Ideally, if your Spanish is intermediate or you have a very good basic one, you should be able to handle any situation and if you have some trouble at understanding the speaker, you can always ask for repetition or for more slowly speaking (see number 3: Basic politeness expressions).
Although, you can always try to find English speaking people at Spanish speaking countries, I think it is a well received gesture to make the effort to speak the local language of the place you visit. However, if despite of the effort, your basic Spanish is very poor or you can’t rely too much on your listening skills, try to find trustworthy people that speak English, for example at information desks or at hotel reception desks. You can say something like: “Disculpe, ¿habla inglés? (Excuse me, do you speak English? If they ask you if you speak Spanish, well, the truth would be: “Hablo muy poco español” (I speak very little Spanish). Sometimes, you can also meet interesting, nice people during a tour. They can be foreigners or local tourists as well. In any case, they can be a good resource of advice about other places to explore.
Here it is my mini guide of survival Spanish for all-level learners:
1. Basic Greetings
Informal way (use it in informal situations, when you talk with younger people, people around your age and when you already know the person):
Hola, ¿qué tal? / Hi, how is it going?
Nos vemos / see you (informal way to say bye, when you know you will see the person again)
Chao / bye (informal way to say bye at anytime)
Formal way (use it with older people and usually with customer service representatives at stores or public services):
Buenos días / good morning
Buenas tardes / good afternoon
Buenas noches / good evening (from 7:00 pm, either when arriving or when leaving the place)
¿Cómo está? / how are you? (use it when you talk to older people you know)
Adiós / good bye (regular way to say bye, when you know you will not see the person ever again)
Hasta luego / see you later (polite way to say bye when you may or may not see the person again)
¡Que le vaya bien! / have a good day!
2. When meeting people
¿Cómo te llamas? / What is your name?
¿De dónde eres? / Where are you from?
¿Eres de aquí? / Are you from here?
¿Qué haces? or ¿a qué te dedicas? / What do you do? (for living)
¿Conoces a [name of a person]? or ¿conoces + [name of a place]? / Do you know [name of a person] or do you know [name of a place]?
¿Cómo se llama usted? / What is your name?
¿De dónde es usted? / Where are you from?
¿Usted es de aquí? / Are you from here?
¿Qué hace? or ¿a qué se dedica? / What do you do? (for living)
¿Conoce a [name of a person]? or ¿conoce + [name of a place]? / Do you know [name of a person] or do you know [name of a place]?
3. Basic politeness expressions
Por favor / please
Gracias / thanks
Disculpe / excuse me… (before asking something to a stranger)
Perdón /excuse me (when you really want to apologize for something)
Permiso / excuse me (when somebody is blocking your way, and ad “por favor”)
¿Podría repetir, por favor? / Could you repeat, please?
Más despacio por favor / (Could you speak) more slowly, please?
4. To ask directions
Disculpe, ¿dónde queda…? or ¿dónde está?/ Excuse me, where is…? (try to ask this to information kiosk agents, hotel front desk customer service people and similar ones)
Disculpe, ¿cómo llego a…? / Excuse me, how do I get to…? (try to use this form or the previous one when you are sure you are really close to your destination, otherwise it will sound like you are LOST!)
5. To ask for a recommendation of a place
¿Conoce el restaurant “…”?, ¿qué tal es? / Do you know the restaurant “…”?, how is it?, how do you like it?
6. To take a cab
Por favor, a [name of the place]…
¿Cuánto cuesta?, ¿cuánto es? / How much is it? (ask this before you actually get into the cab)
7. To eat
Por favor, [name the dish/food item you want to have] – If you are not sure about your pronunciation, point out the name of the dish in the menu or the food item in the window, to avoid confusions.
La cuenta, por favor / The bill, please
Gracias / Thanks
8. To buy something
¿Cuánto cuesta esto? / How much does it cost?
¿Cuánto está esto? / How much is this?
If they tell you a price, just say a lower pricer with a nice smile. For example: “¿Cuánto cuesta esto?” – They say “50.” Then, you can say: “¿qué tal 40?” or “¿los dos por 80?” (and do not forget to smile ;)). As you can imagine, you definitively need to know the numbers! Or at least the sets of ten!
Do not forget that to enjoy your experience, combine your curiosity with common sense and be always careful :).
Bueno, ahora, ¡buen viaje y buena suerte! 😉