Ten quick tips to saving money in Spain without even trying

As soon as I’d bought a house, my friends began making plans to travel to Spain. How could you beat a personal, bilingual tour guide who had crisscrossed the Iberian peninsula, a free place to stay and one of Europe’s best budget destinations?

You can’t: I pride myself on being a great tour guide, especially to Seville.

The Bridge in Ronda

Every so often, I get an influx of emails about how to travel Spain on a shoestring, or how to make euros stretch further, or even hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Long passed are my days of cheap hostels (looking at you, Santiago de Compostela) and overnight bus rides for the sake of saving 15 euros. Even keeping in mind a few quick tips can save you loads.

Saving on food

The mere fact that the Spanish mealtime is slightly later than a US or UK, with a heavy lunch eaten any time between 1.00 and 4.00 pm, means saving money on evening meals. Dinner tends to be lighter fare, in that sense, and it’s easy to grab a tapa than actually sit down to a meal.

If you happen to be visiting the south, they’re particularly generous with the tapas (well, in most places outside of Sevilla – though you can find free munchies if you look). These little dishes are cheaper to begin with, and if you order a beer or drink you’ll get a sizable plate of food with each one. Even when the Novio and I head out for a few beers before dinner, I find that I snack on enough free aperitivos – typically canned seafood, potato chips or banderillas at our favorite bar – to skip dinner and head straight to a yoghurt or piece of fruit.

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Look for a menú del día if you’re out exploring. These three-course, choose-your-own meals were pioneered when Spain experienced a touristic boom in the 1970’s and resorts fed their works as part of their salaries. Nowadays, you can get a full meal and dessert (plus bread and a drink!) for a reasonable price of 7-12€.

And there’s nothing that beats a crunchy bocadillo. This sandwich as long as your forearm will only cost you a few euros and is perhaps the most Spanish lunch ever. They’re also great for long bus or train rides.

Saving on monuments and touristic sites

sagrada familia barcelona 6
Culture is a serious thing in Spain, and large concessions are made to offer it to the masses. Street festivals abound, there’s often live music in bars and plazas, and there is no shortage of cultural offerings by way of casa-palacios, museums or monuments, no matter where you travel.

If you’re under 31 and residing in Europe, you can grab a carnet joven or European Youth Card for under 10€ , allowing you savings on more than just museums – included is transportation, hostels and even courses.

In a country chock-full of museums, there is often free entry to many – including some of the most famous. Take Madrid, for instance: Entry to the Prado is free between 6.00 pm and 8.00 pm Mondays to Saturdays; on Mondays, and Wednesdays to Saturdays, admission into the Reina Sofía is free between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm, and on Sundays from 1.30 pm to 7.00 pm. The Sorolla is free on Saturday mornings.

In Alicante, you can enjoy free entry to the Museum of the City of Alicante, housed in a 17th century baroque house and home to more than 800 pieces to art. And in Seville, each museum has a free day, often Tuesdays. It’s worth stopping by the tourism office to find out or ask about discount tickets.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

Parks and seafronts are a stellar way to see open air art and Spanish culture, and definitely merit a stroll. Madrid’s most well-known park is the Buen Retiro. It costs nothing to stroll around the park’s elegant gardens, where you’ll see patrons rowing on the Retiro Park lake, a favored activity in the park, and are also likely to see a musician or two strumming away on a guitar, providing some free entertainment. You’ve also got traces of the 1929 Iberoamerican Expo in Seville’s María Luisa park, crowned by the Plaza de España, and Santiago’s Alameda park is a lush green lung amongst the sandstone buildings.

And don’t skimp on a free walking tour just because you’re that off-the-beaten-track kind of traveler. I often take a free tour to get some cultural and historical context and a lay of the land, spending only a tip for a guide. I’m usually available for the price of a menú del día, by the way.

Saving on transportation

One of the biggest benefits of Spain travel is how easy it can be to get from punto a punto: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure works, is relatively on time and is not expensive. Given that I now travel for work, I’ve been shocked at how much a high-speed, less comfortable train costs between Paris and Brussels, and how a short taxi ride in Switzerland can break my budget (bonjour, sandwiches for a week!).

Buses are without a doubt the cheapest way to travel between cities, but you can also try the popular rideshare, Bla Bla Car. You can search routes and find a driver that suits your timetable, and you pay a fraction of the cost. I’ve hitched rides to Valladolid or Madrid and have also driven in my own car.

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

If you choose to go by Spain’s phenomenal train system, book round-trip where possible, as this can save you 30%, and purchasing at least 60 days before means cheaper fare. You can also book a four-person table on the high-speed trains or find a group looking for extra travelers and save hugely. Search Tarifa Mesa AVE on Facebook or Movelia for secondhand tickets.

Within a city, walking is definitely the best (and cheapest!) way to get around in most cases, but check out 10-ride passes or unlimited travel cards for 1, 3 or 5 days – the local tourism office can help orient you on your options and how to purchase tickets or passes.

When my parents last came to visit, my sister remarked that it was their cheapest Eurotrip ever. Apart from having my house, my kitchen and my car at their disposition, we took saving seriously but also kept these simple trips in mind and planned our excursions to Mérida and Lisbon around them. Saving money on travel in Spain is intrinsic when you follow a few tips – save those euros for a great meal or show instead!

saving-money

Have you had any great travel discounts while in Spain? This list is in no way exhaustive, so please share below!

A Very un-Sevillano Summer

I knew I had become the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ (or perhaps toro out of España) when I hopped in the car for the first time yesterday. My mom’s van was parked on an incline, and I was nervous it would roll unless I gave the accelerator a hard kick when I threw it into reverse. I reached for the gear shift to find a stack of magazines.

Oh, right, Americans drive automatic cars. I should probably not rest my left foot on the brake, then.

It’s going to be a long, strange summer back in the Grand Old Republic.

As a teacher, I relish in my two months off. Over the past seven school years, my vacaciones have allowed me to explore other parts of Spain, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit friends and family at home in Chicago and attend world-famous festivals.

At 9:30 pm on June 30th, the Novio picked me up from work and drove me straight to a friend’s bar for a celebratory beer. I had fifteen days before returning to Chicago, and my sister was coming to visit. I’d spend the morning working on COMO Consulting issues, and after a long, midday siesta, he and I would pick out paint colors and furniture for the dream house we just bought before deciding to just have a beer as the nights cooled off. Just your average veranito in Seville.

And then the mierda hit the fan we didn’t even need to turn on because it wasn’t even hot there yet. Expat life, man.

On July 1st, I made my annual trip to the unemployment office to ask for a bit of financial help during my vacations. During July, I’m normally in La Coruña directing a summer camp to be able to make it through August without regular pay, and with a new, unfurnished house in the mix, I needed a bit of a cushion.

Per usual, I was sent away and asked to come back the following morning, first thing. On the 2nd, Manolo took a crawling 80 minutes to enter my new data into the INEM’s system. Little did I know that this would be merely the start of a stressful summer.

My summer days in Spain follow a strict routine: waking up early to run errands before the midday sun hits, returning home and drawing all the shades, making yet another batch of gazpacho, treating myself to a four-hour nap/going to the pool, and finally having a few beers somewhere in la calle when it’s finally cool out, or even a drink at a terrace bar. Weekends at the pool or the beach, depending on how lazy we feel.

Then the Novio presented me with a list of things I’d have to do. Turns out that picking out furniture and paint colors was only the start. I cancelled all of my plans but World Cup games to be ready for home inspectors and furniture deliveries, changed appointments to be able to change my mail forwarding and pay my IBI during reduced summer hours and stayed away from the gym. My leisurely start to a two-month holiday was already stressing me out, and I only had to look at my agenda to remind myself that siestas were totally out of the question.

By the time my sister and Rick arrived on July 5th, I’d successfully signed up for unemployment, had all of my bank accounts frozen because of FATCA and cried to my mom about the stress over Skype. The emotional upheaval became too much to bear that  I cursed my new house and the Spanish system of doing, well, everything.

The bank issue was by far the worst – the US law to prevent tax evaders, called FATCA, went into effect on July 1st, sending banks with American customers into a frenzy trying to report tax-relevant data. On the 2nd – the same day I was signing up for unemployment benefits – ING announced that I was not only a co-signed on a join account with the Novio, but that I also had to sign and turn in a form called a W-8BEN. I got no notification of any immediate consequences.

Normally, I’d sign and mail the form off, but I was curious about this new law and how it might affect me, given I file taxes in both Spain and the US, and now had a mortgage in the mix. Surely this law wasn’t trying to tax me and my teacher’s salary in America, too?

I went to IKEA to clear my mind (or not) and do 588€ worth of retail therapy for my dream house. After resisting the urge to also throw in some rugs and throw pills and just stick to the basics, my ING debit card was declined. So was the credit card. Not wanting to face the Novio empty-handed, I drove to Nervión and asked at the bank. The teller assured me my cards were valid and that the TPV unit was probably to blame.

So I drove back to IKEA, picked up the heavy furniture we’d decided on, and tried to pay again. The same thing happened. Defeated, I wheeled the cart to the holding area and reached for my phone to call the Novio. I had left it charging at home.

Furious once I arrived, he called the bank and they confirmed that my accounts had been frozen because of FATCA, even though the bank was supposed to have been compliant with the US’s demands by the day before. Until I turned in the W-8BEN, they would remain untouchable.

And so set off the frenzy of paperwork, lawyers, denuncias, and tears as I tried to take legal action against a bank that had frozen my accounts without warning (only a judicial order has the power to cancel or suspend an account with previous warning), and the fact that the W-8BEN serves for non-Americans. 

Thirteen days later, on the day before I left for the US, my bank accounts were finally restored. I had refrained from rebajas, from overspending and from visiting the terrace bars I loved frequenting in the balmy nights in summer – un verano poco sevillano, indeed.

But the beers and the ice creams and the laughs and the joy of sharing my city with my family put a band-aid on top of the financial struggles I was having. We spent afternoons strolling from bar to bar before they’d have siesta, escaped to Granada and Zahara de los Atunes and ate out every single night (I clearly didn’t pay).

Needless to say, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was sitting on a plane bound for good ol’ America. Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’m focusing on not stuffing my face and building my second site, COMO Consulting Spain. There will be a few surprises here and there, but I’m not ready to spill yet!

What are your summer plans? How do you cope with re-entry into your home country?

Preguntas Ardientes: Is an International Bank Account Right for Me?

I get loads of questions from you guys about moving to Spain and settling in, how to handle money and how to learn Spanish (and what to eat, duh). Up and moving to any country has its own set of headaches – both before and after – and I try and answer as best I can when readers ask questions on everything to how to work in Spain to how to deal with homesickness. That’s where Preguntas Ardientes comes in – a series dedicated to the ins and outs of expat life in Iberia. If you’re curious or have a burning question, email me at sunshineandsiestas [at] gmail [dot] com – I’d love to hear from you!

Recently, the Novio and I were at a gala for his squadron’s anniversary. Most of his coworkers are aware that his partner is foreign with a flair for sevillanía, so I often become the center of attention during cocktail hour when they shoot a million questions at me (and I’m really more interested in the canapés, jerks).

The most common? What was the hardest part about moving abroad? After adapting to the language and finding friends, the most challenging part of daily life was money (and it’s something you guys ask me about often, too!).

I had and still maintain an income in Spain, whereas as all of my bills were linked to accounts back in the US. I had no idea how to pay taxes in either country (or if I even needed to), and transferring money between euros and dollars soon began to eat into my savings account. Having one foot in two places can be difficult – but then again, I expected to be in Spain for just one year.

While I have kept three bank accounts in two different countries, I never considered offshore banking or international accounts. No, this isn’t the stuff of international spies or crime rings, but a convenient way to handle your money while abroad thanks to flexible options and lower costs of account maintenance.

Let’s face it – Spain is a country that has a high international population, and these people often have ties to their home country – both mentally and financially. For expats who still receive payments of benefits from their home country (such as retirement or payouts, or even freelance work), considering this type of service is one of the biggest benefits of an offshore savings account. You don’t need to worry about converting dollars to euros to pounds and back in your head, nor deal with spending more money to make transfers between bank accounts, as an international account will allow you to do this all for a small monthly fee.
Is an international bank account right for you? If you’ve still got one foot in each bucket, then it’s worth considering. If you’re looking for extra perks, such as travel insurance to cover you wherever you go, then you should more than consider it. Sometimes, you can get more financial benefits from having your assets in just one account, rather than splitting them up between different institutions. Doing your research really does pay off (I love puns and you should, too).
Do you have an international bank account? How does it work for you?

Seville Snapshots: Quiosco El Gato Negro

When I first came to Spain, I loved how the tiled-lined abuelo bars would be full of octogenarians who would spend their pension’s pennies on the loud and brightly-lit slot machines in the bar while they sipped their morning cortados. The gambling and betting has been a part of Spanish culture since the mid-18th Century when the Lotería Nacional was formed, though its modern form didn’t roll around until the early 1800’s.

It’s common to see people lined up during big weekly draws, but especially when the Primitiva hits in September, and for El Gordo, the annual Christmas drawing that is one of the largest prizes in Spain. Even watching the children of Colegio San Ildefonso in Madrid sing out the numbers is like a national holidays. I was once on a train to Madrid during the drawing and the event was broadcast over the loudspeakers, and last year watched it in a bar near Plaza Santa Ana as the other patrons clutched their tickets, hoping for a win.

Colleagues and families often buy large blocks of tickets to have better odds, agreeing to split the money por si toca (if it happens). I’m not a big player, but I have to smile when I see the old men pulling coins out of their pockets to take their chances on a few numbers.

Just adjacent to the opposing cathedral is El Gato Negro, a small storefront where people queue up to buy lottery tickets and likely Seville’s most famous quiosco. There’s an A-4 sized tile of a black cat, the universal symbol of bad luck, that patrons reach up and pet when they’ve bought themselves a ticket for good luck. You can see where the tile has been worn during years of serving the public trying to strike it rich.

I didn’t get a shot of anyone petting the kitty, but in the three minutes I creeped around, nearly a dozen people walked in and out, trying their luck.

Preguntas Ardientes: Should I open a bank account in my home country?

Six years ago, I was facing the uncertainty of up and leaving for Spain and starting a new life in Seville. Even with the visa and job sorted out for me, I spent hours scouring the Internet for information about renting a flat, getting a mobile phone and setting up a bank account, perhaps the most important factor to take care of before leaving Chicago. Tripping between local banking institutions, I spoke with countless tellers to see whether it was worth my while to keep an account open at home.

In short: it was, and it continues to be.

While I did open a resident bank account in Spain to receive my paychecks and be able to take out money while around Iberia, having a separate savings and checking account at home has allowed me to keep my money matters at bay and makes my mom to have her own card for any transactions she needs to complete for me! I cannot stress enough how at ease I feel knowing that I have an emergency stash of cash in the United States.

What’s more, it’s far easier for me to save for other trips or big expenses when my money is not staring at me in my Spanish bank account!

What should you look for in a bank account back home? To be able to compare bank accounts effectively, there are several criteria to keep in mind:

Online Banking: This is perhaps the deal-breaker for many expats and digital nomads today. I was adamant on having free online banking to be able to make transfers, pay my credit card, and have a handle on how much money I had. And online banks don’t bow down to time zones, anyway. This should be at the top of your list if you’re planning on living abroad.

Card and Account Fees: If you’re trying to maximize your savings, the last thing you want to do is pay exorbitant fees for just maintaining an account. Check with your branch to see if there are discounts for young adults or recent grads, and you could have a few years’ fees in your pocket, rather than in a banker’s.

Interest Charges and Money Back: You should also take into account if your bank gives you anything back if you’re using it for bill pay. This is, after all, more dinerito for you!

ATM availability: Spain is a country that is not without bars, bulls or banks – it’s rare to go even three blocks without seeing one! When choosing a bank, be sure that there are cash points available throughout the world, especially if you want to travel.

Partnerships with other banks: Thankfully, my bank had a few branches in my home base of Seville, and this made taking out small quantities of money for everyday expenses not only easy, but also far less dangerous. They also have partnerships with other internationally banks, thus cutting down on pesky ATM fees, so ask about this possibility.

I don’t go home more than once a year, but when I do, I can roll up to the branch knowing that I’ve got money already, and that the same tellers who helped me open a account six years ago will greet me with an, ‘Hola!’ and know just how to help me. And the lines are far shorter!

Got any other burning questions about banking or moving to Spain? Get in touch with COMO Consulting Spain, a relocation company dedicated to helping you move to Spain.

 

Preguntas Ardientes: Tips to Get the Best Exchange Rate When You Move to Spain

Thinking of moving to Spain, like me? Among the questions I get weekly, from what to pack, to how to find a job and secure a visa, is about money. I don’t have very much of it, don’t make very much of it and spend farrrrr toooo much of what I do have, so I had to go to an expat money expert to get the answers to your questions, especially regarding whether or not it’s safe to buy euros before coming over. Here are Peter Lavelle of Pure Fx’s six tips to get the best foreign exchange rate when you do make it across the Charca.

If, like Cat, you’re relocating to Spain, you may have seen the news about the Eurozone crisis and wondered, “Is it safe for me to buy euros?”

Yes, it’s absolutely safe to buy euros. So go crazy.

There’s practically no risk of the euro collapsing, nor of you waking up one morning to find Spain has left the common currency as had been discussed, and your euros have been converted into pesetas.

Here’s why:

Since the height of the crisis last Summer, the “existential” threat to the euro has been removed.

This is thanks to European Central Bank president Mario Draghi who last Summer promised to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the common currency, which means he’d pump unlimited sums (we’re talkin’ billions and billions) into the financial system, if need be. This means that the confidence in the euro has come back from the abyss just in time for all of Europe to take their summer holidays.

What’s more, there’s massive political will holding the euro together.

If there’s one thing we learnt last year, it’s that Europe will endure a lot to hold the euro together, including bailing out 5 (count ’em, 5) countries. This is because, for many Europeans, the Eurozone marks a concerted effort to put an end to centuries of conflict in Europe, which culminated of course with World War II. Were the euro to fall, it would bring an end to the post-war consensus, and a half century of European integration.

Given that, the euro isn’t going anywhere. You don’t have to worry when you buy the common currency!

So, how can you get the best rate on your euros before crossing the Charca? Peter lists several tips, as simple as researching the exchange rate the moment you’re even considering a move to Spain, matching up the exchange rates on Google using their tools that date back to 2009 and know that the euro and the almighty buck are never, ever getting back together (as in evening out…those were the days!)

And this gem: If you like the exchange rate, but don’t want to send your money to Spain, set up a forward contract.

This is because a forward contract lets you “lock in” the exchange rate at a point you like. For example, you may lock the US dollar in at 0.80 to the euro. Then, when you finally come to exchange currencies, you’ll get 0.80 to the euro, even if the exchange rate has fallen to 0.75 in the meantime. You’re therefore protected against future declines in the exchange rate.

Money and banking in Spain – especially with financial commitments in your home country – can be a huge, time-consuming pain in the culo. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll get the best possible exchange rate when you move to the land of sunshine and siestas! Got any other questions? Leave them in the comments below, and we’ll try and answer them for you.

Peter Lavelle is a currency broker at foreign exchange specialist Pure FX.

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