It seems like I've arrived in Spain through every way possible. Landing in other countries and then taking the train in to save money, taking flights with too many stop-overs. I just wish I lived on the east coast of the US or in Europe so I could make the trip easier! But the most important thing is, one way or another, just get there!
Cheapest Flights to Spain
Many different airlines like American, US Air, United, Delta, Iberian, Spanair and others serve Spain and because prices vary wildly, to get the best deal, you have to check around. Getting to Spain from the west coast of the US requires at least one stopover. But we found that with kids, even having an extra stopover was just fine! You can fly to an east coast city and then usually on to Madrid or Barcelona. Or you can fly direct into a European city like London, Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt, and then on to a major city like Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao. Generally if you find any fares from the West Coast of the US for under $700 you are very lucky. Flights tend to be around $1000 and, as these things go, airfare for last minute or first class travel get extremely pricey.
I have found best site to check for travel deals to Spain and elsewhere is Kayak.com – they search all the airlines websites plus the other leading cheap airline ticket sites, like Cheap Tickets. I also find that, compared to other airfare search engines, they check more sites and do not charge additional fees. You can also check our review of cheap airline ticket websites to do a little comparison shopping. Besides Kayak, we list airfare sites that offer unlisted fares and pick your own fare services. (Disclaimer: We get a little commission when you book flights through Kayak and the othe airfare websites we list).
Whenever you are looking for cheap flights – to Spain, or anywhere else, if you can be flexible you will get the best deals. It can be most expensive to travel during the summer months. Flights during the week can be cheaper. You can often save some money, and squeeze in more travel fun, by flying a cheaper flight into London, Paris or Amsterdam and then taking a train. Keep in mind trains are not as cheap as they once were, so be sure to look into train tickets first. Just spending a little more for airfare might be worth it. Oh, and flights to big cities like Madrid, Barcelona and sometimes Bilbao will be less expensive.
Travel within Spain has been changing over the years with new deluxe Alta Velocidad high speed trains. These trains are more expensive and provide a ride that resembles a plane flight. For instance, for a trip to Barcelona, you can take one of many 5 hour Alta Velocidad trains. Or you can take a 9 hour overnight train for half the price, saving on a hotel one night and freeing up some time to travel. Renfe is the Spanish rail line. To book a train ticket ida y vuelta is round trip and sencillo is one way. When buying in Spain, waits can be very long at the train station. It is good to go to another Renfe ticket counter when possible.
I haven't traveled by train in a few years, but I have fond memories of meeting very nice people on the train. Everyone would share their food and often stay up late talking. I suspect this has changed, but on the old fashioned trains you might end up in a crowded car sleeping shoulder to shoulder with other travelers. Quite a bonding experience. If you aren't up for this, you might want to request a litera with a seat that opens to a bed, or a coche cama, sleeping car.
Bus transportation can be less expensive and useful for trips to cities that do not have train service. Alsa is the main bus service.
In most cases I'd recommend against car rental in Spain. It can be very challenging to drive in the big old cities and other forms of transportation like train, bus and Metro (subway) are very convenient. On our last trip we did rent a car to travel between cities because we were headed to a remote area and it turned out great, though sometimes harrowing.
We found that, unlike with hotels, we were able to get cheaper rates through U.S. travel websites. Kayak.com worked well to find the best car rental rates. Rental car companies offer discounts if you book for a certain length of time and this varies from company to company. So it is good to tack on an extra day and run it through Kayak just in case. The biggest challenge was finding convenient locations to pick up the car. In Madrid, for instance, if you are staying in town, you don't want to go back out to the airport to pick up a car. You can also book baby seats and boosters through the website, but beware. We were lucky we confirmed our alzadores (boosters) once in Spain, because that part of our reservation somehow did not make it through.
Child and Baby Car Seat laws in Spain, as elsewhere, have been expanding. Car rental agencies should be able to provide the proper car seats. Children under 3 must have a child car seat. Children between 3 and 12 who are under 150 cm (5 feet) must sit in the back seat with a booster (alzador). (Note: It is not required to use a booster in a taxi or shuttle in urban areas but they must be used while on the highway. And it seems many taxi and shuttle drivers disregard these laws.)
We mapped out our routes ahead of time and found that Google Maps does ok for routes but they seem to get the time wrong -- do they calculate in miles instead of kilometers? ViaMichelin is a European based service and, while a little less user friendly, their directions include tolls, fuel expenses and an option to plan stops along the way.
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