When you organise hundreds of bespoke trips across Spain and Portugal every year for 16 years, you learn a thing or two about people and travel. Armed with that very knowledge here at Totally Spain, we’ve decided to pull together our 21 tips for travelling in Spain so you can avoid the common mistakes that trip up travellers every day of the year in Spain.
21 Insider Tips for Travelling in Spain
1 Spain is a big country and you shouldn’t try to see it all in one trip. Although it looks kind of small on the laptop or tablet screen, the country is twice the size of the UK. Unless you are spending a month here, our advice is to pick just 4-5 locations. Click here for 10 of our favourite cities in Spain. And check out our favourite boutique destinations that you many not have even heard of but will thoroughly enjoy.
2 Travel off-peak if you can. You’ll get much better deals at hotels which will be your primary expense. You’ll also find it easier to get about and you’ll find you’ll be sharing the terraces and squares with locals who are much more reliable when it comes to knowing what to order! (We always eyeball other people’s dishes when we are out – don’t you?). If you’d like to read about more money saving travel tips in Spain, click here.
3 Don’t drive unless you have to. City driving can be stressful and parking can be problematic at certain times of the day and if staying in the Old Quarter of certain cities such as Seville. The high-speed trains here are fantastic for long journeys. Hire cars or take the bus in mountainous areas such as the North of Spain or get an English speaking private driver – especially for airport collections after a long flight when you don’t feel like negotiating timetables, road systems or taxi ranks. And very handy for off-the-beaten track routes where a set of local hands makes the trip so much easier. Private drivers are also great when scheduling winery tours – so you can really enjoy the wine tastings!
4 Don’t always assume that a room with a view is the best hotel room for you to book. If your hotel is overlooking a busy square, you are better off booking a room that is either quite high up or one that doesn’t look onto the square but faces onto an interior patio or courtyard. This is especially important during festival time which can be noisy and go on till the early hours. We can advise you which room to book when we know you dates and locations being visited.
5 Know what the Spanish mealtimes are. This is the single biggest mistake first-timers make. Lunch time is often when the Spanish eat their large meal of the day – so if you are only looking for a small snack, you should mention that when sitting down. And do not go out for tapas or dinner at 7pm – what you see will often be leftovers from lunch. Nap and have small snack if you don’t think you’ll last until 9pm.
6 Don’t expect to be served the same type of tapas here that you order abroad. Tapas vary hugely from bar to bar and from region to region. In general, tapas are something free you are offered with a drink so the size is usually quite modest – perhaps some crisps, chorizo or a small portion of Russian salad with bread. But if you go to cities famous for the free tapas such as Leon or Granada, you’ll be offered a choice of tapa which are often very generous. What people tend to call ‘tapas’ abroad are actually ‘raciones’ in Spain. So you need to look at the ‘raciones’ menu to find things like patatas bravas, morcilla (black pudding), gambas (prawns), albondigas (meatballs) and pimientos de padron (small fried green peppers) plus a long list of dishes that you might never have tried but should! Check out our guide to the art of Spanish gastronomy here so you know which are the most revered dishes and drinks to sample.
7 Don’t be put off by a bar with a dirty floor – those are the ones you should be visiting! It means that you have approached it at around about the right time of the day too when the locals are out socialising. Debris-free floors can mean you are there at the wrong time. Check out more quirky elements to eating out in Spain here.
8 Share food. It’s the done thing. And a great way for everybody to try new dishes.
9 Be brave when ordering food when travelling with kids! It’s what they remember most about the trip! Reward them with occasional trips to fast food joints – but make them Spanish chains rather than international ones.
10 Make sure you do at least one food tour – preferably at the start of your trip!
11 Try at least one menu-del-dia. This three course set price meal offers amazing value and you’ll get to try the local dishes with the locals…
12 Remember, tipping is discretionary here. Do what you feel comfortable with – and if in doubt, just round up the loose change.
13 When packing your suitcase, research the average temperatures for the places you are visiting. Whilst you don’t need to try to look like a Spaniard, bear in mind that there are certain places where you’ll need to cover up – including churches, banks, hospitals, museums and some restaurants. Flip flops are a complete no-no unless you are at the beach or poolside.
14 Don’t waste your time getting angry about things you can’t change. If you don’t like traffic, or the mealtimes, or find the a/c systems here tricky to understand, don’t get upset. And try not to get ruffled if you find service is a bit too slow for you. If you are in a hurry, grab something at the bar because service in Spain is rarely rushed and restaurants don’t actively seek two sittings at a table during mealtimes. They are quite happy for you to stay and chat over coffee.
15 Don’t expect tea or coffee making facilities at your hotel. If you’d like to know more about this and the other common hotel bugbears in Spain, you’ll want to click here.
16 Ask for help and advice when you need it. At your hotel. At a restaurant. At the tourist office. On the street. You’ll be surprised how helpful people will be.
17 Pro-tip: Value your vacation time in Spain as much as we do. We do everything within our power to ensure our client’s time in Spain isn’t spent in a queue, in traffic or holding on a phone. Make sure you pre-book tickets for the key attractions. Don’t wait until you are hungry to look for a restaurant – especially if you have a few people in tow. Book a table online the night before, or at the very least, have a list of options near where you will be spending your time. And plan your route each morning before you leave the hotel. Obviously leave some time to pop into places you stumble upon as you walk around, but don’t make the mistake of aimlessly wandering – especially during the hot months of the Summer. Totally Spain’s very complete documentation pack with useful guides and tourist information will help you make the most of your time.
18 Try to learn a few phrases in Spanish if you can. And learn a little about the culture also before you travel. It’s getting much easier to find people with good English in Spain – especially in the larger more touristy locations but any time you spend learning a few phrases will be heartily rewarded with smiles and more. Check out your local Instituto Cervantes for language classes and cultural events. Here are links to the larger institutes in London, New York and Sydney.
19 Remember the opening hours for shops vary significantly to elsewhere in Europe. Check out our shopping guide for details. And yes, we do think you should buy shoes in Spain!
20 Tech-up in advance if you need to. Order a mobile wifi modem or get an appropriate travel plan with your mobile phone provider before you depart. This is vital if you are travelling with teenagers, want to download your images to Dropbox etc or enjoy posting to your social media platforms on the fly. Download and familiarise yourself with the best travel apps before you leave home so you’re not wasting you time doing it when you are in Spain.
21 Check out our many helpful insider guides, popular posts and useful info. Seek direct advice from us at Totally Spain if you know when you are travelling and want a customised trip planned to perfection – and have a great holiday