10 Things I Learned in Spain

September 9, 2014

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I’ve knocked another country off my goal of 30 countries by 30! While in Spain, these were the tips I picked up.

The Bankia ATM outside of MAD Terminal 1 that ate my debit card.
The Bankia ATM outside of MAD Terminal 1 that ate my debit card.

1. Bring an extra debit card, and withdraw only from ATMs connected to a bank: Shameless plug for Charles Schwab bank. Their checking account is wonderful with zero exchange fees and free ATM withdrawals. PERFECT for international trips! I’ve traveled to quite a few countries without having to bring cash ahead of time. Unfortunately, my plan backfired not even 30 minutes after landing in Madrid. My debit card was “eaten” at a Bankia ATM. Because I withdrew from a stand alone ATM at the airport, the staff was unable to retrieve my card. Lesson learned. Always have a back up debit card at your disposal. Only withdraw from ATMs that are connected to a bank branch, and if possible, make those withdrawals during business hours. Should your card get “eaten”, the chances that your card can be retrieved by a teller are higher. From now on, I’ll be bringing $100 in my destination’s currency and two debit cards prior to boarding. It’s important to have access to cash even with all of the international credit cards available. More than half of the local vendors we encountered in Spain only accepted Euros, particularly at hole in the wall bars and restaurants.

2. Yes, you can drink the tap water: Spain has drinkable, and actually delicious, tap water! Tap water will not be brought to the table, but you can request it by

A delicious mojito at Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid for 8.50 EUR, and I happily tipped my change.
A delicious mojito at Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid for 8.50 EUR, and I happily tipped my change.

asking the server for “un vaso de agua”. On hot days, don’t forget to add “con hielo” for ice. If you simply ask for water, they will bring bottled water for an extra 1 – 3 EUR.

3. How much do you tip?: Tipping can be extremely confusing when traveling abroad. In NYC, I tip anywhere from 15 – 22% depending on the service. Despite that it’s not customary in other countries, I either feel (a) extremely guilty for not tipping (b) as if I’m expected to tip when servers realize I’m American. Don’t feel obligated to tip in Spain. The common practice is to leave your change. At nicer restaurants, an automatic service charge of 4-8 EUR per person was added onto our bill. You do not need to tip more than that, unless you’re feeling generous. And even then, don’t tip more than 10%. of your bill.

4. Wear a hat, no matter how touristy you look: Sweat was dripping across my forehead during a leisurely stroll in Park Retiro. Submitting to the heat, I walked over to a stand and purchased a fedora for 5 EUR. As we walked around the cities of Madrid and Sevilla, I realized the only people wearing similar hats were tourists. It screamed, “I’M SO NOT LOCAL”. But the hat was magical. I made the mistake of leaving it at the hotel one day. I was drenched in sweat by early afternoon.

Can you spot the subtle Coke-Cola logo?
Can you spot the subtle Coke-Cola logo?

5. Carry an external charger: I carry an iPhone charger in my bag religiously. The battery life of an iPhone is absolute shit when running Google Maps, Instagram, and Safari while in the heat. I knew in advance I wasn’t going to go around asking local bars to plug in my massive brick of a travel adapter to charge my phone. To combat this, I rotated charging external batteries. I would keep one fully charged one in my bag for use at all times. You don’t need to be as OCD as I was with three different battery packs, but I highly recommend investing in at least one before you travel.

6. Don’t rely on Yelp and Trip Advisor times: Yelp is still an emerging site in Spain. It’s a great platform to find favorites among locals and tourists alike, but there are bugs to work out. The times updated by the businesses are not accurate. Many of the times posted do not account for a restaurant’s midday close following lunch. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the concierge to give a call to the place of interest before you head there.

7. Coke-cola owns the town of Sevilla: I’m kidding…slightly. Even the tiniest winding streets of Sevilla are covered with thick fabric awnings between buildings. This blocks out the intense heat, and makes it bearable to enjoy a stroll. Imprinted into the middle of the off-white fabric

Most bars and restaurants give a small plate of olives with a round.
Many bars give a small plate of olives with a round.

awnings is the Coke-Cola logo. At first, I thought it was just that one, but soon enough, I realized at least every block had one Coke-Cola sponsored awning. Even a dessert menu at a local tapas spot was sponsored by Coke!

8. While Schweppes controls Madrid: From ginger ale, to tonic, and limonata, Madrid loves their Schweppes! A colorful Schweppes sign illuminates the center of the city by El Corte Ingles every evening. All of our hotel lounges were stocked abundantly with Schweppes. I particularly loved the limonata and naranja flavors. I have yet to come across them in NYC, unfortunately.

9. Enjoy a cana, or two: Spanish culture is amazing. I instantly fell in love with the people, and their laid-back lifestyle- even in the biggest city of Madrid. Don’t jam pack your itinerary with back to back sights. Leave a couple hours, or a whole afternoon, to relax at a local tapas spot with a cana.

10. And eat up all the jamon that you can! A friend advised us to try the jamon, but with the fear that we’ll be craving it long after we return home. Our first piece of jamon was meh. I wasn’t impressed…until I ate a second, third, fourth…you get the idea. Jamon is cured ham that is similar in appearance to proscuitto but not as salty. Not all jamon is created equally. Treat yourself to the jamon ilberico de bellota with a cana.

The cravings for jamon have already begun.
The cravings for jamon have already begun.
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