OK! I feel my best contribution with this blog would be to write some tips for future quarter abroad students. I wish I had known these things before coming. If you are going on the Spain program, or any in general, here are some things I recommend. If you want a quick list it’s here, or read on for explanations and anecdotes:
Things To Bring
Of course this is optional, but we dress very casual in America and especially in California. Now I love rolling to class in my leggings, flip flops and a baggy shirt as much a the next girl, but if you want to avoid so many stares, consider bringing nicer clothes than normal. Granted, nothing is going to make me stagger around Madrid in stilettos like some of the women, but here ‘la moda’ (the fashion) is to be well dressed. It’s especially useful for fitting in and avoiding being targeted for pick as a tourist for pocketing. I feel best a little more dressed up. And I enjoyed it J
On that note…
Less clothes than you think
The best option is to bring simple, classic clothes that you can recombine into several outfits. Changing the tops and bottoms and adding accessories gives you more variety than you think. You’ll also want to buy clothes from here. I saw that a lot of people had problems trying to figure out how to get it all back. So, bring much less than the 50lbs allowed. Believe me, you’ll buy stuff here to fill up the rest. Then you don’t have to buy and pay for another luggage back.
Purse with a zipper
I brought a small purse that zipped and folded over which was great just to carry money and my phone. For class, I didn’t want to bring a backpack everyday because I felt it was a sign on my back that said ‘Foreigner right here!” So I brought a bigger bag without a zipper just to carry my notebooks too and from class. It was ok, but I always felt I was watching my back and wasn’t comfortable with just the button holding it closed. The one time I used it to carry more stuff in Barcelona, I suffered the consequences (as hopefully you’ve read from my precious blog.) My recommendation: bring a medium sized-bag with a zipper big enough that you could use to bring notebooks for class or simply use as a purse. H&M was a great place to get one.
This saved me. If you don’t want to wear running shoes everywhere, these are the way to go. I can put them in my Vans and boots. I guess it depends on each person, but I think at some point your dogs will be barking. (Isn’t that the saying? I don’t know.) But I Do Know my feet got raw from walking so much! Not only do you walk a lot in Madrid even with the metro, but also if you take trips anywhere, you don’t know the public transportation and end up walking more than you think. At the least, the program takes a weekend trip to Andalucia that everyone goes on. Half way through, my feet were dying. I brought Dr. Sholls gel in soles for my shoes but wore them down so quickly I ended up having to buy more at the Pharmacy here. They weren’t gel but did the trick. But I would have preferred to bring an extra pair of Dr Sholls. There’s nothing worse than wanting to see everything but having to skip or sight-see in pain. Also, switching your shoes every day or two help so your feet don’t get worn in the same way day after day.
Nike Frees/Tennis shoes
I really didn’t want to be that one tourist in running shoes everywhere but as I said, when your feet hurt, the worst is when your feet hurt. And at some point, I didn’t care. A lot of people have Nike Frees and I think this is a great option. They are light-weight and give you the support you need. They are often more fashionable and I didn’t feel like if I wore them I also needed to sport and fanny-pack, Hawaiian shirt and have a giant map constantly out. Comfort without looking obviously out of place.
Side note: Not that I care about being a foreigner or looking strange to people I’ll never see again. Obviously when you travel, you’re a tourist and there are things that no matter what you do, you can’t hide that fact. But anything to help lessen the target on your head for pick-pocketers is best.
Smaller bag/back pack
For taking trips on the weekends, you’ll find the best flight prices are with budget airlines like RyanAir and Vueling. They’re the best deal if you don’t plan on checking any luggage. You can have a carry on but they are very strict about the size regulations. You can only have one (not a bag and a purse or even a newspaper- it all has to be in one.) Also, you will go all the way through security and before getting on the plane, they make you put it in a metal box. If it spills out at all, they make you check it. So, a backpack is a safe bet or if you’re going to bring a bag, I suggest a duffle. It’s soft and you can squish it to fit the regulations easier.
Besides the fact that everyone wears one, it was one of the best purchases I made. If you don’t want to bring a nice one, you can pick one up in Spain. I just stopped by a little boutique and bought one for 5 euro. In the metro and the streets, I kept my phone deep in my purse for safe-keeping. So when I needed the time, I had my watch and didn’t need to pull out my iPhone.
Water bottle with filter
I found this very helpful. You can find them in Target or Macy’s. It is a thin water bottle with a filter in the mouthpiece that filters the water as you drink. In general the water in Spain and good but I felt better with this. I could fill it up in the sinks, drinking fountains, anywhere. I never needed to buy water and the filter made me feel better about drinking water form wherever.
If you take anything regularly at home, bring enough supply for the trip. This goes for prescription as well as over the counter stuff. If you get allergies, migraines etc, bring medicine for that. They have Pharmacies but you have to go, explain your symptoms and they recommend something for you ,which is often expensive. I felt best using the medications I already knew
They tell you that you can buy all your toiletries in Spain, and though this is true the deodorant is here NOT the same. You’ll get a nice whiff when people have their arms up, hanging on in the metro. And those in the program who didn’t bring deodorant from home… Well…. Let just say you could tell. If you don’t want to be the stinky kid in class, bring your own.
While in Spain you’ll want to travel on the weekends.
First I advise NOT to travel every weekend.
Try and do about half and half. Madrid is an amazing city with tons to do. Also, you will get close with the people in the program and want to explore with and do things all together. I found that people who traveled every weekend loved where they went but wished they had spent more time in Madrid.
And you should.
With that… when you’re booking your travels. Book as far in advance as you can.
Even with budget airlines, prices go up daily. But also book everything the very end. We booked out flights far out… for the last three weekends and it ended up being the hardest course-work wise. Level 2 had lots of essays and Level 1 was learning the hardest tenses in the language course. I recommend booking them the first week or two in Spain. That way you can get a feel for everyone and find who wants to travel to the same places you do, and who you think you’d travel well with. And aim to travel 2/3 the way through your time there. That way you can get adjusted, and enjoy your last time in Madrid and be able to complete all your work.
Side Note: who you travel with can make or break a trip. Make sure the people you go with are on the same page. Decide whether you all want to do the touristy stuff or want to relax, like a set schedule or are easy-going, want to party or keep it low-key, need your sleep, are tight on money etc… If you have a group that isn’t all on the same page, you’ll spend half the time compromising and end up getting frustrated.
How to travel
Because you only have the weekends, by plane is the fastest way to get there and back. The cheapest are the budget airlines RyanAir and Vueling. And they are called budget for a reason…. The planes are small, they are strict with luggage, and forget a drink or peanuts. It is just a way to get somewhere and back, but for students and the price, I had no problem.
There are other airlines but it depends who is having deals. I downloaded the app sky-scanner. They have deals everyday with various airlines to lots of places. I never booked through it but know many people in the program that did for a great prices.
Side Note: RyanAir - BE CAREFUL. RyanAir often flies in to the smaller, airports further from the main city because it’s cheaper. For example, when flying into Rome, Italy, RyanAir usually flies into the smaller of the two aiports on the other side of the city. If you figure out all your public transportation from the airport and then end up at another one, you won’t be happy. There are many horror stories that RyanAir ends up going to the airport 45 min outside main cities. So do your research! Also with RyanAir, they are strict with luggage regulations. As I said before, make sure you check their website for dimensions and weight allowed. Finally….. the applause. Haha ok here’s the deal. At the end of the flight if it’s on time, RyanAir plays a little jingle and brags about how it has the most on-time flights of any airline. And everyone applauds. But I think they’re applauding more for the fact that they made it safe rather than on time. I have had some bumpy rides of RyanAir and almost crapped my pants a couple times. I find myself praying more than once throughout the flight. It’s not like they have had a lot of plane crashes or anything… but at the end you wonder how they haven’t had more. Their planes seem flimsy but that’s what you get for the price. I’m glad I’m done with that though.
Another option is the train.
In Spain, the Renfe has normal and high-speed trains (the Ave) that go just about everywhere. They are nice, comfortable, and reliable. You get to see a bit more scenery with skipping bag regulations and strict security regulations. Like airplanes, prices are cheapest when bought in advance.
I most often used hostelworld.com and recommend it.
It shows hostels, all the amenities each offers, prices, locations and most importantly, reviews from previous guests. Of course the owners are going to say it’s a wonderful place, but traveler’s reviews will not hesitate to let you know their honest opinion. Depending on your budget and expectations, you can usually find the right hostel for you if you put in the time to read.
Another option is couchsurfing.org.
We used it to travel to Mallorca, which is typically expensive. We stayed for three nights for free. You make a profile and search for the city you want to stay and put out a request. You can send them to the community in general and wait for someone to offer you accommodations or send individual requests. The community is for people traveling to help others traveling by providing a free place to sleep. Most of the people also love to share where they live and meet new people. Of course you have to be careful! I relied a lot of reviews here as well. When selecting who to stay with, make sure they have friends and reviews from people who have stayed with them previously. Some members are also verified and go to official couchsurfing meetings (which we attended in Mallorca.) This can give you a little more comfort that they’re not some random weirdo.
OK Ladies and Gents….
That’s all the tips and tricks I have to offer. It’s all the stuff you need to know that no one tells you. You can only get from experience. I’ve just saved you 10 plus weeks worth of figuring it out on your own. You’re welcome!
Of course there are great travel books with tips and tricks and would be worth picking up and reading before coming to study abroad. This is just a little advice I learned from this program specifically.
Take my advice, heed my warnings and enjoy!