Posts tagged solo travel tips
Why i travel in spain mainly on the train
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You ever been on a train that’s just moments away from pulling into your destination, so you get up from your seat, start gathering your things and begin moving towards the nearest exit. Then, suddenly you realize that the train doesn’t seem to be slowing down enough to make a stop. Slowly it dawns on you that the train isn’t slowing down, because it’s not going to stop. And as the train ever so slowly rolls past your destination station, and you stand dumbstruck in the middle of the aisle – your rolling bag clutched in one hand, your jacket draped over your other arm – your eyes and mouth widen while you watch your intended place fade away in the distance and you wonder to yourself,

What the f*ck just happened?

And then,

Where the f*ck am I headed to now?

spain train travel
spain train travel

No? Never happened to you? Oh.

Well…

You ever been on a train seated next to an old Spanish man, who, after almost refusing to move out of your assigned seat when you boarded, later lets out the mother of all silent-but-deadly farts that wakes you and the other guy in the seat across from you out of your naps, prompts a coughing fit from the passenger seated 3 rows back, gives you a (literal) taste of what the old man had for lunch and what medications he’s currently taking, and makes you wonder exactly how to say ‘Sir! Do not move another inch. Clap your cheeks down on that foul stench immediately!’ in Spanish without being misunderstood?

spain train travel
spain train travel

Yeah. Happened to me once. Never happened to you?

Well, then…

You ever been on a train with a silent car? A silent car that you specifically booked a seat in because things like loud talking, small children, and cell phone usage are strictly prohibited? A silent car that you’ve been dying to park yourself in so you can rest your hot, hungover head against the cool, cool window and snooze a bit on the way back to your little town after a long weekend of the most turnt-up of turn-ups (aka, Carnaval in Cadiz)? A silent car whose silence is being disturbed by, of all things, a nun…talking…on a cell phone? At first, you feel a little bad at getting angry at a nun. Is that even allowed? But then all those Catholic school punishments come back to you and you think to yourself, “Oh, hell naw, Sister Mary. The rules apply to you too.” But instead of saying anything, you simply scowl in her direction and not-so-subtly snap a picture of her with your phone hoping that the power of shame will compel her.

spain train travel
spain train travel

Still no? Damn, you should get out more.

Or… maybe I should stay put more.

But, it’s hard to stay put when I have this amazingly efficient and wide-reaching network of sleek chariots on iron rails to take me almost anywhere I can think of going in this country. As an American, I am not used to this type of convenience. Our national rail system is more of a quaint remnant of history than a currently viable utility. And the price of using the rail system in Spain is more than favorable. I often make use of Renfe’s SpainPass, a volume discount-type train ticket that’s only available to non-Spaniards. SpainPass allows you to take 4 or more medium- or long-distance train trips in a month for 40 euro or less per trip. Once I realized that with the money I make off of just a handful of private English lessons (link), I can afford to travel to 2 new cities each month, I was hooked. I’ve heard that Renfe has some pretty good student discounts, too. But, sadly (or gladly?), I aged out of those a long time ago. Even without discounts, many of the regular-price Renfe tickets are still in the 40 euro or less range, depending on the day and route of travel.

Of course there are so many other benefits to Spain train travel besides price. Trains offer:

  • More comfort and speed than a bus, and much less hassle than a plane
  • Less of the security hassle than at airports
  • Larger seats / more room
spain train travel
spain train travel
  • No luggage restrictions
  • The chance to see the country and the geography up-close while on the move
spain train travel
spain train travel
  • Free onboard entertainment (in the form of smelly old men, chatty nuns or in-transit movies)

So, Dear Reader, I encourage you to get out there more. Find a destination, buy a ticket, hop a train, and have an adventure.

Just remember to:

  • Always have your phone ready to snap a pic of a naughty nun
  • Always bring nose plugs or air spray in case of an unexpected abuelo ass-ault
  • Always know exactly where your train will be stopping, so you won’t inadvertently end up in Madrid having to buy another train ticket to get back to your intended destination.
5 of my favorite cities for street art
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I am not one for museums when I travel. It’s not that I don’t like museums. It’s just that with limited time and lots of things to see and do on a trip, spending hours looking at old or odd things inside of a building doesn’t seem like the best time management strategy. Usually, I’ll save a museum visit for a second or third visit to a destination, or if I happen to stay in a single place for a long period of time.

Yet, even on a first trip or a short stay in a city, I like to get a feel for the culture and energy of the place – and viewing the work of local artists is a great way to do just that.

chasing street art while travelling
chasing street art while travelling

The Unexpected Value of Street Art

Street artists, in particular, often combine their art with a message that is highly relevant in their surroundings, their work can convey a sense of the politics of a particular area – what’s going on beneath the surface of the neighborhood or city you’re in. There’s also an ephemeral quality to street art that makes it more precious somehow. While a traditional work of art might show over and over again at a number of galleries, a piece of street art you see today may not be there tomorrow or next week.

Capturing street art – whether stumbling on works by accident or intentionally seeking them out – has led me down some of the most unexpected paths and into some of the best memories (and photos) during my travels.

Here are some of my favorite cities for capturing impressive works of street art:

London, England

best-street-art-london (4)
best-street-art-london (4)
best street art - londn
best street art - londn
best-street-art-london
best-street-art-london
best-street-art-london-eine
best-street-art-london-eine
best-street-art-london-roa
best-street-art-london-roa

Where to find street art in London:

About.com’s London street art walking tour (self-guided)

East London street art walk (self-guided)

 

Lisbon, Portugal

best-street-art-lisbon4
best-street-art-lisbon4
best-street-art-lisbon3
best-street-art-lisbon3
best-street-art-lisbon2
best-street-art-lisbon2
best-street-art-lisbon
best-street-art-lisbon
best-street-art-barcelona
best-street-art-barcelona
best-street-art-barcelona (3)
best-street-art-barcelona (3)
best-street-art-barcelona (2)
best-street-art-barcelona (2)
best street art - malaga
best street art - malaga
best-street-art-malaga (3)
best-street-art-malaga (3)
best-street-art-malaga (2)
best-street-art-malaga (2)
best-street-art-malaga (5)
best-street-art-malaga (5)
best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin

Berlin, Germany

best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin
best street art-berlin
best street art-berlin
best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin

Where to find street art in Berlin:

Original Free Alternative Berlin Tour

Free Alternative Berlin Tour

Are you a fan of street art? Where have you seen some great works of graffiti or street art during your travels?

Traveling Solo: What to Do When Everything Goes Wrong
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Oh, f**k. I am literally stuck in Portugal. My heart rate quickened a few paces. I hadn’t really allowed myself to think that the worst possible scenario would happen, so now that it was in fact happening, I found myself momentarily bewildered. I’d made the foolish mistake of traveling to Portugal  without my passport, but since I’d gotten lucky on the flight out of Spain, I thought my luck might hold out for the return trip. It didn’t. After trying other alternatives (presenting a copy of my passport, then my Spanish resident ID) that were refused by the airline agent, it became clear that I was not getting on this flight.

My brain began slowly filling with a thousand thoughts:

Shit.

Um. Ok. What the hell are you going to do now?

This can’t be happening.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod

What if I can’t get out of here? What if I’m stuck in this airport for months or years like that one movie with Tom Hanks?

How could I be so stupid!?

Shit!

This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Why do bad things always happen to me?

Jesus Christ, I’m sooo stupid!!

I just wanna go home.

*Eyes starting to well up with tears*

If you travel often enough, eventually it will happen. The worst possible scenario. You find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere. You missed your flight. The hotel booking fell through. You’re lost in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language. Or worse yet, you’ve been pickpocketed or injured.

While I haven’t had any serious travel emergencies yet (knock on wood), I’ve definitely found myself in a pickle more than once while travelling – most recently on a solo trip back to Spain from Portugal. What I’ve learned from these travel blunders is that the best and quickest way out of them is to… keep calm and carry on.

you could panic. but what  good would that do?

 

Don’t Panic (Ok, panic. But make it brief.)

After realizing that my pleading with the airline agent was useless, I found a bench to sit on, and let the reality of the situation settle in a bit. I tried to tame my wildly racing thoughts as best I could (repeating over and over to myself, ‘It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok.’). Suddenly, a calming piece of advice that a friend of mine once said to me popped up in my mind: ‘Every problem has at least 5 solutions’.

Slowly, I felt the panic begin to subside and a steely resolve take its place. After a few more moments, I went to the bathroom, washed my face, fixed my hair, and touched up my makeup. Then, I set to work.

escape-from-portugal-oporto-airport

 

Gather Your Tools

I knew I would need to rely heavily on my cell phone, so I checked the battery. It was about half full. I started scouting out the airport terminal for power outlets. Then, checked to see if there was free Wi-fi at the airport. No luck. Fortunately, my cell phone data plan worked, and the signal was strong.

Once you’ve calmed yourself down, take inventory of what you’ve got to help you get out of this situation - cell phone, map, GPS, snacks, the phone number of ‘a guy who knows a guy’. Use whatever you’ve got within reach to help you get yourself out of this predicament or weather the storm until you do.

Using travel tools proactively can also be a big help in case of a travel mishap. For example, take pics of your hotel, the hotel stationery, or the street you’re staying on in case you get lost and can’t communicate where you need to go. Save emergency contact info into a notes app on your phone. Save text versions of walking directions to/from your hotel on your phone to use in case you can’t access GPS. Download maps that are accessible offline. Download travel apps you can use to book last-minute flights and hotels and find bus and train schedules.

 

Brainstorm & Prioritize Your Options

What’s the thing that needs to happen first? What’s most important right now? What’s the fastest, most efficient way to get that thing done?

My 3 main options were: Getting on another flight, finding a place to stay, or finding another mode of transportation to get back to Spain.

After a quick search online for other flights, I ruled out that option. Even if I could get past security for another airline (sans passport), the cost of the flight would be ridiculous. Since I was already out of the money from the lost flight, I didn’t want to pay more than I needed to.

My next best bet was finding an alternative way out. Lastly, I’d look for a place to crash, if finding a way out took longer than I hoped.

 

Be Resourceful – Know Where to Go for Info or Help

Thankfully, I had apps for Renfe – Spain’s railway system, BlaBlaCar, and Skyscanner on my phone, and I’d bookmarked the site for Portugal’s railway system. I used Google to search for buses going between Portugal and Spain. In under an hour, I’d found info on the next trains, buses, and rideshares going to Madrid. But online bus information can often be out of date, so I ended up consulting with both an airport security guard and the airport tourist info office to make sure the info I’d found online was correct (turns out, it wasn’t). Since there was nothing leaving until the next day, I used my handy AirBnB and Booking.com apps to look for a cheap place to stay in the meantime.

Having the right info at hand during a travel emergency makes all the difference, and knowing where to go to find it is essential. In my case, I relied heavily on online travel tools. But the people around you can also be excellent sources of help and information. Information desks or tourist offices are available in most large cities. Bus drivers and taxi drivers are great for helping you find your way – they know the area well. Hotel concierges and desk staff, security guards and police officers, store workers in commercial areas – not only are all of these people good sources of ‘official’ info, they’re also more likely to speak English than a random person on the street.

 

Think Positively

Even if you do everything you should do in a travel emergency, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get out of the situation quickly. No matter what happens, though, keeping a positive mindset and being able to laugh at yourself will help you make the best of a bad situation.

In the end, it took a few hours of searching for and confirming transport and lodging, an overnight stay at a cheap but centrally located AirBnB room (15 euros), and a 5-hour BlaBlaCar ride (30 euros) the next day from Oporto to Madrid. During that time, I encountered some rude and unhelpful people, took a walk through what – at first glance – looked like a sketchy area, and suffered a late-night bout of gastrointestinal distress. I tried to view the whole ordeal as a comical adventure, which kept me from getting too riled up or freaked out, even though there were several times when I wanted to do both. In the end, I made it out of a sticky situation without too much incident, feeling like I earned a merit badge in the process.  And a ridiculously hilarious travel story to boot.

did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.

 

Have you ever experienced an embarrassing travel mishap or stressful travel emergency? How did you make it out alive? Share your experience in the comments!

 

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7 reasons you shouldn’t couchsurf if you haven’t already
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Ok. So you’ve heard about Couchsurfing (CS) from a friend of a friend or an article in a travel magazine or around a campfire that one time when you ran into a band of wandering hippies. You may even be thinking of trying it out for yourself. I’m a big fan of both the concept and the reality of Couchsurfing – I’ve used it at least 4 times in 4 different countries (all while travelling solo), and each of my experiences has been amazing. I’d even go so far as to say that my Couchsurfing experiences have renewed my faith in the kindness and hospitality of my fellow upright bi-pedders.

But I also realize that Couchsurfing is not for everyone. It’s not intended to be. And that’s ok. So, if you’re on the fence about Couchsurfing, here are 7 reasons that may (or may not) convince you to book a hotel instead.

#1: Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t personally know someone who has surfed or hosted.

Couchsurfing sounds strange and scary, especially for us Americans. What if this person kills me? Robs me? Rapes me? Makes me listen to Enya all night long? Having a friend or associate who has Couchsurfed before will give you the chance to ask all the questions you want and have your suspicions and fears put at ease before you ever go looking for a host or guest.  If this person knows you well, they’ll be better equipped to help you figure out if Couchsurfing is something that fits your personal needs and tastes. Plus, an experienced Couchsurfer will be able to school you on all of the unwritten rules and customs that are common among CS’ers.

#2: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking for a free room.

Yes. If you find a Couchsurfing host, you will be able to stay at his/her place without paying a red cent. But this isn’t just about what you get out of the situation, it’s also about what you’re willing to give – namely, some of your time, personality, and life experiences. Couchsurfers are all about meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. Many of them have learned second languages, discovered new music, tried new foods, or planned their next vacation to previously unheard of destinations just from the interactions they’ve had with fellow surfers. The goal is to build relationships, not just freeload at someone’s house. It’s even common to bring a little gift or token of appreciation for your host – a bottle of wine, a fridge magnet from your home country or state, or any little thing that says, ‘thanks for letting this stranger sleep in your house’.

#3: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re not prepared to do some upfront work.

Nothing in life is truly free. This applies even to Couchsurfing. In order to have a quality Couchsurfing experience, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time thoroughly filling out your CS profile. The more thorough, honest, and detailed your profile is, the more likely you’ll be able to find someone with similar interests or a compatible outlook on life. Once you’re ready to look for a host, you’ll also need to put in quite a lot of time perusing potential hosts’ profiles, going over all of the feedback that previous guests have given, sending couch requests, waiting for replies, etc. I liken the whole CS reservation request experience to looking for a match on a dating or friend site. It takes time to get quality results. You should also be prepared to leave detailed and useful feedback about your host after your stay – it’s this contribution that helps the next person decide if they should follow in your footsteps.

#4 - Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t have a Plan B.

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone you don’t know. Even if you’ve done all of your pre-work and feel comfy with your host, shit happens. Maybe your host will need to cancel at the last minute. Maybe you won’t like the vibe you get when you get there. Whatever the reason, always have a backup plan – another nearby hotel or hostel you can head to if need be, and enough money to pay for a more traditional living arrangement should the need arise.

#5 - Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t like sharing or if you have an inherent mistrust of strangers or the internet.

By its very nature, CS is more suitable for open-minded, gregarious people who don’t mind sharing a little bit about themselves on the internet (i.e., your CS profile) or with people they’ve never met before. If you already know that’s not your style, don’t stress yourself or other CS’ers out.

#6 - Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking to hook up or get laid.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your stance on the issue), some folks out there think that CS is the perfect way to get easy sex with strangers. To each his or her own, I say. But, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are plenty of other sites out there that are more suited for that purpose. If you somehow feel like you MUST use CS to achieve your sex-with-strangers fantasy, at least be upfront about your intent with potential guests / hosts, and be prepared for the other person not being on the same page. Full disclosure: I’ve messaged potential hosts who responded with messages that made it clear that their intent or interest would be to engage in some physical recreation with me. While it creeped me out a bit, I was mostly relieved that they were upfront about their intent. I politely declined their offer, and kept searching for a more suitable host. No harm, no foul.

#7 - Don’t Couchsurf if the little voice tells you not to.

As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve learned that one of the best tools in my nomad toolkit is my intuition, aka, the little voice. If you have even the slightest hint of uneasiness or a feeling that something might not be right with a potential Couchsurfing situation, don’t go into it. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have a good experience, you are under no obligation to suffer discomfort or weirdness even if you’re staying with someone for free.

Have you Couchsurfed before? What have your experiences been like? Still not sure if Couchsurfing is for you? What are some of your concerns or worries?
Share your feedback in the comments!
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my travel style, aka, how I travel on the cheap in spain
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Since I’m in the habit of giving advice and tips about the places I’ve traveled to on this blog, I thought it was worthwhile to share some more information on exactly the type of traveler I am. Travel advice is really only relevant if the receiver has similar travel interests and preferences as the person giving the advice. For instance, some people would never stay in a hostel or couchsurf, while others – like myself – usually steer clear of chain hotels and all-inclusives. So, with that, here’s some insight into my personal travel style, so you can decide for yourself whether my travel advice is suitable for you.

 

I live cheaply when not travelling – I live in a pretty small town in the interior of Spain, so most things here are cheaper than they are elsewhere in the country. My major expense – rent – runs me about 150 euros a month, and that includes all of my utilities. I share an apartment with 3 other ladies – a fairly common arrangement in Spain, even for working professionals – so that helps to keep costs low. Even when I lived on my own, rent and utilities averaged 275 euros a month – extremely cheap by American standards. I eat out, but not too often. When I do, it’s usually at a place where I buy a beer or a glass of wine and get a free tapa. At the grocery store, I buy very few packaged goods – which are typically more expensive than whole foods – choosing veggies, fresh fruits, fish, and meats instead of heat-and-serve meals. I also don’t waste leftovers. I remix them until they’re all gone.
Blablacar – I describe Blablacar as a safer way to hitchhike. I tend to use it for short to mid-distance trips to nearby cities or provinces (roughly, 4 hours or less). Using the site or app, you can search for drivers who are leaving from your area and heading to a destination you want to go to. The drivers offer available seats in their car for a much, much lower price than a train or even a bus. An added benefit is that you get the chance to chat with a local about any number of things, including their recommendations on what you should see and do when you reach your destination.

SpainPass – Like much of Europe, Spain’s long distance train system is quite good. The trains are reliable and fast, and depending on how early you buy your ticket, they can also be quite affordable. I tend to use trains for exploratory, long-distance trips. Renfe – Spain’s national train service – offers a very attractive multi-trip pass for non-Spanish travelers. It’s called SpainPass, and it allows you to travel multiple legs on the train for about 40 euros per leg. The only catch is that all trips must be paid for upfront, and they must all be used in 30 days. Because of the time limit, I try to use this option strategically. For instance, in December, there was both a long holiday at the beginning of the month and the Christmas holidays at the end of the month. Using SpainPass, I was able to travel to Valencia, Malaga, and Barcelona that month for much less than plane tickets or regular-price train tickets. Whenever I use SpainPass, I typically search for a destination that would cost me a lot of money to get to and go there.

 

Skyscanner – Simply the best app or flight search site I’ve found for showing the lowest prices to my chosen destination. There’s enough flexibility in Skyscanner’s search function for me to select a departure location and leave the destination open, which allows me to see where I can fly to for the least amount of money.
Pack light – when I don’t travel via train or Blablacar, I’m usually on one of what I call ‘ghettoeurope’ airlines – Ryanair or Easyjet. These super low-cost airlines are able to keep their prices low because they offer a no-frills service. This is especially true when it comes to baggage restrictions. Both of these airlines only allow you to travel with a small carry-on bag for free. While the luggage size isn’t restrictively small, it may take some smart packing to keep from having a too-large bag that costs you more money.
Hostels – Unfortunately, this is one way I could probably travel even more cheaply. But, since I’m over 35 and my dorm room days are decades behind me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of a communal bathroom, and I simply can’t wrap my head around the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers. I mean, what if I need to poot, scratch, rub one out? Now, I have stayed in hostels, but I always opt for the private room option when I do – it’s more expensive than the traditional hostel experience, but still much cheaper than a standard hotel.

Home stays – I do, however, love Couchsurfingand Airbnb – two options for staying in a home or apartment while travelling. Usually there’s a kitchen I can use to cook a quick meal or even just have some fruit, bread, and cheese for breakfast or a snack.

one of my most unique and enjoyable homestays - a hammock on a houseboat in amsterdam

 

Eat out only for the main meal – I’m a foodie, so I definitely like to eat out when I’m travelling – but I try to eat out for my main meal of the day – typically late lunch or dinner – and just eat fruit or snacks purchased at a local supermarket for the other meals. I also try to save dining out experiences for iconic dishes or local specialties, not just because I’m hungry and need a bite.
Public transportation– Most cities in Spain are very walkable, but when my feet get tired, I opt for public transportation, not taxis or car hires. Not only is public transport cheaper, it’s also a good way to quickly get a feel of the layout of the city and what the people are like.
No tours – I just don’t believe in paying for them. And since I’m not one who feels like I need to see EVERYthing when I visit a place – I typically pick out 2 or 3 must-sees, and let the rest happen as it may – tours aren’t really worth my money. Also, since I stay with locals, there’s no need for a tour. A quick conversation with my host about what I’m looking for and how to get there, and it’s like I’ve received a customized itinerary. However, there are occasionally exceptions to this rule.
Skip paid attractions– Again, there are some rare occasions when I’ll make an exception to this rule. But for the most part, I skip any site that I have to pay to enter. This includes museums and theme parks.  I prefer parks, neighborhoods, plazas, local markets, and other outdoor activities as they give me more of a feel for what the city and its people are like.
What are some of your tips for keeping costs low while travelling in Spain, Europe, or elsewhere in the world? Share them in the comments!
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