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Traveling to Spain for the first time, need tips and advice!

Hey all,
My girlfriend and I will be in Spain from October 31st - November 9th. While we're researching things a lot, this has given me quite a headache as I'm trying to help her plan our stay there. We're starting in Barcelona and then flying out from Madrid, so in between that, we're trying to figure out where to go and what to see.

I have a few questions though:

  1. What is the weather like in November?
  2. I've read about a lot of crimes against Americans, what sort of tips can you give on how to be more cautious (besides the obvious ones)? i.e Place/cities, etc to avoid, etc
  3. Is Spain fairly credit card friendly? (revert back to question 2)
  4. Being that this is our first trip to Spain, what cities should we visit to maximize our short stay and get a great taste of the country?

Anyway, so the girlfriend has expressed interest in Seville and Granada as well, but was saying that they're too far. Is this true? If we took a train to these cities, say from Barcelona or Valencia (another city she expressed interest in), would it really take a long time?

Any help would be appreciated. You guys have already helped me so much to plan the other part of the vacation!

Posted by
5623 posts

Hi David- you guys are in for an awesome trip! We were there last November for 2 weeks, and the weather was cool-to-mild in both Barcelona and Madrid. We also visited farther north, along the coast, and there we got some rain and wind and it was on the verge of cold, but not actual freezing cold. Not sure what you consider "cold," but I'd say plan to have a jacket with you, and be prepared with a sweater or other layer if you need additional insulation.

We didn't experience any crime (see below about trash, which you may not encounter), but use a moneybelt and don't go in a neighborhood if you suspect it's unsafe (we didn't find any such place). As you said, take obvious pecautions you'd take in any big city. Police are around and don't hesitate to ask them for help.

We used our Visa card most of the time, but also got cash from ATM's. Our credit card has a European-style chip in it, but we still have to sign a receipt to complete a transaction. If you have a regular American credit card, with a magnetic strip on the back but no chip, you should be fine -- waiters, shops, hotels, etc. can still swipe you card and have you sign a receipt. Over the next few years, the USA will be converting to the chip-and-P.I.N. credit card system, too.

As you indicated, Granada and Seville are worthy desitnations, but in a country as big as Spain, we've always either done Southern Spain or Northern Spain, but not both, unless we had more than 2 weeks.

Are you taking a fast AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid, or a quick, cheap flight, or bus, or rental car? If you have the time and available transportation, consider Girona, an hour north of Barcelona. Its old town is atmospheric, with winding stairs and narrow passageways, and lots of inviting plazas. Great places for tapas. We took the train and stayed one night on our short trip, but could have easily devoted another full day there.

To the northeast of Madrid is Segovia, a favorite town for at least a day trip, if not staying overnight, with a fantastic ancient Roman aqueduct and other sights. It's also renowned for its roast suckling pig (cochinillo), which we had for dinner one night last November. You can easily get there by bus or train, if you're not driving. Same with Toledo, to the south of Madrid, where the painter El Greco lived and worked.

I'd save Valencia, Granada, and Seville for a Southern Spain trip another time and focus on Barcelona and Madrid, with a possible side-trip to the place I mentioned above. If you enjoy art, Madrid's Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza are all world-class.

BTW, in November last year, there was a Madrid garbage-collector's strike, and trash was piled up all over town, inluding green bags people used to pick up after their dogs. The green bags littered the sidewalks and many were split open. That was nasty, so hopefully you won't encounter that this time!

Posted by
123 posts

I don't have much to add from the fantastic advice above! I would just recommend picking up Rick's Spain guidebook if you haven't already: http://travelstore.ricksteves.com/catalog/index.cfm?fuseaction=catalog&parent_id=162. Lots of great advice on what to see and do, what passes to get, how to make museum reservations, hotel and restaurant, recs, etc. But you sound like you are definitely on the right track already. Have a great trip!

Posted by
2650 posts

Hi David,

1.) Depending on the area you're visiting. Spain faces three different seas so there are many different climates. Having said that, weather in November tends to be cold in the centre and mild and humid in the coasts. I'd venture to say that you'd probably and safely could compare Seattle winters to winters in the Mediterranean coast in Spain. One thing you'll certainly get rid of in most areas -other than the north and north-west of Spain- is the rain, your fellow companion in Seattle ;) Sunny days -even if not necessarily warm in winter- are very typical in the east and south of Spain. For a general overview: www.aemet.es -although it seems to be having a problem now, try later- and then when you have decided where to visit try the regional centres which are more accurate (ie. www.meteo.cat for Catalonia). Note Spain has 17 different 'autonomous communities' (for comparison purposes let's say equivalent to your states) and some run their own weather services.

2.) Just some food for thought: How do you tell someone is a tourist in a country receiving 40 million foreign visitors every year and having a large population of expats from all over the world? Moreover, how do you precisely identify an 'American', got something tattooed in your forehead or anything? Besides, when you say Americans, do you mean a Brazilian, a Mexican, an Argentinian, a Canadian... America is a big continent, isn't it? In short: nonsenses! drop your prejudices -if you had any in the first place- and don't believe everything you read, you're most likely going to have a smashing time :)) If anything, and this has nothing to do with where you come from, if you're not a city dweller, when visiting a city exercise basic caution as you would in any city in the world: be alert of your surroundings, avoid dark alleys at night, don't leave unattended bags/lugagge, and so on and so forth. But you're Seattleite, are you not? so you're probably as much city dweller as me -from Barcelona- so you know this already, hahaha! I'd like to point out -this seems to be of concern to some US visitors who often ask- that there's almost no gun crime here, in fact, Spain ranks as one of the safest countries in Europe as per gun crime incidents. Same goes for gangs, we fortunately have, generally speaking, no such sort of crime (yet!). This is not to say this is paradise, huh, we do have our share of other type of crimes too, like any other Western country. If you were to ask me, pickpockets and muggings can probably be the biggest nuisance in Barcelona or Madrid.

3.) Problem with US (and some Canadian) cards is that you guys haven't yet updated to the latest security standards and sometimes your card might not be accepted if it's not pin&chip (https://www.creditcardinsider.com/insider/transaction-declined-using-your-u-s-credit-card-in-europe/). Note that over here there are less and less places that will accept the traditional swiping method. But overall, as Cyn mentioned, you shouldn't have much problem using your ccard. In general terms, ccards are widely used everywhere -we're talking about VISA and Mastercard, for Discovery or American Express is another matter, those are not accepted everywhere. Some places (ie. supermarkets and some shops) won't accept ccards for purchases under 10€/$13.

Posted by
2650 posts

4.) As I always point out, be sensible when planning visits from A to B to C and allow yourself extra time, while distances might seem small in comparison to the vast distances in the US between different cities/states, Europe is far denser as there are plenty of things to do/see at every corner so going from A to B might actually take longer than 'plotted by Google Maps' if you catch my drift. But again, it's also important that one decides what sort of trip one's willing to do: "only landmarks" vs. "...and everything in between". If the latter I advice planning for at least 5-6 days in major cities (ie. Barcelona or Madrid) as you'll be spoilt for choice not only 'in' the city itself but also plenty of nearby sites worth visiting -which you can wisely do in one day escapades using train/buses for added easiness and less hassle. During stays in major cities I wouldn't advice hiring a car, (a) you don't need it, there's plenty of public transportation which is cheap, clean, efficient and safe and (b) it's hard to find empty parking spaces -in the street or underground- and it's expensive. So reserve hiring any car for trips to the countryside.

If you have specific questions about Barcelona and its region, Catalonia, I'll gladly try to assist, just shoot! But in the meantime, I propose a glance to these sites so you can have an idea of things you might want to be doing when visiting if you finally include this in your trip: www.catalunya.com and www.infocatalonia.eu and specifically for Barcelona www.turismedebarcelona.com and www.timeout.cat

Enjoy!

Posted by
2650 posts

One last thing... I just realized you're visiting for just 10 days... my advice is that you stick to two cities whichever you choose but just two, and give you're flying into BCN and departing from MAD this pretty much settles it, doesn't it? :))

Posted by
4535 posts

Pickpockets are notorious in Barcelona (less so in Madrid). Have a secure system like a waist money belt, neck pouch, travel purse (not a regular zipper or flap purse) or belt-loop wallet to keep cards, extra cash and passports safe. Then don't worry. A loose wallet in any pocket or in a regular purse is at risk of theft. Purses don't have to be made of metal to prevent cutting straps, but they need to be secured with inner pockets that require several steps for someone to get inside. And never sling a purse or daybag over a chair or set it on the floor at your feet.

Visa/MC are widely accepted and the only time you can't use your old fashioned card is likely to be a automatic machine. You may often have to tell the person "no chip" or "no PIN" and they will know to print out a receipt for you to sign. In Spain you will often be asked if you want the transaction in your own currency - ALWAYS decline that seemingly kind offer as the exchange rate you will get is bad. Always use local currency. Credit cards are not always accepted at some places, and usually not for small purchases. Get cash with your ATM/debit card just like you always do. Notify your banks of your trip to prevent them blocking your cards.

Andalucía is a trip in itself, so you really don't have time for it this time. Stick to Barcelona and Madrid with daytrips added in such as noted already. If you really wanted to squeeze in one more or aren't as interested in daytrips, Valencia is an easy option as it is readily accessible from Barcelona and Madrid by train.

FYI Enric - "Americans" always refers to US citizens. Canadians or Mexicans or Brazilians are known as such.

Posted by
2650 posts

Thank you Douglas, I perfectly know it... but without willing to turn this into an stereotyped discussion, I'm trying to prevent David the embarrassment of being deemed an arrogant because, as I'm sure you also know, the rest of the world considers America to be a full continent -from Canada down to Argentina-, not a country.

Posted by
4535 posts

There are actually two continents: North American and South America. The United States of America is a country in North America and people from the USA are known as Americans. I'm not sure what else you would call us??? I know you know all this, which is why I'm confused about your earlier comments. No one would ever call someone from Mexico an American. You could of course refer to a Mexican as being from North America, in the same way a Spanish person could be described as being from Europe or European.

Posted by
2650 posts

Have it your way Douglas :)... I can only say that's not the way is seen in many other parts of the world. But again, we're not here to argue but to have a good time sharing our experiences, are we not?

Posted by
1268 posts

David,
You have an advantage which I strongly advocate you utilize: go to Rick Steve's hq and schedule time w one of their planners. Our friends live in Seattle and said this meeting was one of the key elements to planning their highly successful trip.

Posted by
1268 posts

David,
You have an advantage which I strongly advocate you utilize: go to Rick Steve's hq and schedule time w one of their planners. Our friends live in Seattle and said this meeting was one of the key elements to planning their highly successful trip.

Posted by
11832 posts
  1. Weather in November will be cool to cold, maybe wet. Barcelona will likely be comfortable, as you get inland it can go either way. If it's going to be cold, it will be after you leave the coast. A lot of weather is luck, hopefully you'll be lucky.

  2. Both Barcelona and Madrid are "known" as petty theft hot-spots in Europe. That's also true of Rome and Paris - if there are tourists, there will be pickpockets targeting them. Most likely a little prevention is enough to keep you from having any problems. My best tips:

  3. use a moneybelt, only keep what you don't mind losing in a purse, wallet, backpack, etc. (I normally keep a day's supply of cash in my front pocket and, when it gets crowded, put my hand in my pocket).

  4. use an indoor ATM. Some thieves target ATM's, either electronically or look for people leaving with cash. Indoor ATM's are much more secure from electronic theft. If you're at an ATM and anyone looks unusually close, interested, or offers to help, leave and find another ATM elsewhere (and always shield your hand when you type in your pin).

  5. reduce anything you carry to "one handle" (shopping bag, suitcase, daypack, etc.). Thieves target the unwary. It's so much easier to target someone who is juggling lots of items while trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with jet lag.

  6. I didn't have any problems with credit cards. Like most of Europe, most small merchants and cafes want cash (get that from an ATM). Big retailers, hotels, car-rentals, fancy restaurants, etc. are fine with credit cards. If they ask whether you want to convert to dollars - always say no.

  7. You do have a short stay. I'm not a fan of Madrid, but really like Toledo, Segovia and Avila - or even Aranjuez (which are all easily reached from Madrid). I'd skip the northern coast, it's not worth the trip outside of summer (when it's beautiful). I'd also skip Pamplona (it's an average town other than during San Fermin). If you do decide on Pamplona, stop in Olite (about 30 minutes before Pamplona coming from Zaragosa), it's got a great castle to visit (one of my favorite anywhere). A short break in Zaragosa is fine for a look around between Barcelona and Madrid - but in your available time, I'd skip that too.

You might also check out the ten-day weather forecast. If the weather is bad inland, a backup plan to stay on the coast, north or south of Barcelona, may be your better option.

Hope this helps. I have a trip report on this site (poorly) titled Spain: Clean Bathrooms Affordable Lodging. I wrote about lots of different observations that may be useful.