I Get Around: Transportation Abroad (and a Beach Boys Song)

How do I love thee, tarjeta transporte? Let me count the ways…

If you didn’t know, I am currently in the middle of a six week trip to Spain studying abroad in a city near Madrid called Alcalá de Henares. There are a few things that I’ve found or learned since I arrived that have made a HUGE difference in my experience, especially related to traveling within Spain so I wanted to compile a list of some of them in the hopes that they might be helpful to someone else. I know that before my trip I spent weeks scouring the internet for anything and everything related to travelling or studying in Europe/Spain, and even after that I still feel like there was a lot that I missed. So, without further ado, here are my biggest recommendations for getting around in España.

  • GET A TRANSPORTATION CARD

Most cities in Europe, especially in Spain, have some sort of transportation pass for students under the age of 26 that allows you unlimited access to the public transportation system for one month. In the Madrid area the tarjeta transporte gives you free rides on the city buses, the metro, and the train. It costs 4 euros for the card and 20 to charge it for the month and in my 3 weeks here I have gotten my money’s worth at least 5 times over. (For instance, one round trip on the train from Alcalá to Atocha, one of the biggest stations in Madrid, costs around 8 euro. I’ve made that trip at least 10 times now, and that doesn’t even factor in the money I’ve saved on my trips on the bus and the metro). It has made traveling back and forth between cities and within Madrid such a breeze for me. Also, the public transportation in Spain is actually wonderfully clear and well-run. It’s easy enough for even the most clueless of travelers to figure out where they need to go before they miss the next train. And that leads me into my next piece of advice:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

People, for the most part, are generally good and helpful. And when you’re in a country you’ve never been to trying to navigate trains and buses and confusing streets and strange buildings, someone who knows the area can be a huge help in setting you on the right path. I don’t know how many times I would have walked for miles in the wrong direction, hopped on the wrong train, or stood around helplessly for hours if I hadn’t decided to ask someone for help. It can save so much time finding a friendly face to tell you that you need to take the C-10 train to make your connection to the bus station (which is actually just now pulling into the station so you’d better sprint if you want to catch it), or that the cell phone store is actually completely opposite of the way you’ve been walking aimlessly when your foreign SIM card has locked you out of your phone (again). I’ve asked people on the street, popped into stores or restaurants to ask workers, and even stopped and chatted with a couple police officers; across the board, everyone I’ve talked to has been amicable and extremely helpful. And even though I’m not great with strangers and don’t particularly like asking for help, it has made a big enough difference that I don’t even hesitate to do it now.

  • Use the language (or learn it!)

I love languages. Like, LOOOOVE them. So for me, being able to use what I’ve learned over 6 years of Spanish classes in the real world to communicate with people is just awesome. I don’t think my experience would be even half as beneficial and memorable if I didn’t have the ability to hold conversations with store owners and neighbors and people on the bus, learning about their lives and their country and their culture directly from them. It has also made my relationship with my host family much stronger than that of some of the other students who don’t speak as much Spanish. The ability to talk about topics that go beyond surface level, or even just to be able to make jokes with each other has allowed us to become more comfortable around each other and form a solid relationship. Plus, the vocabulary I learned in the classroom is nothing like the words I’ve needed in real life, and if I hadn’t come here I never would have known how much I was missing by only using the language in the classroom.

But even if you travel to another country with a beginner’s level or no knowledge at all of the language, learning it while you’re there can still make a huge difference. For the most part, people respect that you’re trying to learn and use their language and will help you out if you’re struggling. It’s also a sign that you respect them enough to try to speak to them in their language. Plus, the best way to learn a language is by immersion. What better way to become immersed in a language than by travelling to a place that speaks it and learning from natives in a real-world setting?

  • Find people to travel with, but also do stuff on your own

Meeting new people in a country you don’t know can be slightly terrifying. But finding a group of friendly faces who also love traveling and are excited to go see places and experience new things can really enrich your trip. Having people to explore the city and take weekend trips with, or even just having a group to go to a restaurant or the bar for a night of talking and laughing instead of sitting at home has made my experience a lot more fun and helped me to feel more comfortable here. But I also spent last weekend alone in Valencia after I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t already have plans, and it was honestly amazing. I didn’t have to depend on or wait for anyone and I got to see and do only and all of the things I wanted to (well, the ones I had time for). I also felt very independent and really enjoyed solving my own problems and making my own way around the city. The memories I made over that weekend are something that I will always have, and something I’ll have that I did for myself and myself alone. It was really liberating and almost relaxing in a sense, exploring on my own. I also would never have been able to visit Valencia had it not been for me going by myself, and Valencia is AMAZING. I loved the city and the sights and the beach and the people, and I definitely would have spent at least a week there if I could have. All this is to say that it’s great to meet people and travel in groups, but I also now see the merits of traveling solo and definitely understand why so many people take trips alone around the world*.

 

Well, I think that pretty much covers the main tips I think people should consider when thinking about transportation abroad (even though I know there are plenty more things I could talk about that would turn this post into a novel). Above all, I think the most important idea connecting these tips is to not be afraid to go somewhere new and explore as many places as you have the chance to. You have the rest of your life to stay in for the night or sleep late. Use every minute you have abroad wisely. It will be over before you realize it.


Just a note from the title: “I Get Around” is an old Beach Boys song that got stuck in my head while writing this post. It has nothing to do with Spain but it’s very catchy 🙂

Also,

*little disclaimer: I do not want to discount the potential dangers of solo travel, especially for women. When I was in Valencia (and really the whole of my time here) I definitely stayed very alert the whole time I was there and had plenty of lines of communication with people both here and back home who knew where I was at all times, as well as having the emergency number for Spain (112) and the US embassy’s information on me at all times.

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