If there is one thing old Spaniards wax nostalgic over, it's not the police state they experienced under the dictatorship of Franco, but the prices paid back then. The euro became the official currency of Spain and 11 other participating countries on January 1, 1999 (for details on the euro, check out www.europa.eu), but how they miss the days when you could go into a restaurant and order a meal with wine for the equivalent of 50¢.
Regrettably, Spain is no longer a budget destination. In such major cities as Barcelona or Madrid, you can often find hotels charging the same prices as ones in London or Paris. Once you move beyond Spain's tourist meccas into regional towns, provincial capitals, and especially the countryside, the prices drop considerably. For example, it's possible to enjoy a 6-week vacation in rural Spain for about the same price that 10 days to 2 weeks could cost in Madrid.
Taken as a whole, though, Spain remains slightly below the cost-of-living index of such countries as England, Germany, Italy, and France. Unfortunately, there is a very unfavorable exchange rate in Spain when you pay in U.S. dollars, though recently the dollar had strengthened somewhat in recent months.
Prices in Spain are generally high, but you get good value for your money. Hotels are usually clean and comfortable, and restaurants generally offer good cuisine and ample portions made with quality ingredients. Trains are fast and on time, and most service personnel treat you with respect.
In Spain, many prices for children -- generally defined as ages 6 to 17 -- are lower than for adults. Fees for children 5 and under are generally waived.
It's always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, and traveler's checks. You should also exchange enough petty cash to cover airport incidentals, tipping, and transportation to your hotel before you leave home, or withdraw money upon arrival at an airport ATM.
In many international destinations, ATMs offer the best exchange rates. Avoid exchanging money at commercial exchange bureaus and hotels, which often have the highest transaction fees.
Rates fluctuate, so before departing consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/convert/classic to check up-to-the-minute rates.
Major Change in Credit Cards -- Chip and PIN represent a change in the way that credit and debit cards are used. The program is designed to cut down on the fraudulent use of credit cards. More and more banks are issuing customers Chip and PIN versions of their debit or credit cards. In the future, more and more vendors will be asking for a four-digit personal identification or PIN, which will be entered into a keypad near the cash register. In some cases, a waiter will bring a hand-held model to your table to verify your credit card.
Warning: Some establishments in Spain might not accept your credit card unless you have a computer chip embedded in it. The reason? To cut down on credit card fraud. More and more places in Spain are moving from the magnetic strip credit card to the new system of "Chip and PIN."
In the changeover in technology, some retailers have falsely concluded that they can no longer take swipe cards, or can't take signature cards that don't have PINs anymore.
For the time being both the new and old cards are used in shops, hotels, and restaurants regardless of whether they have the old credit and debit cards machines or the new Chip and PIN machines installed. Expect a lot of confusion before you arrive in Spain or elsewhere.
In the interim between traditional swipe credit cards and those with an embedded computer chip, here's what you can do to protect yourself:
- Get a four-digit PIN from your credit card's issuing bank before leaving home.
- Or call the number on the back of each card and ask for a four-digit PIN.
- Keep an eye out for the right logo displayed in a retailer's window. You want Visa or MasterCard, not Maestro, Visa Electron, or Carte Bleue.
- Know that your Amex card will work where an Amex logo is displayed, but the card is not as widely accepted as Visa and MasterCard.
- As a last resort, make sure you have enough cash to cover your purchase.