Spain is actually a pretty big country. For Americans, everything seems small in comparison, except for maybe Canada, Russia, or China. Spain is actually a pretty large country. It’s the second largest country in Western Europe after France, about the size of Texas for comparison, and home to about 46 million people. If you compare that to some of the tiny European countries, like Austria at 8 million, Belgium at around 11 million, or Portugal around 10 million, you get a sense of how big it is comparison to many countries on the European continent.
There is a lot to see in Spain, from historic cities, to pristine beaches, to Roman ruins, and beyond.
The train system in Spain is phenomenal. Trains are a great way to travel around the country, especially between bigger cities.
The AVE is the high speed train and connects many major cities. The AVE Madrid-Barcelona is the best way to get between these two cities. It’s fast (under two hours), very clean and comfortable, and takes you from the center of Madrid to the center of Barcelona so you don’t have to deal with arriving to an airport outside of a city center and figuring out transportation.
The AVE also connects Madrid to Sevilla, to Málaga, to Valladolid, to Leon, to Valencia, and to Cuenca. The plan is to continue the track from Leon to the north coast, creating a system that would connect the entire country, from north to south, or from Málaga to Asturias by way of Madrid. A route is planned from Barcelona to Valencia.
There are smaller, slower regional trains that could be an option as well in certain areas. There are trains that focus on tourism routes that might stop more frequently and be slower, and there are trains called Cercanias, which are basically commuting trains that go from cities to outer suburb areas. For instance, from Leon, there is a non-high speed train to the nearby city of Valladolid. In Madrid, the Cercanias take many commuters to their homes in neighboring towns, but you can also use the Cercanias to get to the mountains of Madrid, and smaller cities of interest like Alcala de Henares.
You can look at train schedules, destinations, and make reservations here.
I do not recommend renting a car for driving within cities, especially not cities like Madrid or Barcelona. There is no need to have car and driving in new cities with unfamiliar traffic patterns can be really stressful. The best way to see Spanish cities is on foot, or using public transportation like the metro.
I also do not recommend renting a car as the best way to get between many major cities. For instance, if you have limited time and you want to go from Madrid to Andalucia in the South of Spain, I would not recommend renting a car and driving, unless you have lots of time and want to be able to stop along the way whenever you feel like it. The best way to do this route would be to take the high speed train, the AVE, from Madrid to Sevilla or Málaga. The AVE Madrid to Málaga takes two hours, so in only two hours you can go from the capital to the Southern coast and be in spitting distance of many amazing spots.
So, when does it make sense to rent a car?
The most appropriate time to rent a car is when you want to stay within a small region in Spain. Perhaps you want to be able to drive through small towns in Ribera del Duero and stop at bodegas of your choosing. Maybe you want to drive along the North coast and stop in beautiful beach side villages, or maybe you’re in the South and you want to make your way through the white-washed villages and the olive groves that surround them. In these situations, renting a car makes a lot of sense. It will give you freedom to stop and see the things you want and travel through off-the-beaten path towns and on small roads. This is really a great way to see the country and I highly recommend it.
A few important notes on car rentals in Spain. Most cars are stick shift and you will likely be charged extra for an automatic car.
Car rental companies make their money through insurance. It will make renting a car exponentially more expensive. There have multiple insurance options, like collision insurance, damage insurance, or the whole insurance package. You can also waive insurance entirely.
Check with your credit card company to see if they cover rental car damages or thefts. American Express in particular is known to cover rental cars. It’s worth really looking into, calling your credit card company and making sure you fully understand the policy. If something happened, say you’re in a fender bender, how much would you have to pay under your credit card’s policy? Would you have to cover the damage up front and submit a claim for reimbursement? Make sure you understand the policy and are comfortable with it before deciding to waive the rental agency’s insurance.
If your credit card company covers rental car damage, waive the insurance.
Spain also has a great bus system. While not as comfortable and fast as trains, the buses are very clean, reasonably comfortable, and run on time. They are nothing like American buses like Greyhound or Megabus. Buses run frequently between major cities and all another way to get around the country.
While living in Madrid, I regularly took the bus from Madrid to Leon, a 3-4 hour ride depending on the bus schedule and the number of stops made, and Madrid to Granada, a 5 hour ride total with a 30 minute stop. A five hour bus ride is long; there is no denying that, but it is very doable.
There are several different bus companies. Alsa is the major one, with routes in the north and the south. The way it works it that the government awards the contract for a certain route to a specific bus company. For instance, the routes from both Madrid to Leon and Madrid to Granada that I mentioned are run by Alsa. There is no other bus option for those routes. If you want to take the bus from Madrid to Cuenca, a bus company called Avanzabus runs that route.
There are airports in many cities in Spain and lots of daily flights that go between cities. Madrid and Barcelona have big airports. Málaga also has a large international airport. Sevilla, Valencia, Oviedo, Valladolid, even small Leon has an airport. This does not mean flying will always be the best option in, given the great and affordable train system, it’s usually easier to take the train, but it’s good to have another option. Iberia’s lowercost sister airline Vueling has flights all over the Peninsula, as does Iberia itself. Ryanair and Easyjet also have routes.
For traveling to either the Canary Islands or the Balearic Islands, flying is obviously the one option. Lots of airlines fly to both and to more than one of the islands in each island group.