Sunday, September 2, 2012

Understanding the Metro - Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon

A LIttle Planning Saves Time and Money

Unless you have no pulse at all you will have a wonderful time in Madrid, Barcelona or Lisbon. And, if you do a little research before you arrive, you can save a lot of stress (and money)  getting to your hotel and seeing the cities themselves. Their Metro systems all have wonderful English language websites with downloadable route maps. 

Links to English Language Metro Sites: 

Madrid: Madrid Metro
Barcelona: Barcelona Metro
Lisbon: Lisbon Metro

I typically select hotels close to mass transit to avoid the bother and expense of renting cars. Why fight traffic, piss off locals while meandering aimlessly waiting for your GPS to kick in, and then pay exorbitant parking charges?

Instead, I lace up comfortable shoes and use public transportation. Traveling among the locals opens windows into the soul of a city.

Having said that, mass transit can also be where pickpockets thrive, and Americans with suitcases in tow make for prime targets. So observe a few precautions and make someone else their target. Read my post “Pickpockets in Spain” (February 2010) to avoid being victimized by pickpockets.

Also a strong word of caution: Many Metro stations are not handicapped accessible and have lots, and lots, and lots, of stairs. Entering and exiting stations (or transferring from one line to another) can prove to be pure torture for someone with bad knees.

The prices I relay here are simply what they were in August / September 2012. I'm sure the Euro crisis will result in price increases in Spain and Portugal.

And lastly, don't fear cabs in Spain or Portugal. I have always found them to be honest. Just make sure the cab you pick is metered. Cabbies in Spain and Portugal give accurate change. In Spain they don't expect a big American tip (just round up the fare to the next whole euro.) In Portugal tip cab drivers the fare plus 10%.

OK so here are the particulars for each city….

I feel that Madrid is underrated as a tourist destination. It has the fourth busiest airport in Europe, a wonderful design sense, superb architecture, great parks, fabulous restaurants, a regal palace, and world-class museums.

It also has a Metro system that is one of the best in the world. It is clean, efficient, and comprehensive. It flawlessly links everything you will need. There are stations convenient to all major attractions, the Attoche train station, and Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

The Airport:
All terminals are served by Metro. There is a premium (presently 3E) charged for the extra distance to / from the airport. When you arrive just follow the signs.

The Train Station:
Metro connects directly with Madrid’s bustling Attoche rail station. The actual train station is new, but is attached to the old historic station (which is now an indoor garden.) Watch for pickpockets!

The Gardens in Old Attoche

Buying Tickets:
When you enter a Metro station buy a ticket from either an automated machine or at a staffed ticket booth. When you use the ticket machine first push the British Union Jack flag icon and everything will be presented in English. Save your ticket as you need it both to enter and to exit. Bring euros, American issued credit cards are useless. 

You can opt for a 10 trip pass (similar to the carnet in Paris) which offers real savings or you can purchase the tourist pass allowing unlimited use of the Metro and buses. The tourist pass is available for 1-7 days and gets cheaper for each day purchased (i.e. 8E total for one day, 13.4 E total for two days etc.) 

You can also buy a "Madrid Card" providing unlimited trips and free (or discounted) access to major museums and attractions. Personally, I find the city cards terribly overpriced for the value extracted and stick with paying ala carte. 

On this trip our hotel (Madrid Airport Hilton) offered a free shuttle to the airport and from the hotel to Retiro Park in central Madrid. From Retiro it is a lovely (and very easy) walk to Madrid's two spectacular art museums - The Prado and Thyssen. We used the free hotel shuttle each day to go downtown then simply bought one-way tickets from point-to-point. Then we used the Metro again to return to the hotel from wherever we ended our day. After the concierge mapped out how to navigate the walk from the closest Metro back to the hotel, it was great.

Barcelona is a truly lovely and marvelous city. Some of the city (The Gotic) is medieval and confusing. Other parts are beautifully organized (L'Eixample.) Like Barcelona itself, the Barcelona Metro, varies from modern to gothic. Once you get into the heart of the city and do a little homework it is pretty wonderful. The various Metro and tram lines are all run by TMB and meander around the city (some seemingly with no particular order). And wherever you want to go you will eventually have to transfer at the horrible Passaeig da Gracia station.

Update Summer 2013
This year we took the day trip from Barcelona to Montserrat via the TMB rail lines. It is an absolutely wonderful adventure and very easy (and the train package offered makes it  very economical). See my August 2013 blog post "A Day Trip to Montserrat" for full details.    

The Airport:
Unlike Lisbon and Madrid, the Barcelona Metro currently has no link with its beautiful El Prat airport.

Visitors to Barcelona rely on three options from the airport:

1. Aerobus - These buses cost 6E and offer clean, comfortable, transport with lots of room for your luggage. Airbuses depart about every 5 minutes. Just follow signs to Aerobus and buy your tickets on the bus (bring Euro’s as the credit card reader laughs at American issued credit cards.) Roundtrip tickets are discounted (but only available if your stay is less than 9 days.) You can disembark at either Plaza España or Plaza Catalunya (so research whichever is closest to your hotel.) Then either transfer to Metro or catch a taxi (which will now likely be pretty inexpensive.) 

2. Bus 46. This city bus costs 2E and connects both terminals and then makes a run eventually delivering you to Plaza España. From there you can easily connect to Metro or a taxi (again much cheaper). If you are connecting to a hotel for transfer to a cruise ship check you hotel. Many cruise lines book hotels (like the new Renaissance Fira) that are located right on Route 46! 

3. Taxi – Very convenient, but, they are (in my opinion) kind of expensive from El Prat. That said, if you have bad knees or lots of folks in your party, a cab might be more than worth it.

The Trains:
Metro serves the Main Renfe station (Sants). Simply follow the signs. Renfe (the Spanish national railway) technically serves the airport but airport service is a nightmare. The airport station is old and ticketing is baffling to a first time visitor. Conversely, city-to-city Renfe service is wonderful. The trains are clean, run on time, and economical. However, advance ticketing and deciphering intercity train schedules can be baffling.

Once you are checked in to your hotel and ready to explore the city, the Metro is great. In Barcelona as long as you stay in zone 1 (and 90% of the tourists visiting Barcelona will) you just pay a flat rate to enter each station and exit for free. We always buy the discounted 10 trip card. You can use it on Metro, the trams, or any bus (just remember to punch it in the little reader upon entry of the tram or bus as the penalty is 100E!) Be wary, you insert your card on the right in the modern glass turnstiles and on the left on the old fashioned rotary turnstiles.

Many tourists traveling together buy one 10 trip ticket. Then they put it in the turnstile and leave it for the next person in their party to pull out and reinsert it.

Lisbon’s transport system is comprehensive and pretty wonderful. There are, however, some oddities to it which you will need to understand. First off Lisbon's Metro itself is limited. You have to combine Metro with Trams for some key trips (particularly Belem.)

Riding Lisbon's Tram 28

The Airport:
In July 2012 a beautiful new Metro station opened at the airport. So, if your hotel is close to a Metro station, use Metro! 

If your hotel is not visible from a Metro stop, or resides up a big hill, remember that cabs from the airport are typically pretty cheap. So, if there are two or more in your party, a cab from the airport might still make sense. We stayed at the Marriott and the walk from the closest Metro (Jardin Zooligic) was all uphill and very confusing for a first time visitor. Once we knew where we were and didn't have to horse the suitcases it was fine. 

The Trains:
Metro has a perfect Metro connection to Lisbon’s beautiful Oriente train station. 

Likewise the Restauradores Metro station serves Rossio train station for your trip to Sintra - which you MUST do! (See my August 27, 2012 Sintra blog post). The same Metro line that goes to Oriente goes on to the airport, so rail-to-air connections are perfect.

Ticketing on Lisbon’s Metro system is actually very simple once you understand it. Push the Union Jack to read instructions in English. The first time you ride Metro you get a reusable VIVA Viagem card. The card looks like it is disposable - it isn’t. Keep and reload it and save .5E on every subsequent trip. In Lisbon the trams, buses, funiculars, elevator and Metro are all run by the same company Carris (with a cool museum.) Even the yellow hop on / hop off buses are run by Carris (more about that later.)

If you will be making lots of trips in a single day load the VIVA for unlimited use for only 5E. Then simply scan it every time you use the subway, tram, funicular etc. 

Don't forget to scan your VIVA as you enter a bus or tram. Tram ticket inspectors do randomly board and check ticket validity. 

Subway stations were clean but only the newest line (the one to the airport) is completely handicapped accessible.

A Disco? 
No the Entrance to the 
Baixa-Chiado Metro Station

Carris served us well till the last day of our trip then left us high and dry on Tram 15 from Belem. We later figured out that a bicycle race interfered with the tram track. But all we knew was the trams all stopped and everyone was forced to exit kind of in the middle of nowhere. 

Where All Those Cute Little Trams Go at Night in Lisbon

Lisbon's famous Tram 28 is a lot of fun. They make you get off at each end so budget three tickets for the trip. Watch for pickpockets! On Tram 28 the thieves work in teams of two or three. The first one lifts your wallet and simultaneously passes it to accomplice number one. If you accuse the one who stole your wallet, they will be clean. You will probably find your empty wallet on the floor of the tram by the door.

If you plan to ride a hop-on hop-off bus there are two lines. The Red Line is private and operated by Grey Line. The yellow line is run by Carris. Yellow is a bit cheaper and you can use your hop on ticket the same day for unlimited trips on all of Carris trams, elevators, buses and funiculars. You can't use it for Metro. 

However, the yellow hop on buses are older, jammed full, and ran much less often.

From the Top of the Yellow Hop On

Also the yellow narration was unintelligible and the background fado music was annoying as hell. 

Next time I’ll splurge on the red line hop-on and buy an all day VIVA pass for everything else.

Now get out and go explore!

Roadboy’s Travels © 2012

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