Trip dates: 2017 Jan. 18-29
Life in Budapest can’t be all work and no play, of course.
One of the reasons we chose to live in Hungary was its proximity to the rest of Europe. So, after my first semester of grad school was complete, The Anderson Five (yes, we call ourselves that; yes, we know it’s cheesy) decided to take a short hop over to Spain.
Why did we choose Spain for our first trip within Europe? Because we know a little Spanish (although less than we thought, it would turn out) and wanted to practice our skills. Especially with kids in tow, we thought, why not play to our strengths?
Wizz Air, a budget airline based in Hungary, flies directly from Budapest to three cities in Spain: Madrid, Málaga and Barcelona. We strongly considered Málaga, given its warmer location in the south of Spain and its more rural nature, which we’d been craving, but in the end two factors tipped the scales toward Madrid: It would allow us to piece together a short train trip, which our young rail aficionados would appreciate, and the flight times were fairly congruent with the boys’ sleep schedules.
10-day itinerary for Spain
After a few days’ online research, we settled on the following basic itinerary:
- Fly from Budapest to Madrid at 16:40, with an arrival at around 20:00.
- Spend three full days in Madrid (read our tips and things to do in Madrid here).
- Take a train ride from Madrid to Zaragoza at midday.
- Spend two full days in Zaragoza (read our tips and things to do in Zaragoza here).
- Hop on another train, this one taking us to Barcelona.
- Spend three full days in Barcelona (read our tips and things to do in Barcelona here).
- Fly from Barcelona back to Budapest.
In hindsight, the one change we would have made to our itinerary would be swapping a day in Madrid for a third day in Zaragoza. For our young family, we felt the smaller city had much more to offer than the capital.
As such activities are wont to be, the trip planning was a blast.
And as travel often goes, the actual experience was more challenging than we’d anticipated ― but no less fun for the unforeseen hassles.
The flight, actually, was fairly smooth. Job, who had screamed mercilessly for about 8 hours of our 11-hour flight from Seattle to Frankfurt last summer, handled things with aplomb.
He did have to skip his usual afternoon siesta, though, and that led to a few minutes of ear-splitting screams in the Budapest Airport, which has acoustics that I’m confident were designed to embarrass parents. Job’s shrieking could quite literally be heard throughout the entire main section of the airport.
But once on the plane, Job hardly made a peep. He didn’t sleep for a second, but he was kind enough to confine his noises to baby laughter and the occasional bold demand for things that weren’t his.
This buoyed our spirits some, because we’d been fearful of a repeat of that Frankfurt flight, which had us ducking into the surprisingly sound-deadening bathroom when his screams grew particularly shrill.
And in another deviation from our first travels to Budapest, our luggage actually showed up on time. Hooray! So, laden with all of our luggage and our mostly quiet children, we set out from the Madrid airport at around 8 p.m. to reach our hotel.
We ended up reaching it just fine, but the experience led us to learning our first lesson of this trip regarding travel to foreign places: When flying to a massive new city late at night, don’t try to prove your globetrotting mettle by taking public transit. Hire a taxi.
Finding our hotel took us nearly two hours via multiple metro lines, too many escalators and several unnecessary streets. We might have saved 10€ or 12€ taking the public route, but we overextended all of us by staying up so late.
Budget for 10 days in Spain with kids
Our total for this trip was approximately €2044 for our family of five. It might be useful to note that we stayed in two-bedroom apartment-style accommodations and bought the majority of our food from grocery stores rather than restaurants. Here’s the breakdown:
- Air fare from Budapest to Madrid: €160
- Train fare from Madrid to Zaragoza: €88
- Train fare from Zaragoza to Barcelona: €55
- Air fare from Barcelona to Budapest: €157
- Other bus and transit fares in Spain: €35
Total travel: €495
- Madrid accommodations: €95 x 4 nights = €380
- Zaragoza accommodations: €100 x 3 nights = €300
- Barcelona accomodations: €95 x 4 nights = €380
Total accommodations: €1,060
Total restaurants and groceries: €450
Total museum entrance fees: €39
How to travel within Spain
A three-city trip requires, obviously, some form of transport between destinations. In Spain, we opted for high-speed train travel via Renfe, a Spanish rail company. The process was so painless that we’ve since vowed to choose riding a train over flying whenever possible. The stations weren’t crowded, the security screening was a breeze (we didn’t even have to take the baby out of the carrier, hooray!), there were no hidden fees for extra baggage and the seats were enormous ― like, first-class-on-an-airplane enormous. Plus, you get a better feel for the part of the world you’re in when you can look out the window and actually see stuff.
Another benefit of train travel is that the stations, unlike most airports, are typically right in the center of town. In Madrid, we were able to walk down the hill from our flat to the station. In Zaragoza, it was just a 15-minute bus ride away, and in Barcelona, we only had to ride about three stops on the metro.
Speaking of Barcelona: To get to and from the airport there, the best way to travel is via the Aerobús. It’s a little expensive by Budapest standards ― about 6€ per adult ― but it’s a smooth ride in a comfortable bus that drops you off right at the front doors of the airport. From our flat in the Gothic Quarter, we had to walk just 10 minutes to the bus station.
We planned our two train trips ― Madrid to Zaragoza and Zaragoza to Barcelona ― for midday, and this worked really well. Each of the trips was about an hour and a half, and along with the time it took to get between stations and our hotels, the travel nicely filled the time between check-out in one city and check-in in the next. In this way, we all but eliminated the time we were without a place to lay our heads or drop our bags.
How (and when) to eat with kids in Spain
Spain is famous for its unique eating schedule, one that tourists are forced to adjust to if they want to eat out. Breakfast is eaten around 8 a.m., which is fine, but lunch and dinner can be far later than others expect. We’re used to eating lunch around 11, which is the Spanish mid-morning snack period, the second of five mealtimes. We’re used to eating dinner at around 18:00, which in Spain is, again, right around a snack period ― an after-school pastry for kids, an after-work drink for adults. The traditional Spanish lunch, the largest meal of the day, is enjoyed from around 14:00 to 16:00, and dinner often doesn’t begin until 10 p.m., leaving for tourists a noticeable, stomach-sized hole in the early evening. Many, but not all, restaurants are closed from 16:00 to 21:00, meaning that visitors who can’t adjust their eating schedules must get a little creative.
We rented apartment-style accommodations for this trip ― both for the separate bedrooms to facilitate naps and for the kitchen and dining table ― so we were able to eat in at any time that suited us. But because we wanted to eat among the locals as well, we wanted to choose at least one of the Spanish mealtimes to eat out on the days we’re up for it. Breakfast was a no-go because our kids clamor for food the moment they roll out of bed. Dinner was obviously out because that’s way past our kids’s bedtime (and past ours, to be honest). So that left the Spanish lunch.
Directly after our youngest wakes from his nap, around 3:30, we head out for a restaurant meal. This is more like dinner for us, but it’s at the tail end of the Spanish lunch, so if we call it lunch (or rather, la comida), it almost feels like we’re doing as the Spaniards do. Then we’re free to join the locals in eating churros con chocolate around 6 to top off our day’s eating, rather than feeling like a circus show with all our kids and a full meal of food on our table while everyone around us dines on much lighter fare.
The schedule worked well. In fact, the most difficult part about eating out in Spain was not the timing, but the fact that high chairs for the toddler are nearly impossible to find. We found only one, in Barcelona. Our solution the rest of the time was to tie Job to a chair using a luggage strap.
Learn from our mistakes (and other tips)
- Opt for a taxi, not public transit, from Madrid’s airport. The capital’s metro system is muy, muy grande.
- Plan travel for Mondays, not Sundays. Our experience in the U.S. and Hungary led us to expect closures on Sundays, so we booked train and air travel for that time. But Spain turned out to be different. Nearly everything was open on Sundays, and many attractions were closed on Mondays.
- For all queries train-travel related, check out The Man in Seat 61’s guide to Spain. This site is the authority for planning rail trips in Spain and beyond.
- We tried train travel both ways: four seats oriented around a table (denoted by 4m for mesa on the Renfe site) and three seats plus one in a row. With the roomier train seats, it was all good. In the future, we probably won’t opt to pay the higher 4m fare for short intra-country trips like these.
- Three days is better than two in Zaragoza. Our short stay there left us longing for more.
- Pack food. Snacks, snacks, snacks. No really, BRING SNACKS. Between that tricky Spanish meal schedule and children’s innate need to feed at all hours of the day, do you need more reasons? Oh, possible jet lag ― there’s another one. And unpredictable grocery-store hours. Please, just pack a lot of food.
- And related, if you’re not used to renting apartment-style accommodations, a trip to Spain might be the time to start. Here more than anywhere, it’s helpful to have a place to store and prepare food on you family’s own schedule.
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