Welcome back to the series Summer Suggestions, where I recommend places for you to visit this summer because we can’t! While I’ll offer some ideas about how to get there, what to do, this series isn’t meant to be comprehensive. I just want to write about fun destinations and put some ideas out there for people to get in their heads. For the second in this series, I’ll be discussing one of my favorite cities in Europe: Madrid. Be sure to check out my thoughts on the Amalfi Coast from the first post as well!
Spain is at the forefront of many travel hacking enthusiasts minds at the moment thanks to the new Chase Iberia card. And while I’d caution against signing up for every shiny new card out there, the buzz has me reminiscing about one of my favorite cities in all of Europe, Madrid. Spain is a great place to visit, especially if you’re traveling from the East Coast where it takes only a little bit longer than a flight to California. And while I’d give Barcelona a slight edge food wise, overall I think Madrid is my favorite city in Spain.
You can enjoy great food, museums, and architecture in Madrid. Plus, everybody goes to bed late in Spain so you don’t even have to jet lag adjust your kids as much! Let’s take a closer look at Spain’s central capital.
If you want to skip ahead:
- How to get to Madrid
- Miles and points availability to Madrid
- Where to stay in Madrid
- What to do in Madrid
How to get to Madrid
Many airlines fly directly to Madrid. Now if you’re like me and have a family, you probably prefer a direct flight off the bat. What I’d advise doing for Madrid (or anywhere, really), is search for Madrid’s airport in Wikipedia. (Related: Using Wikipedia to search airline routes). The IATA code is MAD. You want the Barajas airport (incidentally, the airport is beautiful). Then, search for your home city and see if anyone flies directly to Madrid. If any of those airlines belong to a major alliance, you can search for award space.
Once you know your options, you can start looking for flights. If you’re looking to save money while booking with cash, I still like to use Kayak although it’s interface is starting to get annoying. If you prefer an alternative use Google Flights instead.
In terms of award flights, you’ll find the many major carriers fly directly to North America. Below is a list and where I’d recommend checking for award space (in parentheses).
- Air Canada (united.com)
- Air Europa (Expertflyer or airfrance.us)
- American Airlines (alaskaair.com or aa.com)
- Delta Airlines (Expertflyer or delta.com)
- Iberia (aa.com or britishairways.com)
- United (united.com)
Miles and Points Availability to Madrid
Like I did with Amalfi, I searched a few award routes for award space for a family of four (man, my third child will be a killer one day when we need to buy her a ticket!). Remember even if you don’t live in the cities I’ve searched for, if you can find transatlantic space you can always book a positioning flight.
For four people, there are some days in July with space on AA economy (30K+$19 flights), but no business award space at quick glance:
For United and Star Alliance, there is a ton of space for four in economy out of New York, and also some in business though most of that is with connections:
And for fun I checked Delta out of Boston. There’s good space in economy for four although no nonstop and some scattered dates in business. Most of the flights go through JFK.
One last word of caution when searching for award flights, cash flights to Europe have been dropping in price overall. That means you should always compare the number of miles you’d pay for an award against how much you’d pay if you used bank points at AMEX, Citi, or Chase Travel since a lot of those cards have an uplift. For example don’t pay 60,000 miles roundtrip for a $600 flight, since even at 1 cent per point you can book through any one of those credit card travel portals and earn mileage credit for your flights (a simple example, but hopefully you get my drift).
Where to stay in Madrid
We’ve never stayed in a chain hotel in Madrid and have been happy with our decision. We really enjoyed Hotel Europa for its location in Puerta del Sol, a huge pedestrian area. At about $125/night even in July (as of publishing) the price is right for us. It’s lovely to walk around during the day and at night, though bear in mind that people go to bed late in Spain. If you don’t want to hear happy youths singing at night, maybe stay a bit further out. But we loved staying in Puerta del Sol, everything is basically walkable and there’s so much to see and do. There are also plenty of hostels in that area if you are looking to save money.
Spoiler alert for things to do, but our stays in Madrid revolve around the Museo Nacional del Prado, my favorite art museum in the entire world. So I personally would prefer to stay within walking distance.
If you’re looking for chains, there is a Hyatt Centric on Gran Via about a mile from the Prado. Cash prices run about 200 Euros in the summer. It’s a category 5 hotel meaning rooms cost 20,000 points/night. That’s a great value but maximum room occupancy is 2 adults, 1 child, so most families will need to book two rooms.
Hilton surprisingly only has a hotel at the airport and a “small, boutique” Doubletree (??) which costs like 102,000 points a night so that’s a non-starter.
While I agree with The Deal Mommy that IHG can be annoying, there’s a centrally located Hotel Indigo on Gran Via for ~125 Euros or 35,000 points/night. I don’t love the Intercontinental Madrid’s location because we like to walk everywhere, but it’s right next to a Metro station and only 40,000 points/night.
Things to do in Madrid
Like I said, we love Madrid and even have gone back for repeat visits (something I love to do but Jess shies away from). It’s high up on my list of places to visit with the kids. For those of you like us who have infants, I wouldn’t be too concerned about traveling to Spain with them, like I said everybody stays up late and they seem to love their babies there! Here are some of my favorite things to do.
1. Museo Nacional del Prado
I’d say I thought art was like “cool” for a time, at least to impress my wife, but the Prado is the museum that made me genuinely love art. The museum is filled with amazing pieces from all over the world, but of course has an emphasis on some Spanish artists. The highlight of the entire museum is Las Meninas, Velazquez’s masterpiece. If you’re touring around Spain, you’ll see just how much this painting influenced Spanish art over the centuries: I especially loved Picasso’s renditions which we saw in Barcelona (I think).
My recommendation: visit the Prado during free admission (after 6 PM most days, 5 PM Sundays and holidays) and swim through crowds to get a general lay of the land. Then, pony up the money for one day of admission and get an audio guide. If you enjoy art (or want to try), it’s a museum that warrants the multiple days.
2. Other museums and sites
Other places I’d recommend visiting (and paying admission to) are the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Sofia Reina Museum (modern art). The Sofia Reina has some great pieces, and I’ve found modern art sometimes appeals to kids more so that’s something to bear in mind. To be honest, I didn’t love the Royal Palace (it was like 100 degrees the day we went). However, when you’re in Europe, you sort of need to go check out these super old palaces and castles, so I’d still keep it on the list. For the record, I fully endorse bringing young kids to art museums (provided they won’t run around screaming).
3. Take a stroll
I’m pretty sure every single one of my Summer Suggestions will have “take a stroll” as a thing to do. But it’s just a great way to get a feel for a place and just soak in the atmosphere. Like I said before, I love walking around Puerta del Sol – the street musicians there are awesome. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard four Spanish guys singing Hotel California, let me tell you.
Another nice place to take a walk is Retiro Park, which has enough shade that you can even enjoy it during the hot summer. I took a nap there our first afternoon when I was dealing with jet lag. Also be sure to check out the Plaza Mayor, which has some great places to eat. Speaking of which:
4. Eat, eat, eat
It’s tough to give food recommendations for Madrid because I found everything to be mostly amazing. I’d suggest getting a bocadillo (fancy ham sandwich) from Museo del Jamon (there are multiple locations). Really, any cured meat in Spain with a plate of cheese will knock your socks off. Obviously, in Spain you’ll want to eat Tapas, you can do a Tapas bar crawl even with your kids since there’s a lot of outside seating.
If you want a taste of Barcelona, check out Sagardi for pintxos, which I can best describe as tapas on toothpicks. (I love pintxos). And, my favorite tip: ask for tap water. Before we went I was told Madrid is super proud of their tap water and honestly it is great. Ask for “agua de grifo” at every meal.
5. Take a day trip to Toledo
I’d only recommend this if you’re spending a long time in Madrid or on a repeat visit. We took an hour train to Toledo and had a great day trip there. There’s lovely architecture, tons of El Greco paintings to look at, and the city is a bit quieter than Madrid. I think it provides a great change of pace on a longer vacation.
Writing this post has just made me sad we haven’t been back to Madrid in six (!?) years. It’s a lovely city and the place where I fell in love with art and Magnum ice cream bars. If you’ve been to Madrid, I’d love to hear your recommendations and what you enjoy for the next time we go back. Hit me up in the comments!
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