Travel SOS – Driving in Spain

Who wouldn't want to jump in a car and drive through Spain?

Travel SOS – Driving in Spain

Who wouldn't want to jump in a car and drive through Spain? Chas is making plans to do so next year, but has asked for some advice, which Kay O'Sullivan is only to happy to give.

Q. Chas
We are going to drive in Spain for three weeks next year and hope to take in as much as possible. Can you offer any advice or personal experience for a Spanish road trip.

A. First a confession: I can’t drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Even the thought of it terrifies me as I have trouble differentiating right from left. So to answer your query, I spoke with several travel industry colleagues who have driven in Spain lots of time.

The word was don’t bother with a car in the big cities. It will be a nuisance. To deal with congestion and pollution, Madrid and Barcelona have curfews on when cars are allowed into the city. Also parking in cities is scarce and expensive, but it shouldn’t be a problem in the villages you, no doubt, have on the itinerary. (And if you haven’t started your research, go first to the official tourism site for Spain. It is better than any guidebook and also lots of tips from other travellers. It’s one of the best country websites I’ve delved into over the last decade working as a travel writer.)

Spain’s road system is well maintained, but the advice is that you should hire a car with a GPS, especially if you intend exploring back roads. The reasoning being if you get lost away from the well-worn tourist tracks, you will have difficulty finding someone who can direct you in English.

But even if you are a superb driver, it is not just about you on the road, so I looked into Spanish driving habits and there’s good news on that front as well.

Spanish drivers have a good reputation. Not quite as brilliant as the Germans – whose penchant for following rules applies to the road system – and at the other end of the scale the Italians who believe road rules only apply to lesser beings. Unlike German autobahns, speed limits in Spain are sensible – 120 kilometres on dual carriageways and 50 kms in built-up zones. Talking and texting on mobiles is prohibited and to get a licence Spanish nationals have to undergo a two-step process, both practical and theory, and they have to have completed primary school. (As to why I can’t find out, but I suspect it has to do with being able to read and write.)

Anyone renting a car needs to be over 21 and you will need an international licence unless you have a European Union passport.

But the worrywart in me can’t help passing on this story. A friend went travelling with a well-known Spanish-born chef who has numerous restaurants here but visits Spain regularly. The purpose of the trip was to check out any new food trends emerging in what many believe is the gastronomic leader of the western world. But the chef and his mate didn’t get far. Our chef, whose skill with the skillet has earned him several hats, picked up a hire car, drove out of Madrid airport and promptly ran into another vehicle. Car totalled. Driver and passenger unscathed, thank heavens.

The moral here is not don’t drive, but perhaps think twice about driving when you are jetlagged. If I sound like your mother, apologies, I want you to have the best possible time.

For more information on all things in Spain, including driving

Do you have a travel question for Kay? If so, email your Travel SOS to

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has worked for numerous papers, magazines and on the internet, both here and internationally.


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    28th Nov 2015
    Spainish roads are the best maintained roads I have driven on. The German autohhans are substandard in comparison. (The autobhans are old and are being substantially repaired with huge delays and detours with no guidance how to get back to the autobhan ... LOL the German EU money built these magnificent roads for almost bankrupt Spain.). It is good advice to have a GPS anywhere in Europe. 1st rule in Spain, be prepared to be robbed on more than one occasion!!!! Have multiple back up credit cards and don't keep them all together, there is almost nothing worse than losing your credit card and then can.t get access to cash. If driving then DON'T pull over for any reason unless you want to stop. There are lots of scams on the road. When using a credit card make sure that you are paying the right amount. Our first stop in Spain was to fill up with petrol, an easy task you may think. Well laying is a little more difficult .... They don't speak any English (and they don't really like the English, but that's another story ... remember the Spanish Amarda/Gibraltar. How do you indicate which bowser you used when you can't communicate with the Service Attendant? Point to a sea of petrol bowsers. I filled up and wife went to pay ... We got dudded and were charged a much more expensive bowser bill. Welcome to Spain. Next they have toll ways and toll booths. Nothing will prepare you for that experience! As you approach the toll both you will see what will appears to you as hundreds of toll booths all side by side AND there are all sorts of illuminated signs over each toll booth. As you approach the hundreds of cars at the toll booths you get the message, 'Each sign indicates what type of vehicle should be using that particular toll booth.' That's not too hard find a line of cars that look like yours. Then you realise that the signs also are telling you something else .... How to pay? Credit Card, Cash, Auto Bloth and Staffed booth ... And they can't speak English!!!! If in your panic you can find a Cash Booth the do so! So why not the Credit Card booth??? Surprise, surprise surprise .... Your Aussie Credit Cards often don't work in Spain!!!! If your Credit Card has been rejected in the Only Credit Card Toll Booth all you know is that the toll arm is still blocking your progress. After inserting the Credit. Are several time you get the meaasge. After madly trying to find your back up Credit Card you finally insert a new card ... Of course you can't read what the problem is. By the time you use your 4th Credit Card with the same result you start to feel the pressure of the 100 cars behind you all nipping their horn for the delay. You can't go forward and you can't go back!!! Next will come ten helpful Toll Attendant .. Shouting at you in Spanish!!! Ahh!!! at this stage you realise that you car is right beside the toll booth a don't even Toll Attendant can't get near you except at the front of the car. Eventually you get the message, give cash to the Toll Attendant, any amount as all you want to do is get out of there!!!! The you are on the toll without a ticket ... Which is another story!!!! Petrol Stations are few and far between and often they are totally automated. Yep, a lone bowser and a Credit Card slot. Remember, Aussie Credit Cards often don't work OS. You will only find that out in supermarkets with along queue behind your or when you run out of petrol at an automated petrol bowser!!!! I found out this the hard way!!! Plus all instructions are In Spanish!!! So don't expect to find a petrol station, one that will work for you, when you are empty. Fill up all the time!!! Know, as best you can, what roads to take but don't rely upon landmarks as they disappear from view when driving on these roads! Yes, Spanish roads do have a name BUT they use Numbers to indicate which road you are on! The number Bering system seems to be simple from point A to Point B is road 1. From point C to point D is road 2. Easy. Except when the routes share the same length of road your road sign 1 will disappear and suddenly become road sign 2??? That's when you have another panic attack. Did I miss the turnoff?? No!!! Now multiply that several times and you have numbers posted everywhere on the road with them appearing and disappearing all the time on a 6 lane highway!!! It's like a bingo card!!!! The comes road sign 88 with an arrow to take the right lane and an arrow to take the left lane and you are travel ok g at 120ks a do have a split second to go right or left??? I went left and below me up ahead was a large sprawling Spamish city. I was stuck on the expressway and it was take is right into the heart of Velencia, and no we did not want to go there!!! Well, yet another surprise, the 80k expressway took you right through Velencia and out the other side at 80ks/hr. In no time were were in and out of this large Spanish city and road 88 rejoined the other road 88!! Talk about heart attack material!!!

    But I found driving on Spamish roads a dream!!! Great roads just take care going into cities, the GPS is a must, petrol and Credit Cards can be a worry as are Toll Ways! Pick the 'Cash/Credit Card' booth. But don't drive into Gilbraltar, walk in as driving out can be troublesome. And GPS, they, don't over rely upon them. compare the suggested route to a road map. The GPS may take you via the shortest route which is not necessarily the quickest route ... Back streets in a Spanish city can get extremely narrow and they may take to through a walking thoroughfare which pleases Spanish pedestrians no end!!!! Driving in Spain, I loved it!!!!
    28th Nov 2015
    Apologies for the spelling 'mistakes' and poor grammar above but I find it extremely difficult to make the appropriate corrections!!!

    YLC! Can you make writing comment a bit more 'friendly'? Like large print with be a start!!! (And yes, I drive on to the road!!)
    28th Nov 2015
    Hire an auto so you don't have to deal with changes gears!
    28th Nov 2015
    1. Get auto.
    2. Spanish drivers on the whole are pretty good.
    3. Do not rely on the GPS as roads can lead to nowhere or often being dug up and the GPS just keeps trying to take you back the way you can't go. Have a physical map with you to save time and arguments.
    4. We found that the Spanish people were more than happy to help lost Aussies.
    5. We will be there again next year but will travel by train, a lot less stress on the driver!!
    6. Those girls sitting on chairs on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere - don't stop and offer them a ride, they just want to ride you.
    28th Nov 2015
    Totally agree with you observations but I would still drive over there. We had a nightmare experience trying to book a train from Spain to France ... Local trains Amy be different.

    LOL! We almost picked up one of those rather attractive girls beside the road!!!! I thought she was hitchhiking!!! No, she wasn't!!!
    28th Nov 2015
    We book trains before we leave Australia. Easier that way! My husband says driving over there is no good for his heart at his age now, although we have driven all over France numerous times but only the once through Spain and Portugal.
    Touch wood never had anything stolen (maybe we look like we have nothing!) We use a 28 degrees card and have never had any problem at all with that anywhere.
    Sorry you missed Valencia it really is a nice place. There used to be a river running through the city but after it was flooded - I think in the 70's - the towns people in their wisdom decided to divert it. Good move. However over time it became a stinking hole and rubbish tip. Towns people had another good idea. They have turned it into a magnificent park. Lots of sports grounds - even cricket (we watched part of a game). From memory it is about 7kms long. To encourage pride the local school children were each given a tree sapling and asked to plant it. Those kids and their families now take huge pride in 'their' tree. We met some of these kids and they were so keen to show us which was theirs.
    Hope you didn't bypass Granada!!

    7. (I forgot this one) Make sure you have a phrase book dictionary with you. Makes life so much easier.
    double j
    28th Nov 2015
    Hi We have driven through Spain a couple of times, our most recent was in June /July 2015 ,we mostly stay away from the big cities and enjoy small villages, the people and the culture. Our vehicle is VW TD5 camping car or what we would call a campervan or motor home ,it is the English version so it is right hand drive but that has never been a problem , all I have to remember is that when I am driving on the left hand side of the road I am closest to the curbside The people were always friendly and willing to help with directions
    We drive ourselves around Europe for 2 months every year and have been doing so for the last 6 years so I say go for it and enjoy the food, the people and most importantly the adventure
    28th Nov 2015
    I drove 4000+kms in Spain and Portugalthis year with no hassles. With the GPS if travelling long distances insert intermediate places and yes a good road map is very useful as is the app. for iPads Forever maps.
    Avoid toll roads you want to see the country, stress you are Australian you get a better reception than the English.
    We flew into Madrid stayed 3 nights Air BnB then took a Julia 3 night tour to Granada to see Alhambra Palace etc., then back to Madrid taking night train to Lisbon, stayed 3 nights then out to the airport to collect a lease car travelling through Portugal and moving North to Santiago Di campostella along Northern coast into France then back over the Pyrenees via a pass NOT a tunnel before dropping car at Barcelona airport.
    In general when driving in Europe I pick up drop off at airports to avoid big city parking problems etc and it is always easy to commute between city and airport and vv.
    No credit card problems seldom more than 10 pumps so hold appropriate number of fingers. If you are polite the locals will reciprocate, same applies wherever you go.
    I pre booked rail and Julia tour in Australia before leaving, better prices, rail Madrid to Lisbon was booked out 1st class 2mths ahead but 2nd class sit up was clean quite and comfortable.
    Car too was pre booked through a Sydney Company, most stays selected from Air BnB all of high standard and as described.
    Never did we feel threatened by anyone and charges were all correct, we did not use 1 toll road, and all roads were in excellent condition.
    Gee better stop or I will be off again tomorrow!!
    Value recogniser.
    29th Nov 2015
    thankyou Kay, and I read everybody's notes, i want to go to spain hopefully in the future.
    So it was all interesting to read all about it.
    although it has left me thinking about driving there now..,,,,mmmm????

    21st Jan 2017
    Did a small amount of driving in the North of Spain in 2013 and found their drivers and road systems to be very good overall.
    We took the TGV from Paris to Irun (on the French/Spanish border). We'd arranged to pick up a car in Irun and the train was 2 hrs late - but the lady in the car agency waited after hours for us and made sure we were right! What great service!
    The Spanish motorways are just amazing, and road signs are largely understandable, even when you don't speak English.
    Re being robbed, this is largely only a problem in the lesser-populated areas and in Barcelona.
    Barcelona is Theft Central, the Romanies will try any stunt they can to rob you, so be extra alert when they approach you.
    Don't stop for supposedly "broken down" motorists, or people trying to wave you down.
    Be aware that many roads that lead into small old towns and villages turn into narrow goat tracks without warning and you can get stuck with no place to turn around - or even fit through!
    The greatest concern in Spain is parking in the towns and cities. Parking laws are enforced by the police and they will pounce on parking infringements within minutes.
    Parking spots are hard to find and you need to learn to understand the European parking signs symbols, or you will be whacked with big fines.
    We found quite a number of Spanish people speak English, particularly in the tourist industries, and many people are keen to improve their English so they will converse with you to do that.
    A Spanish phrasebook is definitely handy, we got caught out trying to order rice in a Chinese takeaway.
    We couldn't figure out the Spanish word for rice! (It's Arroz, pronounced "Aroth"!)

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