Alamo, Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz, and National (partnered in Spain with the Spanish agency Atesa) have branches at major Spanish airports and in large cities. Smaller, regional companies and wholesalers offer lower rates. The online outfit Pepe Car has been a big hit with travelers; in general, the earlier you book, the less you pay. Rates run as low as €20 a day, taxes included—but note that pickups at its center-city locations are considerably cheaper than at the airports. All agencies have a range of models, but virtually all cars in Spain have a manual transmission. If you don't want a stick shift, reserve weeks in advance and specify automatic transmission, then call to reconfirm your automatic car before you leave for Spain. Rates in Madrid begin at the equivalents of U.S. $65 a day and $300 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, manual transmission, and unlimited mileage plus 18% tax. A small car is cheaper and prudent for the tiny roads and parking spaces in many parts of Spain.
Anyone over 18 with a valid license can drive in Spain, but some rental agencies will not rent cars to drivers under 21.
Alamo (877/233–8749. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331-1084; 902/135531 in Spain. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/472-3325; 902/112585 in Spain. www.budget.com.)
Europcar (902/503010 in Spain. www.europcar.es.)
Hertz (800/654-3001; 902/402405 in Spain. www.hertz.com.)
Atesa (902/100101 in Spain. www.atesa.es.)
Pepe Car (807/414243 premium call charge. www.pepecar.com.)
Your own driver's license is valid in Spain, but U.S. citizens are highly encouraged to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP may facilitate car rental and help you avoid traffic fines—it translates your state-issued driver's license into 10 languages so officials can easily interpret the information on it. Permits are available from the American Automobile Association.
Driving is the best way to see Spain's rural areas. The main cities are connected by a network of excellent four-lane divided highways (autovías and autopistas), which are designated with the letter A and have speed limits—depending on the area—of between 80 kph (50 mph) to 120 kph (74 mph). If the artery is a tollway ("toll" is peaje) it is designated AP. The letter N indicates a carretera nacional: a national or intercity route, with local traffic, which may have four or two lanes. Smaller towns and villages are connected by a network of secondary roads maintained by regional, provincial, and local governments, with an alphabet soup of different letter designations.
Spain's network of roads and highways is essentially well maintained and well marked, but bears a lot of traffic, especially during the vacation season and long holiday weekends. Crackdown campaigns on speeding have reduced what used to be a ghastly annual death toll on the roads—but you still need to drive defensively. Be prepared, too, for heavy truck traffic on national routes, which, in the case of two-lane roads, can have you creeping along for hours.
Gas stations are plentiful, and most on major routes and in big cities are open 24 hours. On less-traveled routes, gas stations are usually open 7 am–11 pm. Most stations are self-service, though prices are the same as those at full-service stations. At night, however, you must pay before you fill up. Most pumps offer a choice of gas, including unleaded (gasolina sin plomo), high octane, and diesel, so be careful to pick the right one for your car. Prices vary little among stations and were at this writing €1.28 a liter for unleaded. A good site to monitor prices is www.aaroadwatch.ie/eupetrolprices. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Parking is, almost without exception, a nightmare in Spanish cities. Don't park where the curb is painted yellow or where there is a yellow line painted a few inches from the curb. No-parking signs are also fairly easy to recognize.
In most cities, there are street-parking spaces marked by blue lines. Look for a nearby machine with a blue-and-white "P" sign to purchase a parking ticket, which you leave inside your car, on the dashboard, before you lock up. Sometimes an attendant will be nearby to answer questions. Parking time limits, fees, and fines vary. Parking lots are available, often underground, but spaces are at a premium. The rule of thumb is to leave your car at your hotel unless absolutely necessary.
Spain's highway system includes some 6,000 km (3,600 mi) of beautifully maintained superhighways. Still, you'll find some stretches of major national highways that are only two lanes wide, where traffic often backs up behind trucks. Autopista tolls are steep, but as a result these highways are often less crowded than the free ones. If you're driving down through Catalonia, be aware that there are more tolls here than anywhere else in Spain. This can result in a quicker journey but at a sizable cost. If you spring for the autopistas, you'll find that many of the rest stops are nicely landscaped and have cafeterias with decent but overpriced food.
Most Spanish cities have notoriously long morning and evening rush hours. Traffic jams are especially bad in and around Barcelona and Madrid. If possible, avoid the morning rush, which can last until noon, and the evening rush, which lasts from 7 to 9. Also be aware that at the beginning, middle, and end of July and August, the country suffers its worst traffic jams (delays of six to eight hours are common) as millions of Spaniards embark on, or return from, their annual vacations.
The rental agencies Hertz and Avis have 24-hour breakdown service. If you belong to AAA, you can get emergency assistance from the Spanish counterpart, RACE.
RACE (902/404545 for information; 902/300505 for assistance. www.race.es.)
Rules of the Road
Spaniards drive on the right and pass on the left, so stay in the right-hand lane when not passing. Children under 12 may not ride in the front seat, and seat belts are compulsory for both front- and backseat riders. Speed limits are 50 kph (31 mph) in cities, 100 kph (62 mph) on national highways, 110 kph (68 mph) on the autopista or autovía. The use of mobile phones, even on the side of the road, is illegal, except with completely hands-free devices.
Severe fines are enforced throughout Spain for driving under the influence of alcohol. Spot Breathalyzer checks are often carried out, and you will be cited if the level of alcohol in your bloodstream is found to be 0.05% or above.
Spanish highway police are increasingly vigilant about speeding and illegal passing. Police are empowered to demand payment from non-Spanish drivers on the spot. Rental-car drivers are disproportionately targeted by police for speeding and illegal passing, so play it safe.
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