Category Archives: Travelling

Initial impressions of Madrid

I’ve finally arrived in Madrid. I actually arrived in Madrid last Thursday at midnight, but I’ve had a few days to settle into my new location. I travelled from Paris to Madrid by TGV and AVE high speed trains. It was a far more expensive and longer journey than if I’d travelled by plane, but I think it was worth it. It was much more comfortable, because it was easier to get up and walk around, and it was just a case of walking up and jumping on a train and getting off again at the other end rather than having huge security controls and waits for planes. It definitely didn’t feel like 10 hours of travelling. My noise-cancelling headphones were definitely a great idea though. The main bonus of the train journey was the views of the French countryside, and the hills on the edges of the Pyrenees mountain range. ¬†I was a little disappointed that the Spanish/French border was under a tunnel. The sun had pretty much set by the time we arrived in Figueres, so I didn’t get to see any of the Spanish countryside or of Barcelona this time.

I’m living in a small suburb of Madrid called Villa de Vallecas, which is just to the south east of the city. The area had a reputation of being a working class area, and a strong resistance to Franco’s regime, but the area has improved in the last few decades. The flat is in a fairly new development very close to the metro station, and just around the corner from the Church of San Pedro Ad-vincula, which is a very pretty building. The flat is a one bedroom furnished flat, with a double bed, shower, television, kitchen with dishwasher, washing machine and freezer. ¬†There’s also a decent sized dining table I can use as a desk to work from. I don’t have internet installed yet, which is coming next week, so I’ve been relying on using my mobile internet connection, which has worked pretty well other than having a low data limit, so I’ve had to restrict my internet usage.image

I’ve spent a lot of my time watching Spanish television, with Spanish subtitles, to help improve my comprehension of spoken Spanish. One thing I’ve noticed is that I understand what is going on pretty well, but I think this is more down to reading the subtitles than listening to the speech, but even this is forcing me to read quicker, and to understand the words in a shorter amount of time, which will help with the speech, as it’s the speed of understanding which I’ve struggled with. I tend to end up watching mostly dubbed American television, because it’s a better quality than some of the Spanish drama/soaps and is more likely to have subtitles.

I have noticed a few things with Spanish television though. They have considerably longer adverts than I’m used to in Britain. They think nothing of having six minute long ad breaks, compared to the usual three I’m used to. Also, they will happily cut programmes in the middle of scenes. I was watching La Caza De Octubre Rojo (Hunt For The Red October) last night and they cut away from Alec Baldwin mid-sentence. They also often don’t bother with title sequences or end credits. I was watching a run of episodes of Dos Hombres y Media (Two and a Half Men. Don’t judge; listening is more important than what I’m watching) and it was very hard to know when you had switched episodes unless you were watching the show carefully. The final thing I noticed is that they’re far more open about sex and nudity in the middle of the day. They were happy to show full frontal female nudity and sex scenes at 2pm in the afternoon, which would have been restricted to after the 9pm watershed back home.

I have been out to the city centre a couple of times. My friend/landlady, Rosa, took me on a tour of the touristy parts of the city centre, showing me from Atocha station, past the botanical gardens and a few museums to (the vodafone sponsored) Puerte de Sol, Plaza Meyor, the Royal Palace (and the Almudena cathedral which looks like it was built from a blue concrete). Rosa also introduced me to a couple of cinemas that are showing Versión Original films, which will have Spanish subtitles, so I can keep watching films. I was one of the things I was going to miss about Brighton, having visited the wonderful Duke Of Yorks and Komedia cinema so much over the last year.

On Sunday night I met up with a local friend, Aitziber, who showed me around the slightly more fashionable/cool area of Tribunal, where we had a few drinks. I have to admit that we mostly spoke in English, but I will have to attempt to work on talking more Spanish. I can understand her pretty well when she does speak Spanish, but I think for the first meeting, it was better for the experience to not be too frustrating for both parties. We did also go to an Irish pub, because it was across the road from our metro station, where the best beer they had was Tetleys on draught and was served with an inch of head.

They’re most of the things I’ve remembered so far about my first few days in Madrid. I’ve got plans to see a film tomorrow and another on Thursday, and to meet up with an American girl on Friday, because I think it’s important to make sure I have an active social life in my new city, even if I’m only here for a few months.

Things to do before leaving the country

When you’re considering leaving the country for an extended amount of time, there’s a few more things you need to take into consideration compared to just going for a short two week holiday.


Get checkups: It’s a great idea to get a clean bill of health before you travel from your doctor and your dentist; the last thing you want to do is find out that niggling little cough you ignored turns into something more serious the first week you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language

Get injections: This is a no-brainer. If you’re going somewhere with preventable diseases, get your vaccinations before you leave. You can find out more information on which vaccines you should have from The National Travel Health Network And Centre¬†and The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Get your European Health Insurance Card: If you plan to travel anywhere within the EU and you are an EU citizen, you want to apply for a EHIC. These replace the old E111 forms and show that you are entitled to reduced or even free healthcare from the local state health service. The cost will be met by your country’s health service. It is wise to have this card in addition to travel insurance, as some insurers require you to have one and you won’t need to wait for permission for treatment from your insurers. You can find out more information from the NHS.

Health Insurance: Even if you have your EHIC, you should get travel insurance with adequate health cover, as the former won’t cover everything, including any private medical care, mountain rescue or medical repatriation. ¬†Insurance is also useful for non-health reasons, which I’ll discuss below.

Take enough medicine: If you have a pre-existing condition that requires you to take medicine, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you have enough supply to last the duration of your trip. You may find that finding a supply of your medication is difficult in your destination. Also, make sure you get a note from your doctor explaining why you need the medication, as you may find yourself being delayed in customs. It is also a good idea to check the legality of any medication in your destination country, as this could cause you problems too and would allow you to discuss alternatives with your doctor before you travel.


Get The Right Bank Account: I discussed this previously, but spending your money can be very expensive abroad, with unfavourable exchange rates and fees to spend or withdraw your cash. There are various accounts you can use to improve the situation.

Inform your bank: It’s always a great idea to inform your bank that you are travelling, as the last thing you want when you’re in a foreign country is to find out you can’t withdraw any more cash because your bank thinks your spending is fraudulent. They can’t always be trusted to take not of your note, but better to try.

Have multiple methods of payment: It’s a great idea to make sure you have a small amount of local currency with you for emergencies and for when you first arrive in case you can’t find a cash machine at the airport or train station. If you’re going to poorer countries, it may be wise to take some cash in pristine US Dollar bills. Do not bend them, as some places may not take them. Make sure you have a couple of different debit and credit cards and keep them separate, so if you lose one, you still have another back at your accommodation.


Do you need to renew: If your passport has less than six months left by the time you plan to return, it’s a good idea to get a replacement. Attempting to renew your passport outside the country is time consuming, as despite popular belief, you can not get a new passport from your nearest British Embassy. In many cases, it involves posting your application back to the UK or one of the few regional offices that can issue passports, including Washington, DC and Hong Kong, and will take between four and six weeks. You can get emergency travel documents from your nearest embassy, but only in limited circumstances and is not a replacement for a passport. Gov.UK has a lot of information on passports, including applying online.

Make a photo of your passport: You never know when you might lose your passport, or you need to know your passport number in a hurry and aren’t carrying your passport with you. Taking a clear picture of the photo page can save you stress and hassle in an emergency. Save a copy on your phone and back it up to somewhere secure on-line like Dropbox. You should do this with all your other important documents, like travel tickets and insurance documents.

Apply for visas before you travel: If you require a visa to enter your destination, you should apply for them before you travel to save delays when you arrive. If you don’t know if you need a visa, check it out online or call the embassy in your home country. You may be required to have an interview before a visa is approved.

Driving Licence

Make sure it’s valid: If you place to drive in your destination, it’s a great idea to make sure your driving license is valid and in good condition. You may want to research if you need any additional requirements before being allowed to drive in a foreign country and if there are any local regulations and laws you need to know.

Travel Insurance

Make sure you have some: Travel insurance is a must for any trip abroad. I mentioned above about the health benefits, but travel insurance has many other benefits, including legal assistance and covering losses from theft or accidents. Make sure you get insurance with limits high enough to cover any likely expenses and read the exclusions carefully to make sure there’s no gotchas. It can be far too easy to think your covered for something, only to find its been excluded in the policy fine print. If you are planning on doing any sort of winter sports or high risk activities, you may want to get extended coverage, although it may be cheaper to only insure those on a case-by-case bases.


Do your homework: You should research the area you’re going to so you know where to find all the amenities; where are the local shops, doctors, hospital, bank, ATM etc. You should find ¬†out where your nearest British Embassy or Consulate is. It’s worth checking the FCO’s website for travel advice, especially if you’re going outside the EU or dangerous areas. They will also give you advice on crime and any local customs you should be aware of.

Tell a friend back home your plans: Give someone you trust a copy of your plans and all your important travel documents and methods of contacting you so they know what to do in an emergency.

Saving Money While Travelling Abroad

Dealing with money when you’re abroad can be expensive. Cash machines charge you a 2% fee to take money out and using any sort of normal debit or credit card results in a poor exchange rate. Here’s everything you need to know about saving money while travelling abroad.

As an example, to use my normal current account debit card, I get a 2.75% exchange rate loading, meaning it costs me nearly 3% extra than the price on the till. I also get charged 2% when withdrawing cash from the cash machine with a minimum of ¬£2, meaning it’s more expensive to withdraw smaller amounts of money below ¬£100.

For short term trips, you can exchange currency before hand, although this does involve carrying around a significant amount of money. For longer term travels, this isn’t feasible.

I looked at several options on what to do to get the best value while I’m away:

  • Open a local bank account
  • Opening a UK Euro account
  • Opening a debit/credit card with low foreign currency charges

Opening a local account

I considered opening a bank account in the country when I arrived, but this had a number of issues. For only three months, I’m not sure the hassle of opening an account is worth it. I’d have to visit a branch and discuss matters which are far above my fluency level and then I’d have to wait several weeks for the card to arrive, requiring me to use my UK cards in the mean time. I’d also have to deal with transferring money internationally from my UK bank account every fortnight or month, which often has a charge. Maybe if I was going to stay in the country longer, I might consider this approach, but for my usage, I decided against this.

Opening a UK Euro account

There are several banks that will allow you to open an account which allows you to deal in Euros. One example is Lloyds, with their Sterling Premier International Account, which gives you the ability to spend in Euros, Pound Sterling or US Dollars, with a debit card for each currency. However, unless you have a balance of more than £2,500, you will have a monthly fee of £20, which makes this a rather expensive option.

The other problem with using a Euro account is that it doesn’t help if you travel to a country that doesn’t use the Euro. I only plan to be in Spain for three months, and then travel outside of Europe. ¬†Obviously I need a different solution.

Opening a debit/credit card with low foreign currency charges

The final option is to search for a card that doesn’t charge you all the extortionate fees that most banks charge when you’re abroad. The gold standard for this used to be from Nationwide with the Flexaccount, but a few years ago they put various charges on the account, and is now only available to current account holders.

There are a couple of cards now that are cheap to use abroad:

Halifax Clarity Credit Card

The Halifax Clarity credit card is a Mastercard, which should be accepted in most places, and has no charges for using an ATM abroad and the exchange rate used for any spending is the Mastercard wholesale rate, which is possibly the best exchange rate you can get as a consumer. One thing to note is that cash withdrawals will get interest charged on them regardless of whether you pay the whole balance off in full every month. At the advertised 12.9% interest rate, this works out about ¬£1 for every ¬£100 you withdraw each month. If you don’t receive this lower rate, the 21.9% shouldn’t be too expensive. You should be able to reduce this by paying your card off more frequently.

Capital One Classic Extra card

This Mastercard from Capital One is not quite as good value, with a 3% (min £3) on cash withdrawals and a higher 34.9% interest rate, but it does have a 0% loading on the exchange rate, so card purchases will be good value, and it has a 0.5% cashback on all UK purchases, which makes it better value if you are spending a lot of time in the UK as well as abroad, and saves you having multiple credit cards.

You can also get cards from Saga (only available to over 50s) and from the Post Office.

As I don’t intend on being in the UK much over the next year, I decided to go with the Halifax credit card. I plan on only carrying this card around with me day to day, and leaving my UK cards in the apartment, giving me an emergency source of cash if I lose my wallet.

Update: 16th January 2014

Lloyds Bank Avios Rewards Credit Card


 Lloyds now provide a Mastercard and American Express card which not only provides no foreign transactions fees and use the mastercard or amex exchange rates, but they allow allow you to earn Avios points, which you can use towards free flights with British Airways or any of the OneWorld partners. They do charge you for cash withdrawals though.

Sadly, there is no sign up bonuses for Avios points like some cards do, so you can not use this card to kick-start your air miles balance, but there is double points on your Amex spend in the first six months. You get 1.25 Avios points for every pound you spend on the Amex card and 0.25 points for every pound spent on the Mastercard.

I’m in the process of applying for this card, and I will update you with my experiences at some point in the future with how I get on with it. My plan is to use this card for purchases, and keep the Halifax card for cash withdrawals. It will be good to have an additional Amex card in my pocket, although it would be useful to have a Visa too.

Communications for a Digital Nomadic life

I’m obviously going to be on the move fairly frequently as I’m traveling from country to country, but I still need people to be able to contact me where ever I am. Here’s my plans for making sure I’m not incommunicado.


My plan is to take my current UK O2 sim with me to Spain and put it in an old phone to keep around for phone calls and text messages, but not to take with me, day to day. It’ll also be useful to keep in contact with my friends on Whatsapp, which is tied to a particular phone number. ¬†I’ll also redirect the phone number using O2’s redirection service to a UK local number (which I’ll explain below).

For day to day mobile usage, I’ll buy a Pay As You Go SIM which should allow me to have a reasonable data usage, compared to the 25MB a day limit O2 has when roaming. I’ll post a little more about this when I arrive in Spain and can pick which SIM to get.

Land line

My business has always had a VoIP phone system since it first started. This means that I don’t have a physical telephone line for my business calls and I’ve been using SIP clients to send and receive phone calls. They can usually provide a geographically specific phone number, so I will continue to have a Brighton phone number and no one will be aware that I don’t live there any more. Conveniently, recent versions of Android have a SIP client built in, so I can receive calls straight to my mobile, although being on wifi is highly recommended.

Some recommended VoIP suppliers are:

My supplier will also allow me to port my current BT landline number to their VoIP service for ¬£20, so that people can continue to call me on the same number they have in their address books. Unfortunately, my current provider is targeted more at the more tech-savvy market, so this may not be an option for everyone. SipGate will allow you to port your number to business accounts, but not basic accounts, so this may be an option if you don’t mind spending a little bit more.

Most services will also provide a voicemail service so that you can still get messages even if you weren’t able to receive the call. In my case, my supplier will email me an audio file of the call. Useful if you’re travelling through somewhere that doesn’t have internet or mobile service.

Traditional Mail

Royal Mail can redirect your post for you. The costs for one year is ¬£50 for a personal redirection, and ¬£350 for a business redirection. I’m redirecting my mail to a friend who will open and scan anything important and send it to me. She already does some admin work for my business, so this will just be a little extra paid work for her. Unfortunately, I will need to do both a business and personal redirection, but I will probably only arrange a three month business redirection, for ¬£120, with possibly renewing once more, as there’s far fewer people mailing my business and will be easier to update my change of address for everyone.