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Practical information for Spain

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What to pack
Telephone and Internet
Personal safety


Think of Iberia as an outstretched bull's hide. The heart is Madrid; draw a sword through the heart: to the North is cool, to the South is warm.

Snow is not exceptional in Madrid in winter, but it is very hot in the summer. Rain is always a possibility in the North, which is why it is called "Green Spain". Galicia especially is more like the Pacific Northwest of the USA.

What to pack

One always packs too much. Use the old recipe: Gather everything you are planning to take, then take half of that and put it back in the closet. Do not pack essential items like medicine, prescription glasses, important documents or jewelry in your checked bags. It is sad to have to say this, but do not pack anything you cannot afford to lose in checked baggage. The airline statistics for delayed, lost or pilfered bags are not reassuring.

Use soft bags rather than hard suitcases; hard suitcases, if any, should be no longer than an airplane carry-on designed to fit sideways in an overhead compartment, a maximum 20 inches. Put fragile items into a well padded, hard protective shell inside the softer case. If you don't feel comfortable with the idea of tossing your bag from one end of the room to the next, or you think that stepping on it might break something, then you need to repack with better protection for your fragile items.

Why soft bags? European cars are typically smaller than American cars, a necessity to get past other traffic on small roads and the narrow streets of old cities and villages; this means that the trunks also tend to be smaller. Since you want all your possessions to be out of sight (see personal safety below), you need small bags that can be easily reshaped to fit.

On group tours, baggage space is strictly limited.


Electricity in Spain is 220 Volt, 50Hz. Many electronic devices can switch automatically to adapt to the different voltage, but you will still need a different plug or a plug adapter. Check the labeling or engraving on your device. If it says "120V" or "100-120V", then you need a voltage transformer as well as a plug adapter; these are sometimes combined into one convenient unit. Read the information on the unit carefully before buying--depending on the type of device, there are two different kinds of transformers. If your device label says "110V-220V" or "100-240V" then you only need a simple plug adapter; in that case, don't let someone sell you a transformer, which could actually damage your device.


You can find the same grades of film and any photographic equipment as in America in all Spanish cities, and often in smaller towns as well. Most photo batteries can also be found easily, but do carry a spare just in case.

If you use film, see the recommendations from the manufacturer on how to avoid damage by airport security. Video cameras, video tapes, digital cameras and memory cards are not affected by X-Ray or magnetic fields used by airport security.

If you use a camcorder, It is best to buy plenty of video tapes at home before leaving. Video tapes tend to be more expensive in Europe. They also come with different length designations than American videotapes but they are generally compatible with American (NTSC) camcorders.

If you use a digital camera, buy extra memory cards before you go, or get the biggest memory card you can afford (512MB or more). The same memory cards are available in Spain, but they tend to be more expensive in Europe than at discount American outlets. Quick digital print services are also available. For about 10 Euros, you can find places that will copy your pictures to a CD in an hour or so, so you can erase and reuse your memory card.

Be careful however if you are ordering a CD of your digital pictures. Ask to verify the CD, by having someone open some of the oldest and more recent picture files, or make a small print from some of them. At least one service we used the United States actually stored the pictures on an Internet server, and the CD we got from it only contained thumbnail pictures and ordering information for prints. We did not have that experience in Spain, but double-check the CD you receive. Some quick digital services that use Fuji or Kodak software will copy your pictures onto your CD, but at the same time they change the date to the date of the copy, losing the original picture file date. Being a little paranoid, we typically order two copies of the CD, then keep one with us and mail the other one home immediately.

Note that flash photography is not allowed in many places, or will give poor results because of the kind of subjects you will encounter or size of the places you will visit. It pays to practice at home in low light conditions. Online forums like the Digital Photography Review forums are a good source of tips and help from other users of just about any model of digital camera.

Telephone and Internet

Your American cell phone won't work in Europe, unless (a) it is a GSM phone and (b) it is a "world phone" that can work on European frequencies. Several American providers who use GSM networks, like Cingular or T-Mobile, sell some phones that are in fact "world phones". For a (steep) price, you can then use the same phone in Europe with their roaming service. For example (as of April 2005) T-Mobile lets you make and receive calls with your GSM to and from anywhere in Europe (including to and from the US) for 99 cents a minute. This adds up very fast, but it is still cheaper than paying for the normal roaming fees of some other providers. You can also order or buy a Spanish SIM phone card that fits in your GSM phone in Spain, thus with a Spanish number. However, in order to do that your GSM phone must be "unlocked" to work with a different provider. For example, T-Mobile will "unlock" your phone on request, but only if you had their service for a set number of months. You may also rent a phone in Spain. We found a lot of useful information on rates, options and practical tips on vendor web sites such as www.spainsim.com or Telestial (note that we cannot vouch for the reliability of these vendors, but the information seems credible). The guides on all our escorted tours carry a GSM phone.

Internet access varies from place to place. Most cities of any size have at least one internet cafe. Some hotels have public internet terminals in the lobby or in a business center; most charge to use it, while some offer it for free on a first-come basis. A few hotels have internect connectivity in at least some of their rooms, in the form of an ethernet connection or wireless access. As in American hotels, expect wide variability in the quality and cost of such services.


Spain is a shopper's paradise, except on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, when stores are closed. You will often find a much larger variety of products in European stores than in American stores.


Although Europe is making great strides in improving accessibility, many hotels, museums, restaurants and historical sites are still a challenge. If you have special accessibility requirements, or if you have difficulty walking more than one or two city blocks, you must notify your tour operator in advance.


If you have special dietetary requirements, you must notify your tour operator in advance.

In Spain, people eat dinner very late. It is not uncommon for restaurants to open only at 9 PM and for their first customers to drift in at 10 PM. However, your Saranjan guide may be able to help if those hours will not work for you.


Tap water is generally safe everywhere in Western Europe, except in trains and airplanes. Bottled water is available everywhere.

Prescription drugs and medical emergencies

Most brand drugs sold in the United states are available in Europe, but they can be very expensive for people who are not covered by local insurance plans, and they are sometimes sold under a different name. You should take any prescription drug you are going to need, and carry it in your hand baggage. Also take a copy of a current prescription, or at least make sure you know how to get one faxed to you if necessary. We very strongly recommend that you get travel insurance, which will cover unexpected medical expenses and medical evacuation if necessary.

Personal safety

Spain is scenic but it is not Disneyland. The same personal safety precautions you would use when traveling to unknown areas in any big American city do apply there. Search the Internet for "travel personal security" and "hotel security tips" -- See for example Personal Security for the American Business Traveler Overseas. Some of the advice you will find borders on the paranoid, but generally following the precautions listed in those documents helps ensure an enjoyable and care-free trip.

The bottom line on personal safety is that it is no more dangerous to travel in Spain than in the United States. The same general precautions apply. Do not travel with anything that is not replaceable. In the very rare case that anything bad should happen, be sure to get a police report. Your guide can assist you with this. You will need the police report to replace documents and for any insurance claims.

Fun with kids

Spain is kid friendly. In most cities and town, the early evening ritual of the paseo draws people of all generations to promenade, visit and play. See also this list of fun activities to do with kids in Madrid and Barcelona.


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