Traveling alone in Spain - how to meet other travelers, and how to book rooms and train/air tickets on the fly?
November 18, 2007 1:35 PM   Subscribe

It's my first time traveling alone! I'm spending 10-11 days in Spain, and I need some advice. How to meet people to share the experience with? How to book accommodations and train/airline tickets on the fly?

I'm traveling alone to Spain for 10 days, flying in and out of Madrid, and I'm really excited because I've always wanted to visit Spain. (And to just do more international traveling in general!) Thanks to everyone who responded to my earlier question about what to do with my vacation time. I almost picked Costa Rica, but I found an amazing flight deal to Spain that I couldn't pass up.

I have plenty of sights to see and I'm sure I'll have no trouble finding things to do with myself once I'm there. I'm hoping to experience three areas: Madrid (maybe Toledo), Barcelona, and Andalusia (specifically, Seville & Granada). I'm traveling light (hopefully just a backpack and daypack) and hopefully staying in hostels, pensions or other cheap accomodations.

I'm trying to ignore my innate tendency to plan everything and instead do it on the fly. I've read that it will make my trip more fun and enriching, and I believe it. However, I'm not really sure how to do that once I'm in Spain and also keep my spending down as much as possible. (Do I go to a travel agent? Train station? internet cafe? And, how much time do I need to book rooms or flight/train tickets in advance to get a decent price and avoid things selling out?) Other than hostels, what accommodations are cheap but a good value? (as in, not a s***hole and in the city near public transport) And, is a Eurrail pass worth it? I've seen some cheap airfares recently, and I'm thinking that would be a better way to go than the train, and when it's not, the one-way train prices don't seem too bad... (STA Travel quoted me about $200 for a 3-day Eurrail pass and I don't know whether that's really a good deal. I don't know how much it will be to buy train tickets at the counter on the day I want to leave. Maybe it is worth it to spend a little more $ total, but take planes in some cases and train in others?)

I'm also really interested in meeting other travelers to share the experience with. The hostels that seem to be really good at promoting community are booked for this weekend already so I'll need to rely on some other method to meet people, but I don't know what that would be. (I'm still figuring out what's available at the end of my trip, but if I book things on the fly, I bet the best ones will be sold out again.)

I'd love any advice you can give me on this. Mostly, I just want it to be an enjoyable experience while keeping my costs down. I'm new to this so any insights you have will be much appreciated! Thank you so much!
posted by inatizzy to Travel & Transportation around Spain (29 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Can't answer all your questions but you can check the English language version of the spanish railways website to get some idea of how your rail pass price compares with on the spot prices (the prices on the website are actually for over the web sales but I imagine they're indicative of what you'd pay if you buy on the day you're travelling).

More generally if it's your first visit to a non-English language speaking country (and you don't speak Spanish) then I think booking a couple of nights accomodation would allow you to begin to get your head around being there without wondering which bridge to sleep under ;-)
posted by southof40 at 2:00 PM on November 18, 2007

In Spain, hash is colloquially referred to as "chocolate." Have fun!
posted by ludwig_van at 2:04 PM on November 18, 2007

I've never been to Spain. But in my experience elsewhere, official YHA hostels suck and are full of classes of schoolkids as often as not. Private backpacker hostels are where you want to be. I found a Rail Pass of the "8 days of travel in 21 days" variety is a good deal if you're going to go long distances on short notice. Last minute train tickets tend to be expensive. But short hops (less than an hour) were ok to buy on the day of travel.

If you're ok giving your trip some structure you could probably fly between major cities cheaper than riding a train. Look at fares with Ryanair and EasyJet. However they use smaller airports sometimes located quite far from the city and transport to and from may be irregular and expensive.
posted by Martin E. at 2:16 PM on November 18, 2007

For hostels, just look the city up on hostelworld or or whatever, and read all the reviews. If the one you want is full, you just go to the next best one... there's always another hostel. And they all generally have internet, so you can book the next one while you're staying.

To meet people, just hang around the common room, and try to meet people. Sit next to the people sitting alone, and strike up a conversation. Don't just sit in the corner with a book, sending off a "leave me alone" message.

And when you talk to people, ask them where they've been and where they stayed. A fellow traveler is a much better resource than some out-of-date travel guide.
posted by smackfu at 2:23 PM on November 18, 2007

The worst hostel you can imagine - some dungeonlike basement with an inch of water on the floor and strange squeaky scuttlings in the walls and Polish guys in tracksuits sitting around all day smoking weird brown-tipped Russian cigarettes and unsubtly hinting at not-quite-legitimate sources of income - will still be brimming with people your age with exotic accents and outlandish travel stories who want nothing more than to make another eleven new best friends. You'll clamber up to the Alhambra with them, eat appalling potato-based Spanish bar food with them, and end up stumbling down a cobblestoned alley at five AM singing ABBA songs with them and wondering how, exactly, you got so drunk. You'll exchange email addresses, write once or twice, then never hear from them again - except for the one or two who may, whether you like it or not, become your friends for life.

Enjoy yourself. I'm jealous.
posted by dyoneo at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know Spain, but here are some generalities...

Don't fly -- train or bus lets you see the countryside and something of the way of life of the local people. Maybe even think of breaking a long trip at a "nowhere" town off the tourist trail. The Man in Seat 61 says normal individual train tickets are always cheaper than a pass in Spain. And if you can commit to book ahead for a particular train they will be cheaper still.

You may be happier using your guidebook (I find Lonely Planet ones suit my style very well) or a local tourist information office or an internet cafe to book accommodation 24 or 48 hours in advance, but of course that means you haven't seen it. Alternatively, arrive at a new city early, so that you can take a look at one or two possibles well before it starts to get dark. Or you can just book one night in the new city and then decide if you want to change -- though the place you are in could refuse to let you stay further nights at their internet special rates if you have booked only one. If I was going to Spain, I would try to find the money for at least one night in a historic parador hotel -- I don't know which is the official website, but this one talks about a young person's discount.

Do use travel discussion websites to find out about where you are going, and about good backpackers' hostels etc. However, you should use standard discretion about actually arranging to meet up with anyone you make contact with that way. The easiest way to meet people is to talk to the people you bump into as you wander around. Talk to other people viewing the same sights. Look around before you sit down to eat at a museum cafe or wherever and see if there is someone alone or a group who you could ask if you can sit with them. Ask other people you may see at the hostel about travel recommendations. If you hit it off well, going to a place of your choice with your new acquaintances could be good, going to a place of their choice that you haven't heard of, not so much. But there is no need to be absolutely paranoid!
posted by Idcoytco at 2:38 PM on November 18, 2007

I've never been to Spain either, but here is my rule for successful travelling on the fly.

When I wake up in the morning, I need, as a minimum...

- clean teeth (even if it's using bottled water)
- a wash - of face and smelly bits (ditto)
- clean t-shirt, pants (as in underwear), and socks
- comb hair
- deodorant
- breakfast (even if it's a bar of chocolate and some bottled water)
- to know where I'm going to be sleeping that night (i.e. I book my accommodation at least 1 night in advance)

Most of the time, I'd like more (ummmm shower), but I know that if I've accomplished at least those tasks in the morning, I can enjoy the rest of the day, and everything else that happens is fair game...
posted by Helga-woo at 2:48 PM on November 18, 2007

If you have the chance to stop through Salamanca, I'd recommend it. The Plaza Mayor is stunning and the University is one of the oldest in the world.
posted by fructose at 3:07 PM on November 18, 2007

I don't have any specific advice, but get ready for a lot of hassle. In Spain, things don't work.
posted by dydecker at 3:09 PM on November 18, 2007

I don't have any specific advice, but get ready for a lot of hassle. In Spain, things don't work.

Bull. My wife and I just visited Spain in May and had a glorious time. Buses ran on time, subways worked, our flights in and out were on time. Everything went really well. (The same can't be said of our return flight out of Heathrow, but so it goes.)

We had great luck with the Rick Steves Guide. We're not meticulous planners, to say the least, but made an itinerary and booked hostels and pensions about a week in advance, and it worked out fine.

Here's what we did: Madrid 3 nights (over a weekend) --> Cordoba 2 nights --> Granada 3 nights --> Valencia 2 nights --> Barcelona 4 nights.

I we had it to do over, we might have skipped Valencia (but we saw Pirates of the Caribbean 3 there, in Spanish. So goofy and fun.)

As mentioned above, the bus system works well and its really cheap. If you have extra-long (like, eight-hour or longer) trips between cities, try doing overnight bus or train rides. Just get a schedule at the bus station whenever you get into a new town and go from there.

I want to keep this brief, so Mefi-mail me if you want more details. Seriously, consult the Rick Steves book and you won't be sorry.
posted by cog_nate at 3:38 PM on November 18, 2007

Sorry, one last thing. If possible, schedule your time in Madrid as a weekend. The modern art museum that has Guernica in it is free Saturday afternoon, and the huge art museum is free Sundays.

Have fun!
posted by cog_nate at 3:39 PM on November 18, 2007

First of all, congratulations! Spain is three kinds of awesome.

If you have a guide (I prefer Rough Guide but many people swear by Lonely Planet), you can phone a hostel as soon as you know when you'll arrive and book a bed/room. I have done this twice with great results, though you should keep in mind that you may have to compromise -usually on price- if you are out of luck. If you visit Barcelona, Rambla's Home is a good choice to see the city on foot and by the metro. Clean too.

In your last question you mentioned you have 4-5 days, so don't spend most of your time traveling. Unless you enjoy seeing many places at once, I'd only visit, say, two cities. Barcelona alone is worth 10 days ;)

If you want to flight between cities check out Ryanair; Easyjet doesn't really suit you. Search a bit on the Spanish Railways site. A Madrid-Barcelona trip is for instance ~90$; decide how many trips you'll be doing and choose the more frugal option. Consider buses only if you speak Spanish or find someone who does.

As for meeting people the easiest way is to hang out in the common rooms or the dorms of your hostel. Most people will be all too happy to chat a bit and possibly team up with you after you've got to know each other. Going for a drink is a tried and true option.

A couple extra tips: If you like jazz, in Madrid and Barcelona there are good and cheap places to indulge. The museums are great in both cities: Madrid has the huge private collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza (from Dutch masters to impressionists, expressionists and a few Lucian Freud paintings) plus the more well known Prado and Reina Sofia. For more info on free entrance and the common pass click here
Barcelona also has plenty of museums (Miro, Picasso) but you surely don't want to miss the Gaudi buildings. People seem to universally marvel at his works. I'm not familiar with Andalusia.
posted by ersatz at 4:43 PM on November 18, 2007

i personally don't see any reason -not- to make hostel reservations ahead of time, if they are easy to cancel. i would rather have the peace of mind and then cancel/change on the fly if something better comes along. do some legwork ahead of time and go with a plan--just don't feel bound to it.

pick up copies of lonely planet and the spain rough guide--both are great resources for budget travelers.

granada and cordoba are great. there is a cheesy hop-on-hop-off bus tour of granada (i think the company is viator) that is actually a really nifty way to get around--it goes pretty much anywhere you want to go. yes, it's dorky, but it's really convenient. it just makes a constant loop of about 10 sites around town, and you buy a day pass, so you can ride as much as you want. i think there's one for seville, too. if you go to the tourist kiosk near the mezquita in cordoba, you can sign up for a nighttime walking tour of the city. again, it's sort of cheesy, but we wished we'd done it first thing because it's a great way to get oriented.

basically, don't be too proud to make use of the touristy stuff when it suits your needs. :)

you may want to fly from madrid to barcelona if time is a concern--they are actually quite far apart.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:53 PM on November 18, 2007

I've had good luck using for travel in Spain and elsewhere. In my mind, a small nonrefundable deposit is a small price to pay for knowing there'll be a bed waiting for me. The user reviews there are very helpful.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:02 PM on November 18, 2007

About the ''how to meet people to share the experience with'' bit of your question. If you're staying in a hostel you'll be beating off travel buddies with a stick, in my experience.

Whenever I've stayed in a hostel I've found myself besieged by people (guys/girls/groups) asking me out to dinner, sightseeing or to come on tours to make up numbers... and I'm by no means chatty or outgoing. Quite the opposite. I've mostly said yes and mostly had a great time with the people I met.

This happened more in dorms, but still a bit when I had a room to myself. People are, I think, just more open to chatting and meeting strangers when they're traveling.

About where to stay, you could check out the Thorntree forums. Or just google ''backpackers AND madrid''. That bought me up Cat's Hostel which looks pretty nice. Caveat: if it's easy to find on the web, everybody else will have found it. This may or may not be a good thing.
posted by t0astie at 5:12 PM on November 18, 2007

I remember now that I stayed in the Hostal Helena in Madrid 2 years ago. The accommodations were more than adequate and it's centrally located on Gran Via.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:13 PM on November 18, 2007

When you are in Barcelona, find the bar Tres Flores, behind the post office. Look around for the owner Eric, and tell him Con sent you. He'll introduce you around.
posted by conifer at 6:38 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm married to a Spaniard and have lived and traveled all over Spain. There is some truth to the statement that things don't work in Spain - at least not the way Americans expect. Just roll with the punches and enjoy. Spaniards enjoy life fully and the food is wonderful, the night life is great and it's safe to walk the streets at night.

I would buy an official hotel guide (available at any official tourist office). This book lists every lodging establishment in Spain and the prices they can charge, as well as amenities and phone numbers. If you can afford a night in a Parador, do so. If not, at least stop by one for a drink and some tapas. The Paradores are state-run hotels and most of them are housed in castles or other historic buildings.

Spaniards appreciate anyone attempting to speak their language even if you don't conjugate your verbs and just use the infinitive all the time. To meet someone, just ask a question: Where is the closest bar with good tapas? Where is the subway entrance? Just about anything can be used as a way to start a conversation. Just be friendly.
posted by daneflute at 6:53 PM on November 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just travelled alone in Spain (Barcelona and Granada) for a week back in July. It was incredible. I planned ahead, so I can't really speak about spontaneity. I had never done anything like it before and speak precious little Spanish, so I was not really amenable to going in with no hotel reservations.

I've been to a few non-English-speaking countries and found the Spanish (particularly those in Madrid) much less indulgent than even the French of my desire to speak English. I managed to stumble along okay, but after spending time in Greece and Italy it was a surprise not to be understood when speaking English. However, this also meant that everyone I met who was a native English speaker was so delighted to run into another one that we ended up having great conversations and hanging out for hours. I stayed in my own hotel room every night, so these were all people I met in bars, resturants, or while we were both lost in the Albayzin during siesta.

Oh, and in Barcelona if you come in with no hotel and it's after midnight and you just want a place to sleep, there's a kiosk in the airport where you can book hotels through a web interface, with a credit card. It is pretty bitchin'. Also if you plan to do any flying, Vueling is a cheap airline...but if they decide to capriciously cancel your flight, good luck getting another one before the following day, and good luck finding anyone who will say anything more than "Yeah, sorry about that". So it's cheap, but you'll wish you'd paid more if you get unlucky with their schedules.

I chose all my hotels from Lonely Planet, but I'm sure many others are as well, which was another reason why I planned in advance. In general, when I'd change my plans and try to move things around, the hotels in the LP were not very flexible since they knew they could get people for the night. Honestly, I think out of the set (plan ahead, save money, stay in scary/random/inconvenient places) you can choose a maximum of two. And especially with the euro where it is against the dollar, nothing will be cheap. Period. Prepare to spend an outrageous amount of money (in dollars) to stay in places you would avoid going NEAR in the states.

Oh, and yes, taking the bus to get around Spain is affordable and great. I watched the Disney masterpiece Ice Princess (starring Michelle Trachtenburg!) dubbed in Spanish on the bus from Granada to Madrid and it was a pretty awesome little trip.

Don't miss the Alhambra. email's in my profile if you want me to expand on any specifics.
posted by crinklebat at 7:26 PM on November 18, 2007

I studied abroad in Madrid and did some traveling through Spain while I was there. First of all, congratulations, it's a lovely country and I miss it.

That said, definitely pick up a guidebook that appeals to you. I had the Lonely Planet and Time Out ones. As for neighborhoods, let me suggest staying in Malasaña or Chueca. They're close to the center of the city but have lots of hostels and young people around. I lived in a studio in Malasaña near c/Fuencarral and loved it.

As far as traveling in between cities goes, flights will probably be your best option for Madrid-Barcelona or Andalucía<>Barcelona. A bus or train trip from Madrid south, will only last, say 6-7 hours, while a bus trip (I've done it) from Madrid-Barcelona alone will take you 10+ hours. Choose a flight or overnight train.

You may want to check out Forocio. As far as information goes, my favorite site was always LaNetro. Pick up a Guía del Ocio in whichever city you're in for what's going on locally.

Madrid in the early winter is beautiful. Not too cold, and the Plaza Mayor will have become dressed for Christmas, with the annual marketplace there. Be sure to stop in someplace for turrones and mazapanes if you like sweets.

I fell in love with Granada. It's absolutely gorgeous and a totally different vibe than Madrid. Barcelona is great too and you'll have no trouble finding other students/travelers there.

As far as things not 'working', they do. Things are just slightly slower than they are in the US, but even I, native New Yorker, adapted.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:08 PM on November 18, 2007

Oh, as you can probably tell from that post, I do speak Spanish, but some of my fellow students didn't speak that well and got along just fine. There are English speakers, but maps and information, especially at anyplace major, will be easy to navigate.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:14 PM on November 18, 2007

I was there a year ago, Oct 15-Nov2. Go to youth Hostels. I stayed here in Madrid. It's close to Madrid's great Metro system. It was easy to meet english speakers there. Get some groceries and start making something in the kitchen. It's the hub of social people in just about any hostel. It's also close to Sol, which is a big, busy town square, and it's 15 minutes' walk from the Prado, and a few other places you'll want to see. The little walking tour in the Lonely Planet was pretty good for seeing a lot of fowntown.

Toledo is wonderful. There's a hostel that's not in the city proper, but just across a small bridge from it. It's a beautiful place to b. Small, winding cobblestone streets, and a beautiful cathedral. It's worth a full day.

I went to Granada adfter that. It's a CHEAP bus ride from MAdric. 15 euros for a five hour bus ride. It was great. I stayed here: Highly, highly reccomended. Lots of people to meet, organized meals for cheap, free internet, and very social without being crazy. Nice kitchen, back deck, etc. Do the al hambra for a day. Then wander in the old part of town on the far side of the valley, below the broken wall. (You'll see it from the al hambra.)

I spent a night in Seville, which was beautiful as well. Enjoy!
posted by thenormshow at 8:39 PM on November 18, 2007

I, too, studied abroad in Madrid (within the past 18 months for a period of six months).

I heartily recommend Toledo as a day trip (the old city is stunning, it offers a beautiful view of the Rio Tajo, it's a great glimpse of a medieval city (well, parts of it), and the Cathedral is not to be missed (yes, Sevilla, yes Cordoba but Toledo's cathedral is very beautiful).

I also recommend taking a half-day trip to El Escorial, if you can manage it. There's also Valle de los Caidos, which is a monument to the Spanish Civil War.

Sevilla is quite stunning, but I'd still pick Cordoba or Granada over it. Cordoba gets a huge boost, personally, because the Mezquita is just absolutely impossibly wonderful. Granada has the Alhambra, of course, and being so far south is quite distinct from Madrid (which is very Castilian) and Barcelona (which is very Catalan).

I actually recommend spending up to five days in Barcelona. It was definitely my favorite part of the time in Spain and in a lot of ways it has more history than Madrid (which has the Plaza del Sol, Plaza Santa Ana, el Palacio, the Prado, and a....few other things). But Barcelona has La Sagrada Familia, the Mediterranean, everything Gaudi from Park Guell to his various houses, Las Ramblas...and a lot more other things.

I found the best book, besides Rick Steves, was the Let's Go series (either Europe or Spain specifically) because it was tailored to a younger market since it's written by college students.

I don't recommend you do too much flying out of Madrid because a lot of the discounters were operating out of Barcelona. I don't recommend a Eurail pass because there are many other better options (discount flights, buses, spur of the moment trains, etc).

I recommend for booking hostels, and I recommend you try to squeeze in Portugal if at all humanly possible (I did Madrid-Lisboa by bus, and the trip was worth it).

This is turning into an epic, but please metamail me or something if you have more specific questions!
posted by librarylis at 5:15 AM on November 19, 2007

The cheapest and best way to get around to all the nooks and crannies of Spain is by bus. Madrid has several bus stations, most notably Moncloa, Avenida de America, and Plaza de Castilla. Pick the closest one to where you are and see where you can go from there. Train is obviously quicker and sexier but more expensive. Trains also do not go to many places that the bus will take you. El Valle de los Caídos is a prime example.

I would skip the Eurail pass if I were you and even skip trains altogether.
posted by JJ86 at 6:24 AM on November 19, 2007

I wouldn't get the eurail pass. Buses are a great, cheap option for seeing the country, although perhaps a low-cost flight for Madrid-Barcelona. You can go from Madrid to Toledo on the Cercanias, which are the commuter trains around cities. There is also nice high speed trains with sleeper cars that go between Madrid and Granada and Madrid and Barcelona.

Madrid probably has more great art than any other city in the world. The Prado, Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are enough for several days worth of viewing. Take cmgonzalez's advice on the neighborhoods of Madrid.

I think Madrid, Barcelona and Granada would give you a very good experience of their respective parts of the country. Those are the defining areas of Spain as well.

The food in Spain is wonderful. Make sure you have tortilla española, churros con chocolate (not the kind ludwig_van mentioned, though it would be good), gazpacho, queso manchego and as many tapas as you can handle. If you cannot get a great cup of coffee and mouth-watering pastry for breakfast in the morning, you have a serious problem.

In Granada please don't eat the meals provided by the hostel. It's one of the few cities where every beer you order is still accompanied by a tapa in the traditional style. The beers are little cañas that are cheap and not too filling. Order enough and you have dinner. I believe they stop handing out the tapas around 8 p.m. which is two or three hours before dinner starts in Spain, especially in Andalucia.

As far as booking accommodation goes, a few phone calls when you arrive in a town or the night before should set you up nicely. Take a guidebook or look online before you go for a list of those to call. In Granada you might, just maybe, be able to find an older, motherly woman renting out a room. Pay for a hostel in Madrid and look up conifer's friend in Barcelona and you're set.

Spaniards that don't speak English usually do know the language but are mortified of speaking it to a native speaker. They are not being haughty. For the most part they are very friendly and open people especially away from the actual tourist attractions. (Speaking of which, the gypsies around the Alhambra are a nuisance. Don't accept anything from them and otherwise steer clear as much as possible.)

For a quirky point of view and some photos in need of rotation, check out the blog of my former roommate in Madrid who was living in Barcelona this summer. BCNLaHostia He does a comparison of Madrid and Barcelona that might be elucidating.

MefiMail me for more info is you want. You'll have a great time.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 6:47 AM on November 19, 2007

And, is a Eurrail pass worth it?

No. Repeat: no. Check the prices and you'll see; it's vastly overpriced. Unless you travel every moment of every day, or go from country to country, it's cheaper to buy tickets at the train station than get one of those godawful Eurrail passes.

Airfares are rising in Europe now that the shock of deregulation is over. The most pleasant, cheapest overall, and most efficient way to get around Spain nowadays is the train system, Renfe, which is timely well-serviced, and goes almost anywhere you're likely to go, in addition to being very affordable. It's actually cheaper than taking a bus on most commuter routes, like routes to and from major cities and nearby. Going further-- say, from Madrid to Barcelona-- will cost more than it would on one of the many bus lines in country, but it'll still be affordable, and it'll be faster and a lot more pleasant. (Just for example, I see that the night train from Madrid to Barcelona is 38.10 EUR, or about $56. See what I mean about the Eurrail pass being a rip? Even if you go back and forth every day for three days, you'll spend less than that $200.)

And one of the great things about Renfe is that they have a very serviceable web site; peruse it, get used to it, and you'll soon be a pro at scoping out tickets and routes on the fly. If your departure or destination station isn't listed on the main page, pick a larger station that seems to be on the same line; there's probably a stop where you want to go, and if you click through, you can check. Also, without fail, I've found that the prices in the station are the same as the prices you can get for tickets over the internet; in other words, the train is great for on-the-fly planning.

So, if I were you (and I wish I was) I'd plan on hitting internet cafes, which are common, and using the Renfe web site in conjunction with Google Maps, which has pretty great coverage in Spain, to find train stations and routes you can use.

A few last words of advice from a lover of Spain:

(1) Ten days is not very long. Resist the urge to see many things. Try to spend less time travelling and more time being in certain places; personally, I'd scrap trying to see more than two areas. Remember that travelling from Madrid to Barcelona will eat up at least seven hours; you can minimize the impact on your timing if you take night trains and sleep the whole way. It seems to work well for a lot of people to return to Madrid a day or two early, which leaves just enough time for the museums there and allows travellers to enjoy the last few moments in Spain.

(2) HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal goes into the Spanish temperment above; I'll only add that, if you end up going to Barcelona, you'll find that Catalans are both very open and cosmopolitan people and that they're very helpful about helping non-native speakers, given that they're used to speakers of Castellano and other languages having trouble with Catalan. Note, by the way, that Spanish is called "Castellano" (cas-teh-YA-no) in Spain, because there are a number of other "Spanish" languages, like Catalan, Galician, and Basque.

(3) You're very lucky. I wish I could go with you. Someday, I'll get back to Spain. There are many, many places I could recommend, and I haven't even seen a lot of Spain, but if I could go to just one place, just one place in Spain, it would be Navarra. The area north of Pamplona is, in my view, some of the most beautiful country in Spain, ancient, rolling hills; the people are quiet, intelligent, and noble; the land has much interesting history. If I could spend ten more days in Navarra, I'd be very happy.

Enjoy. You can MefiMail me, if you like, with particular questions. Also, by the way, I recently posted an answer to a similar question about travel in Spain that you might find interesting.
posted by koeselitz at 8:39 AM on November 19, 2007

Do people actually have much success calling places? It seems like finding a phone to use nowadays is almost as hard as finding a place to stay. Or do you have cell phones that work locally?
posted by smackfu at 6:09 PM on November 19, 2007

The best thing to do is to buy a prepaid SIM card; they're pretty ubiquitous in Spain now, and they're an easy solution, since you can just throw them into the phone you've already got. This one seems like a good deal.
posted by koeselitz at 7:49 AM on November 20, 2007

Thank you SO much for all of the amazing information, everyone! I have not had time to thank you all individually or MeFiMail each of you, I'm sorrry - I wish I had asked this question sooner! I am leaving tomorrow and I'll be taking printouts of your answers with me to refer to. thanks again, you're the best.
posted by inatizzy at 8:30 PM on November 20, 2007

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