How to be a digital nomad in Spain
There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction. — Salvador Dali
Where in the world to go? That was my question a few months ago when I prepared to buy a plane ticket—somewhere old—to try out working while on the road (or train, or plane, or bus, or BlaBlaCar, in my case). Spain has been beckoning to me for years, and after three-and-a-half weeks here (with a short stint in the Portugese Azores Islands) I have zero regrets. As I wait out the last two-and-a-half hours before my plane leaves for Canada, I’ll share some reflections from my time in this beautiful country.
Planes, trains, buses, cars
Coming from Canada, where getting around is very hard and expensive without a car, Spain is a traveler’s dream. You just have to learn how to get around with little signage and no direction. I purchased a travel data plan from Virgin Mobile before coming here and am eternally grateful for that choice.
I arrived in Madrid, the capital city, on October 1st and immediately boarded a bus that took me to the Renfe train, where I took a 2.5 hour trip (via the AVE, the high-speed train) to beautiful Valencia. Renfe has been my favourite way to travel around Spain. It’s fast, affordable, has OK wifi, and typically drops you off within walking distance to the city center of your destination. The terminals are fairly easy to navigate, but you have to wait until about 30 minutes prior to departure for your boarding platform number. Patience is a virtue you must learn in Spain.
Another great way to get around the country is BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing system similar to Airbnb in that you book, pay, and review through their website. I hope they get an app soon as I had to use my phone a few times to swap text messages with my driver, but both rides I took were safe and very affordable and much faster than a bus. A 1.5-hour trip from Ronda to Malaga cost only €6. Sign up and complete your profile before you go. I only booked rides with women who noted in their profile that they spoke some English, and who had glowing reviews. I recommend you do the same if you’re traveling solo.
Cheap flights within Europe are the norm, though prices can be deceiving. Unfortunately, I overlooked the fact that I’d be in Spain during Fiesta Nacional de España and had a hard time trying to get from the south of Spain back up to Barcelona, where I was scheduled to catch a flight to visit a friend on Pico Island, Portugal. I’ve heard of flights available for as little as $20, but my flight from Malaga to Barcelona cost $100. Still cheap compared to Canada, where a flight of similar distance would cost around $300.
I flew with Ryan Air within Spain, though caution against this as someone I met was abandoned in Barcelona when the airline canceled over 200 flights due to a strike in France (I’ve heard a few Ryan Air horror stories). It was also almost impossible to find their kiosk to ask what terminal I would be flying from. You need to check in online, keep an eye on your flights within the 48 hours prior to your departure and do your own research to find where to go when at the airport. Iberia and EasyJet are also budget airlines available in Spain.
Take the bus if you have to, but be prepared for a long, slow journey compared to other options. The bus is very affordable in Spain, though. From what I understand, most buses don’t have washrooms (all buses I’ve taken in Canada have had bathrooms, which is why I mention this), but the bus will make occasional rest stops during long trips.
Most of the cities I spent time in—Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Ronda, Javea, and Granada—all had good public transportation. Javea is quite small and easy to walk or bike around, or take a taxi. Most taxi drivers I met didn’t speak English, so you’ll need to learn how to order a taxi in Spanish and tell them where you’re going. I showed my taxi driver my destination on Google Maps a couple of times, which mostly confused them. Big metro stations can be confusing, so give yourself enough time to go through these in case you need to backtrack a bit. I got locked into one area on my way into Madrid when my ticket stopped working…I think because I’d gone through the gate too many times (I couldn’t find the directions to my train) and had to body-check the gate to push through it.
Many Spanish cities also have bike sharing stations and bike rentals. I rented a bike for four hours once in Valencia and once in Malaga for €10 and €5, respectively. Bike-sharing systems require you to sign up and buy a pass, but it’s worth it if you’re staying somewhere longer than two weeks. It’s a great way to get exercise, see a large area and save your feet. You can often rent lockers in Renfe train stations to leave your bags in if you need to lighten the load for the day.
Working, sleeping, and wifi
I worked for the first two weeks of my trip to Spain. For this reason, I chose to stay put for a week at a time at places with reliable wifi. I spent the first week at a coworking/coliving house in Javea and I rented an apartment in Granada, where oddly the wifi seemed to cut out at around 9pm every day. Trying to work while in airports or at train stations can be very stressful, because wifi is unreliable. Don’t schedule any meetings for travel days, because you’ll be exhausted and getting from one place to the next always takes longer than you expect.
I used Airbnb (get $45 towards your first Airbnb trip) and Booking.com (get a $25 credit after your first stay) to rent accommodations. Spain has many different affordable options, including hostels, budget hotels, and guesthouses. I chose accommodations based on a compromise between their location to the train or airport and attractions. In particular, I loved the Bruc & Bruc guesthouse in Barcelona, which was nicely decorated, clean, within a short walk to Sagrada Familia, and offered a free welcome bottle of vino tinto (which I attempted to finish, but couldn’t). I also stayed in Mola! Hostel in Madrid, which was nice for a hostel, though can’t say I will share a room like that again due to noise from late-night partyers. The wifi worked really well at this hostel, though. Note: wifi is pronounced wee-fee in Spain.
Unlike what I’ve experienced in Canada and the US, people don’t work from cafés in Spain. People meet in groups or read while enjoying espresso (one of the things I will miss most about Spain is the amazing coffee) or a glass of beer or wine. Don’t expect cafés or restaurants to have wifi. Madrid was the best city for getting wifi in restaurants, though most require you to subscribe before you can connect which is annoying.
Vegetarians and vegans have their work cut out for them
I think it would be almost impossible to be vegan in Spain outside of the major cities like Madrid and Barcelona. Bread, cheese, and meat are the staples in restaurants here. By the end of my trip, I craved a big veggie salad. If you are vegetarian or vegan, I recommend getting a place where you can prepare and refrigerate food. The local markets have beautiful produce (look for small markets selling mostly just fruit and veg as opposed to the bigger all-in-one grocery stores), but sadly it seems most the restaurants don’t serve this! I tried a vegan restaurant my last day in Madrid and sadly it was overpriced and not very good (soggy veggies, rice and beans, overly salty miso soup and dry, crumbly “chocolate” cake for €15!). If you’re okay with seafood, eggs, and dairy you’ll do just fine in Spain. I tried octopus for the first time and loved it and accidentally ate sweetbreads once after I received the wrong order and did not love that.
If you’ve heard of Spain, you’ve heard of tapas—shared plates. While traditionally you would receive a small snack with a drink, most places now charge separately for tapas and that charge seems to depend entirely on where you are. In Ronda, I paid €1-3 per tapas, but in Madrid it was more like €5-6 per tapas (and the former tasted better!). I think tapas has become mostly a tourist trap, and sadly it was hard to find good tapas even outside of the main tourist areas. Granada was particularly frustrating. Typical tapas include items like patatas bravas (potatoes and spicy tomato sauce), jamon (cured ham) and bread, tortilla (egg and potato frittata) and calamari. My favourite was the pimientos de padron (small whole peppers fried and seasoned with salt and olive oil). The olive oil in Spain is to die for!
Booze is cheap in Spain (and even cheaper in the Azores islands, where I paid €.80 for a glass of what tasted like homemade red wine). Get out of the main tourist areas and you’ll pay no more than €3 for a good glass of wine in Spain. Share a bottle with friends for €10 or less. Buy it from the store for only €4 for a good bottle! I’m not a beer-drinker, but I think prices are similar. My favourite drink in Spain is the vino tinto de verano, or summer wine, which contains a mix of red wine, soda water and lemon. Sangria is popular with tourists in many places, though it was often too sweet for my taste.
I realize that in Canada and the United States we’re a bit spoiled when it comes to food service, at least in my experience. In Spain, you sit down and wait about 10 minutes or more before a waiter greets you. Once you’ve finished your food and/or drink, it can take forever to get your bill. I once waited nearly 40 minutes! Restaurants seem chronically understaffed. If you wait too long, walk up to the bar and ask for your bill. This seemed to be the norm in some places, while it seemed to annoy waiters in other places. Again, patience…and don’t sit for food or coffee if you have to be somewhere within the hour.
Yes, you should learn some Spanish before you go
Prior to going to Spain, many people told me that I could get by with just a little bit of Spanish. I’m glad I learned the basics, because most people don’t speak much or any English. I used a combination of Duolingo (15-20 minutes per day), a common phrase book I bought on discount at a used book store, and Google Translate—though, be careful with Google Translate because it doesn’t always translate things correctly. I think it would be extremely frustrating here without some Spanish and I wish I’d taken some classes prior to coming to improve my conversational language as it was hard to talk at length with locals. One night I walked around for an hour with a woman I just met thinking she was looking for a specific restaurant or dish, when really she just couldn’t read the menus!
I find it frustrating when people refuse to learn the local language before they travel somewhere. It seems very disrespectful to travel the world and expect everyone to speak your language (English). I overheard many tourists complain that menus weren’t in English or that certain coffee drinks or other items normal in their country weren’t available on the menu. You’re traveling in a different country!
Is it safe for a solo traveller?
This was my first international solo adventure and I felt safe 99% of the time. Be smart and protect your belongings (don’t have a wallet or phone in your back pocket or easily accessible in the main pocket of your purse). I did meet an American who unfortunately had her wallet and passport stolen. Wear a purse with a thicker cross-body strap or use a backpack with inside pockets to hide things in. I also use a running belt (this is the one I have: Running Waist Belt Pack AIWEISI Lightweight Sweatproof Sport Belt Bag Fits for iphone 6 6s 7 Plus Galaxy S5 S7 Honor 8 Studio X8 for Men Women with Hidden Pouch) to carry my passport, ID, travel insurance card, and a credit card on me. Bonus that it’s water resistant, because one night I decided to jump into the ocean with it!
People stay out quite late in Spain. Dinner doesn’t start until 7 or 8pm and the streets are still busy at 11pm. In both Madrid and Barcelona there were many police officers around. In Barcelona, about 200,000 people gathered for a Catalonian Independence protest about two blocks from my accommodations. Despite helicopters overhead, heavy police presence and people yelling in the streets, there were still many people out enjoying drinks and dinner. It was unnerving, partially because I didn’t understand what was happening at first, but appeared to be a peaceful event.
In Ronda, I hiked around the gorge by myself and walked around the streets by myself late at night and never felt unsafe. Granada was the only place that made me question my safety, largely because the city has an edgy vibe and the area I stayed in (near Plaza Nuevo) had quite a few street people and some dodgy looking back streets.
Spain is a great place to work and travel. It’s easy to get around, it’s affordable, it’s beautiful, and the culture and history are fascinating. I’m in love and hope to be back!