For the first few years I lived in Spain, I didn’t have a car. There’s really no need to get behind the wheel if you’re living in a city or visiting another city on vacation. But sometimes you get the urge for a road trip, and the Spanish rail and bus system doesn’t always reach the best off-the-beaten-path destinations. That’s when it’s time to hop in a car and see Spain from behind the windshield.
Renting a car will get you to little villages, mountains, secluded beaches, and vineyards you’d never see otherwise. Many of the best jaunts I’ve been on in Spain have been by car. Getting wheels is worth the effort it takes.
Related: Calculating the real cost of renting a car in Europe
Before you go online to book your vehicle in cities like Barcelona, Madrid, or Seville, and hit the road, take a little time to read through these tips. Over the years I’ve taken many jaunts from Barcelona by rental car, and I’ve learned a thing or two about driving and keeping your rental experience hassle-free. Here are my top tips, many of which are applicable to renting a car throughout Europe.
1. Check your license
Always check with the rental car agency beforehand to make sure you have the right documents for driving on Spanish roads. For Americans, agencies usually only require a valid passport (that means within the six month travel period allotted to Americans for travel in Europe) and a driver’s license.
I have never been asked for an international driver’s license when renting a car, so I have never bothered to get one. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and it is recommended that you get one. You can learn about the International Driver’s License on this website.
2. Find a good deal
I have rented from many different companies in Spain and have had a range of good and bad experiences. The main takeaway is that if it looks too good (or too cheap) to be true, then it probably is. Like the cheapo airlines that will nickel and dime you for every pound of luggage and every inch of legroom, many cheapo rental car companies will hit your wallet for gas, mileage, insurance, and additional drivers.
I have ended up spending much more than I expected to at super budget companies. In the end, I stopped using them and decided to pay more in advance for a better product and less hassle. Check out EuroCheapo’s rental car search to check current prices from a wide variety of companies in Spain.
3. Read the small print and sign off on the dents and scratches
This car rental tip could be applied to many aspects of your trip. Make sure you know all of the extra charges (including unfilled tank charges!) before you sign on the dotted line. If there’s a certain type of car you want, be sure to ask for it. Be assertive and ask now.
At the rental counter, they usually give you a piece of paper that includes a small illustration of a car. Often, especially with city rentals, you’ll have to go outside and find your rental car in a big parking garage, and there may not be anyone there to help you. Insist that someone go with you or meet you in the garage to go over any flaws that the car has on the interior and exterior. Mark all these flaws, even the small ones, on the documents that you got at the rental counter, carefully marking the dents and scratches on the diagram of the car. This may sound excessive, but being thorough could save you a lot of money. The rental company’s representative will have to sign off on all the flaws you identify.
4. Roundabout advice
Depending on where you’re from, you may or may not be familiar with roundabouts. These circular intersections have replaced many crossroads and four-way stops in Spain. Some roundabouts consist of four lanes and can be daunting to merge into and out of. Slow down when entering, but you’ll only need to come to a full stop if you’re waiting for traffic to pass by. Otherwise, gracefully enter and wind around to your desired exit.
Another perk is that roundabouts give you additional time to figure out where you’re going. Not sure which turn off to take? Just keep circling the roundabout until you find the right road! I’ve been known to loop around three times before sorting out the right direction.
5. Pay a bit to save time on toll roads
In Catalonia many of the highways are toll roads, and many of them are not cheap. Expect to pay from €0.45 to €10 for access to these roads. Tunnels also usually collect a hefty toll. You can avoid the toll roads, but more often than not, this will add on to your travel time, and you’ll be faced with more traffic and more roundabouts.
Depending on how far you have to go and how much time you have, it may be better to suck it up and pay for the toll roads. Most toll booths will accept both credit cards and cash. While tolls are very common in Catalonia, other regions of Spain have fewer tolls or no tolls at all.
6. Hide all valuables from sight
Always lock your doors, and do not leave your suitcase, purse, camera bag, or anything else of value in plain sight in your parked rental car. Put everything that could be tempting to an unsavory character out of sight in the trunk. If it’s really valuable, you probably just want to take it with you. This is especially important in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid, but applies to smaller towns as well.
7. Be prepared to pay more for automatic transition
Most rental cars in Spain (and throughout Europe) are equipped with manual transmission, and most Spaniards know how to drive a stick shift car. Automatic cars are the exception, not the rule, and you may have to pay hundreds of euros more to rent one.
If you really want to rent an automatic, then look around and compare prices. Make sure to reserve an automatic far in advance, because many companies have a limited supply, especially in the high season when Americans come in droves.
8. Choose your parking spot wisely
It is not easy to park in Barcelona or Madrid. Parking spots are scarce, and when you do find one, you need to determine if it is a public parking space or only open to those living in the neighborhood. I made the mistake of parking in a spot I thought was public parking only to find my rental car towed; €250 later I had learned my lesson. In some small villages you will be able to park just about anywhere and won’t have to pay a cent. This is especially true in the countryside. When in doubt, check with a local to make sure you’re not parking in front of someone’s gate or doorway.
If you are unsure about what the rules are or where you can park, the best bet is to put your ride in a garage and pay a bit more. Your car will most likely be safer in a garage, and will definitely be there when you return. There are parking garages everywhere in cities and larger towns.
9. Be careful on the road
Generally speaking, driving in Spain is not much different than in the rest of Europe or North America. The laws and road signs are similar. Mostly, roads are well marked and freeways are well maintained. Drivers can be aggressive and tailgating is common, and for many locals, turn signals seem like more of a suggestion than a requirement. If you feel stressed or overwhelmed at any point on the road in Spain, just slow down; the guy behind you may not like it, but he can pass.
I’ve driven all over Spain and by far the fastest drivers I’ve encountered were on the island of Tenerife. I’m not sure what it is about island life that makes these locals put the pedal to the metal, but they certainly seem to be in a hurry.
10. Don’t forget to fill ’er up (with the right fuel!)
Gas is self-service in Spain. You pay inside or at the pump with either a credit card or cash. It’s pretty straightforward and very similar to what you’re probably used back home. Just make sure to fill up with right kind of fuel. You really don’t want to put unleaded gas into a diesel car. Trust us!
Your tips for driving in Spain?
Have you rented a car in Spain? Tell us what companies you like, what tips you used to find a good deal, or your favorite road trips!