Most of Spain is well covered by public transport. The rail network reaches all the provincial capitals and the main towns along the inter-city lines, and there’s an expanding high-speed network that has slashed journey times on major cross-country routes from Madrid. Inter-city bus services are often more frequent and cheaper than the regular trains, and will usually take you closer to your destination, as some train stations are a few kilometres from the town or village they serve. Driving a car, meanwhile, will give you the freedom to head away from the major tourist routes and take in some of the spectacular scenery at your own pace.
One important point to remember is that all public transport, and the bus service especially, is drastically reduced on Sundays and public holidays – don’t even consider travelling to out-of-the-way places on these days. The words to look out for on timetables are diario (daily), laborables (workdays, including Sat), and domingos y festivos (Sun and public hols).
Spanish trains, operated by RENFE (902 320 320, renfe.com), tend to be efficient and comfortable, and nearly always run on time. There’s a confusing array of services, though the website has a useful English-language version on which you can check timetables and even buy tickets with a credit card (printing them out at home before you travel).
Cercanías are local commuter trains in and around the major cities, while media distancia (regional) and larga distancia (long-distance) trains go under a bewildering number of names, including Avant, Alaris, Intercity (IC), Regional and Talgo services. The difference is speed, service and number of stops, and you’ll always pay more on the quickest routes (sometimes quite a lot more).
The premier services are the high-speed trains, such as the Euromed from Barcelona to Alicante, or the fast-expanding AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) network from Madrid to Seville, Málaga, Valencia, Segovia/Valladolid, Zaragoza, Barcelona and Huesca; and from Barcelona to Seville and Málaga. The AVE trains have cut travelling times dramatically, with Madrid to Seville, for example, taking two and a half hours compared with six to nine hours on the slower trains. The AVE network is set to expand right across the peninsula over the next decade, northeast to the French border, northwest to Castilla y León, the Basque Country and Asturias, and west to Lisbon in Portugal.
Tickets, fares and rail passes
Although you can just turn up at the station for short hops, advance booking is essential (and seat reservations obligatory) for long-distance journeys. Advance tickets can be bought at the stations between sixty days and five minutes before departure, but don’t leave it to the last minute, as there are usually long queues (and often separate windows for the different types of train). Automatic ticket machines at main stations take some of the hassle out of queuing.
The best deals are always available online on the RENFE website, where “Web” and “Estrella” fares offer discounts of up to sixty percent on the full fares. Otherwise, return fares (ida y vuelta) are discounted by ten to twenty percent, depending on the service – you can buy a single, and so long as you show it when you buy the return, you’ll still get the discount. There’s also a whole range of other discounted fares of between 25 and 40 percent for those over 60 or under 26, the disabled, and children aged 4 to 11 years.
Actual fares vary wildly, but as an example, you’ll pay around €19 on the regional service from Madrid to Salamanca (2hr 40min trip), while on the Madrid to Barcelona route you could pay €45 for the overnight “Estrella” service (9hr 30min) or €120 on the high-speed AVE service (around 3hr).
The major pan-European rail passes (InterRail and Eurail) are only worth considering if you’re visiting the country as part of a wider European tour. Both schemes also have single-country Spain rail passes available, which might be better value depending on your Spanish itinerary. The InterRail Spain Pass (interrailnet.com) is only available to European residents and allows three, four, six or eight days’ train travel within one month, with under-26, second- and first-class versions available. For anyone else, Eurail (raileurope.com) has various Spain passes available, typically offering three days’ travel in two months, again in various classes. You can check current prices on the websites, but bear in mind that it often works out cheaper to buy individual tickets in Spain as you need them, and it’s certainly more convenient to be free to choose long-distance buses on some routes. All passes have to be bought before you leave home, and you’ll still be liable for supplements and seat reservations on long-distance and high-speed trains.
Buses will probably meet most of your transport needs, especially if you’re venturing away from the larger towns and cities. Many smaller villages and rural areas are only accessible by bus, almost always originating in the capital of their province. Services are pretty reliable, whether it’s the two-buses-a-day school or market run or the regular services between major cities (the latter often far more conveniently scheduled than the equivalent train services). Fares are very reasonable, too: Madrid to León (3hr 30min), for example, costs around €23, Madrid to Santander (6hr) around €28. On inter-city runs, you’ll usually be assigned a seat when you buy your ticket. Some destinations are served by more than one bus company, but main bus stations have posted timetables for all services (and, sometimes, someone who can speak English). Or you can check timetables on the company websites, which, while not always up-to-date, do at least give an idea of available services. Major companies like Alsa (alsa.es) and Avanzabus (avanzabus.com) have nationwide services, and both have English-language versions of their websites.
There are only a few cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, for example) where you’ll need to use the local bus network, and all the relevant details are given in the accounts. You’ll also sometimes need to take a local bus out to a campsite or distant museum or monastery; fares are very cheap, rarely more than a euro or two.
Spain has an extensive system of highways, both free and with tolls. The autopistas are the most comfortable and best-kept roads. The second-grade roads, autovías, often follow similar routes, but their speed limits are lower. Many autopistas and some autovías are toll roads, relatively expensive by local standards but worth paying for the lighter traffic encountered. You can usually pay with a credit card, although it’s wise to have enough cash just in case. Toll roads are usually designated by an “AP” or “R” or the word “peaje”.
The Spanish drive on the right, and speed limits are enforced throughout the country. On most autopistas it is 120kph, on the autovía 90kph, and in towns and villages 50kph. Police have the power to fine drivers on the spot for speeding or any other transgressions, and if you don’t have any cash, they will escort you to the nearest cash machine and issue you with a receipt there and then. You can pay by credit card at most petrol stations for fuel (gasolina), the main companies being Cepsa and Repsol.
An EU driver’s licence is sufficient to drive in Spain. US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand licences should also be enough, though you may want to get an International Driver’s Licence as well, just to be on the safe side. If you are bringing your own car, you will need your vehicle registration and insurance papers – and check with your insurers that you are covered to drive the car abroad. It’s also compulsory to carry two hazard triangles, reflective jackets in case of accident or breakdown, an official first-aid kit and a set of spare bulbs. Rear seat belts are also compulsory, as are child seats for infants.
Parking can be a big pain in the neck, especially in big cities and old-town areas. Metered parking zones usually have stays limited to a couple of hours, though parking between 8pm and 8am, on Saturday afternoons and all Sundays tends to be free. Green or blue bays signify pay-parking areas in most cities, but it’s always worth double-checking that you’re allowed to park where you’ve just left your car, as any illegally parked vehicle will be promptly towed. Some cities (like Granada) have also introduced old-town congestion charges, which you might unwittingly trigger as a casual visitor. It’s nearly always best to pay extra for a hotel with parking or use a pay car park, for which you’ll need to budget anything from €12 to €20 a day.
Car rental is cheapest arranged in advance through one of the large multinational agencies (Rentalcars, Avis, Budget, EasyCar, Europcar, Hertz, Holiday Autos, National or Thrifty, for example). There are hundreds of pick-up offices in Spain, including regional airports and major train stations. Rates start from around £140/$200 a week for a two-door Renault Clio or similar, more for larger vehicles and in peak holiday periods. Local Spanish companies (such as Pepecar; pepecar.com) can sometimes offer better value for money.
You’ll need to be 21 or over (and have been driving for at least a year) to rent a car in Spain. It’s essential to check that you have adequate insurance cover for your rental car, and that all visible damage on a car you’re picking up is duly marked on the rental sheet. It’s definitely worth considering paying the extra charge to reduce the “excess” payment levied for any damage, but these waiver charges (by the day) soon add up. However, you can avoid all excess charges in the event of damage by taking out an annual insurance policy (from £37.99) with insurance4carhire.com, which also covers windscreen and tyre damage.
Bike rental is not common, save in resort areas or in tourist-oriented cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, where you can expect to pay up to €20 a day, or around €25 for a half-day bike tour. Barcelona, Seville and some other cities also have bike-transit schemes, where you join (by paying a deposit) and then pick up bikes (free or low-cost) to ride around the city from one depot to another. However, dedicated cycle paths are rare (again, Barcelona is an exception), and cycling around most major Spanish cities can be a hair-raising, if not downright dangerous business.
Outside towns and cities, cycling is a great way to see parts of the country that might otherwise pass you by, though bear in mind that Spain is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe and there are often searing high-summer temperatures with which to contend. You also need to be extremely careful on the road (single file only, at all times), since Spanish drivers don’t generally expect to see cyclists and don’t take much care when they do. Off-road biking is a far better idea, and increasing numbers of mountain-bikers are taking to the trails in national parks or following long-distance routes like the Camino de Santiago.
Ferries and planes
Anyone heading from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic Islands will probably do so by ferry or catamaran express ferry (from Alicante, Barcelona, Dénia or Valencia) – all the details are in the relevant city and island chapters. However, there’s also an extensive network of internal Spanish flights, including to and between the Balearics, with Iberia (iberia.com), Spanair (spanair.com) and other smaller operators. These can be worth it if you’re in a hurry and need to cross the entire peninsula, or if you can snap up a bargain web fare, but otherwise tourists rarely use flights to get around Spain. The main exception has always been Europe’s busiest air route, that between Madrid and Barcelona, though this is now facing stiff competition from the high-speed AVE train, which is comparable in overall centre-to-centre journey time, and often cheaper.
Spain’s ten best drives
There are some fantastic driving routes in this land of big scenery, big horizons and big surprises – here’s our choice of Spain’s best drives.
- Alt Empordà Track the coastline in northern Costa Brava as you take in Greek and Roman ruins at Empúries and Salvador Dalí’s former home outside the picturesque town of Cadaqués.
- Cañón de Río Sil Gaze upon Galicia’s most arresting landscape along this dramatic canyon that is also home to one of the country’s foremost wine-producing regions.
- The Cincó Villas Lose yourself in small-town Aragón on the 80km drive linking the historic “five towns,” from Tauste to Sos del Rey Católico.
- El Escorial to Ávila The most scenic route out of Madrid province, an hour’s drive from Felipe II’s colossal monastery and over the hills to the historic walled city of Ávila.
- Gipuzkoa Head inland from San Sebastián and immerse yourself in Basque culture at Tolosa’s lively carnival and historic Oñati, with its distinctive casas torres.
- Inland from Calpe It’s the juxtaposition between hedonistic sun-and-sand and quiet, rural inland Valencia that marks this leisurely 55km excursion, from Calpe to Alcoy.
- Puerto de las Palomas to Zahara de la Sierra One of the most dramatic descents in Andalucía starts from the “Pass of the Doves” and corkscrews dizzily downwards to the ancient Moorish village of Zahara, with spectacular views across the sierras.
- Sierra de la Demanda Mountain monasteries, verdant valleys and bare upland vistas on the two-hour drive (LR113) from La Rioja to the Castilla y León heartland.
- Through the Valle de Jerte Track the Río Jerte for 70km (N110 out of Plasencia towards Barco de Ávila) on one of the most picturesque drives in Spain – carpeted in cherry blossom every spring.
- Vielha to Esterri d’Aneau Snowy peaks, thickly forested slopes and, above all, utter mountain stillness – this 42km drive over the Bonaigua Pass (2072m) is pure Pyrenees.