Know Before You Go: Spain

Know Before You Go: Spain

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Communications

INTERNET

Internet cafés and locutorios (cheap international phone centers) are most common in residential and student precincts. If you can’t find one easily, ask at either the tourist office or a hotel’s front desk. The most you’re likely to pay for Internet access is about €3 per hour.

Internet access in Spanish hotels is now fairly widespread, even in less expensive accommodations. In-room dial-up connections are gradually getting phased out, in favor of Wi-Fi; some hotels will still have a computer somewhere in the lobby for the use of guests (either free or with a fee), but Wi-Fi hot spots are common.

CONTACTS

Cybercafes. Lists more than 4,200 Internet cafés worldwide. www.cybercafes.com.
Gonuts4free. www.gonuts4free.com/yellow/internetcafes.

PHONES

The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In some countries you can phone from call centers or even the post office. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And then there are cell phones, which are sometimes more prevalent—particularly in the developing world—than landlines; as expensive as mobile phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel.

Spain’s phone system is efficient but can be expensive. Most travelers buy phone cards, which for €5 or €6 allow for about three hours of calls nationally and internationally. Phone cards can be used with any hotel, bar, or public telephone and can be bought at any tobacco shop and at most Internet cafés.

Note that only mobile phones conforming to the European GSM standard will work in Spain. If you’re going to be traveling in Spain for an extended period, buying a phone often turns out to be a money saver. Using a local mobile phone means avoiding the hefty long-distance charges accrued when using your own. Prices fluctuate, but offers start as low as €20 for a phone with €10 worth of calls.

A cheap and usually free alternative to using a phone is calling via your computer with a VOIP provider such as Skype or FaceTime, or installing a free messager/call app on your smartphone, such as LINE.

The country code for Spain is 34. The country code is 1 for the United States and Canada.

CALLING WITHIN SPAIN

International operators, who generally speak English, are at 025.

Most area codes begin with a 9 (some begin with 8). To call within Spain—even locally—dial the area code first. Numbers preceded by a 900 code are toll-free in Spain; however, 90x numbers are not (e.g., 901, 902, etc.). Phone numbers starting with a 6 or 7 belong to cellular phones. Note that when calling a cell phone, you do not need to dial the area code first; also, calls to mobile numbers are significantly more expensive than calls to land lines.

Pay phones are increasingly less common nowadays, but you find them in individual booths, in local telephone offices (locutorios), and in some bars and restaurants. Most have a digital readout so you can see your money ticking away. If you’re calling with coins, you need at least €0.50 to call locally and €1 to call a mobile phone or another province. Simply insert the coins and wait for a dial tone. Note that rates are reduced on weekends and after 8 pm during the week.

CALLING OUTSIDE SPAIN

International calls are awkward from coin-operated pay phones and can be expensive from hotels. Your best bet is to use a public phone that accepts phone cards or go to the locutorios. Those near the center of town are generally more expensive; farther from the center, the rates are sometimes as much as one-third less. You converse in a quiet, private booth and are charged according to the meter.

To make an international call, dial 00, then the country code, then the area code and number. Before you leave home, find out your long-distance company’s access code in Spain.

Electricity

Spain’s electrical current is 220–240 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs.

Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and cell-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts) and require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “For Shavers Only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.

Money

Spain is no longer a budget destination, even less so in the expensive cities of Barcelona, San Sebastián, and Madrid. However, prices still compare slightly favorably with those elsewhere in Europe.

Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.

Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.

ATMS AND BANKS

Your bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank, and extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.

PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in Spain. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.

You’ll find ATMs in every major city in Spain, as well as in most smaller towns. ATMs will be part of the Cirrus and/or Plus networks and will allow you to withdraw euros with your credit or debit card, provided you have a valid PIN.

Spanish banks tend to maintain an astonishing number of branch offices, especially in the cities and major tourist destinations, and the majority have an ATM.

CREDIT CARDS

It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, it might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.

If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.

Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the shop, restaurant, or hotel (not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.

DCC programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.

Passports and Visas

Visitors from the United States need a passport valid for a minimum of six months to enter Spain.

Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and yourself.

VISAS

Visas are not necessary for those with U.S. passports valid for a minimum of six months and who plan to stay in Spain for tourist or business purposes for up to 90 days. Should you need a visa to stay longer than this, contact the Spanish consulate office nearest to you in the United States to apply for the appropriate documents.

Restrooms

Spain has some public restrooms (servicios), including, in larger cities, small coin-operated booths, but they are few and far between. Your best option is to use the facilities in a bar or cafeteria, remembering that at the discretion of the establishment you may have to order something. Gas stations have restrooms (you usually have to request the key to use them), but they are more often than not in terrible condition.

Tipping

Aside from tipping waiters and taxi drivers, Spaniards tend not to leave extra in addition to the bill. Restaurant checks do not list a service charge on the bill but consider the tip included. If you want to leave a small tip in addition to the bill, tip 5%–10% of the bill (and only if you think the service was worth it), and leave less if you eat tapas or sandwiches at a bar—just enough to round out the bill to the nearest €1.

Tip taxi drivers about 10% of the total fare, plus a supplement to help with luggage. Note that rides from airports carry an official surcharge plus a small handling fee for each piece of luggage.

Tip hotel porters €0.50 per bag and the bearer of room service €0.50. A doorman who calls a taxi for you gets €0.50. If you stay in a hotel for more than two nights, you can tip the maid about €0.50 per night, although it isn’t generally expected

Tour guides should be tipped about €2, barbers €0.50–€1, and women’s hairdressers at least €1 for a wash and style. Restroom attendants are tipped €0.50.

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