Mistakes Not to Make in Madrid

Diana Aponte is a student at The College of St. Rose and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Madrid, Spain.

Before leaving for my semester abroad, the study abroad director at my school said to me, “You will have some of the best and worst days of your life while studying abroad.” While most of my days here so far have been amazing, I definitely had some bad ones too. I’ll openly admit, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes all the time. I’d like to make sure other study abroad students don’t make the same mistakes. I made the following mistakes so you don’t have to:

  1. Be careful with ATMs.

ATMs are basically unavoidable. Many stores and restaurants don’t accept credit cards. You really need to have cash on you at all times. My absolute worst day abroad was when I traveled to Valencia for a weekend with a friend. We were running late to a bullfight (not a phrase you hear very often) and I needed to take out cash to pay for my ticket. I found an ATM on our way to the bus stop. I put in my card and typed in my PIN. The ATM did not give me my money nor did it return my debit card. I then called the ATM company (after much struggle with the language barrier and being hung up on several times), and they informed me, since I don’t have a bank account with them, they couldn’t help me. I then had to call my bank in the US, order a new debit card, and change my address to my new Spanish address. They sent it to my American address by accident, and my mother had to send me the card. It took a month before I got my debit card back. Luckily, I had a backup credit card to use in the meantime. Lesson of the story: use a well-known ATM, bring a backup debit/credit card, and ask ISA for ATM suggestions if this made you paranoid like me.

Don’t worry we made it in time for the bullfight!
Don’t worry we made it in time for the bullfight!
  1. The importance of a cellphone.

Another important lesson I learned from my ATM fiasco is how necessary cellphones are. In the age of social media and texting, many people who go abroad just get a data plan or strictly stick to Wi-Fi zones. While this is sufficient most of the time, the ability to make a phone call is really helpful. Had I not been able to call the ATM or my bank, my debit card could have been stolen and I’d have a much bigger problem. I’ve also had to make phone calls to hotels, Airbnb owners, travel companies, and a handful of personal calls. I really recommend getting some minute usage, whether you get an international number or keep your US one. Even if it is not a big plan, in case of emergency, you’ll be grateful you have the ability to make a call.

  1. Map it out.

If you don’t have a ton of data on your phone, like me, always map out where you want to go beforehand. I’m a big fan of CityMaps2Go; it’s a map you download per city that doesn’t use any internet. You can also use Google Maps without data, you just won’t get directions. But planning your route while you have internet and taking a screen shot before you leave is always a good idea too. This way you can pull up which bus/train you have to take without trying to remember it or eating through all your data. If you’re in a new city, I recommend heading to a tourist stop and grabbing a free map. These can be a lifeline. In Florence, my phone died pretty early in the day because I was relying so heavily on it for directions. If you can get your hands on a map, traveling old school will save your battery for when you really need it.

  1. Mom purse.

Judge me if you will, but my mom purse was the best investment I made while abroad. Boys, perhaps a backpack would be preferred to a man purse. I came to Spain with just small cross body purses and soon realized I have too much stuff. If I’m traveling, this is what I usually have on me: wallet, sunglasses, umbrella, phone, wall charger, portable charger, water bottle, snacks, tissues, map, book, hand-sanitizer, pen/pencil. Sometimes it is a pain to carry but I am definitely always prepared. Find yourself a good mom purse. I bought mine pretty cheap because it has been on many airport/classroom/restaurant floors and I probably won’t use it again after this semester, but I have definitely gotten enough use out of it.

My mom purse has made an appearance in all of my travel photos.
My mom purse has made an appearance in all of my travel photos.
  1. Triple Quadruple check your travel plans.

Print your reservations, take pictures and screenshots on your phone, get emailed itineraries, write it on a calendar, make sure you know your travel plans. Missing a flight, or not having a place to stay can be a very scary situation. Back to my very unlucky Valencia trip, my friend and I traveled by RENFE train to get there. My friend accidentally booked a ticket home for Monday, not Sunday. Noticing her mistake, she bought another ticket, for what she thought was Sunday. The tickets were nonrefundable. A week before the trip, she checked her ticket and noticed the second nonrefundable ticket she bought was also for Monday. She then had to either find a place to stay for the extra night and skip Monday’s classes or buy a third trip home. The RENFE tickets were much more expensive on the day of. She ended up finding a BlaBla ride home that Sunday and didn’t use the two train tickets she bought.
Another friend and I went to Prague. He booked our hostel for what we thought was two nights. When we checked in to the hostel, the woman at the counter was confused why we were there. My friend accidentally only booked the hostel for one night. The hostel luckily had space that night for us. Otherwise we’d have to go find something else. Both scenarios ended up working out just fine. This is why studying abroad definitely teaches you to be flexible. It’s OK when things go wrong. Take a deep breath and figure it out. Remember you’re fortunate enough to be in this beautiful, new place. Whatever speed bump you hit, remember it is just a speed bump. Today may be your worst day, but tomorrow could be your best.

Hopefully my mistakes will prevent you from making the same ones. I found that before my semester abroad, people threw a lot of advice at me. So if you forget all of these things before going abroad, that’s OK too. We live and learn. But really, buy a mom purse.

The world awaits…discover it.

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