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Trying to decide on a destination can be hard if you, like me, are an over planner. Maybe even a bit of a worrier? (Hey – I’ll admit it. I like to know where I’m going and what I’m getting myself into. Spontaneous and international are not two words that go together in my mind.) Something I’ve found myself wishing I could find are posts that break down more logistical aspects of traveling in a country.
Like when I’m trying to make decisions about how we should travel or whether or not the language barrier is going to go from being a challenge to being an actual problem. Maybe you’re nothing like me and live for the spontaneity and unknown of a trip. If so, I love and admire you, but this post is not for you. This is the post that I wished I found before I left for Spain covering the basics of traveling around the country.
After our somewhat stressful driving debacle in Ireland, I was only willing to rent a car in Spain because they drive on the right side of the road. (Both the actual right and the metaphorical right side – sorry to all my lefty drivers out there…) Also because of the seeming similarity of driving in the US and driving in Spain, we split up the driving responsibilities. (Whereas Alex did all of the driving in Ireland.) We had the car for ten days and drove something like 2,000 kilometers once all was said and done in our rented crossover SUV.
When we saw how many tolls were between Barcelona and Madrid, we were worried that we’d under budgeted for how much they were going to cost us throughout the entire trip. However, that area seems to be an outlier in both toll frequency and cost. Be ready to pay a steep price in that area, but we encountered very few after that. A bonus of Spanish tolls is that they all appear to take credit cards, no matter the amount.
If you’ve driven in the US, you’ve heard the rule that the left lane is only for passing. Yet, even though Americans claim to follow that rule, we’ve all seen too many people actually ride the left lane. Which was the opposite of our experience in Spain. Spaniards get into the left lane, pass, and then get back in the right lane However, when you are considering passing and flip on your turn signal, the car behind you will probably take this as their cue to speed up and pass you. Just let them do it. It’s easier.
Besides the strongly enforced lane usage, highways are just like the US. Big cities are busy, just like the US, but are otherwise similar except for the bus and taxi lane, which can get confusing if you are trying to turn right. Don’t get into their lane when trying to turn right, you’ll get honked at. (Yes, I did get honked at, but I honestly have no regrets – I needed to take that right.) The proper thing to do is stay in the farthest right lane that isn’t the bus/taxi lane, turn on your turn signal and wait until the bus/taxi lane is clear. This seems like a great way to get honked at by those waiting behind you as you try to take the right – but who am I to judge?
Smaller city/town streets can be narrow and only one way. Thankfully most streets don’t have cars parked on one or either side, which makes for slightly easier navigation. (Key phrase being most – there were certainly some roads that had cars parked on both sides and had me holding my breath the whole way.) Narrow streets can also mean narrow parking spaces, so make sure whoever is driving is ready to wiggle and angle in. I’m spoiled because Alex is a pro at parking. (Aka I never would have made it out of that space in Segovia on our second day with the car or that underground parking garage in Sevilla.)
As I mentioned earlier, we had a crossover SUV, which did make some of the narrow streets tricky. The rental company had very few automatic cars, so we had to take what we could get in terms of size. If I had my choice, I would’ve rented a Mini Cooper and then zipped around Spain with no problems. If you do end up with a bigger car, you’ll have to choose your streets wisely, especially in the city centers. Our AirBnB host in Sevilla bluntly told us that our car wouldn’t fit down certain roads and wouldn’t be able to clear some of the more severe turns. (Not that he could specifically tell us which ones, he just wanted to know that it was possible…)
We tried to be proactive and book most of our AirBnBs with parking spots included. In theory this was great, except that the only thing narrower than on street parking spots in Spain are residential parking spots. Alex wiggled and shimmied that car through our fair share of angular and small underground parking areas, especially in some of the smaller cities. There were some days that we decided to take the loss and just pay to park in a commercial lot because we knew that the spots would be bigger and easier to navigate. Again, if you had a smaller car, then the together spots would be less of an issue. Our car also came with a back up camera, which came in handy when having to back in tight spots.
Renting a Car
Although we had some challenges with the car, one of the best choices we did make was renting at a small Hertz on the outskirts of the city. While it may not seem like the most logical choice, picking the car up in a more industrial section of town meant we barely drove in Barcelona and were very close to the highway. The L9S also has a stop within walking distance of the rental office, so it is relatively easy to get to. (In case you also want to rent from here, the address Av. les Garrigues, 1, 3, 08820 El Prat de Llobregat, Barcelona.)
No matter where you go and how much you love it, there will always be challenges in different countries. Besides the narrow streets and tough parking spots (as mentioned above), the biggest challenge in Spain was something that totally surprised me – the amount of daylight. We visited Spain in May and it doesn’t begin to get dark until around 9 PM (We were told this is because they are on the same time zone as continental Europe as opposed to the UK time zone.)
The Spanish lifestyle mirrors this and they stay up with the sun. It wasn’t uncommon for museums and stores to be open until 8 or 9 PM, with restaurants open even later. Before traveling to Spain, I knew that they had a later eating schedule than we do in America, but this was a huge shock to the system. It sounds silly, but imagine jetlag plus general travel fatigue plus not having dinner until 9 or 10 and then going to bed after that. While the extra light meant that we had ample time to fit in all the sites and museums we wanted to see, it really threw my sleeping schedule for a loop.
Obviously, I don’t want to make a blanket statement because safety is relative and sometimes unpredictable, but when considering Spain from the perspective of a woman who has traveled alone before, I think it would make a good option for female solo travel. As noted above, the Spanish stay up late during the warmer months, so there are people eating and walking late into the night.
Having to walk alone at night is always one of my biggest concerns when I’m traveling by myself, but that concern is definitely less relevant with the amount of people around and about. This comment is anecdotal and does depend on what city and neighborhood you’re in. Before making any decisions, observe the habits and atmosphere of your specific location and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts.
Although we both speak some Spanish, there was definitely a language barrier at points during our trip. It was most pronounced when communicating with AirBnB hosts, many of whom only spoke Spanish. Now, I think you could get around Spain just fine with some patience, Google translate on your phone, and a smile. In general, Spanish folks were nothing but warm, friendly, and tolerant as we tried not to botch their entire language while getting our point across. (Thankfully road and highways rely on symbols, so we had no language issues while driving or navigating.)
Also, it is worth noting that they not only speak Spanish in Spain, but some parts also speak Catalan. I’m going to spare you the history of the years of conflict, but just know that, especially in Barcelona, you’ll see signs in both languages. We definitely ended up at a restaurant where the menu was in Catalan. (Here’s a short article discussing the differences between Spanish and Catalan, if you’re interested.)
Do I recommend Spain if you don’t speak Spanish (or Catalan)? Yes. As long as you are ready for the challenge. (It’s not a true challenge – more like a mini-challenge. I consider somewhere like Poland or Indonesia to be much more of a true challenge, as those languages are completely foreign to English speakers.) Going to a country where you do not speak the language is a roller coaster of rewarding, hard, frustrating, and complicated. I have never been more discouraged than when I think I know the right words, only to confuse the person I am talking to. On the other hand, I have never been more proud then when I not only understand what someone is asking me, but can also answer appropriately.
My biggest piece of advice is to feel all the feelings, but also remember that the language barrier is your problem, not theirs. It is totally fine to be frustrated with yourself, but it is not alright to take that out on the native speaker. I’ve seen that happen too many times and not only is it not only rude, it is also disrespectful. You’re visiting someone else’s country. (Also, it may give you some perspective on what it is like to come to a country where you don’t speak the language…)
What do you think? Is this enough information to make you feel like you can handle a trip to Spain? If so, pin it on Pinterest! Any other questions? Something I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..