Planning Unstructured Travel Time After Your Study Abroad Program
Spain is a wonderful and varied country with much to offer beyond what's stated in guidebooks. Planning some unstructured travel time after your study-abroad program is the best way to allow yourself the freedom to explore those parts of Spain that you don't even know exist yet.
Why Unstructured Time?
The reason not to plan your travel time after your study-abroad program is simple: you're going to change your mind about what parts of Spain you want to see. Perhaps you'll meet a group of other students to travel with, or are invited to a neighboring city by one of the Spaniards you meet. Maybe your host family will share with you their favorite places to travel and you grow to trust their opinion more than that of the Lonely Planet™. For whatever reason, the trip that you plan before leaving will be different than the one you'll want to plan while you're there.
Exceptions exist, of course, and there are some things that require advance planning. If you want to see the running of the bulls, don't expect to find housing two days before the festivities begin. However, make sure that you don't bind yourself into a plan that you'll later want to change.
Balancing Time in a Program and Time on Your Own
Striking the right balance between time in a school and time on your own can be tricky. As a general rule, you simply don't learn as much Spanish while traveling as you do in a classroom setting, regardless of how dedicated you are to practicing. However, you'll long for more flexibility if you don't allot yourself some travel time.
You will need at least five or six days to do any worthwhile traveling after your program. A weekend will disappear before it has begun, whereas a week allows you the time to see more than just a few big tourist attractions. Give yourself at least a week to travel, but make sure you don't cut yourself too short on class time. Your total class time should be more than your travel time if you want to learn Spanish. If you're still unclear about how much class time you need, read the guide to choosing a program.
The one piece of advice you should definitely take to heart is to keep your total class time flexible. Cut a deal with the school that allows you to only commit to the first few weeks of the school. You may find that you need to change programs or would rather be traveling with the people you meet rather than stuck in class.
Must-See Locations to Keep in Mind
Despite what we've told you about keeping your schedule open, there are some parts of Spain that you should really see before leaving. First, it would be a real shame to go to Spain without seeing either Madrid or Barcelona. These two old, wonderful cities will certainly leave a lasting impression. In addition, don't leave without seeking out a famous old building such as the Alcazar in Segovia or the Alhambra Palace in Grenada.
It's also a crime to go to Spain without seeing the Mediterranean coast. Barcelona is okay for beaches, but the really famous beaches are the Costa Blanca in the east and the Costa del Sol in the south.
The real art of traveling is to catch the big events and celebrations that happen on an annual basis around Spain. In spring and early summer, many of Spain's cities host massive parties, fairs, and festivals that draw huge crowds of Spaniards and tourists. When you arrive in Spain, start asking around so you don't miss the fun.
Resources for Travel Planning