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Discovering the World with a Baby on Board

Category: General Travel

7 Tips for Traveling in Spain

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

Spain has much to offer: incredible museums, jaw-dropping architecture, inspiring music, warm and hospitable people, beautiful weather, and an excellent public transportation system. This makes it one of my top recommendations in Europe. Their updated high-speed rail system now makes it incredibly fast and easy to zip from one major city to another, which makes it a great destination for a one to two-week (or more) vacation.

Now that my son is a major crawler, I was a little worried about traveling with him, knowing that he would be itching to move around and not be as willing to sit in his stroller for long stretches of time. And, I was partially right. It was easier to tour around all day when he was five months and perfectly happy to hang out in the Ergobaby while we traversed Italy. But, luckily, it wasn’t that difficult in Spain. We made a few more pit stops so he could stretch his muscles and we built in some siestas so he could explore our hotel room, but all in all he ended up being a very good travel toddler and made me excited about continuing our nomadic lifestyle in the coming months and years.

In future posts, I will highlight each of the cities we visited and give recommendations on what to do in a short amount of time. But, first I wanted to give a few general tips for traveling through Spain (with or without kids).

1. Travel off-season

This is often a tip for travelers going to popular countries, but it applies especially to Spain. We went in February and while it wasn’t the super sunny and warm Spain we know and love, it actually turned out to be the perfect time of year for us to explore the cities and avoid hordes of tourists and excessive heat. The temperature was about 50 degrees most of the time we were there, getting warmer in the afternoon sun and a bit cooler in the early morning. But, we saved a ton of money on comfy hotels in great locations, never waited in line for museums or major sights (the only thing we had to book in advance was our visit to Alhambra in Granada), and essentially enjoyed the country with its citizens rather than tourists. I can’t recommend this enough. Since most of the US and Europe is cold in the winter anyway, it helps make the season bearable when touring interesting cities, visiting beautiful museums, and basking in some not too intense sunshine in majestic piazzas.

2. Hostals are not your typical hostels

We stayed in a couple of hostals (Spanish for hostel), which are hostels in the sense that you can have multiple beds in a room, but most of them are private rooms, with private bathrooms, cleaning service, and all the amenities you would normally get in a hotel room. The only difference between a hostal and hotel is that some of them do not have restaurants attached, so you can’t eat breakfast there, and there won’t be the luxury additions like a spa or pool. But, if you are traveling with kids and want a more spacious room with more beds without having to pay hotel prices, these are a great choice. One night we stayed in five star hotel and though the bed was more comfortable, we actually had way less space than in our beloved hostals, which were located in the best spots in each city. So, check out tripadvisor for reviews and don’t be afraid to book a hostal in Spain.

3. Get the Renfe Spain pass

Most travelers in Europe have heard of the Eurail pass that allows you to hop on and off trains for a limited amount of time in select countries at a set price. However, the Renfe Spain Pass is the best bet when doing Spain. You can buy it at the train station or online (though the train station might be optimal so you can also book your reservations for where you want to go on your trip). A normal adult pass is 169 and it lets you take 4 trips (e.g., Barcelona — Madrid — Granada — Seville — Madrid). Most of these trains are super high speed, going 300 KM per hour, which means you can zip across the country must faster than with a car and avoid the hassle of finding parking in the city. We bought our passes at the Barcelona train station and booked our reservations (reservations can be cancelled up to 15 minutes before the train leaves and the credit will go back on your pass, so it doesn’t hurt to book ahead of time to make sure you get the train you want). Children under 4 travel for free, and older children have a discount. You can also get a pass that allows for 6, 8, 10, or 12 train rides (note that if you have to change trains, each ride counts as 1). The only hitch is you have to make your reservations for the trains at the train station, so I would just make them all in one go and change if needed. Also, even though babies travel for free, you also need to make reservations for them, so don’t forget to mention that when you are booking. Plus, don’t forget to take a picture of your Spain Pass in case it gets stolen or lost! With the number, they can easily replace the pass for you.

Note: I would use the pass only for long, more expensive trips. I wouldn’t use one of the journeys to go from Madrid to Toledo which is only about 30 roundtrip.

4.  Do more day-tripping than hotel-hopping

My rule of thumb is usually a minimum of two nights at one hotel, but I prefer three. In cities like Barcelona or Madrid, you can easily take day trips to see other parts of Spain (Toledo is only 30 mins by train from Madrid), and avoid having to lug your suitcases from city to city. Plus, the big cities have so much to offer that one day doesn’t do them justice. Less is more here… so instead of trying to make a new city each day, get to know the country better by spending more time in each place and saving something for another trip!

5.  Make lunch your big meal

Spanish restaurants have some pretty amazing lunch deals where you will get a first, second, dessert, and drink for 9-10. The portions are generous and filling and since Spaniards offer lunch until 4 p.m., you can easily do a later lunch, make it your big meal of the day and just enjoy a few tapas for ‘dinner’ instead of waiting to eat at the official dinner time of 9 p.m. (most restaurants don’t even open until 8 p.m). Tapas bars offer food from 5 or 6 p.m., so you can join Spaniards in their ‘appetizer’ phase, try a few small dishes, and get to bed at a decent hour.

6. Look for tapas deals

Tapas used to be offered for free with the purchase of a drink and some places, especially in Granada, still adhere to this old tradition. We actually didn’t know this and one evening in Granada we popped into a tapas bar, ordered two bottles of water and two tapas, which were actually dinner sized portions, and walked away with a bill of 3 . Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised. You can check online for tapas bars that still offer these deals. Otherwise, a tapa will cost between 1 and 5 (depending on the place and size) and a drink about 2. Still, a pretty cheap dinner with quality food.

7. Learn Spanish!

Unlike many other countries in Europe, English has not become the de-facto official language in Spain. Many people do speak English (especially at the hotels and at more touristy restaurants), but it is not as ubiquitous as in other European countries. So, brush up on your Spanish, download a translator app, and be prepared to challenge yourself a bit with some new phrases. I, shamefully, do not yet speak Spanish but I was lucky enough to get by with Italian wherever I ran into people who didn’t speak English. So, if you speak Italian or Portuguese, that will also help!

 

Flying Transatlantic with a Baby

Waiting for the flightI am happy to report that what I thought would be a journey through Hades ended up being a relatively pain-free experience. Of course, I didn’t sleep for 24 hours, but I also didn’t have a crying baby as we made our way from Munich to Madrid and Madrid to Miami, followed by a 45-minute car ride to Ft. Lauderdale. I would love to chalk it up to some magical mommy secrets, but I think it has most to do with having a baby who is still only 7 months (other, slightly older babies on the plane definitely gave their lungs a workout during the entire flight), and a baby who really loves to be on the road and around new people.

The Madrid airport

The Madrid airport

However, there are definitely a few secrets for easier international travel that I discovered on this journey, which I will share in a moment. But, first I want to give a special shout-out to the Madrid airport, aka the Googleplex of transit buildings, aka heaven on earth. Not only is it an unbelievably modern and beautiful complex, with curvy, Gaudi-inspired wood beam ceilings, ultra yuppie restaurants (i.e. the Evian café), and colorful seating areas with ample free charging stations, but it also has an enormous Madrid's kids playroomKID’S PLAYROOM! This child oasis is stocked with mats, toys, books, playpens, a crawl-through castle, rocking horses, a room with cribs in it, a kitchen for baby food, a child toilet area, changing tables, and even baby baths. After foggily booking our flight after a night of little sleep and mistakenly choosing a route with a six-hour layover in Madrid, you can only imagine Cribs in the playroommy relief when we hit this VIP’est of the VIP lounges (forget the business lounge with free drinks and food, for a parent this is the ultimate relaxation room while waiting for a flight). And, it wasn’t bad for my baby either! After he had woken up at 4 am, sat through a long car ride to the airport, waited for 2 hours for our flight and then embarked on a fuss-free first leg of our journey, he had more than earned some uninterrupted, non-distracted playtime with his parents.

Baby Playtime Baby Playtime

 

Refreshed from our playtime and expensive eats at this luxury airport, we then embarked on our second leg of the journey to Miami. I wasn’t thrilled when I saw our seats were in the long middle row towards the back of the plane. But, luckily there was one empty seat in our row, which we promptly converted into a little crib. I can’t say that he slept there the whole time (he is too curious to sleep through such a new experience), but it definitely gave us some free time to watch a movie and rest a little. I mean, it wasn’t the FRONT ROW with a BUILT-IN BABY BASSINET that some other family got, but you gotta work with what you have, not with what you don’t.

So, all of that being said, here are some good takeaways for parents traveling internationally with one or more bundles of (noisy) joy.

1. You are Priority Class everywhere

As I mentioned in my ten tips for traveling with a baby, priority everything is one of the many benefits of being a parent. When we arrived at the airport in Munich and saw the huge line for coach travelers to check in and the business class line with only four people in it, we immediately took the latter route. Feel guilty? Don’t. A baby that doesn’t have to wait around in line for an hour will be a happier plane baby, and trust me, the business class travelers will be grateful for that. We did the same thing going through security and at the passport checkpoint before boarding our flight for the states. In all, I estimate we spent a total of 10 minutes waiting as opposed to the 2 hours or so it would have taken us to get through all of the lines. The key is: don’t ask, just do. If they give you a problem, say ‘sorry, my baby has to eat’ and they won’t ask any more questions. But, not one person even flinched when we stood in those lines, so just go for it.

2. Bring a thin ‘play mat’ in your carry on

Now, we found kiddie heaven in Madrid, so we didn’t need to use our play mat. But, had we been forced to wait 6 hours with no place for our baby to crawl around or stretch out, I don’t think the journey would have been as pain-free. Just in case, I always carry with me a thin little play mat that doesn’t take up too much space but is always there in case we need to lay it on the ground and let him have some fun.

3. Get creative with toys

There is no need to pack a dozen of his or her favorite toys that will only fall on the ground and become unusable (because yuck, plane germs). To a baby EVERYTHING is a toy. Plastic water cups are endlessly fascinating to squeeze and hear crackle, the red security leaflet is almost like a comic book with all of its little safety drawings, and don’t get me started on the new touch screen entertainment centers. As a parent who wants my kid to have little exposure to our addictive devices, I did make an exception for the plane, and boy, did he have a grand old time swiping the screen and seeing new images pop up after he touched it. So, a toy or two is good, but remember, there is a whole new world of discovery in all of the little items found right in the seat pocket in front of you.

4. Get first dibs on front-row seats and other plane perks

Did you know that airplanes have little baby bassinets on hand? I sure as heck didn’t, which is why we ended up having to create our own sleeping space for the little one, because other, more seasoned parents laid claim to them ahead of time. If possible, get your seats in the front row, where no one is sitting in front of you, and on the wall, the flight staff will stick a bassinet for your baby. The key is to ask ahead of time for these seats and bassinets, because they are limited and it’s a dog eat dog parenting world out there.

5. Consider a portable crib

Portable Crib in Suitcase

If you have a baby that is crib-trained and you don’t know if your hotel or rented apartment has a crib on hand, you can always pack a portable crib in your suitcase (given it is a big suitcase). I was pretty amazed to see the usually large crib break down easily into this little portable carry-on, which is super convenient to put back together once you arrive. Now, if I can only muster the discipline to crib train my little one, we might actually use it.

Obviously other tips include bringing formula if the baby isn’t breastfeeding, snacks for the little ones, and layers of clothing due to the extreme heat when the plane AC is off and the extreme cold when it’s on… but most of those are common sense, so I didn’t include them in the numbered list.

Bon voyage and good luck!!

 

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