Useful Spanish Words and Phrases for Travel

Chichen Itza Pyramid

As someone who has command of  frequently butchers the Spanish language, one of the joys of traveling in Latin America is the ability to talk to locals. On my recent trip through Mexico and Cuba, I noticed a few phrases that I was using often that can be a big help to anyone traveling in Spanish speaking countries.

Spanish for Travel

YA [yaw] already

Pairs nicely with:

  • Comimos  [ko-mee-mos] we ate
  • Comi [ko-me] I ate
  • Pague [paw-gay] I paid
  • Multa [mull-tuh] fine
  • Soborno [so-born-o] bribe

When there is a dispute on a transaction with a taxi driver, cartel boss, police shakedown, or border agent, you can say, “Ya pague” – I paid already.

example: Ya paque el soborno! – I already paid the bribe!

When a tout in front of a restaurant shoves a menu in your face and tells you to come drink 2 for 1 margaritas you can say “Ya comimos.”- We ate already. This is a polite way to tell them no.

Wait, what was that? 2 for 1 margaritas? Let’s go back.

HAY [eye] there is / are there?

So you might know about Ser and Estar, but did you know Spanish has yet another word for “to be?” You use is to ask if they have something, like in a restaurant.

  • Hay cervasa? – Do you have beer?
  • Hay salsa picante? – Do you have hot sauce?

CAJERO AUTOMATICO [Kaw-hair-o Ow-tow-mah-tee-co] ATM or cash machine

When asking for the location of a Cajero Automatico, I find that homeless people on the street are the best to ask. They always know where they are. Since most of them can’t speak much English, it is best to yell it loud and clear so they know what you want.

Me: Donde esta un Cajero Automatico? Necesito mucho dinero! – Where is the ATM. I need a lot of cash.

Homeless Guy: (eyes widening) Ven conmigo. – Come with me.

CAMBIO [Kom-bee-o] change, small bills

  • Pairs nicely with hay

Cambio isn’t always easy to find; therefore, I recommend hoarding bills.

Say “Hay Cambio?” before getting in the cab, and hold up your 500 peso bills you just got from the cajero automatico to clear up any confusion about your needs. You want to make sure he can break your bill when you arrive at your destination.

HOLA [Oh-Lah] Hello

Mexican’s usually greet each other by saying buenos dias/tardes/noches – good morning/afternoon/evening, but during what I all the Hola Hour, when the sun is over the horizon but it isn’t dark yet, I use hola to avoid any confusion.

Hola is also very effective if a cop asks you to pay a soborno or a con artist asks for money. You just smile broadly, give a cheerful “HOLA,” act confused and walk off.

Guanajuato from El Pipila

Is it afternoon or night?

ME GUSTARIA [may gust-uh-ria] I would like

A polite way to ask for something when ordering.

  • Me gustaría doce tacos. – I would like twelve tacos.
  • Me gustaria llamar a mi abogado. – I would like to call my attorney.

DOBLE [Doh-Blay] Turn (command form)

Pairs nicely with:

  • Derecha [dur-ay-cho] right
  • Izquierdo [izz-key-air-doh] left
  • Esquina [ez-key-nuh] corner
  • a la [ah-la] to the, at the

Sometimes we forget the name of our hotel, especially after the 2 for 1 margaritas, or maybe the taxi driver doesn’t know where it is. In this case, giving directions is necessary.

example: Doble a la derecha a la esquina – turn right at the corner.

Also, when asking someone on the street how to find a place, they will usually rattle off directions in rapid fire Spanish with hands flailing. If you can catch a derecha, izquierdo or an esquina, you can at least get to the next block then ask someone else. This is pretty much how I get around.

TAMAñO  [Tah-mahn-yo] Size

Pairs nicely with

  • Que es…? [kay ace] what is
  • pizza [peet-zah] a flatbread with cheese, tomato sauce and various toppings
  • soborno – bribe
  • multa – fine

Use when trying to find out the size of something. It comes in handy in pizza joints or when inquiring about the size of 2 for 1 margaritas.

Que es el tamanyo de la pizza/margarita/soborno/multa?

LECHE [lay-chay] Milk

pairs nicely with coffee

Hay leche? This phrase could save your life early in the morning when you really, really need coffee with milk, especially after 2 for 1 margaritas.

PICANTE [pee-kont-ay] Spicy

Probably really $%^&ing spicy for you.

Fish Tacos

Those salsas are muy picante


MAS DESPACIO [moss des-paw-see-o] more slowly

OTRA VEZ [oh-truh vase] again

REPITA [ray-peet-ah] repeat (command form)

These three phrases form the backbone of my Spanish vocabulary. If you ask a question in Spanish, unfortunately, people often assume you actually speak Spanish and respond in kind. This is where you will need them to repeat what they just said, more slowly and louder, so you can understand.


Mexican: Hola, como estas? Hi. How are you. 

Me: Mas Despacio, por favor?

Mexican: Co…mo Es…tas?

Me: Repita, por for?

Mexican: Co. Mo. Es. Tas?

Me: Otra Vez?

Mexican: CO. MO. ES. TAS?

Me: Muy bien! Gracias! (thinking: My Spanish is awesome!)


Bonus: Learn how to spell your name if it is exotic like mine. 

I regularly come into contact with people – hotel clerks, Starbucks baristas, cartel bosses, and sweat shop owners – who need to spell my name. Here is what happens.

Clerk/Barista/Cartel Boss/Sweat Shop Owner: What is your name?

Jeff: Jeff

C/B/CB/SSO: Shcvevff? (thinking: Wow, what a messed-up name.)

Jeff: No, Jeff.

C/B/CB/SSO: (Staring blankly at the paper, having no idea what to write.)

Jeff: Jota eh effe effe.

C/B/CB/SSO: (a wave of relief washes over her. She won’t have to butcher my name) Jota eh effe effe.

Jeff: Si!

C/B/CB/SSO: (She stares at the name again, forehead crinkled.) Schvevff. Okay. Your last name?

Jeff: Bell

C/B/CB/SSO; Bell, ah yes, like campana. Ring ring. Schvevff Bell.

Do you have any other useful Spanish phrases to add?

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26 Comments on “Useful Spanish Words and Phrases for Travel

  1. The one time I got hit up for a bribe was by a traffic cop in Argentina. My (then) wife and I decided to try what our guidebook suggested – act like insanely stupid Americans. “NO HA-BLOW ESSPANYOL! WHAT? WHAT? NO HA-BLOW” Complete with the worst accent possible.

    It worked. He waved us off with a get-the-f-out-of-here expression.

    Mission accomplished!!!!

  2. Pingback: Useful Spanish Words and Phrases for Travel | psychosputnik

  3. Thank you thank you thank you for such a fun post Jeff! Love it and will book mark it- I also butcher languages – but my Spanglish has improved – and the pink sky is so awesome

    • Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed. I think butchering the language is half the fun. Locals tend to appreciate it when we try!

      • And I read the comment about u being boss- that’s a cool handle!
        And my name was always fun to hear with the Mexican kitchen crew in Denver in the 90s – you know how “v” is pronounced “b”? They always called me “E-bette” 😊

      • E-bette is a pretty cool name. It sounds tough. El Jefe is a fun name and about 90% of the Mexicans get a kick out of it, but the other 10% seem really confused.

  4. Señor Campana, if they had a problem with “Jeff”, I can’t fathom how they will figure out my name. I went to a Starbucks once in Spain with a local friend and they labelled my cup “JEMS”. Then they gave my Spanish friend one with “CARLOS”, even though that was not his name. He told me he did it on purpose because they always had problems getting his actual name right!

    And how many sobornos did you have to pay in Mexico? Along with the multa, it is a pretty recurrent theme in this post. 😉

    • Now that is clever, giving a fake name to a barista. I will have to try that. I like that you became Jems. That is actually a pretty cool name. I didn’t have to pay any multas or sobornos this time around, but came precariously close one. I had the phrase on the tip of my tongue and my hand fondling my money.

  5. El Jefe,
    A fun post…I had a great image of the homeless guy showing you the way to the ATM, big stick stuck in the back of his belt. You’ve brought back memories of speaking Spanish (I actually have/had a fairly good vocabulary, but I can only speak in present tense). Another reason I like Mexico is because they have a “th” sound in their language and can actually pronounce my name…but in many other countries, especially SE Asia, they have to th…so when traveling, I tell locals my name is Max.

    • Max is a good alter ego. I need to learn what boss means in every language and just go by that wherever I am.

      I learned all the tenses and at one time was competent in them, but I found myself staying safely in the present tense, with an occasional past tense, on this trip. You rarely need more, it seems. All that study was a waste!

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