How to plan a trip to Spain and Portugal

Spain had been on my bucket list for a long while, but planning a trip to Spain and Portugal was a nightmare - because as usual, we tried to do too much in a short space of time. We decided to add Portugal to our itinerary because it was a country we wanted to visit too. It is also covered by the Schengen visa and it lies next to Spain.

How to plan a trip to Spain and Portugal. This is what is involved:

  1. Dates
  2. Air tickets
  3. Visas
  4. Itinerary
  5. Accommodation
  6. Transport between cities
  7. Tickets to main attractions

1. Dates

Our dates had to be within the school holidays because we were travelling with our children, but I was reluctant to travel to Europe in winter, because I don’t handle ultra-cold weather too well. But then, my research on Tripadvisor and other sites revealed that summers in Spain are over-crowded, making accommodation more expensive and queues too long. So we bit the bullet and went ahead.

2. Air tickets

We decided to book tickets from Johannesburg to Barcelona, Spain but leave from Porto in Portugal. In my experience the earlier you book, the better the prices. As Discovery Vitality members, we used our Emirates Vitality discount to book our flights. We changed planes in Dubai on the way there, and spent 3 nights in Dubai on the way back.

3. Visas

Once we had booked our tickets, we had to apply for Schengen visas from the Spanish embassy, which was a schlep in itself. My post on how to apply for a Spanish visa will be coming soon. In the meantime, see “How to apply for a Schengen visa for Italy”. The requirements are similar but you need to apply via BLS International.

4. Itinerary

Barcelona

Barcelona

Then we had to plan our itinerary. We allocated 14 days to see the main sights in Spain and Portugal - two days to each of the cities. I used Google Maps to plot our route by plugging in the cities we wanted to visit, and working out the best order in which to visit them.

This is what our itinerary looked like once we were done. I would have liked to add Valencia and Malaga in Spain, and Sintra in Portugal, but there was no time.

Our Itinerary

Fly in to Barcelona

2 nights in Barcelona

2 nights in Madrid (Visit to Toledo from Madrid)

2 nights in Granada

2 nights in Cordoba

2 nights in Seville

2 nights in Lisbon

2 nights in Porto

Fly out from Porto

In retrospect, I would have allocated another day each to Barcelona and Madrid, and maybe cut out one of the other cities.

5. Accommodation

How to plan a trip to Spain

Courtyard of our Cordoba apartment

We used a combination of Booking.com and Airbnb to book our accommodation. Because we were traveling with our children, we chose to stay in apartments, which are more spacious and have kitchens.

Did you know that you can book apartments on Booking.com too? Just ensure that you read the reviews before booking.

6. Transport between cities

How to plan a trip to Spain

Madrid Atocha railway station

We used trains and buses to travel between the cities. I compared prices for the different options on Rome2Rio and Omio.com , and then booked them. Again, the earlier you book, the lower the prices. The buses are generally cheaper than the trains. However, for the longer legs, like Barcelona to Madrid, and Madrid to Granada, the high-speed Renfe trains are a better and faster option. They are very comfortable, and have complimentary wi-fi and sufficient luggage space. Refreshments are sold on board. The train stations in Barcelona and Madrid are huge, modern structures – more like airports than train stations. The ALSA buses (Red Expresso in Portugal) are also comfortable, and have luggage space too. Once your tickets are booked, you need to show them at the stations. Electronic copies will suffice.

For the Seville (Spain) to Porto (Portugal) leg, there was no train option so we took the bus. We made a halfway stop during the 6-hour trip.

To travel within the cities, we mainly used the Metro and the buses. Sometimes, we used ridesharing services like Uber and Cabify where available, especially when we were traveling with luggage.

How to plan a trip to Spain

High speed Renfe Train

7. Tickets to main attractions

The only attraction tickets we booked before our trip were for Park Guell in Barcelona and the Al-Hambra in Granada. For the other attractions, this was not necessary. However if you are travelling during the Easter period or in summer, you will need to buy most of your attraction tickets in advance.

How to plan a trip to Spain

Alhambra Granada

More tips:

  • To prepare for your trip, read the Tripadvisor Spain forums and the Rick Steves Spain guides. I read posts by other bloggers too.
  • Download offline Google maps for the areas you will be visiting.
  • Get a local SIM card. We bought a Vodafone card which worked in Spain and Portugal. Be aware that the Vodafone shops are closed on Sundays and public holidays. We bought ours from a mobile phone store.
  • If you are travelling in winter, get a down jacket.

In conclusion,

We didn't have everything figured out before we went. We learnt along the way and asked the friendly and helpful people around us when we were unsure. Don't be afraid to do that.

Do you you have any tips on how to plan a trip to Spain and Portugal ?

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