Driving in Spain can be a dream or a nightmare depending on where you are. On the plus side the quality of major roads all over the country is quite outstanding and there seems no end to the number of new motorways which not only connect major cities but also link relatively unknown parts of the country. It’s quite incredible to learn that a country of Spain’s modest size has over 16,000km of top class highways making it the world’s 5th largest motorway network after huge countries such as the USA, Canada, China and Russia. I was recently on the Autovía EX-A1 motorway in western Extremadura travelling between Coria and Plasencia and couldn’t help wondering how the construction of such fabulous roads could be justified during these times of economic crisis. I had plenty time to ponder this thought as I was the only car on the road!
On the negative side there is a lot of erratic driving particularly in urban areas: jumping red lights is a national pastime so don’t brake suddenly as a light is turning to red as the car behind you intends getting through that light; indicators seem to be optional extras on Spanish cars and are rarely used; few drivers seem to have any idea how to use a roundabout so be particularly careful when using them and never expect to be allowed into a lane by another driver as this somehow seems to be considered a sign of weakness!
Having worked in Madrid city centre for quite a few years I learned to drive like a Madrileño when required. The key to such driving was to never hesitate. If there’s a space in the traffic go for it, aggressive driving felt a lot safer than defensive driving. In such a city you also learn to drive in restricted areas with four other cars within a very small distance of your vehicle. Without adapting your driving mentality it would be very difficult to cope with the fast, inner city roads of Madrid. The good news for visitors is that you can easily avoid the worst of Madrid’s traffic thanks to the excellent motorways such as the M50 which circle the capital from a distance.
A Few Words of Warning
Obey the Speed Limits: In years gone by there seemed to be little in the way of vigilance of the speed cars were travelling at. Living in Madrid we used to have an unofficial competition as to who could get back from a trip to Barcelona the quickest! Although you’ll still see cars driving way above the 120km/h speed limit on major highways it’s not a good idea, especially in a car with foreign plates, as speed cameras have cropped up all over the place. Foreigners caught speeding by the Guardia Civil are likely to be presented with an on the spot fine. Failure to pay the fine will lead to your car being immobilised. It’s illegal to carry radar detection devices in your car.
Respect the Outside Lane: Don’t sit out in the fast lane doing the speed limit as you’ll soon have a large BMW or Mercedes flashing you to get out of the way. Too many drivers seem to think they are Fernando Alonso which doesn’t help Spain improve its road death toll which is far too high, especially during extended public holidays when the majority of the population of the main cities hits the road to head away to beach locations.
Don’t Drink and Drive: The attitudes of many drivers towards drinking and driving seems to have improved over the years as the authorities now take a very serious approach to positive breath tests. Driving after ‘a few beers’ never seemed to be a concern for most car owners that I’ve known over the years but today a strict blood-alcohol drink-drive limit of 0.05% (50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood) makes Spain one of the strictest countries in Europe with regard to drink driving. If you’ve only passed your test within the past two years the limit is even stricter at 0.03%.
I was once breathalysed in the Basque Country by a very pleasant Ertzaintza officer who asked me why I thought British drivers were more concerned about the issue of drink-driving than many Spanish drivers. At the time I felt that the Spanish police didn’t take the issue seriously enough themselves and told him so. The law was changed and more strictly enforced shortly after that so I’m taking full credit for saving countless lives on the roads of Spain 🙂 By the way, my breath test was negative!
Another factor to bear in mind with regard to alcohol is that you shouldn’t plan on an early morning car excursion if you had ‘one too many’ the night before. The risk just isn’t worth it. I find it more than a little alarming that the motivation for most of us to avoid drink-driving is the fear of getting caught rather than the unspeakable consequences of being responsible for an accident whilst under the influence! Spain is a country where alcohol is never far away, so if you’re planning on a party style holiday don’t be tempted to drive. Public transport is rarely far away.
Toll Roads: Some roads in Spain are toll roads (marked “Péage”) which can prove quite an additional cost to your journey. For speed I usually choose to use them but if I’m casually touring around I prefer free roads unless the alternative goes through a coastal resort which is just too time consuming and frustrating. Take a look at the AA’s toll routes and prices to decide what’s best for you.
Theft from Cars: Never leave anything valuable in your car or anything on view as breaking into cars is rife. This is particularly the case with rental vehicles and cars with foreign number plates. Such theft has increased in recent times as the economy has collapsed.
Spain Driver’s Checklist
I’m assuming that you know that in Spain cars travel on the right, you must wear your seatbelt and that you’ll need a driving licence and insurance, etc. There are, however, a few points worth bringing to your notce that you might not be aware of when bringing a car into the country or driving a hire car:
- Vehicles must carry two warning triangles in their car which should be placed in front and behind the car if you breakdown.
- Drivers should have easy access to a fluorescent jacket which they must wear outside their vehicle in the event of a breakdown.
- Children under 12 years of age are not allowed to sit in the front seat.
- Drivers who wear glasses must carry a spare pair.
- Your car should have a first aid kit, a spare tyre, spare bulbs, a spare fan belt and the tools to fit them.
- You only need a national identification sticker on your car if you don’t have the new Euro-plates which identify the car’s nationality.
- British cars should fit headlight convertors before arriving to avoid blinding oncoming traffic
To Drive or Not to Drive?
A few of my comments above may have raised a few eyebrows amongst drivers who are feeling a little tentative about driving in Spain for the first time. I hope that’s not the case as there’s little to worry about provided you plan your journey carefully.
Motorists can look forward to driving thousands of trouble free kilometres on some of Europe’s finest highways often surrounded by stunning scenery. Many visitors are quite surprised at the great quality of Spain’s motorways and ongoing construction of these new roads is making getting around even easier albeit at the expense of some beautiful routes that are being bypassed by these new roads.
Most foreign visitors only experience problems when approaching major cities where many cars often drive too fast and show no mercy to other road users. In addition you’ll often find the cities tricky to negotiate and parking difficult to find and very expensive.
So if you’re planning a driving holiday try to stay away from the main cities where possible, try not to be on the road when it’s a national holiday and respect the speed limits. If, however, the focus of your trip is to visit the main cities then you’d be better off using Spain’s excellent public transport system or travelling with a few friends or family and hiring a driver and guides to show you around.
Driving Distances in Spain (Kilometres)
Spain Car Rental
If you aren’t planning on bringing your own car you’ll find car hire is available from all major cities, main towns and airports. Some companies allow one way rentals which is very useful when you consider the driving distances in what is Western Europe’s second largest country. In order to rent a car in Spain you must be at least 21 years old and have held a full driver’s licence for one to three years depending on the company. It isn’t usually possible to pay with cash so a credit card is necessary as well as a passport.
Car hire in Spain can be excellent value provided you shop around. It pays to book your car rental before you arrive in Spain as you’ll get far better deals from the online car brokers than you will by leaving the rental until you arrive. Third party liability insurance is compulsory and although collision-damage waivers vary between companies, they usually seem worthwhile when compared with the potential loss if an accident occurred.
Booking in advance through the online brokers gives you plenty time to read the small print on your rental contract, something you wouldn’t find time to do as you are handed your keys and asked to sign the rental contract in the airport arrivals lounge. One company that we particularly recommend is Zest Car Rental who are based in the UK and offer great deals to motorists and excellent customer service. They were recently named as the top car hire broker by the UK Consumer Association.