Planning Your Ultimate Roadtrip in Spain: Where Automatic Cars are the Exception, and Not the Rule | Catavino
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Planning Your Ultimate Roadtrip in Spain: Where Automatic Cars are the Exception, and Not the Rule

roadtripWhen it comes to driving, I was a late bloomer.  Even though I grew up in a suburban town (with little to no transportation options) I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 20.  The only reason I got it then was that I was about to leave Canada to see Europe and I thought it might be a useful thing to have.  As it turned out, I didn’t drive again until I was back in Toronto a few years later.  My trip across Europe had turned into nearly three years in Madrid and I just never had any call to use that license.

I’m still not a fan of having a car in the city – especially as I work from home and don’t need to move around town much – but I do enjoy the freedom that having a car offers.  In fact, I like driving in general.  Perhaps because I do it so seldom, even traffic doesn’t bother me. (Flickr photo by wili_hybrid)

Since coming to Spain in June of last year (2008) I have driven from Barcelona to Valencia once, and from Valencia to Madrid and back twice.  Now that I have a taste for driving in Spain, I heartily recommend it as a way for visitors and residents alike to see this wonderful, fascinating country.  Not only can it be a cost-effective way for small groups to get around, but it also lets you see what’s off the beaten track – and who doesn’t like that?

Things to consider

If you are planning a road trip in Spain, there are a few things that you should keep in mind to make sure that your trip is as much fun and as possible, such as what you need to carry with you in the car (reflective vest, spare bulbs etc.), speed limits, general rules etc.   For a detailed list of observations, click here.  If you are coming from outside of Europe, like me, you may want to take a look at the Spanish road signs to make sure that you understand the all.  (Ignorance is not always bliss.)

I have found a few inexpensive places to book rental cars on-line and, in general, it seems that prices here in Spain are fairly reasonable.  A rental car comes equipped with everything that a car legally needs to have in it at all times (except a spare pair of glasses if the driver wears them), which is an easy way to make sure that all the ‘t’s and ‘i’s are crossed and dotted.  If you end up borrowing a car from someone, double check before pulling out.

While you can find some automatics for rent in Spain, the default is standard.  If you’re from a country like Canada where you can get a license to drive without knowing how to drive a standard, keep this in mind when booking a car.  Now probably isn’t the time to learn.

I highly recommend getting a good road map for your trip.  This may seem old-fashioned for the GPS or TomTom lovers, but there it is – I’m old fashioned.  Whichever means of navigation you choose, make sure that you build in time to stray off course and explore a little.  After all, that’s the fun!

General Observations

Driving in a foreign country can be intimidating.  What are the rules about parking?  Will the drivers all be aggressive?  (For people from most parts of North America) What do I do at a roundabout?  If you don’t think that you are going to be comfortable, don’t drive.  It’s meant to be fun, so keep it that way.

My own experiences have been quite positive.  The free-for-all in Madrid where multiple lanes come together in a giant roundabout in front of Atocha Station had me concerned for a second, but I found it rather easy to move my way over to the far left in the end.  Where I half expected agitated honking as I signalled my way across four lanes or so, I met only yielding cars.  The rest was even easier.

Highway traffic has been a pleasure.  On all the highways I’ve driven in Canada and the US there seems to always be someone driving just below the speed limit in the fast lane.  Here in Spain – so far, at least – I haven’t seen this kind of stubborn approach and cars don’t usually cruise along in the left lane but seem to use it for passing as it is intended. (Flickr photo by caswell_tom)

Start your Engines

The next chance I get, I will be hitting the open road in search of more Spanish adventure.  I can’t see us buying a car here in the old quarter of Valencia where lack of parking and narrow, one-way streets conspire very effectively against drivers, but I can see us happily speeding down the highway in a rental.  Oscar, our three-year-old, loves the car (for the most part) and the freedom that road travel affords over trains etc. means that we can easily face whatever challenge he throws at us.  It’s a win-win.

There may just have to be a whole other post on Spanish road-side restaurants after the next voyage.  Let’s just say for now that they have their own world of charms to offer the weary.


Ivan Larcombe

Ivan loves wine and food almost as much as he loves writing about them. Next on the list is hearing from interested readers: he welcomes comments and visitors to his blog, Ivan In Valencia.

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  • Good tips. I always seem to spend half my time in the car when I'm Spain, there is always great scenery where ever you go and the distances are so short (compared to Australia anyway). However, armed road blocks are a bit off putting! (are these common? I seem to run into at least one every trip)A couple of tips for those of us who normally drive on the other side of the road: keep your eye on that white line and the driver should always be on the inside lane…So, where are the cheap hire cars at?

  • santos6

    Great post!Thanks for the links as well.Cheap rental cars?? Yes please!

    • santos6

      Has anyone used ‘’ for car rentals before? They have so far been the cheapest I can find.

  • I have had a lot of luck with for car rentals in Spain. Definitely worth checking out.

    Now that I’m back in Canada I just can’t believe the distances here. The province of British Columbia is twice the size of Spain and has a population of 4.5 million… it’s a different kind of roadtrip! (No armed road blocks though.)

  • santos6

    Spain is big enough on its own, I am having a VERY HARD time trying to break down my trip in 2 weeks. The triangle I want to make is around 2400km’s!

  • santos6

    Hey maybe someone on here can help me out, I have posted this on some travel forums as well.

    Wife and I are planning our honeymoon, we plan to arrive in Barcelona or Madrid, which ever works best the 15th and leave the 28th of September. The idea is to rent a car.
    The trip is going to be based on a FC Barcelona match (I have a fantastic wife!), unfortunately the league schedule has not been generated yet (last year’s schedule was published around the second week of July so I should know soon) Hopefully there will be a home game on the 26th or 27th, as I think that would work out best.

    I have a few different routes thought up, I need some help figuring which would be the most cost efficient and also most fullfilling,

    1. Barcelona, Girona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Granada,Alicante,Valencia, Barcelona.
    Google says 2357km
    2. Barcelona, Girona, Cadaques, Monsant, Valencia, Alicante and back to Barcelona.
    Google says 1500km
    3. Barcelona, Girona, Zaragoza, Madrid, Toledo, Albacete, Valencia, Barcelona
    Google says 1739km
    4.Barcelona, Girona, Zaragoza, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Salamanca, Madrid, Toledo, Zaragoza and Barcelona
    Google says 2264 km

    Obviously I like #1, the best but I am pretty sure its unreasonable for a 14 day trip.
    #2. I worry will be too “touristy and pricey” since it never leaves the coast, also too much of “the same”.
    #3 Is a compromise on #1 without the bits in Andalucia.
    #4 Is similar to #1 only with a trip to the Basque region instead of Andalucia.

    I’d like to see some smaller towns along the way as well so any suggestions are welcome. Also I have not gotten as far as deciding where to stay and for how long, along the way so any help with that will also be greatly appreciated.
    One more thing is the beach still a viable option at that time of the year?
    Thank you!

    • Here’s my limited take on your fabulous adventure. I think you need to first ask yourself, what is my motivation? Is my motivation to conquer Spain in one fell swoop, or is my motivation to leisurely enjoy each location without pressure? Additionally, are there specific things I want to seek out and experience, such as horses/sherry in Andalusia or Txacoli/the Guggenheim in Bilbao, or am I simply open to whatever we stumble across?

      From my perspective, when you go at top speed through a country, you’re missing all the fabulous cultural aspects of each region. Remember, Spain is 17 different political regions, which for all practical purposes, are culturally distinct. Consequently, I am more prone to stay in location for longer periods of time to soak in the sights, sounds, flavors and experiences.

      That said, I like #4, mostly because you’ll see the very start of the harvest and the changing of the leaves. But if you want to see the Moors influence on Spain, not to mention a very warm and laid back culture, go with #1 and head south.

      Both 1 and 4 are intense, and will require long hours in the car, but you’ll definitely get a wide range of experiences packed in. Again I would answer the questions above and see what comes up. And if we can help you map out an itinerary to meet those specific experiences, we’re happy to do so!

      I’ll try to get a post up on casa rurales (rural rental houses) next week in order to help you look for interesting places to stay for cheap.

      Hope that helps!

  • santos6

    I think I want to conquer as much as I can of Spain,but still at the pace I can handle, but I’d like to unwind a bit and slow down as well but my biggest problem is that Spain is so big and there are so many places I want to go, I really wanted to go to San Sebastian and Bilbao as well as Andalucia, but I just can’t squeeze it all in.

    I plan to go to Portugal next year, and hopefully I will venture into Galicia and Andalucia then. Since I have family in Portugal I have places to stay almost all over the country so that will help cut costs for that trip. Which should allow me to stay an extra week to divide between Galicia and Andalucia as well.

    I think I have settled on a route now it is:
    Barcelona,Girona,Zaragoza, **Leganes (suburb of Madrid, or at least it looks it!), Segovia, Leganes, Toledo, Cuenca, Valencia, Barcelona. 1852km about 20hrs of driving.
    The way I have broken it down so far is

    Arrive Sept 15 830 am
    Get Luggage and rental and head off to Girona 103 km – about 1 hour 12 mins
    I figure I should be in Girona by the mid afternoon at least like 1-3pm somewhere, check in park the car and walk around and explore.

    Sep 16th AM
    Breakfast in Girona, maybe walk around a bit more then we’re off to Zaragoza 389 km – about 3 hours 32 mins. I am looking for places to stop by and take a look at on the route from Girona to Zaragoza as I don’t think there is much to do in Zaragoza other than check out the Basilica del Pilar and have dinner then go to bed early for the other long trip coming up.

    Sep 17th
    Breakfast in Zaragoza then off again on another long journey to Leganes* again same situation as before, I am looking for places to go in between the two spots, to check out while we are driving through as I doubt there is much to do in Leganes. Arrive Leganes probably have dinner and go to bed.

    Sep 18th
    Wake up and go to Segovia 104 km – about 1 hour 14 mins

    Eplore Segovia, the Aqueduct etc. Drive back to Leganes 104km and go to bed.

    Here’s where the plans get shakey I like the way this portion is set up but it gets trickier after this point. Any help from here on is greatly appreciated, I only want to be back in Barcelona on thursday the 24th.

    I know for sure I want to see Toledo, Cuenca and Valencia before I go back to Barcelona plus I am open to almost anything else.

    I haven’t been able to find a cheap hotel near Toledo that has rooms available around the 19th, but I definitely want to walk around Toledo it looks incredible.

    *(if anyone knows a place better than Leganes please tell me, I want it to be fairly central between Segovia and Toledo and inexpensive, both Segovia and Toledo are expensive and quite booked up so I want to use this stop as a hub between the two)


    • Hi Steve

      Here are my comments on your proposed itinerary. I am assuming you are going to focus on cultural visits as opposed to winery ones?

      Girona. If you are going to make a detour up the Costa Brava then would suggest you head up first to Figueres and take in the Dali Museum. Better option and less travelling would be to pick up the car and head for Tarragona – there’s plenty of Roman ruins to see and visit – enough for a whole day and if interested in wine you could use as a base to visit the Priorat wine region.

      Zaragoza. You can see the Basilica in 2 hours tops so no need to stay overnight in Zaragoza. Instead head for Toledo and stay the night there. Forget Leganes! As far as I know there is nothing of cultural interest there indeed the whole place may lack culture.

      Segovia. Good choice. Stay the night there too!

      Cuenca would be next (stay one night) then Valencia (stay one night) then back to Barcelona – sleep last night in Sitges by the sea.

      Hope that is of help!

  • Hello, Steve
    I’m Yuko, Gab’s friend.
    I live in Barcelona and doing wine business, and I love making trips visiting wineries all over Spain.
    I’d recommend, instead of Zaragoza, visit Somontano region, which is Aragon, I know it’s a king of detour, is not exactly between Girona and Segovia, but it’s a beautiful place, not only as wine region but also wonderful nature place.
    I recommendo visit Alquezar which is north of Barbastro.

    Zaragoza, as you say, I don’t think it’s worth staying the night.
    Leganes, as Gab says, I don’t know well about this place, but I think not necessary to visit. You should take more time in Toledo, Segovia, Cuenca etc! In Segovia, you should try pig roast!!

    One accommodation info of Toledo,
    a youth hostel that I liked very much!

    It’s located just at the side of Toledo crossing the River Tajo,
    it’s a medieval castle, cheap and wonderful place to stay.

    Hope you have a good trip!!


  • santos6

    Thanks Yuko and Wine Pleasures. The stop in Zaragoza is more so I don’t have to drive so much in one day than it is an attractive stop. I keep having second thoughts on this trip.
    The only reason I am doing A LOT of driving is because I want to see Toledo mostly, I have never gone to a place yet that I have seen in pictures and videos and said I HAVE TO GO THERE, so I hope I am not disappointed.
    Would I be better off leisurely cruising around Costa Brava and all around Catalunya for two weeks???

    • Catalunya has plenty of things to see too. That being the case then I would include the South of France on the route and visit the Cathar country – plenty of castles and spectacular views as well as fine wine.

  • santos6

    Just a little update on my trip and looking for some more advice.

    I basically completely re arranged the trip, to a slower placed visit to Catalunya.
    My first week consists of
    Tuesday and Wednesday in Girona
    Thursday in Cadaques
    Friday Saturday and Sunday (possibly Monday)Barcelona.(Watching Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid!)

    After that I am open. Some places I’d like to see are
    Tarragona, Miravet, Valencia, Priorat/Monsant region (any wineries offer drive in tours? or do they all need notice?), maybe LLeida, any body have any other nice small historic towns I should visit??

    • James

      I am actually in the process of planning a similar trip with a group of friends, and ironically ours is going to be somewhat scheduled around a soccer match as well! We are planning on starting in Barcelona for a few days, then drive all the way down to the southern coast – stopping in cities like Valencia, Alicante, Cartagena, Granada, Malaga, Cadiz, and Seville, and then take a train from Seville to Madrid where we will finish up with 2-3 days. We’re trying to find the best sights to see and cities to stay in along the way, and we would appreciate any input. We are all big wine drinkers, so we’d like to fit in a visit to a vineyard or two. And we also like visiting castles and ruins, and we’d like to mix some adventurous excursions in as well if possible. And I am also looking for tips on the best Flamenco shows in the different cities so we can hopefully fit in a few of those along the way.

      We will have a group of 6 people, plus luggage, and we’re debating on whether we should rent a 9-person van so we can fit everyone in the same vehicle, or if we should rent 2 smaller cars and split up. The cost is actually almost exactly the same – even when you factor in the additional gas for the 2nd vehicle – because the van is about $2,200 for the 2 weeks and the 2 smaller cars are just $600/each for 2 weeks. Which do you think would be the smarter move? We figure with the 2 cars we could split up and go seperate ways for short periods of time if the group is divided on what we want to do on a particular day.

      And are hotel reservations generally recommended in the month of October, or should we be able to just show up in each city and find a nice place with no problem? I think not booking rooms ahead of time would allow for a lot more flexibility, but booking them ahead of time would probably save us some money.

      Decisions, decisions, decisions….

  • Thank you, I always wanted to road trip across Spain it is such a beautiful country, and being from the UK as I am, its only across the channel.