How We Tried To Save Money On A Trip To Spain

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The tickets are booked and hotel reservations are made for our trip to Spain. Of course, all this economic turmoil makes me a bit nervous, but the fact that we finally finished saving up for our 6-month Emergency Fund makes me much more comfortable. Not that we feel our jobs are in trouble, but you never know.

We did try several things to minimize costs for our 7-night stay in Spain:

Airfare: Save 50% By Combining Trips
We already committed going to a friend’s wedding on the East Coast, and so as is our habit we looked to see we could “add on” a trip somewhere interesting in that direction. For example, the ticket from West Coast to East Coast was around $350, while tacking on the trip to Spain made the flight cost $750. Effectively, we only had to pay $400 each to fly to Spain – not a bad deal! (Other European countries were $200-$400 more for some reason.)

In addition, we managed to book an open-jaw trip into Madrid and out of Barcelona for the same price. This allows us to spend more time in both cities, and we don’t have to pay to travel back to Madrid for the return flight.

We still have to decide whether to take train or plane from Madrid to Barcelona. The train is more expensive, but might be more fun? Airplane looks to be both slightly faster and cheaper, though.

The Westin Hotel Madrid

Hotels: Cashing in Rewards Points
A hostel in Madrid would starts at about $25 per bed per night, for a total of $50 per couple. But after getting married, I had to put the hosteling days behind me. 🙂 It’s okay, I get a better night’s sleep in a hotel. A basic hotel in a decent location with a double/queen bed starts at around €80 = $120 per night. It goes up really quickly from there.

However, I have collected a fair number of the ever-useful Starpoints, mostly from my Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, so I decided to look at what was available. I found the Westin Palace Hotel, first built in 1912 by King Alfonso XIII as a place for his wedding guests to stay (naturally). Rated Spain’s #1 Hotel by Condé Naste magazine, it runs €305 = $450 per night!

However, I could book a room for only 12,000 Starpoints. On top of that, if I booked 4 nights, I got the 5th free. So now I had 5 nights for only 48,000 points total. At the $450 rate, that made each Starpoint worth 4.7 cents. Put another way, my Starwood card was earning me 4.7% cash back. Even at the budget hotel rate of $120 a night, I still was getting 1.25%. Except now I’m sleeping on a Heavenly Bed and staying in a palace!

Barcelona was even more expensive, but we found a simple hotel for €85 = $125 per night.

We both hate guided tours, so we usually just plan things out by ourselves with guidebooks and the internet. We like Rick Steves, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet the best. We usually buy one guidebook that we can highlight and mark up, and also bring along three other ones + a language phrasebook from the library. Of course, we risk losing the books in which case we’d have to replace them, but I think it is worthwhile. This time around, I even checked out some Spanish language CDs. Dos cerveza por fa vor!

Churros image

Standard procedure is to try and find a grocery store, and stock up on water and local snacks. A few picnics for lunch with regional junk food is always fun and tasty. Ethnic foods can also be a great value. The best tasting falafel I have ever eaten was in Paris and cost €5.

Of course, I don’t want to skimp to much on food. I will be looking forward to consuming large amounts of tapas and house wine at every hole-in-the-wall I can find. I can’t wait to try chocolate con churros! If I generously estimate about $40 a day per person for food, and given that we would pay about $10 a day for food at home, that’s an added cost of about $30 per day.

We briefly considering eating at El Bulli with Ferran Adria, but it only opens from April to September each year. Besides, I don’t think I’d be willing to drop $400 on a single meal, even if it was voted the best restaurant in the world.

Adding this all up – airfare, hotel, and food should cost an estimated $400 + $125 + $210 = $735 per person. Add in remaining transportation and sightseeing, and I think we will still come in under $900 easily. A lot of money still, but hopefully resulting in some lasting memories.

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  1. Awesome. You’ll love Barcelona. The downtown is clean, historic, and very pedestrian friendly like all European cities. La Rambla is picturesque but the restaurants lining it seem to be tourist traps and we never got a good meal there and it was expensive. Goudi architecture is amazing and you should take the incline on the mountain side of the city and hike up to the old fort (forget the name) on the coast side of the city for great views from above. Also, the train down the coast from Barcelona is cheap and really scenic and you can see several more towns on just a day trip. Sitges by the Sea is lovely and Tarragonia is picturesque and has old Roman ruins. Sitges is 30-45 min by train and Tarragonia is 1.5 hours I think. I was there 3 years ago and loved it. Enjoy.

  2. jonathon:

    Back in May we took our honeymoon to europe, it was a lot of fun. It was also expensive. At least the dollar improved a little on the euro since then. We bought lots of food from grocery stores — 1.5 liter water for less then a euro, compared to .5 liter for 3 euro in tourist areas.

    As for your comment on the bed: We stayed in 2 different hotels in barcelona. Compared to the hotel we stayed in paris, the beds were rock hard at both barcelona hotelsm where as the hotel in paris was more familiar. I dont know if we got unlucky beds, or if this is just the standard in barcelona. also our king/queen size bed was actually two twins pushed together.

  3. $900 for a whole trip, per person? That’s not bad at all – I’m having difficulties finding airfare overseas for that cheap – where did you book through?

  4. I rented a car and used hotel points to stayed a night on the coast between Barcelon, Denia, and Madrid. The tolls are expensive, but I think I saved money on travel and got to see a very neat coastline dotted with castles, etc….

  5. Whenever we travel to a place and stay more than a week we try to look for short term rental apartments. most people will give you a discounted rate if you stay over a week (even better if you stay a month!)
    5 years ago we rented an apt for a month in Rome (our honeymoon) – $1300 for the entire month! Any decent (budget) hotel in Rome would cost $80-100 a night – for a month, you do the math!
    4 years ago we rented a studio apt in Madrid for 10 days – 60Euros a night (the rate has gone up since and the exchange rate isn’t the same)
    The benefit is that you can prepare meals in the apt and save a whole lot on food.
    This is the place we stayed in Madrid (very close to Gran Via) –
    Very friendly – I would go back again.
    If you are traveling with kids, short term apt rentals are definitely worth looking into.

    Also we did the train from Madrid to barcelona – can’t remember what the cost was but it was fun. Iberia has cheap flights from Madrid to Barcelona too.

  6. 1. Congrats on completing the 6 month emergency fund!

    2. Personal rant – the value of those points is 1.25%. If you would never have paid $450/night for the room, you can’t base your point redemption on that. I mean, technically, yes the points are worth $450, but since you would have never stayed there if it were not for the points, the points should be valued at what you would have paid otherwise. Instead of paying $125 a night, you got a room for free.

    I’m glad you showed both calculations, because I think it is misleading when someone says they earned x% but it is based on an inflated number.

  7. Oh I’m so jealous! I can’t wait to go back to Spain. I was last there in 2002 and loved every minute of it. One of my favorite places to visit in Europe. Barcelona is by far one of the more amazing places, and you’ll love it.

    Like Ben said, spend an afternoon and take a stroll down La Rambla, but it is the tourist area so better deals can be had if you get off the beaten path a bit. But the Goudi architecture is a must-see! You just have to take time and see Sagrada Familia.

    I wish I could remember the Tapas place I found, but it was incredibly cheap, incredible food, and the most excellent cerveza 😀

  8. Great post. My fiance and I are planning a trip someplace this winter and we are crunching the same numbers and going through the same planning (Rick Steves). I love this blog because it helps me to stop feeling like a cheap skate, because I’m not. I’m frugal, and it will all be apparent when I’m 65. Until then, I get to see the same sights and walk the same streets that other people who pay 3 times as much do. I have an incredible woman who loves picnics as much as an $80 meal at some expensive restaurant. The money we save allows us to take the next trip with less stress and save for our retirement. Thanks again Jonathan!!!

  9. Having traveled in Spain both by train and by plane, I would recommend taking the flight between Madrid and Barcelona. The train is not a very comfortable ride and it’s not worth it, especially if the plane is cheaper. In Madrid, the museums are fantastic and some of the finest leather (especially leather shoes) is sold there. You should go out to the plazas (pronunciation – plathas) after 10 at night. It’s always fun to sit at the cafes and people watch. Barcelona is a wonderful city (definitely one of my favorite European cities); you should absolutely go to the Parque Guell and check out la Segrada Familia.

  10. Here is a great website to search airline tickets for This is the best site out there and provides a wealth of informtaion. Hope fully you can use this on your next trip enjoy!

  11. I’m jealous of your trip! My advice is to take the plane instead of the train. We did the train and it was nice to have the experience but not a lot of fun. You are stuffed inside a small area for a long time. They also told us the water wasn’t very safe so we had to bring all of our own water for hand washing, teeth brushing, etc. Granted, this was 10 years ago so things could have changed.

  12. dude, its your vacation… you scrimp like a madman, save diligently, and dont have any crazy responsibilities breathing down your neck (read: 2 kids to feed and college tuition to pay), so go nuts, have a great time, maybe even spend $1100 per person. just eat a few extra boxes of ramen before you go to make up the difference.

  13. Recovering English Major says

    Taking the train from Madrid to Barcelona is really fun – much more fun than flying. Just make sure to take the high-speed train, otherwise it will take too long.

    If you like art, you will have a blast in Madrid. The Prado and the Reina Sofia are awesome, but the Thyssen is one of my all-time favorites – it’s organized really well, and it’s small enough that you get just the right amount of information without being overwhelmed. The Picasso museum in Barcelona is good too, but my favorite part of Barcelona was just walking around and soaking up all the architecture – from Gothic to Gaudi.

  14. Sounds like a great plan!

    If you’re looking for a great little microbrewery to have tapas in Madrid, washed down with the local brew, Cerveceria Alemana in Plaza Santa Ana is a good choice – not too expensive, packed with locals, atmospheric, good food and beer!

    Also, if you do decide to fly internally, you can certainly save money using one of the low-cost airlines that proliferate in Europe! Vueling as well as Air Europa operate between Barcelona and Madrid, often with one-way tickets around 40 Euro.

  15. Dude I’ve been to that falafel place – and it is AWESOME. I also just happened to catch a glimpse of this one fondue place in Paris that I’ve been to in a magazine the other day – they serve wine in baby bottles, so it’s kinda easy to pick out. I love it when my travel experiences are recommended after the fact by someone else!

    There’s not really much point to this post other than to say “I’ve been there!” Another nice article, by the way. I’m always interested in tips for travel on the cheap.

  16. I studied abroad in Barcelona in college and it is one of my favorite cities in the world. La Rambla and Gothic Quarter are nice and have a lot of touristy things to do, but in general everything there is much more expensive than in the rest of the city. Ryanair will probably be your cheapest bet for getting from Madrid to Barcelona (20 euro or so), but it actually flies into Girona, which is about an hour north of Barcelona by train. It’s a great little town though and the best paella I’ve ever had in my life was on the beach there. Well worth spending a day if you can spare the time. Oh, and stay away from the nude beaches in Barceloneta. The best one is off the Poblenou metro stop.

  17. I went to Spain a few years ago and I rode the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona. I recommend you take a plane between cities instead of a train to save time. Either way, both cities have great subway systems.

  18. Eat lots of Kebabs for me! mmmmmm!

    And, because I’m a stickler: dos cervezas por favor.

    : ) que tengas un viaje maravilloso!

  19. I have relatives living in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia as well. I remember as a kid during my summer vacations they would eat pan con chocolate(bread with chocolate). Take a club roll and put a thick bar of chocolate inside. They also dip pieces of bread into a cup of hot chocolate.

    You will love the food in Spain. They love to eat and their meals are very big. Bear in mind that you will hear Catalan mainly spoken in Barcelona. Parla Catala?…was one of the most frequent asked questions to me when I was there.

  20. I would recommend the train to Barcelona if you can get it at a good time (ie, plenty of light, preferably late morning). The Spanish countryside outside Madrid is gorgeous. Those little RyanAir flights are a little sketchy too.

  21. One thing to keep in mind about plane vs train is that even though the train takes longer, the stations are usually downtown vs. an airport that can take awhile to get to. Plus you should be at the airport an hour early but you only need to be at the train station 15 minutes early.

  22. And don’t forget people eat dinner late and are out late, late at night all over the place 🙂

  23. I remember Spain fondly. The first night we had cheese tapas and wine. The next night the runs to the bathroom started. I was back to solids two weeks later. We didn’t leave the hotel for three days.

  24. Last year I went back to Vietnam. The plane ticket cost like $800. The 3 weeks stay there cost me close to another $4,000 and Vietnam is one of those third-world countries so everything is very very cheap.

    If you’re going to Europe, plan to spend a lot of money or don’t go at all. Another thing you can do is postpone the trip, save a lot more money, then go. With the kind of budget you’re thinking about, I’d rather stay close to home.

  25. My wife and I just got back from a trip to Spain and Greece. We didn’t take the AVE train between Barcelona and Madrid (we went barcelona->seville->madrid), but we did take the AVE train between Seville and Madrid. I think it was a better choice than flying. We flew between barcelona and Seville and you waste so much time getting to/from the airport and getting to the airport early (worse if you’re checking baggage)…. with the train you just show up 15-20 minutes early and it’s a convenient Metro trip away from downtown.

    Also we enjoy a nice train trip every now and then :p. Nice change of pace from flying everywhere here in the states. The AVE trains are very comfortable and even play movies during the trip.

    Enjoy 🙂

  26. Eric Walton says

    Jonathon, the trip sounds like fun. Have you ever looked into the website “”? Great vacation rentals all over the world for a fraction of what you’d pay for a hotel. We rented a beautiful home in Sedona, AZ right in the heart of town 3br, 2bath with fireplace, full kitchen for $100 per night. The $$ saved by buying groceries and cooking at the house was tremendous vs restaurants.

  27. Great post!
    I love Madrid so much – it has everything: amazing views, hearty food, good wine and friendly people. And there are so many things you can do for free, like free hours in museums, street theaters, degustations in “mercados”.
    I think it’s a good idea to join a walking tour (again, there are free ones – I went to the one offered by a company called Madride and I loved it!) if you want not only to see the most popular touristic places but also to get to know something about the history and culture of the city and to meet some new people.

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