Outfitting a 13-year-old for independent travel to Spain this summer
April 20, 2018 6:08 PM   Subscribe

My uncle, who lives in Madrid, has very generously offered to fly our 13-year-old son over to Spain to spend three weeks with them this summer. How should he pack and what should he expect?

He will be in Spain for three weeks, from late June through mid-July. He'll be spending most of his time in Madrid, but will have a visit to Dénia during his stay.

Our main questions are:
  • What should he expect at Madrid airport (customs, etc)? He's going to be dropped off at the gate in Philadelphia by me, and met at the Madrid airport by my uncle and his wife.
  • What kind of clothes should he pack, both for weather conditions and cultural expectations?
  • He's too young to have a debit card: what suggestions does the hive mind have for dealing with money while he's there?
  • What's early teen culture like in Madrid?
  • If you have or know a 13-year-old boy in Spain, what do they consider the apex of awesome?
posted by scrump to Travel & Transportation around Madrid, Spain (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This sounds like an awesome opportunity but I want to put this out there: please let your son know that he can always fly back home or you will come and get him if there are any problems or if he feels unsafe or unwelcome. Homesickness is one thing but I'd hate for him to feel stuck were there was anything more. I'd make sure your passport is up-to-date and that you have the funds to buy a ticket if necessary. Could you fly there with him and stay for a few days? I'd guess not because of the details you've shared but that would likely put both of you more at ease.

I'd have a talk with him about drinking and smoking and safer sex; he may not be interested in any of these things but most American teens going to Europe for the first time will find the availability of and easier access to the first two items especially tempting. It's not bad but a frank discussion about your expectations as well as realistic advice.

Debit cards are my bread and butter when I travel in Europe: if he seems too young to have a debit card, then how is he going to manage carrying his passport and hundreds of euros on him? Perhaps your uncle could dole out the money to him but I'd start your son on using a debit card now, like he could practice taking out $20 a week and seeing how that goes. European teens tend to have a lot more independence than American ones, and I see this as a major learning opportunity. What about getting an international pre-paid debit card that you can add to once a week or in the case of emergency while he's there?

What does your son like to do? Is he excited about this trip? Is he close to your uncle and aunt? Does he speak Spanish? Is he more shy or outgoing? How long has he been away before? Does he go out and about in Philly on his own and feel comfortable? At 13, I started taking the Metro into DC from the suburbs alone during the day after a practice run with Girl Scouts and it was so wonderful for my independence and confidence. If your son is already a street smart city kid, then he can do all this and more. However, if he's from the suburbs or a rural area, starting with day trips to Philly could be good preparation for Madrid.

How about looking into teen day camps, say, for soccer if he's interested or a language school if that's more of his thing? My sister did a summer residential program like this in high school and loved it; I'm not sure what it was called but surely there are similar options out there. Being able to hang out with some fellow 12-15 year olds would surely be a hit, if awkward at times due to cultural differences and a language barrier. Could your uncle arrange for this?

I absolutely love Spain, especially Madrid, and would recommend a visit to everyone. I will think more about ideas because my interests are probably less-than-interesting to most 13 year olds!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:09 PM on April 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

Does your son speak Spanish? The airport is... unremarkable. I've flown in and out of it a couple times and nothing specific is coming to mind. But a surprising number people in Spain and even in Madrid don't speak English so he might have to ask a few people if he has a question before he'll land on someone who speaks English. The airport is more bilingual than other parts of Madrid, though.

It will likely be quite hot most of the time. Last summer during that time there was a heat wave and most days were at or above 40*C. I had a little bit of heat stroke one of the days. My bread and butter is a tank top and shorts with sandals. Many places don't have A/C, including possibly your uncle's residence. But even so, restaurants that have it blast A/C and I had to bring a scarf or long-sleeved shirt with me to stay warm then, and there were a couple breezy evenings as well when an extra layer was nice to have. In terms of cultural expectations around clothing, people do not care. He can wear whatever he wants. Maybe try to be a little more conscious if he's going in a religious building (I still wear tanks but have a scarf in my bag that I can use as a shawl if need be and I wear a skirt), but there are tons of oblivious tourists anyway so I doubt he'll stand out at all regardless. I mean, some people will judge a little (I get some side eye for my unfashionable but super comfortable Teva sandals) but it's no big deal.

Money-wise, especially since he'll be with older family I'd either wire/PayPal your uncle money to parcel out and then just send him with maybe 40 euros or so (you can get your bank to exchange currency for you ahead of time).

Sorry, I can't help on the early teen culture front.

FYI he's probably going to see some unpleasant graffiti. There's more than you might expect in Madrid. If he doesn't speak Spanish it won't seem quite as bad, though swastikas are unfortunately becoming more common.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:17 PM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just want to chime in to suggest a prepaid/reloadable card in lieu of one tied to a checking account. This would allow you to help your son manage his money without exposing a bank account to fraud or requiring carrying hundreds of euro around.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:17 PM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

The airport in Madrid has what has always felt to me to be an excessively long walk to customs upon arrival from the US. He should be prepared to carry his bag up and down a lot of small staircases. I always overstuff my carry on bag because I can usually roll it everywhere so this sticks out to me every time I go to Madrid.

If your son has an food allergies or intolerances be sure to write them down in Spanish and have him practice saying it in case he is ever out without your uncle.

I would set up a regular time to call or video chat with him every few days just to keep in touch.

He will likely want to buy things - I would set a budget and have some money talks before he goes. Even if he's good with money generally, budgeting for 3 weeks is a good discussion. (At his age, I would have tried to spend as little as possible and I would like have missed out on some good, meaningful purchases. So let him know he should spend X and talk about specific things he might want to purchase.)

He should the train to Toledo for the day.
posted by cessair at 8:19 PM on April 20, 2018

I should clarify the debit-card bit: he's too young to have a bank-issued debit card.

I suspect we could get a debit card issued against my savings or something like that, but it wouldn't have his name on it: I suspect that would let him pull money from an ATM, but might be a problem for in-person transactions.

Do prepaid cards issued stateside work in Europe?
posted by scrump at 11:42 PM on April 20, 2018

Its chip and pin (or tapping) in most of Europe now, generallly people won’t even see the name of the card. He shouldn’t let people take the card away with them anyhow. You should talk to the uncle, he may have a far more European idea of what kids can/may/should do etc at this stage.
posted by Iteki at 11:52 PM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make up a couple small cards with his uncle's address and important phone numbers including yours in the US. He can keep one in his wallet, one under a shoe insole, etc- just in case he gets separated from the adults at some point.

Practice useful Spanish phrases to use with strangers - "Where's the bathroom", "How much does this cost", "Excuse me", "Sorry", "May I have a glass of water", "Thank you", etc

Discuss / practice doing the math for the exchange rate, and recognizing the currency, so he has an accurate sense of what things cost

Camera, journal, water bottle (I like the kind that are like little bags that collapse as you drink from them), small bag to carry those items

Sunscreen, hat, earplugs, swimsuit, good shoes & socks that won't give him blisters

A good novel- English reading materials may be rare and reading at night is soothing

Discuss how to be a good houseguest and how to thank Uncle's family towards the end of his stay (maybe leaving a note or card in the room, stripping the bed linens, treating the family to dinner, etc)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:14 AM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

What kind of clothes should he pack, both for weather conditions and cultural expectations?

T-shirts, comfortable airy shorts/trousers/ cargo pants, some hat for the sun. Sandals or canvas shoes. Some sweater or jacket for the evenings or if there's a summer storm. Swimwear for Dénia.

(People here mock tourists who go around in socks and sandals, BTW, so maybe tell him to not do it. White sport socks have been out of streetwear fashion since the 1980s.)

What's early teen culture like? If you have or know a 13-year-old boy in Spain, what do they consider the apex of awesome?

AFAIK there are horrible youtubers Pewdiepie-style. My nephews are a bit younger but they're obsessed with Marvel DCU and Star Wars.

By the way, while some relatives may offer a bit of alcohol to kids at family celebrations (sorry), it's still illegal for kids your son's age to buy alcohol and tobacco, and depending on the town, it's also illegal to drink in groups in the streets (what we call hacer botellón).

pseudostrabismus: Discuss / practice doing the math for the exchange rate, and recognizing the currency,

He might find strange the 1€ and 2€ coins, they have a bit more value than your highest coin denomination.
posted by sukeban at 5:51 AM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Having had my pocket picked and losing vital stuff when traveling as a naive teenager, I'd suggest some kind of money belt, e.g. from REI, could be useful.
posted by anadem at 10:19 AM on April 21, 2018

When I traveled without my parents at that age I had a pengekat -- I don't know what they're called in English. It's like a really slim purse that you wear around your neck and under your clothes. Easier to access than a money belt, and less likely to get lost or pickpocketed than a wallet. It's where I kept my passport and the money I wasn't planning on spending right away.

(This isn't a "Europe is full of pickpockets!!!" comment, but a "teens are bad at holding on to their stuff" comment.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:11 AM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

No, there *are* pickpockets and they prey mostly on tourists. They concentrate in the most crowded touristy areas and public transportation, so keep your handbags and backpacks zippered closed and if there's a lot of people pushed together, it's better if you keep your backpack in front of you. Don't keep your wallet in your trouser's back pocket and don't keep valuables in backpack external pockets. Money belts or pouches are a good idea. Don't leave bags or jackets unattended ever.

IIRC the worst spot in Madrid for pickpockets is Plaza Mayor, so be careful.
posted by sukeban at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2018

First things first, it's hotter than hell in Madrid in the summer. Does your uncle have A/C? If not, prepare your son to SUFFER.

Customs will be a breeze. They may ask him what he's going to be doing in Spain, but I've never spent more than 30 seconds in front the passport control officer. He can answer their questions in English. Contrary to what other commenters have said, I think the majority of Spaniards speak enough English to give someone directions or answer basic questions, if he needs help. For better odds, tell him to ask a young person, but he really shouldn't have to speak to anyone besides the person in passport control.

Clothes: whatever he normally wears in the summer, flip-flops and swim trunks since he's going to the beach, and good comfortable shoes for walking in the city.

Does your uncle use Paypal? The easiest way to handle the money thing might be to send your uncle money and have him either withdraw cash for your son (a bit at a time), or pay for things with his own card and keep track of what you owe him. If cash, make sure your son knows never to have too much money on him at one time, and pickpockets in the city center can be a problem if you don't keep an eye on your stuff, so be alert.

Teen culture in Madrid is more or less like everywhere else. Hang out with friends doing nothing, shooting the shit, maybe drink or smoke depending on your social group. Does your uncle have children his age? Otherwise I don't see how he could possibly make friends and get into trouble in only three weeks. It depends a lot on where your uncle lives, too. If he's in a suburb, most teenagers will be hanging out with their friends in the local park. If he's in the center of the city, teenagers hang out at Burger King or McDonald's, or the park if there's a nice one nearby. Thirteen is still pretty young to be out alone on the streets, unless you live in a village.

All the thirteen-year-old boys I know think football is THE SHIT. If your son is at all into sports, he might like to take a tour of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Whatever else he is interested in, there is an analogue in Madrid (in Spanish).

The only other thing I can think of, and you may or may not find this useful, is that when he goes to Dénia there are sure to be topless women on the beach. Coming from the US, that can be quite a surprise, especially for a 13-year-old boy. Whether or not you want to tell him this, or think it would be useful for him to know, is totally dependant on you and your son, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by lollymccatburglar at 8:04 AM on April 24, 2018

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