I’m traveling to Northern Spain (Priorat) for a week in wine country the last week in May. The trip was somewhat of a last minute decision – I had wanted to go as part of a tour (through The Wine School of Philadelphia, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Seriously, if you love wine and you’re close to Philly, stop in for a class – you won’t be disappointed.), but the tour sold out before I could join. A few days ago, there was a cancellation and I seized the opportunity.

So now, I have less than three weeks to plan my trip (and learn enough Spanish to get by!) The tour is providing accommodations, but each of us must find our own way to the villa. Here are some tips I’ve picked these last few days about planning a last minute trip.

Logistics

Of course, you can’t travel out of the country without a passport these days. I already have one, so thankfully, I don’t have to worry about applying for one and hoping it arrives in time.

As a safety precaution, I’ve checked the CDC website to make sure I don’t need any obscure shots or medicine to take with me. Spain seems to be fairly safe, but having traveled to Belize and Guatemala previously, I can say it’s best to get your appropriate shots well in advance – and stock up on any medications you might need (like Malaria drugs). I’ve also been assembling a basic medical kit.

Currency

You hear how bad the US economy is every day, but it doesn’t hit you until you go to exchange your Dollars for Euros. The going rate today is $1 = .648 Euros. (Last year at this time, it was about $1 = .74 Euros.) And if I’m reading this website correctly, a gallon of gasoline (3.78 liters) is around $7.00. On the bright side, AAA doesn’t charge you an exchange rate.

Getting Cheap Airfare

Trying to get a cheap flight without too long of a layover has been a fascinating experience. I’ve learned that there really isn’t much rhyme or reason to how airlines price tickets – other than they’re seeking to fill as many seats as possible at any given time. What that means is that in a matter of hours (or the next day), you can be quoted a drastically different price for (seemingly) comparable flights.

On Sunday/Monday, when I checked various airline sites (Sidestep.com, CheapTickets.com, CheapOAir.com, Priceline.com), I was looking around at least $1100 for a flight from Philly to Spain with unless I was willing to take a 12 hour layover (no thank you). Tuesday morning when I checked back, I found a brand new option – I could fly through Paris with a four hour layover for around $750 (but I only found this deal on one site – all the others are much more expensive.) Not wanting to press my luck too much, I jumped on that. (For comparison, that’s about one-third the price of a non-stop flight.)

Some other things I picked up on saving money besides shopping around:

  • If you can, be flexible with the dates you’ll be traveling.
  • Try flying to a cheaper airport.

Neither of those applies to my trip, but they’re good to know.

Rent a Car

I had no idea that virtually all cars in Spain were manual transmission (I guess it’s not surprising, given the gas prices) – which means renting one is considerably cheaper than renting an automatic transmission. Compact, manual transmission cars start at about half the price of the cheapest automatic car I found – and most were much more expensive than that. Most of the travel sites have car rental options, but the cheapest site I’ve found (so far) is AutoEurope.com. I’m also told that it’s far cheaper to book your car in advance than at the airport.

On another note, if you plan on renting a car, it helps to pick up an International Driver’s Permit from your local AAA. I talked with someone on the phone today, and she said the process is fast and painless – you just need to bring two passport photos and the $15 fee. They can create them on the spot in about 10 minutes.

I’m still looking into options to save on auto insurance. I believe AAA and (possibly) some credit cards will cover you so you don’t have to pay the outrageous rental insurance prices.

Learning the Language

If only there was more time… I admit, my choice for a crash course in Spanish isn’t cheap, but so far, the lessons have been pretty good. I bought the Pimsleur Spanish series, and have been practicing for one-to-two hours each day. My goal is to at least be able to give taxi-drivers directions to my villa (not that I’ll be taking a taxi, but I’ve had some crazy experiences in Mexico with Spanish-only speaking cab drivers and I’d prefer not to go through that again.)

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So, have any of you been to Northern Spain? The place where I’m staying is about a two hour drive west from Barcelona, so I’m open to suggestions for day trips, restaurants, wineries, etc.

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