A GUIDE TO RENTING A CAR IN SPAIN
Southern Spain was a place I had always dreamed of road tripping.
There was just one problem- I hate driving.
In high school, when other teens craved the associated freedom that came with a license, I cheered on my friends who were taking their tests but had no desire to.
Having plenty of friends with cars meant I never needed to really worry about how I got from place to place.
It actually wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I learned how to drive and acquired my first car- an 11 year old Ford Taurus.
Being able to drive became a necessity that year because I’d be taking summer classes, and would be moving off campus. Looking to my junior year, I knew internships would also require more flexibility in how I got around.
And, so, I learned how to drive. But, I never enjoyed it.
In fact, I loathed it- there were few times I felt more anxious than when I was behind the wheel. There were so many things I couldn’t control- traffic, other drivers, road closures.
Over time, driving was just one of many things I began to associate with anxiety, and in turn avoid whenever possible.
Avoiding driving whenever I could meant opting for buses and trains, even in the United States where those forms of transportation aren’t as connected as in other places in the world (e.g. Europe).
When I moved to London, I vowed to rent a car and do a road trip in England or Scotland.
And yet, when the opportunity arose to roadtrip Ireland with friends, I was more than happy to take a backseat (literally) in driving and contribute by helping with planning logistics.
Fast forward a few months: Working with a new therapist on addressing an anxiety disorder, we identified areas of my life I’d been avoidant simply because it cued strong anxiety. Driving was, without hesitation, one of those areas.
Around this same time, Le and I started planning a road trip around Andalusia.
Knowing we’d need to rent a car to save time and be able to visit remote places Spain’s public transit doesn’t quite reach, we discussed a rental plan.
Le grew up in Scotland, comfortable driving both Automatic and Manual. With far fewer hours behind the wheel on my track record, an Automatic car was the only way I’d even consider driving part of the trip.
We agreed with my therapist it’d be best if the plan we put together had me driving for most of, if not the entire trip. Reason being, I’d be with someone who could help navigate or take over if I really couldn’t handle it. But, by planning to be in the driver’s seat, I’d start creating mental associations that would enable and empower me to drive us around Spain.
If you’ve never experienced anxiety or known someone with clinical anxiety, thanks for hanging in this far. Car rental tips coming, promise.
The backstory though, I think is helpful in explaining why this trip was so significant for me and a necessary precursor for the tips I’ll share.
Leading up to the trip, whenever I started to feel anxious about our plan for me to drive (which was a lot of the time), I’d focus on something else I was excited about- sunsets over the ocean, the flower patios of Cordoba, marvelling at Islamic architecture in The Alhambra, and so on.
Without going into too much detail, I ended up driving the entire trip. There were definitely angst filled moments and times when I wanted to give up, but with every mile I drove, I started to believe in my ability to do so a bit more.
Will I be driving all the time now?
Do I still experience anxiety when driving?
But, accomplishing tasks like these are important not just for the direct experience to driving, but have also proven helpful in me squashing anxiety to ride a motorbike in SE Asia. Progress is progress, no matter how small.
So, besides learning I could conquer anxiety to drive us around Andalusia, what else did I learn about renting cars in Spain?
Which is good, because Spain is a country I’d love to road trip again one day- I’m thinking central and northern regions, plus more of the southern coast.
A Guide to Renting a Car in Spain: 8 Must Know Tips for Renting Cars in Spain
Reserve Online, but Don’t Pay Until You Pick Up: This applies to car rental just about everywhere. Locking in a rate means you can continue to search for deals and easily cancel (usually up till your day of pick-up) without penalty.
Yes, I continue to search for deals after I book things.
Car rental companies (as well as hotels and tour providers) slash rates for a number of reasons- to meet profit margins, to offer flash deals, etc. It’s hard to predict when these moments happen, so if I’m planning a big trip purchase, I search to figure out what’s average, watch for a deal, lock that deal in, and then continue searching leading up to my trip to ensure there’s not an even better deal out there.
I’m selective with what kinds of things I do this for (so I don’t waste too much time), and a big purchase, such as a week-long car rental, definitely qualifies.
The Smaller the Car, the Better: We opted for a small car first and foremost because, eco friendly.
Driving the winding roads and alleyways of Andalusia, and navigating teeny tiny parking spaces, as well as some of the tightest parking garages I’ve ever seen reinforced this decision time after time.
Opt for Toll Free Roads to Save Money: Highways in Spain are easy to drive.
We didn’t encounter any signs we couldn’t understand (speed limit signs were circular with a red ring, easy enough to get intuitively), or road conditions that we didn’t feel were up to par during our journey around southern Spain.
Toll roads in Spain are labelled with the letters AP (e.g. AP-8). They only cover about 15-20% of Spain’s motorway infrastructure, but why pay to drive down a road when you can take a similar route for free?
Spain’s free highways are marked with an E or A. We looked up distances between each destination using tolls vs. free roads, and just couldn’t justify spending money on tolls. Most people argue free roads take longer, but the biggest time difference we encountered was ~15 minutes. Hardly enough time to warrant spending money to avoid.
If you do decide to take toll roads, I’ve heard booths accept cash or credit card.
Write Down Key Directions Before Leaving
We used Google maps to navigate Andalusia (+1 for their toll free option) because we had data in Spain (both of us were on EU cell phone plans). If you’re doing something similar, Google maps works great, but will cut out in some areas- mountains, remote towns.
Write down key directions and distances before you leave so you don’t panic (as we did once) when we realised we didn’t have service and weren’t sure what the next direction was.
And, if you don’t have navigation a la cell phone, I’d suggest renting a navigation system along with your car rental. You’ll want it for some of the back roads.
Pick Out Parking Garages Ahead of Time: Check with your hotel first to see if they offer free parking, or can recommend free parking nearby. In Malaga, we found free parking a few minutes walk from our hotel easily (we visited in the off season).
Everywhere else though, we struggled to find street parking and opted for garages. The first overnight in a garage we paid for cost 22 Euros (yikes!).
Keen to not make that mistake again, we Google’d central, but affordable parking garages in other destinations. This was helpful because we knew where we needed to go, saving us both time spent driving around looking for garages and money.
If you’re dead set on street parking, the colour of the curb indicates whether you can park there. Yellow, red, and white indicate no parking. Blue means you can usually find a pay station nearby- we heard the maximum is usually two hours. Usually, you need to pay for parking in blue areas from 9am-2pm and 4pm-9pm M-F, and 9:30am-2pm on Saturdays.
Fuel Stations are A Mix of Self Serve and Staffed: With the exception of one fuel station, all of the ones we encountered were staffed, meaning someone pumped our gas for us.
Whether you’re pumping or someone else is, pay close attention to the kind of fuel your car requires and ensure you only pump compliant ones.
Whether it’s self serve or staffed, first you select/state how much you want to pay for, which is the reverse of how it works in the US.
In Spain, we’d look at the tank and guesstimate how much fuel it needed- example: 15 Euros worth if it was half full. Once we figured out how much we wanted to spend, that info was punched into the pump stand, and then our nozzle only dispersed that much fuel.
By contrast, I grew up with the opposite in the US, where we fill up our tanks, either fully or to a certain monetary amount, and then pay that amount.
Payment for fuel in Spain is handled inside stations. We paid by both cash and card, but I’d recommend taking cash for small top-ups (which, we did a few times when driving countryside and weren’t sure where the next station would be), or rural towns, which may not readily accept credit cards.
Have a Plan for Insurance: When we booked our car via Enterprise’s website, they offered us an option to also book insurance. Because I don’t own a car and planned on doing the majority of driving, I bought at 35 Euro policy from Allianz- again, all of this was connected through Enterprise’s website.
Cut to arriving to pick up the rental and being told by Enterprise in Malaga that they couldn’t validify our insurance and would need us to put down a few thousand dollar deposit in case something happened. Further, we’d be subject to paying full, up front cost for any damage to the car- from a small scratch to a more serious issue- before finishing the rental.
Candidly, I won’t rent with Enterprise again because of how the sales team handled this exchange.
We were blatantly bullied into buying another insurance policy. Fortunately, when I called Allianz and explained the situation, they refunded the original policy I’d bought. Still though, the policy Enterprise sold us was 3x was I initially paid, and only covered certain things.
Roadside assistance was another insurance layer, which would be understandable and fine if we were provided with a clear breakdown of what ‘roadside assistance’ covered.
Already upset about how the entire situation went down, when I asked for a copy of the insurance policy so I could see what it covered and what was excluded, Enterprise told me they couldn’t give me a copy. Our sales rep actually said, ‘I can’t give you a copy. You have to trust me.’.
At this point, it was 9 pm in Malaga and we had an early start the next day. We briefly considered scratching the Enterprise rental and going to a competitor because of how we were treated, but decided to just let it go in the interest of time and enjoying our holiday.
If driving Spain (or really, any country) again, I’ll likely consider a rental with all an inclusive offer. It may be more pricey at time of booking, but the rates for add-ons you don’t select in the booking process are always more if you wait until leaving the lot.
Come Prepared with an International Drivers License: Anticipating the need to driving in Spain, I picked up one at AAA in the US when I was home for a visit last autumn. It only cost $20, took about 30 minutes to process and is good for a year.
No one asked me to see it in Spain, but Spain is one of the countries in Europe notorious for checking this detail with foreign travellers.
Not sure if you need one or what your country equivalent us?
Google it or look up road trip advice for the country you’re planning a trip in on Pinterest. Chances are you’ll find advice from people who’ve done it before.
A few other logistics to know for driving in Spain:
- You likely won’t be able to cross borders, with the exception of Andorra and Portugal
- If you’re under 21 or want to add multiple drivers, you’ll be charged incremental fees
- As most places, many car places have airport shuttles, but not all of them offer this service. If this is important to you, e.g. you don’t want to have to take a taxi, make sure you check this point before booking
- Renting an automatic car is more expensive than manual. If this is all you’re familiar with, make sure the car you’ve selected in booking is indeed automatic. In Europe especially, car rental places default to manual
- When it comes to Spanish drivers, keep in mind they go fast in the passing lane- upper speed limit and beyond
- Do not beep your horn in Spain- it’s illegal, except when used as an actual warning signal
- Do not, under any circumstances, drink and drive. This should be a no brainer anywhere in the world, but blood alcohol limit is lower in Spain than other places (0.05%)
- Mobile phone use is forbidden while driving, navigation is the exception but you can’t edit the destination/look at the screen to change anything while the car is moving
Finally, remember that driving in a foreign country is going to be a learning experience. There were times I felt so frustrated trying to navigate larger cities, like Granada, where it was clear there was a certain way to do things / unspoken directions for some of the city streets.
We flashed a lot of apologetic smiles during our time in cities. The best advice I can give you is try not to get frustrated.
You’ve never been there before, it’s expected. If the drivers around you are getting frustrated, just take it in stride. And, remember it the next time you get frustrated with someone driving in front of you in your home country- empathy goes a long way.
Would I drive Spain again?
In a heartbeat.
The countryside views were incredible in Andalusia- rolling mountains, bright blue sea, white-washed villages perched on hillsides.
The feeling of driving through small Spanish towns, many of which we’d never heard of, and observing the local way of life was unmatched.
And, there’s no way to quantify the benefit in having total flexibility in how long we spent somewhere.
There were many things we wouldn’t have seen or experienced if we’d tried to take trains and buses around this part of Spain.
I’ll never forget the countryside views, jamming to Spanish radio or snacking on manchego while calculating how much longer we had until our next stop.
It was a road trip to remember.
Have you ever rented a car to drive somewhere in a foreign country? What would you add to this guide to renting a car in Spain?
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