Travelling to Spain for the First Time? Helpful Tips Await!
Ah, Spain. As one of Lisa’s favourite destinations on the planet, we write about Spain travel quite a bit! Lisa studied abroad in Bilbao for months and travelled as much as Spain as she could. Show her a map of Spain – she gets excited! Eric has only been to Barcelona so Lisa wants to take him back to Spain really soon.
That said, if you are planning a trip to Spain for the first time, there are a few things you should know and we are here to break them down for you. It can be easy to get caught up in the sunshine and forget about the place around you!
As for more Spain travel tips, if you want to know what to bring when travelling to Spain, we are writing a Spain packing list very soon! For now, whether you are looking for how much to tip, what currency to use, how to rent a car, Spanish culture or you are just looking for general information for your Spain trip, we have you covered below!
If you are travelling to Spain for the first time and/or are planning an awesome Spain itinerary, we have other posts that you might be interested in!
General Information About Spain
Spain is located in Western Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. It is part of the European Union, and uses Central European Standard Time. So you can look it up to see what the time difference (if any) is for you. The country itself is comprised of 17 autonomous regions that often have different geography, culture, and sometimes even language.
Overall Spain has a population with slightly over 46 million people. Madrid is the capital with slightly more than 3 million inhabitants Fun Fact: Madrid is located pretty much right in the center of the country which is a practical place for a capital city to be. There are a few other big cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Zaragoza and Malága. Spain also has a few islands with notable ones being Mallorca, Ibiza, and Tenerife.
The official language of Spain is Spanish – and the version you might be thinking of is called Castellano. That said, there are other languages spoken and we dive into that down below in the languages section!
Weather and Climate in Spain
Spain is quite a large country and has a diverse geography. This means that there are different climate zones throughout the country. Usually summers are hot and dry while winters are mild and rainy. During the summer, you can expect temperatures up to 30 °C (sometimes even hotter) and in the winter temperatures between 10 – 15 °C. Of course, these temperatures vary depending on the region you are visiting. You can even find regions where there is snow in the winter such as in Sierra Nevada close to Granada.
Seville is one of the hottest cities of the country and temperatures above 30 °C in the summer are quite common. Since it is not by the ocean, it can feel even warmer. Therefore, we would recommend to avoid this area during July and August.
Visa Information to Visit Spain
Spain is part of the European Union and the Schengen Zone. As such, you only need a valid ID or passport if you hold an EU-citizenship. In case you didn’t know, the Schengen Zone is an area in Europe comprised of 26 countries that allow free movement between them once you have “entered the zone”.
Most major non-European passports (Canadian, America, Australian, etc.) can stay in the Schengen Zone without a visa for up to 90 days within a span of 180 total days. So you’ll be fine if you only visit Spain for a few weeks. However, you do need to take into consideration any time you spend in other Schengen countries before or after your time in Spain. Also, always check the visa restrictions for your passport with your country’s government/embassy before leaving! If you need a visa for the Schengen Zone, you will have to apply beforehand.
Paying and Tipping In Spain
The national currency used in Spain is the Euro. In supermarkets and bigger shops, you can usually pay with a European Debit Card or international credit card. Visa and Master Card are widely accepted, smaller credit cards not always.
While you can pay with card in bigger stores we still recommend that you have cash with you when you go out to eat, go for a coffee, or out for a drink – especially when going to small bars. Sometimes it is only possible to pay with cash at those places. You don’t have to get Euro in your home country but we recommend that you take out some money from an ATM once you arrive in Spain.
Tipping in Spain is not mandatory but it is a common practice in bars, restaurants, hotels and taxis. How much you tip depends on the total price and how great the service was. Usually you can expect to tip around 5 – 10% of the total price – so if you are coming from North America this is slightly less than you might tip at home.
Plugs/Electronics Used in Spain
Spain uses a two-prong plug classified as type C or E/F plug with 230 Volt – that is the same as in many other European countries such as Germany, France, Denmark – but not in the UK, Malta, Ireland or Cyprus. So if you are travelling to Spain from another European country, you most likely won’t need an adapter/converter.
However, if you are visiting Spain from North America you will need an adapter since the plug style is different than in the United States or Canada. While most of your electronic such as phone and laptop chargers or hair dryers should be able to handle 230-volt plugs, make sure to double check the label beforehand!
Getting To/Around Spain
Spain has many airports – some of the major ones are in Madrid, Barcelona, Málaga, Sevilla and Bilbao on the mainland and Mallorca, Ibiza, and Tenerife on the islands. Generally, you shouldn’t have a problem getting to Spain from other parts of Europe or even overseas.
Once you’re in Spain, you can either rent a car (which we will cover further down) or make use of their public transport system. Spain has a reliable train and bus system that Lisa has used many, many times during her time in Spain. One of the biggest bus companies is Alsa – you can check out their website here.
The public train company is called RENFE. We would recommend to always check both train and bus options as sometimes buses can actually be faster (and usually cheaper) than trains. This is for example the case in the Basque country. In the south the train is usually faster, though.
Driving and Renting a Car in Spain
In Spain people drive on the right side as in most parts of Europe. Generally driving in Spain is pretty safe but some Spaniards can be considered “reckless drivers” – so it can be a little bit crazy in bigger cities. If you’re not used to driving in big cities anyway, maybe avoid doing it in Spain.
There are lots of rental car agencies in Spain since it is such a popular tourist destination. You need to be over 21 (and in some cases older depending on the company) and have had your license for a certain amount of time (usually 1-2 years) to hire a car. You can compare prices for rentals from different companies here. As always make sure to check for any damages right away when you get the car.
If you hold a driver’s license from another European Union country you’ll be fine to drive in Spain as well. If you have a drivers license from another country, you’ll most likely need an international drivers license in addition to your regular license. You can get that in your home country before leaving for your trip to Spain. Eric has one from Canada.
In Spain, there are quite a few toll roads which are comparable to the highways you may be used to. We would recommend that you check your route beforehand so you know whether you’ll be using toll roads – have some cash with you for that, just in case. It is generally possible to avoid toll roads by using smaller roads close by – however, this can result in longer driving times.
Speed limits are usually 120 km/h on motorways, 100 km/h on country roads, and 50 km/h on inner city roads – and all distances are given in kilometres not miles.
Safety in Spain
Spain is generally a pretty safe country. However, pick-pocketing does occur quite frequently especially in bigger centres such as Madrid and Barcelona. Lisa knows at least 5 people that had their phone and/or wallet stolen in one of these two cities. So please be careful and only take the things that you need out with you. If you can, leave credit cards, drivers license, etc. at the hotel when you explore the city and especially when you go out at night.
As for health and safety, the summer sun can be very hot. So, make sure to wear sunscreen, drink enough water and wear a hat. We always have our water bottles topped up and since you can (for the most part) drink the tap water in Spain, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you are unsure, ask your host or hotel!
Languages in Spain
As we briefly mentioned up top, the official language in Spain is Spanish (specifically Castellano). That said, in some of the autonomous regions there are additional official languages. For example, Euskera is an official language in the Basque country – it’s a very unique language and Lisa didn’t manage to learn more than a few words when she lived in Bilbao for a few months. You can read about things to do in Bilbao here!
In Catalona, they also speak Catalan which is more similar to “normal Spanish”. In Valencia, Valencian is also an official languages. In fact, it can be quite confusing when the street signs are in Valencian and they don’t match the street names on your map in Castellano. Then there is also Galician which is spoken in – you guessed it – Galicia!
In the end, if you are travelling to Spain for the first time, stick with “basic Spanish” but don’t be afraid to learn a few specific words in the language of the area you are travelling! Speaking of speaking to people while in Spain…..
Communicating With Locals in Spain
Generally, Spanish people are quite friendly if you are polite and open. However, sometimes it can be difficult to communicate with them if you’re not speaking Spanish. That’s why we recommend that you learn at least a few words of Spanish before your trip. English is common in the tourism industry.
Most young people have at least a basic understanding of English – but don’t expect everyone to speak English. Some people also theoretically speak English but might be too afraid/embarrassed to use it. There’s no need to be afraid though – Eric for example doesn’t speak Spanish and he was completely fine when he visited Barcelona with some friends.
Cultural Differences Within Spain
One thing that you’ll notice if you visit multiple regions in Spain is that there can be big cultural differences between them. This is especially true between the Basque country, Catalonia, or Galicia – each with their unique identities and languages (as we have already covered above).
As a traveller, it is important that you are open-minded and don’t make assumptions – just because something is done in one part of Spain doesn’t mean that this is the case for the whole country. An example we always like to use is that not all Americans wear cowboy boots and hats in the same way that not all Germans wear Dirndl and Lederhosn on a daily basis.
While this might not be vital to know for planning a visit to Spain, we wanted to briefly talk about Spanish history since (despite the sunshine) it has quite a few darker moments. As travellers ourselves, we think that it is important to have a basic understanding of the country’s history that you are visiting. This way, you can avoid some very obvious (and potentially embarrassing/awkward) faux pas moments.
Spain had a lot of colonies in Central and South America in past centuries which they lost command of during the 16th and 17th century. Still to this date, there is a strong connection between many South American countries and Spain.
In regards to recent history, Spain suffered during a civil war which lasted from 1936 and 1939. The result of the war was a 36 year long military dictatorship under Francisco Franco. A lot of things were different under his rule and for some you can still feel the effects today. In 1975, after Franco’s death, Spain established a democracy and then joined the European Union in 1986. Lisa remembers learning a lot about Spanish history at university. If this is a topic you are interested in, you can find different history tours and museums across the country!
And there you have it – 12 things you should know when travelling to Spain for the first time. Spain is a beautiful country with so much to offer travellers. Like we mentioned, we want to go back there soon so we can discover more of Spain – the small cities along the coast are the target once Lisa has taken Eric through the big cities! Let us know how your Spain trip goes – we’d love to share tips/advice!
As always, Happy Spain Waddling!