Learning How to Live in Barcelona, Spain
Exchange Rates, Metro System, Cellular Phone Service and More
Preparing for Our First Day Running Errands in Barcelona
I woke up around 4 AM. I don’t know why I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps I had slept too much the day before, or went to bed too early? Either way I was up and unable to go back to sleep. So instead, I spent the wee hours of the morning planning out the next day. Sooner or later we were going to need to get out of the apartment and start learning how to live in Spain. But without cell phone service and Google Maps, I needed a solid preparation plan before taking on the city. So, I made a list of things we needed to do to get ready for our life here in Barcelona:
- Go to ATM
- Jailbreak iPhones
- Get a SIM Card
- Go to IKEA to get a Bar for the Closet
- Buy Some Things for the Apartment
And then I planned our day, mapping out all of the different stores we needed to visit using Google Maps and the Barcelona Transportation website. By the time I was finished with our itinerary, it wasn’t even 7 AM. So, I put on my workout gear and went for a short run to the local Yacht club to check out memberships for the gym. I took a tour of the facilities, learned about the different programs available, and then jogged back home.
When I got back in the apartment Kevin was still sleeping, and I didn’t have the heart to wake him. Plus, we couldn’t really go anywhere since a maid was going to drop in at 10 AM to clean the mess in the bathroom from the leaky ceiling the night before. So I threw in the P90X Yoga video and let the stress and tension from the last few days melt away.
Feeling Like a Prisoner in My Own Apartment
Just as I finished my workout, the doorbell rang. I got up to let the maid in. She asked me about the water damage and I showed her where it had come through and soaked everything. She climbed up the step ladder, felt around and said in Spanish “well, it’s dry already so I guess there is nothing to clean.”
As she turned for the door to leave I quickly stopped her and said “Oh no ma’am, the water that fell was dirty and it smells bad. You need to clean everything in the bathroom and kitchen. That’s what Marta told me you were here to do.” Since she was under the impression she didn’t need to clean, nor did she seem to really want to clean, she called Marta to confirm. Fortunately, Marta agreed with me and she began cleaning the bathroom, reluctantly.
So I did what any other woman would do while her husband was sleeping and the maid was cleaning the bathroom – I started rearranging furniture.
That’s right. I didn’t really like the way the furniture was arranged in the living room, so I started moving it around. I also made sure to clean behind all 3 pieces of furniture. By the time I finished a few minutes later, the maid was also done with the bathroom. It’s nice to know it doesn’t take much to whip this place into shape!
Just as I opened the door to tell the maid goodbye, my neighbor Alex from upstairs dropped by to tell me the repairman for his apartment would be arriving within the next two hours and he would like me to be home if possible. “Sure,” I said smiling. I was calm and kind on the outside, but quite frustrated on the inside. It was my second day in Barcelona and I’d barely left the apartment. Sticking around for another 2 hours seemed like jail time.
To pass the two hours, I finished cleaning the living room and then made some peanut butter toast for Kevin to try to coax him out of bed. At home I usually do this with eggs, toast and fresh fruit – but today he’s going to have to get excited about peanut butter – again!
A few hours later the repairman from upstairs arrived to confirm the leak had been fixed, and we were finally free to go. So we layered up with coats and scarves, grabbed my itinerary for the day and hit the streets of Barcelona.
Our Most Cost-Effective Way to Convert Dollars to Euros
Our first stop was an ATM. After talking with my bank we figured out that the cheapest way to get Euros is to use our ATM card. The bank charges a 1% currency exchange fee and a $5 out of network ATM fee. The Barcelona bank charges a 3 Euro commission fee.
Our other options are to use our credit card with a 3% fee on all transactions, or our debit card with a 5% fee on all transactions. So as long as we take out the maximum amount of $1,500 at the ATM, we will save money when compared to using a debit or credit card.
The math works out as follows:
So, as you can see it is less expensive to withdraw $1,500 in cash from a local ATM than it is to use the same amount on a bank card. That means we will pay cash for everything over here, which is something we’re not used to.
Including the bank fees, we pay about $1.35 for every Euro we receive, which is approximately 1.100,00 Euros when we withdraw $1,500 from the ATM. That means we lose about 30% of our income just because we earn our money in dollars. Que lastima!
Learning How to Use the Metro System in Barcelona
After using the ATM we continued north on the main street in search of a phone retailer. I had mapped out the office for both Orange and Vodafone. We walked to the addresses that I had found online, but there wasn’t a shop at either location. We had to quickly change our game plan and find another shop – but that wasn’t easy since we didn’t have any Internet connection to pull up Google Maps. So, instead we moved on to our next stop – IKEA. To get to this enormous household retail store, we had to use public transportation. So, I looked around for the Metro station, but we couldn’t see it. I know it’s here somewhere – I mapped it out!
We turned around in several frustrating circles, and I finally asked someone where the Metro station was. The first person I talked to didn’t have a clue, and pointed us in the wrong direction. I knew from the map I had studied at 4 AM that she was sending us down the wrong path. So, I went in the other direction and started walking toward where I thought it should be. I asked another stranger for help and this time we received good information and quickly found our way.
The metro system in Barcelona is very sophisticated, yet easy to use. There are machines in front of the turnstiles to purchase your tickets. Since we weren’t sure how often we would be using the metro, we opted for a T-10 ticket at 9,95 Euros. This allows us to take 10 trips on a single card within an unspecified amount of time, meaning it doesn’t expire. We can both use the same card because it logs multiple users. It also keeps a record of each user trip – allowing each of us to board as many trains and buses as we like within an hour an 15 minutes. Once we leave the subway and re-enter, or once the hour and 15 minutes is up, you log another trip.
So, to get to IKEA we took two subway trains and one bus – and it only logged a single trip. The total cost of this trip per person was 1 Euro. Not too shabby!
Arriving at IKEA
We were pretty excited to arrive at IKEA because we proved to ourselves that we could successfully use the public transportation system. After snapping a few photos, we quickly realized we were famished. Fortunately, IKEA has a cafeteria with some great healthy options. So we relaxed in the overcrowded food court and filled our bellies with grilled salmon and veggies before entering the labyrinth of cheap furniture and fixtures.
It seemed like several hours passed before we got to the end where we could pick up the closet rod we needed. By that time, we were both a little irritable and thankful that our time in IKEA was coming to an end.
Our Experience in Carrefour – The Wal-Mart of Barcelona
Fortunately, our next stop was just a few hundred meters east of IKEA and located in a huge shopping mall. Carrefour is the Wal-Mart of Barcelona, and it’s where you can find a lot of American-type products that aren’t in smaller markets across the city. I figured we could pick up the hangars, trash cans and other little items that we needed all in one place at relatively cheap prices. I was mistaken.
The truth is that Carrefour is a HUGE store with a million people in it. It’s horribly overcrowded and difficult to navigate. Plus, the prices are a little steep for certain items – and of course, those were the things we needed. For example, each hangar cost approximately 1 Euro. Multiply that by all of our clothes and you’re talking about $100 Euros for hangars. Get out of here.
So I asked a woman shopping near me where I could find “perchas mas baratas”, and she told me to find “una tienda china”. At that time I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I was determined to find one of these shops sooner rather than later.
The experience in Carrefour starts by grabbing a shopping cart outside of the grocery store. If you are familiar with Save-a-Lot or ALDI in the US, then you will also be familiar with the coin system for using a shopping cart. All of the carts are locked together and you must insert a coin in order to unlock a cart. When you are finished using the cart, you bring the cart back, lock it up and get your coin back. Simple enough – if you have a coin on you.
When you enter the store there is a security guard there who will make you check any bags you have with you in a locker. These lockers work relatively the same way as the shopping carts. When you an insert a coin you can close the locker and take the key with you. When you come back and put the key into the locker, you get your coin back.
Once you go through security you are free to shop, but will find an overwhelming crowd of people. We bought a few household items, like shampoo, conditioner, a Brita water filter, and a few european chords we needed for our electronic equipment. I was determined to find the other items on our list at una tienda china for a more reasonable price.
Selecting a Phone Carrier and Plan for our iPhones in Spain
After what seemed like hours, we finally left Carrefour and started hunting for a phone carrier service. I had spoken with Vodafone before arriving and they had a plan for us, so I sought out their office first.
When we finally found there small shop we noticed a line out the door. I guess it’s a pretty popular place to be at 8 PM on a Saturday night! So, we waited, waited and waited – and I was getting hungry. So I sent Kevin to get us a sandwich or snack or something, and I stayed in line. While he was gone it was my turn at the counter and I asked for the plan that I wanted: Unlimited Cell Phone Data and 100 Minutes for 20 Euro a month with a 6 month contract. Sounds pretty nice!
I quickly learned that the plan no longer existed, and all non-pay-as-you-go plans require a one-year contract. I also learned a lot of other key lessons about Vodafone plans:
- In order to get a contracted plan, you must have a NIE or DNI number (given to citizens and residents) – the same is true with Orange.
- In order to get a contracted plan, you must also have a bank account in Barcelona – the same is true with Orange.
- There is no such thing as an Unlimited Data Plan – once you reach a certain amount per your plan your data speeds are lowered – the same is true with Orange.
- You cannot buy more data blocks on a pay-as-you-go plan in order to avoid slower speeds – the same is true with Orange.
- The maximum data for a pay-as-you-go plan is 20 MB per day before speeds are lowered – the same is true with Orange.
- If you don’t want a SIM card pay-as-you-go plan, you must sign a contract for a minimum of one year, even if you have your own phone – the same is NOT true with Orange.
After speaking with Vodafone, we were disappointed, tired and hungry. So we sat down on the floor in the middle of the mall and shared a deli sandwich. After a few minutes of rest, we went to Orange to see if they had anything they could offer us. Unfortunately, we found that the plans were relatively the same – but their service and store environment was much more enjoyable. The waiver of a one-year contract for customers who own their own phone was also another redeeming quality. For now, we opted for pay-as-you-go plan of 20 MB of data per day for 3.5 EUR a month. We pay per minute for talk time and instant messaging. Once we get our residency we plan to upgrade to a better contracted plan without a contract.
After an exhausting day running errands in Barcelona, we finally made it home to set up our phones. Unfortunately, we soon realized that we couldn’t jailbreak them because of the new iPhone firmware. Hackers across the globe have tried with no avail. After several attempts we had to surrender and realize that although we have SIM cards, we don’t have a phone to use them in.
It was yet another set back that we would need to tackle, but not until another day.