Grandpa was a POW in Spain and I just found my passport.
July 31, 2010 9:52 AM   Subscribe

The sum total of my international traveling experience has been to take day trips into Baja (while I lived in LA) and day trips into Windsor (when I lived near Detroit,) two days in Toronto for my brother's wedding, and, oh yes, three hours walking around Niagara Falls last week because I was so happy I found my passport. Now I want to go to Europe, by myself, before my parents (who have been everywhere else first) beat me (they're going in September of 2011.)

Background:
I want to jump up and down on some thing that the Romans built (roads, etc.) I would like to get a picture of a castle, preferably still standing. Okay, okay, I want lots of pictures of castles, and other "this couldn't possibly have been taking in the US or Vietnam or the Bahamas or even Chile, neener neener neener" shots. And I want to visit this place, because my grandfather spent most of a year there when he was my age, and I know far more about it than almost any other place in Western Europe.

Meanwhile, I will not have a ton of money (probably less than $2000 total to cover the whole thing,) and speak not a single word of anything helpful (I can barely remember my Mexican Spanish from school; if I run into a Russian I'm golden, though.)

I care nothing for wine (I'm a Mormon) or bars or smoking or nightclubs or half of what reading the BBC news website seems to make vacationing in Europe about. I am deeply introverted, and would be delighted at wandering a huge tourist trap all by my lonesome with my camera and a bottle of water. I am a girl, and I will be traveling alone. I love museums and monuments and you can't pay me to sunbathe. I do have fairly extensive travel experience on my own in the United States in cars, trains, buses, and planes, but mostly day trips - anything longer has been with family or with them nearby, which this trip can't be. I was in ROTC/Sea Cadets as a kid and am about to take some more self-defense stuff just for the fun of it, so I am moderately confident in my ability not to die/freak out horribly under pressure.

My specific questions are:
- when is the best time, after January of 2011 but before September of 2011, to be in Spain? I hate crowds and 80-degree heat, but I hate 5-foot drifts of snow even more.
- I am an OCD kind of picky eater, slowly adding to my list of liked foods at a rate of about 2 per year, but I always like hard cheeses and simple breads and "plain" foods. Am I Doomed? I've been told to flat-out stay out of Germany until I'm much, much better about this. I will not try the baby squid no matter how much guilt is inflicted upon me.
- is it better, if I'm traveling to Burgos/San Pedro de Cardeña, to fly into Barcelona or Madrid, starting from Columbus (and not caring whether I have to transfer in Chicago, Orlando, or New York, but caring very much about the quality of of the experience?) I'm worried about the airports themselves, the train journey from each of them to Burgos, what I could do for just one day in either city if I decided to do that before heading out, how many people around will take pity on an English-speaking girl, etc.
- if traveling outside cities, do I need to worry about people making a big deal about my birthmark? I have learned through meeting immigrants in the US that in selected cultures touching my face is supposed to bring good luck and/or fertility. I'm not down with random people touching my face, or really even doing the point-and-stare "what's wrong with your FACE?" thing. I'm afraid I'm not up on attitudes towards facial deformities in Spain and am having trouble researching it. I'll pack Dermablend if I have to, but it's a bummer.
- is it inappropriate to ask people questions about Franco/the war/Frank Ryan/etc. while actually in Spain? Are there markers at historical sites? Is this like the US Civil War in Pennsylvania or is it like the Soviet era when wandering around Ukraine?
- are there Spanish Civil War themed tours that I have not been able to find using Google, which cost less than $2000 (after any single supplement, inclusive of air, etc.)?
- do I need to spend the next few months mixing my GMAT studies with work on Spanish/Catalan? I mean intensive work; I'm good at languages and can easily memorize a page or two of "don't be a jerk in Spain" vocabulary.
- I keep reading these questions about Europe and getting all these warnings about pickpockets and women being careful and so forth. Are the precautions I took as, e.g., a member of the Hollywood Star Wars line (slept in tents in the parking lot outside Grauman's Chinese for 6 weeks) probably sufficient?
- do I need to rent a car if I do this alone? If I'm in Spain I will be out in the countryside, so this seems almost certain, but I thought I'd check.
- is this way too ambitious for a fairly sheltered person who has only made her own hotel reservations twice? I can't help but be alarmed; though I do lots of complicated planning and such in my work, I have never planned a trip with this many variables, and have always, always had a backup plan (e.g., when my sleeping arrangements at the 2005 Comic-Con fell through, I slept on the floor in a friend's hotel room.) This has always been a "let your father/stepfather take care of it" thing for me.

Oh, and I need my own locked door to sleep, with no strangers on "my" side of the door, or I won't sleep at all. Is there no hope for keeping that hotel room cost below, say, $60?

I'm willing to do English Speaking Country + Quick Jaunt Into Spain; that was actually my original idea, after I found out how expensive it is to do a vacation in London for six days. But it seems outrageously expensive (to someone who's still getting over the idea she can make more than $10/hour and that she has tenure at work) to get between major cities in Europe, not to mention time consuming, and I really want to do San Pedro right, especially - possibly also find some of the battlegrounds Grandpa fought on, find the spot he was captured by the fascists, etc.

I've thought about ditching the Burgos plan and just sticking with someplace in England/Scotland/Wales/Ireland for this first trip, but gosh darn it, grandpa hiked over the Pyrenees to fight fascism when he was younger than I am now. So I'd really like it to be feasible. But don't like, lie to me if this is as hard as I'm starting to think it is.

I assume that if I ditch Burgos in favor of Galway or London or Sherwood Forest (the fact there's actually a place called that I find infinitely delightful, because I am a nerd and an American who has never been anywhere) for Trip #1 the Lonely Planet guides and earlier AskMe questions will be sufficient for my needs. I would go to Eastern Europe, but I want to do a specific cruise that I can't afford yet.
posted by SMPA to Travel & Transportation around Spain (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would avoid southern Europe based on everything you've said here. Go to England. It has simple food, roman ruins, English speaking people, and you can be entertained for days wandering around London without having to worry about smoking or nightclubs or bars or whatever else doesn't agree with you.
posted by dfriedman at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2010


Oh, and it England has castles. And no English person would want to touch your face.
posted by dfriedman at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2010


You can get reasonably cheap flights from the UK to Spain - I'd imagine that you could do some time in the UK + a week in Spain no problem.

As for places to stay - try Couchsurfing or servas. I've hosted and travelled in both, and it's a good way to travel if you want to actually meet people. As an introvert-type you wouldn't want to do it all the time but for a couple of 2-3 day stays it's a cheap (you pay to get verified on couchsurfing then it's free, same with SERVAS but there's an interview). A mix of couchsurfing and cheap hotels is a lot cheaper than always staying in hotels. People say on their profiles whether it's an actual couch or a spare room, and in my experience it's mostly spare rooms so you get your own space.

I think that timing-wise, May is good for a combined UK+Spain trip. Spain's not yet got too hot. UK will be rainy, but also very green.
posted by handee at 10:21 AM on July 31, 2010


I spent a few days in Barcelona with some friends, many years ago. Only one of us spoke (high-school) Spanish; we got along fine with combinations of English, French (which all of us spoke), body language, and pointing. The blondes among us got much, much more attention - most of it annoying, none of it scary, but we were in a group - than the brunettes.

In England, you can't swing a cat without hitting something Roman. Dig down two inches and you're likely to come up with Roman or Anglo-Saxon/Viking artifacts (seriously - the British Museum is packed with items that have little cards next to them that say things like "Discovered in 1878 by a nine-year-old girl playing on a riverbank."). If you go to Bath, you will be surrounded by Roman stuff. But England isn't inexpensive, no - we were there in April.

One of our plans at some point in the future is to walk a portion of Hadrian's Wall. It's been a while since I did any pricing, but there are various companies that will drive your stuff from one B&B to the next while you stroll the Wall with a daypack.
posted by rtha at 10:24 AM on July 31, 2010


Is this like the US Civil War in Pennsylvania or is it like the Soviet era when wandering around Ukraine?

It's tricky; it depends. The Civil War is still living memory for the very oldest generation; the Franco regime is living memory for anyone approaching middle-age; for pretty much everyone, it's a cultural memory: somebody else's grandfather was your grandfather's jailer. It weighs heavily on regional politics. Old wounds occasionally flare up around election time. It permeates the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry. Many sites remain contentious. It just requires sensitivity.

(The Imperial War Museum in London has a large International Brigades audio archive.)
posted by holgate at 10:39 AM on July 31, 2010


First, relax!

This is a vacation with a cool personal/historical goal that you can easily build around, and Spain is built for tourists from all over. Your high school Spanish is still probably good enough to navigate a supermarket or get on the right train, and you'll still have your standard pleasantries down...and beyond that, that's really all you'll need! You're not going to Mongolia or Vanuatu or Chad. Your anxiety, which I am inferring strictly from the number of questions, is misplaced.

There are actually not that many "variables" since you have so much time. You can use Expedia or something like it to book your hotels and flights together if you'd like, and then use the Renfe site to book trains, which they'll e-mail to you. There are more details in English on how the system works at Seat 61, the best non-commercial rail site ever, here.

I think Spain in the early spring would be brilliant, neither too cold nor getting too hot, and relatively uncrowded - though it's a huge destination all year round.

I also think you should, on this trip, avoid going anywhere other than Spain, for both your own peace of mind (one set of flights, one language, one currency, one set of airport shenanigans, etc.), and for financial reasons - you could have a great vacation for a week or so on $2000 with air if you flew to/from Madrid, took the train to Burgos (anywhere from 2-4 hours), which is a lovely town in and of itself, stayed for a few days at a hostal/inn/B&B-type place, then went back to Madrid for some sightseeing, or up to Bilbao/San Sebastian for a different flavor of Spain and took a cheap internal flight back. The Metro goes to/from the Madrid airport to Madrid's two train stations, and Renfe says it's €41 in turista class to Burgos, one-way, for a random day in October I picked. For such a short trip you wouldn't even need to check a bag!

As far as where to stay, a couple hostels I just found in Burgos offer private rooms - here's a single room for €25/night, and another with places for €28. Both have e-mail addresses and English websites, which seems to imply you could e-mail them and inquire about room availability and reservations.

Finally, who else do you know that's been to Spain? Maybe an acquaintance or friend or someone else in your circle can answer your questions.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 10:49 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


First things first, if you're dying to visit somewhere in Spain and only have $2000, you might as well decide right now that you are going to Spain, and not "Europe". Looking at a map, Burgos isn't too too far from the French border, so I suppose if you were desperate to soak up as much of Europe as possible, you could fly to Paris, base yourself around Toulouse, and take a side trip to Burgos. But even that would be pushing it on $2K. You'd probably be better off flying into Barcelona and seeing lots of northern Spain.

I care nothing for wine (I'm a Mormon) or bars or smoking or nightclubs or half of what reading the BBC news website seems to make vacationing in Europe about.

You can definitely have fun in Europe while not smoking, drinking, and clubbing. That said, it would be a bit of a shame to go to Spain and not drink wine. You will definitely miss out on one of the integral cultural experiences of Europe. But it's for religious reasons, so whatever.

Re BBC travel articles - keep in mind their audience. Far more Brits travel internationally than Americans, and international travel, especially within Western Europe, is not seen as a special fancy cultural experience. It's seen the same way we Americans see Spring Break in Cancun. And just as you can travel to Mexico and avoid that whole scene, you can certainly travel in Europe and avoid its counterparts.

I am a girl, and I will be traveling alone... I was in ROTC/Sea Cadets as a kid and am about to take some more self-defense stuff just for the fun of it, so I am moderately confident in my ability not to die/freak out horribly under pressure.

I would really not worry about safety, as Europe is incredibly safe even compared to the United States. Especially considering that you don't intend to drink or party. It's just not even going to be an issue, at all. Though I've heard Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets. Even so, be sensible and you should be fine. You might want to pick up a Rick Steves guidebook - he gives great advice re Americans' fear of crime/danger even in safe parts of the world, and also has perfect tips for the specifics of avoiding petty theft.

Now to address some of your specific concerns:

Time to go: buy a guidebook.

Picky eater: you're probably fine, especially if you like classic Mediterranean stuff like good quality breads, cheeses, and cured meats (in Spain you will want to try any ham you see). Olives and chickpeas, too. The "traditional" national dish of Spain is Paella, which is a rice based meal-in-a-bowl with sausage and shellfish among other things. Another very popular dish is tortilla, which is basically a big puffy omelet, sometimes with vegetables cooked into it, but sometimes just plain. If you are traveling alone as an ordinary tourist, chances are no particular food is going to be "inflicted" on you. And you should always feel free to not order the crazy adventurous thing if you don't think you'll like it. Screw what anyone else thinks. I'd caution you to avoid the tourist restaurants with British or American fast food menus, but otherwise feel free to eat to your taste.

Airfares and which city to fly into: Barcelona is in the north, like Burgos, so that makes more sense. But feel free to play around. kayak will help. Check out their "explore" feature if you have a departure city, price range and general time of year, but not much else.

Birthmark: in heavily touristed parts of any European country, nobody is going to care. You will mostly have contact with people in the tourist industry who are paid not to give a shit what you look like, or people who live in big heavily touristed parts of the country and are used to seeing people who look different. I mean, if you're planning on doing farm work in remote parts of the country, around traditional/conservative people who may never have met people outside their village, then maybe you should learn "please don't touch me" or "it's a birthmark" in Spanish. Otherwise? Not to worry.

Questions about wars or other sensitive topics: Get a guidebook.

Spanish civil war tours/sites/etc: Get a guidebook.

Language issues: Similar to the advice about the birthmark. In heavily touristed parts of Europe, the important people you need to communicate with will speak English. It's always good to learn a little of the local language just to be polite or in case of an emergency (or if you decide you want to get a little off the beaten track). Spanish is a fairly easy language which you admit you have a degree of experience with. Buenos Dias and Gracias and all the big stuff is generally the same between Latin America and Spain. There are lots of great Spanish language podcasts out there which lean more towards Spain rather than Latin America - you might especially like Coffee Break Spanish, which is a very approachable beginner level Spanish podcast made by Brits generally with an eye towards English speakers vacationing in Spain.

Renting a car/getting around: Get a guidebook.

Accommodation questions: look into hostels that offer private rooms. There will be info about this in any guidebook which caters for younger or broker travelers (again I highly recommend Rick Steves for your particular situation). You can either email specific hostels to ask, or try a hostel booking website. I've used both Lonely Planet's hostel booking website and HostelWorld to great success.
posted by Sara C. at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2010


Also, if you're an introvert and have specific lodging needs (i.e. your stated requirement of a door you can lock and NO shared rooms), couch surfing is not for you. I'm relatively extroverted and totally fine with sleeping on a couch, a floor, sharing a room, falling asleep in a strange person's home, etc. and still have reservations about couchsurfing.
posted by Sara C. at 11:18 AM on July 31, 2010


You should look into Couchsurfing. I've spent the last month in London, all over Ireland, and Amsterdam and I've only had to pay for a hotel/hostel room two times! Look for hosts who offer a separate room. I've stayed with several hosts who have given me my own room. You have plenty of time to plan, so begin sifting through profiles to see what's available.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:52 AM on July 31, 2010


I definitely think you can do this! As far as your eating concerns go, nearly every town you go to will have a market where you can buy enough bread, cheese, tomatoes, and other "plain" food to feed yourself for the day. Language is no big deal, especially since you're good at picking up basic phrasebook pleasantries -- I spoke absolutely no Spanish when I was first in Spain, but got by fine with single-word sentences and gestures/drawings. Carry a notebook and pen, and if the word for (for example) "train station" falls out of your head in the heat of the moment, a quick sketch of a train and the word "Donde?" is more than enough to make your point. And finally, as far as backup plans go, Europe is incredibly adept at welcoming tourists -- in every train station and downtown tourist area, you will find a tourist centre (look for the "i" in a circle indicating an information area) staffed with people who will be able to help you sort out last-minute accommodations if your plans fall through. Keep an ATM card (with overdraft protection on the account) or credit card in a waist or leg pouch separate from your other belongings so that you have access to emergency funds even if you are pickpocketed or run into unexpected expenses, and you'll be fine. Have a great time!
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 1:24 PM on July 31, 2010


"I care nothing for wine (I'm a Mormon) or bars or smoking or nightclubs or half of what reading the BBC news website seems to make vacationing in Europe about."

I live in Europe and don't smoke and rarely drink. You'll be fine. I wander around on my own with a camera and a bottle of water a lot.

Far more Brits travel internationally than Americans, and international travel, especially within Western Europe, is not seen as a special fancy cultural experience. It's seen the same way we Americans see Spring Break in Cancun.

This is a bit inaccurate. Some British people do the Spring Break-type thing in Ibiza, or Spanish/Greek coastal resorts, and some go just to sit on the beach with their families for a few weeks. But many too take city breaks - cheap air travel makes it easy to go to France for market shopping or Florence for culture. The Grand Tour has been replaced by no-frills flights, especially amongst working-class people who previously wouldn't have been able to afford to see the capitals of Europe.

There are cheaper cities in the UK than London if you really want to come here. (NB birthmarks are no trouble - you might get the odd curious glance just as you might with a piercing). Depends what you're really looking to do if you come here - London has plenty cultural to see but is expensive. Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh are cheaper and have a lot to see.

Hadrian's Wall is near the Scottish border, any city with -ester at the end of its name will have Roman stuff in it (and York has a long Viking history too) so have a look online. Do what a friend and I did in Paris - get a basic hotel and buy two of your three meals from a local supermarket. If I have my own place by then and you're not an axe murderer I might even make use of that airbed in the loft.

However, it sounds like Spain is calling to you. Learn basic Spanish, book a room in an aparthotel or cheap B+B and go for it. And you can fly Ryanair/Easyjet from here for about 12p. I haven't been to Spain since I was 12 on a school trip, so afraid I can't help further there! Get yourself a Lonely Planet/Time Out/Rough Guide guidebook if you can.
posted by mippy at 1:55 PM on July 31, 2010


I'd follow the advice above (especially mdonley's) and stick to Spain.

You don't need to rent a car if you dont want to. The train system is pretty good. If you are heading to Burgos, stop in Segovia on your way up. That way you can get your castle and your Roman ruins out of the way at the same time.
posted by vacapinta at 2:23 PM on July 31, 2010


Ryanair/Easyjet from here for about 12p

Is this a mega-exaggeration or what? I'm looking to spend some time WWOOFing in Britain next spring, with a week or so in continental Europe (probably France or Italy) to visit a friend who's living in Rome, and I haven't found any flights on those airlines for under 20GBP per leg. Am I missing something? Is flying to Spain just that much cheaper?

BTW my point about British travelers isn't so much that everyone goes to Ibiza to party, but more what you said. Very few Americans even have passports, let alone travel internationally beyond Mexico or Canada. The few Americans who travel to Europe most certainly don't travel to party, and it's considered Kind Of A Big Deal that one is supposed to be sort of reverent about. So clicking over to the travel features on the BBC can present a radically different picture, because in my experience that's not how Brits feel about travel to continental Europe, at all.
posted by Sara C. at 2:28 PM on July 31, 2010


I went to your website via your mefi profile. I have a very strong hunch you are going to have a grand time no matter where you go. As some one who lives part time in Europe (Ireland) and speaks very poor high school Spanish I am a bit partial to first journeys being to an English speaking country. It just is simpler. It permits you to focus much more on where you are, enjoy local residents. make changes in plans on a whim and master a menu. It also makes it much easier to spend time (whether it be an hour or a day) enjoying experiences away from tourist areas. If you are not comfortable with the language it is very easy to get locked into talking only with those who cater to tourists or are fellow tourists. I think this might be particularly true if you are traveling alone. I do completely understand that many Europeans speak English--but some times I have difficulty even sorting out the local accents in SW Ireland or Northern England.
If you chose Spain there has been some excellent advice. If you are inclined, you can fly to Spain RT for 40-50 GBP with a little planning. If you do decide to go to the UK as a primary stay please feel free to write and I will be more than glad to make specific suggestions--also--my wife has lived in the UK and I have consulted and traveled there on a regular basis for years. There are a number of small mid/medium size cities where you could find an affordable stay and make day trips. Finally, as a fellow Ohioan I certainly would be glad to chat. What ever you do I am sure it will be fun. BTW, I do not drink and have thoroughly enjoyed Europe. In fact, given the drink-driving laws in the UK and Ireland there is always some sobriety in many pubs--not necessarily true for clubs or where most transport is public.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2010


My sister is sitting here amazed that everyone is so helpful! Thank you all!

I have lots of questions because I've never been anywhere near this close to pulling this off (I've wanted to go to Spain since I was about 7 years old, listening to my grandfather's biographical album in the car on trips to the Grand Canyon) and because that's how I am. I do research before walking into a chain restaurant or store in a city I've never been to before, just to be safe (this is why I have been to Salt Lake City but never did see the inside of a Chuck-A-Rama, whose name was almost funny enough to get me inside without Googling and doing some stalkery "sit outside and observe" stuff.) Also: my frist trip to Europe! This is momentous!

I hadn't even thought of flying to Spain from England, which seems kind of absurd looking at the map, but if it is that cheap then, by golly, yes, of course! I also hadn't thought of Scotland; my mom's the clan representative for Ohio, and would be insanely jealous. I had tried looking for hostels with private rooms, but clearly, my searching needs to be improved. I cannot believe how many cities in the UK have (Roman) ruins, now that I'm looking. For whatever reason I had sort of assumed it was all built over. You know, England = Old. I'm from Southern California, this whole "thousands of years of continuous habitation" thing is pretty non-intuitive; every neighborhood I remember was built on fill dirt, after 1920.

I think it's clear I should choose one of my three options (England, Spain, or both) and go from there, and that it's not totally unfeasible to do any of them, which definitely makes me feel much better. The key is of course to avoid trying to squeeze in Rome or Athens.

Thanks again - and if anyone else has more tips or wants to weigh in on Spain vs. England for the first-timer (bearing in mind I get about three hours' worth of delight out of all the maple leaf flags every time I find myself in Canada,) please feel free; I'm putting it all in a file to re-read and also counting votes, because, yep, that's how I roll.
posted by SMPA at 6:31 PM on July 31, 2010


About flying to Spain from here/there/everywhere - keep in mind the length of your trip. Are you really going to have time to do justice to half of the UK and your dream trip to the country you really want to visit?

Also remember that, even though it's cheap to fly to Spain from the UK, you should do the math and see how much it costs to just fly directly to Spain. And recall that Britain (especially London) is extremely expensive. And that $2000 doesn't go very far in Europe.

I absolutely would not at all worry about the language issue and think that you need to get your feet wet in an English speaking country before you travel to where you really want to go. My first trip to Europe was to Italy. Where it was as I described above - the people you need to communicate with will at least be able to meet you halfway. It's true that I couldn't develop meaningful relationships with many Italians, but then, for 10 days in Italy it's not like I was going to be finding a new best friend or falling in love. Think of other trips you've taken: most of your communication needs were probably along the lines of "where's the restroom?" and "I'm ready for the check, please". And, with your past Spanish study and a little bit of advance practice, you'll be able to deal with all that stuff and a little more, at least.

I know a lot of people whose first trips to Europe were not to the UK or Ireland, as well, and all of them had an equally great time. You should go where you most want to go, not where you think you ought to go.
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 PM on July 31, 2010


I spent a few days in Burgos last year. It's a great medium-sized Spanish city with a stunning cathedral. There's a nice "old" section of town with lots of plazas and outdoor cafes where you can sit for hours and people-watch.

Don't get a car. Insurance, international drivers license... you don't want to deal with that. Transportation in Spain is plentiful and reasonably-priced. For example, the monastery you mentioned is 11km away from Burgos. Taxis are about 1 euro per km. (Did you know you can also sleep in the monastery?)

You mentioned that your grandfather had to walk over the Pyrenees. Is that something you would be interested in? You can do it in 1 or 2 days, very cheaply, by taking a day hike along the Camino de Santiago as it goes from St Jean Pied de Port, a village in France, over the mountains and across the border to Roncesvalles, in Spain. It's a gorgeous, tiring experience, but can be done quite cheaply, even if you require a private room. A hundred or so people will be walking the trail the same day, so you'll be safe. To get to the village in France, you can go to Pamplona (an amazing fortified city that's a 15-euro train ride from Burgos) and take public transportation or a taxi. You could also do this by starting from Paris, if you want to fly to Paris.

Burgos, maybe Pamplona, Barcelona, Granada (for the Alhambra), Madrid (Guernica!), and maybe other cities on the way: sounds like a great trip. Use hostelworld.com or a similar site to filter for private rooms. In a brief search for Madrid I see lots of hostels with ensuite or single rooms for 20-30 euros. You can also try airbnb.com for a service similar to Couchsurfing, but paid (so you get a private room, more formal relationship with your host).

Lastly: Tangiers, Morocco is a 30 euro, 2 hour ferry ride from Spain. Can you resist it? It's a bit "riskier" than Spain due to the presence of taxi scammers and aggressive shopkeepers, but wikitravel has plenty of safety tips.
posted by acidic at 8:14 PM on July 31, 2010


I want to add that although it's true that 2000 isn't a lot, not drinking and not eating amazing food is going to save you quite a bit. You can shop in supermarkets, but the ideal place is a small deli that will cut you fresh bread, cheese, and ham. I saw quite a few of those in rural Spain, not sure what they're called.

You SHOULD spend time in cafes though (some are called bars). If you don't drink coffee, order cacolac, which is hot cocoa, or Fanta. I bet you'll like tortilla (just egg and potato). Probably even paella, although you might pick out the seafood.

It's also not the end of the world if you really, really want to go to Rome too. On Ryanair, I paid 20 euros roundtrip to fly from Spain to Rome, spent 1 night in a hostel and another just wandering around the streets, inspired by this 10 hour trip to Rome. It was totally not enough and I will go back ASAP, but for less than 50 euros, it was gooooood. On a related note, I like visiting Europe in summer because it gets dark later. Try to avoid American vacation time, so go in May.
posted by acidic at 8:51 PM on July 31, 2010


The 12p flight isn't an exaggertation. I once flew from Stansted, UK to Bratislava, Slovakia for 3p. Of course, I had to pay £25 to get back, and another £30 for the bus to get to the airport because we Had to be there at 4am. Oh, and we had to commit within an hour of my friend seeing the advertisement.

So, yes, there are one-off very cheap flights, designed to sucker you into watching for them and probably settling for £20-40 or more.

As for cheap travelling in the UK --best I've heard about are student dormitories for £25-35 per night (private rooms, maybe shared bathroom) -- that would be under $60/night. These are more available in the summer term (July-Sept). If you are somewhere like London for a week or more, there may be short stay rooms let in houses or flats for under £20/night (I did 5 weeks in Kew for £10/night). for those kind of things, check out flatshare.co.uk or spareroom.co.uk.

But I would concur with other posters that you might be better off just going to one country, and it sounds like Spain is of a much stronger personal interest.

Besides, for Romans, Romans and more Romans, you don't want the UK -- you want Italy (specifically Rome).
posted by jb at 8:53 PM on July 31, 2010


I vote Spain. My mom and I did 11 days in Spain at the end of March. We each spent around $1600 total, but that was sharing hotel rooms. We rented a car from Europcar for one day, which was about a quarter of the price Avis wanted for a one-way rental. They did only have manual transmission cars available and you had to push the shifter down to get it into reverse, but overall it was a good experience.

The catch with the cheap fares from the UK to the rest of Europe is that the luggage limit is usually very small, like 40kg and your carry-on can't be more than 15kg. From Minnesota, it was cheaper for us to fly to Madrid than to London. Be flexible with your days and use kayak.com or any site that will let you search multiple airlines. Kayak can be good for hotels, too.

I'd suggest flying into Madrid (the airport to city connection is easier than Barca) and staying for a day or two before heading north either on a train or in a car. El Escorial is northwest of Madrid, but it is a palace and not exactly a castle.

Weather-wise, both Madrid and Barcelona gave us two nice days and one cold day, usually with some rain. Cordoba, Seville and Granada were all sunny and 80, but I sunscreened up and hung out in the shade. We had no trouble with our very limited Spanish vocabulary. There is a bridge that was originally built by the Romans in Cordoba, the Mezquita in Cordoba would be worth a day trip from Madrid on the high-speed train and the bridge is right next to it.

A word about traveling alone and your security concerns. You are probably not at a higher risk of being a victim of violent crime in any other country than you are as a tourist in a similarly sized American city. The issues are that it might be harder to get help due to a language barrier and that it is less likely that you know anyone you can call for help. The same skills you use to survive here will serve you there as well. Know the local number for the police, don't get too drunk (not an issue for you) and don't go home with a stranger. You'll be fine.

Ignore the women trying to give you flowers or branches at the cathedrals. Read up on pickpocketing prevention and lots of other safety topics on ricksteves.com
posted by soelo at 9:08 PM on July 31, 2010


I vote for Spain. You sound like you really want to go there, its MUCH cheaper than the UK, so your money will stretch further. I also think you should stick to one country for a first visit, so why not go with the cheap one you are excited about? You will be perfectly safe, violent crime is much rarer than it is in the US, but you should definitely take precautions against pickpocketing.
posted by Joh at 10:50 PM on July 31, 2010


for Romans, Romans and more Romans, you don't want the UK -- you want Italy (specifically Rome).

The Romans did get about a bit, though, including Spain. And I think that Spain is the better choice (and just Spain) not just because it's cheaper and more "foreign", but because you have the history you bring with you, as well as lots of things to discover there, whether it's Hispania, al-Andalus or everything since, with huge amounts of historical and regional diversity.

Go in spring, spend a little intervening time on basic Spanish (no need to stress about the dialect, just get some phrases down for navigation and interactions) and give yourself room on your itinerary to follow your inclinations once you get there.
posted by holgate at 11:08 PM on July 31, 2010


Hotwire.com has some great deals on European hotels; I've stayed at 4-stars in a few European cities for $60-90USD a night. I checked a random September weekend in Madrid and found a few 4-star hotels for $69. It's a little more than your target rate but keep in mind that includes all applicable taxes, and you're not paying a USD conversion charge. The downside is you don't know which 4-star hotel you're getting until you book - but you can often make a good guess with a little internet research. And you get to stay at a really nice place for less money than the rack rate at a crummier hotel (and brag about it to your parents!).

If you get a room with a fridge, pick up some milk/yogurt/cereal/fruit at a local market and have breakfast before going out in the morning - by not wasting time looking for breakfast every morning you'll have more time to see the sights, and save money that you can use for a more enjoyable meal later in the day.
posted by Gortuk at 6:41 AM on August 1, 2010


SaraC, it's probably the case that it's a lot more effort for Americans to come over here! I guess we take it for granted that all these amazing cities are so close (though I must confess to not having been out the country for a good while...) A lot of the time British people go to the States just for the shopping, as it is much cheaper over there, even in US chains that have branches over here.

Anyway, yes, London is expensive for a tourist. Why not get your feet wet in the UK, but go for Scotland as even Edinburgh is cheaper. As you aren't going during August cheap accommodation isn't an issue - MeMail me if you do go this route and I can give you the name of a lovely hotel we stayed in for about £30 per night each. You can fly to Spain from Edinburgh airport easily and there's tons of historical stuff to see there.

So, yes, go to Spain, but ease yourself in by stopping over somewhere English-speaking. I think if you want to do all the Spanish stuff you describe, then don't think about 'fitting in' any other capitals - plan those for the next trip!
posted by mippy at 2:19 PM on August 1, 2010


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