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The intern’s guide to surviving a summer in Spain

Tens of thousands of students head to Madrid each summer to take up internship posts in the hope of improving their language skills and exploring Spanish culture. This is everything you need to know to make the most of it.

The intern's guide to surviving a summer in Spain
Madrid is one of the most popular European destinations for students. Photo: Maridav/Depositphotos

Spain is still one of the most sought after destinations for American students.

But as there is more to life in Spain than enjoying sun, siestas and sangria, The Local's summer intern Shwetali Sapte brings you the everything-you-need-to-know guide.

Finding Internships

The easiest way to apply for an internship abroad is through your home school. If your college doesn’t have overseas programs, there are many that do: Boston University, Dartmouth College, and American University, just to name a few. Most of these are open to students enrolled in other schools, have hassle-free online applications, and offer financial aid. If you’d rather find an internship on your own (and get paid for it), Erasmus, EUSA Internships, and Spain Internship are great resources for helping you find both paid and unpaid ones.

Preparing for Spain


Twilight in Madrid. Photo: Jose Maria Cuellar/Flickr.

Now you’ve found an internship, what’s next? Make sure you have everything you need. The important things are a valid passport and visa if you need one. U.S. citizens may study and intern in Spain for up to 90 days without a visa, but students without a U.S. or E.U. passport may require one.

Many programs offer group flights for all participating students; this might be a cheaper option than booking your own flight, unless your travel dates are different. See your physical and mental healthcare providers and find out if you need any medical procedures before leaving; general physical check-ups are a good idea. Buy an adequate supply of any medication you need, enough to last for your time abroad, and keep copies of your prescriptions just in case. The visa procedure and most or all study abroad programs will require you to enrol in a health insurance plan like HTH Worldwide.

Make a list of important contacts, phone numbers, and addresses you may need, and ensure you have either a hard copy or offline access to them. Lastly, make a plan for returning to your home campus as well; most importantly, sign up for classes and housing for your next semester.

Money Matters

euros
Photo: Tom Dennis Radetzki/Flickr.

It generally isn’t worth opening a new bank account for a few months in Spain, so contact your bank for a debit or credit card you can use abroad. It’s a good idea to keep two cards in case you lose one. Inform your bank of your travel dates and destinations. It’s also helpful to outline a budget for your time in Spain, so you have an idea of how much money you’ll need for food, accommodation, travelling, and other expenses.

Accommodation

madrid apartment building
Photo: Andy / Andrew Fogg/Flickr.

Many students prefer to live in hostels or apartments of their own, but I personally advocate finding a host family. There are many advantages to this. Like having your own place, you’re free to come and go as you please, but you can learn Spanish by speaking it at home, eat home-cooked Spanish food for each meal, and experience what it’s really like to live in a Spanish household. Apart from these, there are so many more benefits: your host family will show you around, advise you on the best sights, restaurants, and entertainment in the city, and do their best to make you feel at home in a new country. If you prefer your own place, websites like Idealista are here to help, while Hostelworld is a great resource to find a hostel for any budget.

Transport in Madrid

metro santo domingo
The Santo Domingo metro station. Photo: Juan Pablo González/Flickr.

The Madrid Metro is one of the biggest and most efficient metro systems in the world, with 12 lines, 294 stops, and hours from 6 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. The 30-day Young Person’s Season Ticket is by far the best option for students and interns in Madrid as it offers unlimited travel between all zones for only €20 a month. If you live relatively far from central Madrid, the Cercanías suburban trains are a better option. The daytime buses run from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and span the entire city, while El Buho (the night bus) runs from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Work Life

The Spanish workplace is immensely more relaxed than those in most countries around the world. Around 2 o’clock every afternoon, employees will often take off for a long break of between two and three hours. Those that live close enough to home may lunch with their families and in the heat of summer may sneak in a siesta too. This might seem strange at first, but the concept of a siesta represents much of what’s important in Spanish culture: family, food, and a balance between life at work and at home. This doesn’t mean you won’t be expected to work hard, but do take advantage of the laidback atmosphere to get acquainted with your colleagues and enjoy your siestas. It does mean that your workday lasts longer and you’ll be expected to work until 7pm or even later. This doesn’t faze the Spanish because dinner is usually no earlier than 10 and restaurants and shops are open much later than you’re used to.

When in Madrid

royal palace
Madrid's Royal Palace. Photo: Paulo Valdivieso/Flickr.

One of the most exciting cities in the world, Madrid has something for everyone: beautiful green parks for sunny mornings, museums for an afternoon of feasting your eyes on masterpieces, and countless bars to get your fill of tapas at night. Don’t miss world-famous attractions like the Royal Palace, the Retiro Park, and the Prado Museum. For art history lovers, Madrid has an abundance of other museums, including the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Sorolla, and the Reina Sofía, just to name a few. Whenever the weather’s good – and it almost always is – head over to the Retiro Park, the Botanical Gardens, Casa de Campo, or the grounds surrounding the Egyptian temple. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the football season, make sure to watch a game in Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Eat your fill at food markets like Mercado San Miguel, San Antón, San Ildefonso, and shop for little curiosities at El Rastro, Madrid’s biggest flea market. As for tapas, bar hopping is the way to go. Choose a neighbourhood – Malasaña, Chueca, and La Latina are among the best picks – and make stops anywhere you like for a plate of jamón or croquettes and a quick drink. Don’t forget the fresh churros and hot chocolate for dessert!

Travel

toledo
The city of Toledo, only a 33-minute train from Madrid. Photo: JP Newell/Flickr.

There’s so much to see both within and outside Spain. For starters, check out our list of 10 brilliant day trips from Madrid – the perfect guide for how to get to and what to see in Toledo, Segovia, and more. Follow websites and blogs that keep you updated on what’s happening around Spain. The Renfe is the fastest and most convenient way to get around Spain. You can book your tickets online well in advance or the train station, and opt for AVE – the Renfe’s high-speed rail network that can take you from Madrid to Barcelona in under three hours. Train rides can be expensive for longer trips, so if you prefer bus travel, companies with cheap fares include Avanza Bus and ALSA.

Plan your international trips as much in advance as you can, and use budget airlines like RyanAir and Easy Jet to find the cheapest flights. Skyscanner and Expedia are the perfect go-to resources to compare flight prices. Cities like Prague and Lisbon make for great weekend trips without breaking the bank, while Western European capitals like London and Paris are more expensive and require considerably more budgeting work.

Making the most of it

Working abroad can be stressful, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself! By sightseeing, you can certainly tick off the famous tourist spots from your list – but remember that you’re more than a tourist spending a few days in Madrid. Keep time aside to lose yourself the neighbourhoods – without any kind of itinerary – because that’s the best way to explore the city. If you’re always armed with a schedule, you’re unlikely to find the tastiest churros other those that at San Gines, the most interesting museum besides the Prado, or the best food markets other than San Miguel.

chueca at night
Chueca by night. Photo: Daniel Lobo/Flickr.

The wonderfully nocturnal nature of this city means you’ll never be without something to do at night. Stay out until sunrise at the clubs, but enjoy relaxed nights in open-air bars with some tapas, tinto de verano, and good company. There’s many glitzy clubs that cater to exchange students and interns, but don’t forget that there’s something comforting about the charm of the older bars frequented by locals. Divide your nights between Gran Vía’s clubs, outdoor concerts and street performances in Sol, and the small, eclectic bars of Malasaña, Chueca, and La Latina.

Although lists aren’t everything, they’re useful for when you’re short on time to do all the things you’d like. Prioritise as much as possible – if you’re a foodie, find out the best restaurants and bars to visit. If art history fascinates you, spend more time at the museums. And if you’re looking for ways to satisfy your wanderlust, do some research and list all the places around Spain and beyond where you’d like to travel.

battle of wine
La Batella del Vino, La Rioja's unique wine fiesta. Photo: AFP

When it comes to travelling, it’s fun to gallivant all over Europe, but remember that you’re in Spain! Each region has its own unique culture, architecture, and gastronomy, so hop on a train to spend a day in Toledo or Segovia. Organise your trips around all the fiestas and festivals across the country; for instance, you might want to make the trip to Barcelona the same weekend as a music festival, or go to La Rioja – wine country – during the wine fiesta. Outside Spain, divide your time well; London and Paris are both beautiful cities but keep in mind the lesser-known places that aren’t packed with tourists, like Lisbon or Budapest.

And lastly, immerse yourself in the culture. There are many things that will feel bizarre at first – like siestas, for one. Not sure if you’d like to watch a bullfight? Try going to one to find out! Travelling is all about stepping outside your comfort zone and finding yourself.

A version of this article was first published in June 2016. 

For members

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Do I have to take most of my annual leave in August in Spain?

Many Spanish companies still expect their workers to take their holidays at specific times of the year, primarily in August, right in the height of summer when many hotels are fully booked. So what are your rights, are you obliged to take your vacation in one particular month?

Do I have to take most of my annual leave in August in Spain?

While it’s your right as an employee to be able to take holiday days, do you have to take them when your company wants you to take them, or are you able to choose and have more flexibility?

Despite August being one of the hottest months in Spain and the one month of the year when many official companies and offices shut up shop, not everyone necessarily wants to take their break at the same time as everyone else.

Taking your holidays in August means less availability in hotels, overcrowding and more expensive transport and accommodation. If you don’t have children who are off from school during the summer months, then you may wish to take your vacation days at another time of the year, when it’s less busy and cheaper.

To answer the question it’s important to know the details about what the law says about how paid time off is taken, requested, imposed, or granted.

What laws or regulations dictate the rules about paid holiday time?

There are three different sets of rules and regulations, which are responsible for regulating the laws on vacation time in Spain. 

Firstly, you need to look at the Spanish Workers’ Statute, which includes rights, duties and obligations applicable to all salaried workers in Spain.

Secondly, you need to be aware of the collective sector and/or company agreements, which may dictate the rules for a particular industry for example.

Thirdly, you need to look at the contract, which you signed with your employer when you started working for them. This sets out your individual circumstances and the rules you must abide by.   

Workers Statute

As a general rule, all employees are subject to the Workers’ Statute. Holidays are part of this and are the subject of article 38. These conditions can never be contradicted by individual companies and are set as a guaranteed minimum. 

The minimum number of holidays in Spain is 30 calendar days per year. This equals two and a half days per month worked, in the case of temporary contracts. The statute states that vacations must be taken between January 1st and December 31st in separate periods, but one of them must be for at least two weeks. They are always paid and cannot be exchanged for financial compensation.

The period when you can take them is set by a common agreement between the employer and the worker, in accordance with what is established in the collective agreements on annual vacation planning. If there is disagreement, the social jurisdiction is resorted to.

At a minimum, the company must offer vacation days at least two months before the beginning of the holiday period, so that the employee has time to organise and book.   

When the planned time to take vacations coincides with a temporary disability, pregnancy, or childbirth, you have the right to enjoy the vacations at another time, even after the calendar year is over.

Collective agreements on vacations  

Your sector’s collective agreements may also help to answer this question. These aim to improve upon the basic and general rights that are included in the Workers’ Statute. They seek to adapt the rules to each type of industry or company. They could, for example, set out extra vacation days, which are greater than the standard 30 calendar days. 

You will need to find out what your specific sector or company’s collective agreement is. There is a possibility that your sector or company has mandatory summer vacations for the month of August and in that case, you can choose vacation dates, but only within this month.

Your work contract 

Lastly, you will need to consult your individual contract which you signed with the company when you were hired.  As well as the minimum conditions set out in the Workers’ Statute, your contract sets out your particular agreement with your employer in terms of holiday duration, the work calendar and other details.

Therefore, you should state in your contract whether you have to take your holidays during August, or if you’re free to take them at other times of the year.

If after consulting these three sets of regulations and there are still in doubt or in disagreement with your company about vacations, such as having to take them during the month of August, you should consult a lawyer specialising in labor law. They should be able to give you an answer specific to your situation.  

Can I appeal or disagree and what are the consequences? 

To appeal or express disagreement with what is proposed by the company, there is a period of 20 business days from when the vacation schedule is sent out, after which time you don’t have the right to show that you disagree.  

Companies can proceed to disciplinary dismissals due to abandonment of the job if you decide to take vacations that have not been granted or agreed upon with your employer. To avoid this type of problem, always make sure you have a record in writing of your request for vacation time and subsequent approval by the company.

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