Getting around in Spain is relatively easy, as well as finding what you need. Though people may not speak your language, they are on the whole hospitable and helpful. But, traveling to a new country can be difficult and you will always come up against some unexpected obstacles. We will try to give you as much information as we can about daily life and brass tacks of being in Spain.
Visa Needed for US Citizens: None, automatic 90 day tourist visa applied with passport stamp.
Required Inoculations: None.
Time Zone: GMT +1
Laundry services are not par for the course in Spain. There are few Laundromats and coin op laundries, though hotels sometimes offer a laundry service. (It is always best to check with your hotel or your travel agent ahead of time to confirm this). There are dry cleaners. Clothes dryers in houses are infrequent in most places, as the air is dry enough that hanging clothes works well enough. Internet is offered in some restaurants and cafes (wifi, pronounced wee-fee in Spanish), and they will be happy to give you a password with a purchase. Otherwise, in major cities you can find Locutorios, which are international phone booths, internet cafes, printing and copying areas, and phone recharge stores all in one.
Post offices (correos) and banks are generally open from 8am to 2pm and sometimes have extended hours on a random weekday. They are not open on weekends. You can use an American bank card at a Spanish ATM, as long as you pay the international ATM fee (usually between 3-5 euros per transaction).
Pharmacies close around 8pm and are often closed from 2-5pm for the lunch hour (see below for meal schedules). However, usually in each district of a city you will find one pharmacy that is 24 hours for that day or week. Any other pharmacy should have the name of the one taking the 24 hour shift, and the address on a sign out front.
Living on Spain Time
Life in Spain is generally a little more relaxed than it is in the US: people take their time on the streets, they are more likely to take longer lunches, stores may not open until a few minutes after their posted times, etc. This of course depends on where you are, and is less common in more urban areas, but on the whole, the pace is slower, and the culture very much encourages you to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak.
There are a two notable schedule difference between Spain and the US; mealtimes, and siesta. Breakfasts are at a more or less normal hour, but because most Spaniards have a coffee and a pincho in the mid-morning, the lunch hour normally doesn’t start until around 2pm. If you are in a major city in a tourist area, you can probably find something to eat at an earlier time, but in smaller cities or towns, you will be hard pressed to find anything before two.
After around 4-4:30pm, restaurants and shops that are not large chains will shut down for siesta time, generally reopening between 7:30 -8:30pm. In some regions there is still a very practical reason for siesta: it’s extremely hot at that part of the day, particularly in places like Seville, so it is preferable to stay inside and rest until evening.
Dinner starts around 8:30, but that is early for the weekend. The normal dinner hour is around 9-10:30pm.
Because stores and restaurants are likely to be closed, you should keep this in mind and try to shift yourself to the Spanish schedule, or at least make sure you have snacks packed for the inbetween times.
The last thing to be aware of is that most shops and daytime businesses close by 9pm, sometime earlier in smaller towns. Also, everything is closed on Sundays and holidays, whether they are religious or national. It is a good idea to check a calendar and see if you will be in Spain for any holidays, just to know, and be aware that each town and region may have their own particular holiday, so you should check for the individual places you will be visiting.
Though life in Spain is more relaxed than other places, the trains and public transport are on time and quite efficient.
Buses & Trains
Spain is connected by highways but also a system of trains, and now also fast trains. Fast trains go to the major cities all over the country, though if you are going somewhere in the surrounding province, you will have to take a regular train or a bus. Train and bus tickets can be bought inside the stations themselves, but if you want to buy them in advance they can be purchased online at www.renfe.es or www.alsa.es/en/ for train/fast train and bus respectively. If you buy them at home, make sure to print your confirmation before you leave for your trip.
Trains & Fast Trains
If you are planning to travel a long distance, or use the international rail, booking in advance is highly recommended. For short trips, such as Madrid – Toledo, you can turn up at the station the same day and probably get a train at a desired time, as there are so many trains making the run.
The AVE, fast train, which runs out of Madrid to other major cities, is a bit more expensive, but drastically cuts the time of your journey. For example, Madrid – Malaga, which might take 8 hours on a normal train, is 3.5 hours on the AVE. In other words, it is worth the extra expenditure.
Also note that the train system (both normal and fast) will offer an up to 20% discount if you purchase a round trip ticket. There are other discounts available for children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
International Rail and SpainRail Passes
Often times people coming to Europe think it is a good idea to buy an international rail pass, or a country wide railpass, and sometimes, it can be. The international rail passes are the InterRail (interrailnet.com) and the Eurail (raileurope.com). However, InterRail is only for European residents, and Eurail is probably not worth your money unless you are planning to visit a few other places in Europe.
If you are only planning to visit Spain and then move on to one other city or so in Europe, it is probably cheaper to buy individual tickets. Either of these websites also offer Spain only packages, but again, unless you are traveling to many places in a short amount of time, purchasing individual tickets for your destinations is probably the way to go.
Renting a car is also an option, and prices are comparable to anywhere else in Europe – however, be aware it is rather difficult (though not impossible) to find an automatic transmission.
Inner City Traveling
In major cities, you will find a fairly comprehensive network of local buses and in some places a modern and efficient metro system. It is normally not worth buying passes for these smaller types of transporation in advance, and it is easy to purchase tickets at the stations themselves.
Police and Crime
Spain is a safe country. Violent crime is statistically low according to both the Spanish department of Safety and reports by the US Embassy of crime against tourists. While pickpocketing is a reality, there are ways to deter thieves, and muggings and assaults are not prevalent.
When traveling in tourist areas or crowded places, always keep your bag tucked against your side. We recommend a bag with both a zipper and a front flap to protect the interior. As long as you keep your hand on top of it, it will be much harder for anyone to steal from it. Keep wallets in your front pocket instead of the back and just make sure to keep an eye on your things. Do not leave purses on the floor at restaurants or in public places, and do not keep anything valuable in small, exposed pockets on a backpack.
If you do have an incident, the emergency number is 112 for all issues, and works on cellphones with emergency service, even if they are roaming. There are municipal police who work for the cities and town, and are usually marked with a vest that says ‘Policia Municipal’. There are national police, who you might also see in blue uniforms, and if you have a serious issue, they will more than likely be the ones to take care of you. There are also Guardia Civil who police the rural areas outside of city boundaries, who wear green uniforms. Should you have a problem on the road, they will be the ones to take care of you.
If your passport is stolen or lost, you must immediately call the United States Embassy. You can look up the closest Embassy Phone number at www.usembassy.gov .
Health and Safety
Spain has a very good health care system and modern care facilities. Should you have a problem, there are ambulances and also mobile care units that act as mini triage stations. If you have a minor problem, a Samur vehicle will come and care for you immediately, and take you to the hospital if the situation is more serious.
Water is safe to drink in Spain, though in some parts it may taste a little less pleasant than others. While you might prefer drinking bottled water, it will not harm you to drink or use water from the tap.
Food safety regulations are more or less the same as they are in the United States, though meat is sometimes cooked less than you would see in an American restaurant. If you order something medium you may get more pink in the middle than you expected. Menus will often tell you if a dish comes with raw materials like eggs, fish, or meat, but it is not as common to find those things in Spanish cuisine.
You do not need any inoculations to come to Spain.