 (San José, observed in Madrid and some regional communities), Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo, observed in most of Spain except Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands), Easter Monday (Día de Pascua, observed in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands), St. John’s Day on June 24, with bonfire celebrations the night before (San Juan, observed in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands), Corpus Christi (June), St. Peter and St. Paul Day on June 29 (San Pedro y San Pablo) and St. James Day on July 25 (Santiago). In addition, each region, city, and town has its own holidays honoring political events and patron saints.
Many stores close during Semana Santa (Holy Week—also sometimes translated as Easter Week), the week that precedes Easter.
If a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, remember that many businesses also close on the nearest Monday or Friday for a long weekend, called a puente (bridge). If a major holiday falls on a Sunday, businesses close on Monday.
Spain is no longer a budget destination, even less so in the expensive cities of Barcelona, San Sebastián, and Madrid. However, prices still compare slightly favorably with those elsewhere in Europe.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Your bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank, and extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in Spain. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
You’ll find ATMs in every major city in Spain, as well as in most smaller towns. ATMs will be part of the Cirrus and/or Plus networks and will allow you to withdraw euros with your credit or debit card, provided you have a valid PIN.
Spanish banks tend to maintain an astonishing number of branch offices, especially in the cities and major tourist destinations, and the majority have an ATM.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, it might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the shop, restaurant, or hotel (not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases, you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
DCC programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with their cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Currency and Exchange
Since 2002, Spain has used the European monetary unit, the euro (€). Euro bills come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500; coins are worth 1 cent of a euro, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, 1 euro, and 2 euros. Forgery is quite commonplace in parts of Spain, especially with 50-euro notes. You can generally tell a forgery by the feel of the paper: counterfeits tend to be smoother than the legal notes, and the metallic line down the middle is darker than those in real bills. Local merchants (even those with counterfeit-spotting equipment) may refuse to accept €200 and €500 bills.
At this writing the dollar was very strong against the euro and other currencies: it stands at €0.87 to the U.S. dollar.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh . . . that’s right. The sign didn’t say no fee.) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
Visitors from the United States need a passport valid for a minimum of six months to enter Spain.
Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and yourself.
Visas are not necessary for those with U.S. passports valid for a minimum of six months and who plan to stay in Spain for tourist or business purposes for up to 90 days. Should you need a visa to stay longer than this, contact the Spanish consulate office nearest to you in the United States to apply for the appropriate documents.
Spain has some public restrooms (servicios), including, in larger cities, small coin-operated booths, but they are few and far between. Your best option is to use the facilities in a bar or cafeteria, remembering that at the discretion of the establishment you may have to order something. Gas stations have restrooms (you usually have to request the key to use them), but they are more often than not in terrible condition.
Value-added tax, similar to sales tax, is called I.V.A. in Spain (pronounced “ee-vah,” for impuesto sobre el valor añadido). It’s levied on both products and services, such as hotel rooms and restaurant meals. When in doubt about whether tax is included, ask, “¿Está incluido el I.V.A.?” The I.V.A. rate for hotels and restaurants is currently 10%, regardless of their number of stars. A special tax law for the Canary Islands allows hotels and restaurants there to charge 7% I.V.A. Menus will generally note at the bottom whether tax is included (“I.V.A. incluido”) or not (“más 10% I.V.A.”).
Although food, pharmaceuticals, and household items are taxed at the lowest rate (4%), most consumer goods are now taxed at 21%. A number of shops participate in Global Refund (formerly Europe Tax-Free Shopping), a V.A.T. refund service that makes getting your money back relatively hassle-free. You cannot get a refund on the V.A.T. for such items as meals or services such as hotel accommodations or taxi fares.
When making a purchase that qualifies for Global Refund, find out whether the merchant gives refunds—not all stores do, nor are they required to—and ask for a V.A.T. refund form. Have the form stamped like any customs form by customs officials when you leave the country or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, when you leave the EU. After you’re through passport control, take the form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (which is usually the quickest and easiest option), or mail it to the address on the form (or the envelope with it) after you arrive home. You receive the total refund stated on the form, but the processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment.
Global Blue is a Europewide service with 225,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. The refund form, called a Tax Free Check or Refund Cheque, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment.
Aside from tipping waiters and taxi drivers, Spaniards tend not to leave extra in addition to the bill. Restaurant checks do not list a service charge on the bill but consider the tip included. If you want to leave a small tip in addition to the bill, tip 5%–10% of the bill (and only if you think the service was worth it), and leave less if you eat tapas or sandwiches at a bar—just enough to round out the bill to the nearest €1.
Tip taxi drivers about 10% of the total fare, plus a supplement to help with luggage. Note that rides from airports carry an official surcharge plus a small handling fee for each piece of luggage.
Tip hotel porters €1 per bag and the bearer of room service €1. A doorman who calls a taxi for you gets €1. If you stay in a hotel for more than two nights, you can tip the maid about €1 per night, although it isn’t generally expected
Tour guides should be tipped about €2, barbers €0.50–€1, and women’s hairdressers at least €1 for a wash and style. Restroom attendants are tipped €0.50.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.