Driving in Spain can be a frustrating experience in the country's biggest cities, but a good idea to get to places off the beaten path.
The Spanish road network has been greatly improved over the last half-century or so, partially thanks to financing by the European Union. Today Spain boasts one of the best highway networks in Europe, and with motorways between cities and beltways around major ones it's possible to quickly and comfortably drive across the country and without having to stop at one single red light. It also doesn't hurt that the scenery is often beautiful and well worth a drive.
That being said, getting around by car makes sense if you plan to move from one city to another every other day, ideally if you don't plan to park overnight in large cities. If you plan to stay in one city or use Spain's excellent high speed rail network, having a car is a liability, not an asset. With a good public transport network that connects to (almost) all points of interest for travellers, you might ask yourself whether driving is really worth the cost and the hassle, as you are often much faster by train than by car.
From most of the rest of Europe you will drive in via France. There are motorways along both coasts leading you into San Sebastián and Bilbao in the north, or Girona and Barcelona in the east and several small roads in between. Portugal is of course also connected to Spain by multiple roads. These are all members of the EU and Schengen, so except for special circumstances there are no border or customs controls. However this doesn't apply to Andorra and Gibraltar. Ferries from the UK take cars, as do generally ferries from Morocco.
In major cities like Madrid or Barcelona and in mid-sized ones like San Sebastian, moving around by car is expensive and nerve-wracking. Fines for improper parking are uncompromising (€85 and up). Access by car has been made more difficult by municipal policies in Barcelona and Madrid in the 2010s. The positive effects on the urban fabric of those policies have proven widely popular, so expect more of this.
Having a driving map is essential - many streets are one-way; left turns are more rare than rights (and are unpredictable).
There are two types of highway in Spain: autopistas, or motorways, and autovías, which are more akin to expressways. Most autopistas are toll roads while autovías are generally free of charge.
Intersections of two highways typically have a roundabout under the higher one--so you can choose any turn and to start driving in an opposite direction there.
Autopistas are denoted AP, autovías A, national roads N, and country roads with the abbreviation of the comunidad (e.g. CM in Castile-La Mancha).
The tolled autopistas do have a few advantages compared to the autovías; there are usually less exits (less other cars entering, exiting, braking and changing lanes) and overall less traffic, and slow vehicles are banned. As autovías sometimes are former national roads that have been improved there are often more curves, junctions in built-up areas, shorter lanes for entering and exiting the road and sometimes no emergency lane. But overall roads are of good quality and paved unless heading to some remote mountain hamlets.
In some autonomous communities whether a highway is tolled depends on whether the central or regional government built and operates them. Tolls often work out to "odd" Euro amounts leading you with a lot of copper coins if you pay cash. Speed limits range from 50 km/h (30 mph) in towns to 90 km/h on rural roads, 100 km/h on roads and 120 km/h (75 mph) on autopistas and autovías.
Driving on tolled roads owned by private companies, costs about €10 for 100 km. But this varies; especially in the areas near the French border, the rates tend to be higher. On the upside, it's not uncommon that toll roads (or parts of them) become free of charge .
Like in e.g. Italy and France payment takes place at payment stations, and cash and common credit cards are accepted. If you drive around a lot, there's also an automated system with dedicated lanes at the stations where you just drive through . French toll badges also work in the Spanish toll road network.
Some important traffic rules:
- The DUI limit is 0,5‰.
- Usage of safety belts is obligatory.
- Using your phone when driving can result in fines up to €600.
- Cars have to carry two warning triangles and at least one fluorescent vest. Failure to carry them or failure to use them after an accident means fines of €90.
- In built-up areas the main street always has the right of way, even if this is not signposted at every junction.
- Only certified towing companies may tow cars, private individuals doing that will get fined.
In some junctions the lanes for left-hand turns are on the right side of the street. When you turn left, you will then cross over the lane(s) going straight ahead. Such junctions are controlled by traffic lights. Overall traffic lights are closer to each other in Spain than you may be used to - in some cases four sets of traffic lights within 50 metres. Green light for cars about to turn is frequently on at the same time as green light for pedestrians: every time you turn, check if the pedestrians pass you cross doesn't also have green light for them.
The Spanish police carry booklets about common traffic violations in multiple languages, so also foreigners can read about the infractions and their consequences. The police has the right to ask you to pay fines on the spot, and if you can't pay, to impound your vehicle until the fines have been paid. Stationary speed and red light cameras are also becoming common, and fines for speeding or running a red light at such a place will be posted to violators whether their car is registered in Spain or other European country. However such cameras are usually signposted.
Traffic in practice
Travel guides may describe traffic in Spain as being ruled by the "law of the jungle". Things aren't that bad and road rules are in general respected nowadays. Nevertheless, the accident rate is high for a western country and if taking a closer look at parked cars few don't have scratches or dents. Drivers are usually courteous, but especially in built-up areas they don't forgive your driving mistakes.
Accidents often take place in junctions, especially roundabouts, where many drivers have the habit of cutting in front of others, and in this case not even defensive driving on your part will protect you entirely. Overall, changing lanes without blinking is all too common, for instance at toll stations.
Speeding is common, maybe in part because speed limits aren't always posted. In case of doubt, drive slower – as mentioned the police operates speed controls.
During and after rains, water is often accumulated on the road, so do reduce your speed to avoid aquaplaning.
In July and August there are major traffic jams on the Spanish highways, because of the local holidays, tourists from Europe visiting by car, and Portuguese and North Africans living in Europe visiting their native countries passing through Spain.
Gasoline/petrol costs in the range of €1.32/L in Jan 2020, and diesel costs €1.25/L. Filling procedure for gas stations varies from brand to brand. At Agip, you first fill the tank yourself, and then pay inside the shop.
Service stations are fairly ubiquitous, and even on national roads you will usually pass a gas station every 10 km or so. On the motorways there are major service areas (vía de servicio or zona de servicio) every 30 km, sometimes with a hotel. On autovías such areas are sometimes at a distance off the road. These are in general staffed day and night, and you can for instance have a cup of coffee in the small hours of the night. Major credit and debit cards are commonly accepted.
Renting a car
If you plan to move around large cities or explore further afield you will find many companies that offer car hire at affordable prices because of the high competition between car rental agencies, consider renting a car with GPS navigation — it will be even easier to drive than having an automobile map.
Spanish drivers can be unpredictable and some of the roads on the Southern area of Malaga and the Costa Del Sol are notoriously dangerous. Other drivers are not always careful parking near other cars, especially when parking space on a street is limited. Therefore you should consider a fully comprehensive insurance package with includes a collision damage waiver (CDW) and a vehicle theft waiver, as well as liability cover. Many of the car hire companies offer an insurance option where you can choose to reduce your vehicle excess. This means that if you are in an accident you would not be financially liable for the whole excess fee. Check your travel insurance and other insurance to ensure you aren't paying twice for the same coverage.
Child seats are also available with all vehicles so that any children in your party can travel safely and in comfort.
Air conditioning is a must in the hot Spanish summer months. Nevertheless you should make sure to take water with you at all times.
If you break down while on holiday you will want a car hire company that gives you the free roadside assistance of trained mechanics. Cars often overheat in Spain while the tires are vulnerable on the hot roads.
Car hire companies may accept payment in foreign currency when you pay by a credit card. Beware the normal costs associated with dynamic currency conversion.