Transportation in Spain offers plenty of great options for travelers, from fast high speed trains to discount airlines to shockingly affordable bus routes and convenient car rentals.
What’s the best transportation in Spain for your trip? That really depends on your needs.
If you have plenty of time, then taking the bus may be the most affordable option. If you’re in a rush, flying may be the fastest way to see the country. If you’re looking for speed and scenery, but with a slightly bigger budget, Spain’s high speed trains may be just your ticket.
Best Options for Transportation in Spain
Spain is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s easy to see why. From the sun dappled beaches of Andalucía, to the quaintly cobbled streets of busy Madrid, to the affordable tapas and drinks in Granada there’s plenty to keep travelers occupied.
Tourists wondering how to get around Spain have plenty of options. Now that we’ve listed a few, lets compare the major modes of transportation in Spain.
Traveling by train is one of the most popular types of transportation in Spain, and for good reason. Spain trains and routes are generally efficient, easily available, and affordable.
Trains travel extensively within Spain however they also connect to other countries.
The high-speed train or AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) runs between Spain’s major cities. Operated by Renfe (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles), the AVE system is the longest HSR system in Europe, and second only to China worldwide. Trains in Spain reach speeds of 300 plus kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour).
Trains offer many types of tickets, including 1st class (Preferente) and 2nd class (Turista) cabins and some offer cafe-bar facilities. You can book most train tickets via the Renfe website, Rail Europe or a 3rd party site like Rail.Ninja.
Round trip train fares are generally cheaper in Spain than getting two, separate, one-way tickets.
International connections from Spain
Spanish trains have good connections to France and Portugal.
There is no direct rail line to the country of Andorra, which doesn’t have a rail service in the country. To reach Andorra, take a train from Barcelona to L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre (France), and then switch to a bus from France to Andorra la Vella in Andorra.
Similarly, there is no direct train connection to Gibraltar, which has no rail service. However, you can take a train to the Spanish side of the border with Gibraltar), and then take a bus further into Gibraltar proper.
There’s talk of an undersea tunnel connecting Spain and Morocco, but for now there’s no train service from Spain to Morocco.
Local rail networks in Spain
In addition to the high speed network, there are also smaller regional train services in Spain, which operate a largely commuter services. They include FGC in Catalonia (including Barcelona), Cercanias RENFE (which operates many suburban rail networks), FEVE (Northern Spain), Euskotren (Bilbao, San Sabastian and a few smaller towns).
Like elsewhere in Europe, it takes a little thinking to figure out if a rail pass is worth it for you. There are three types of rail passes in Spain.
- Spain only. Spain only passes come as the Renfe Spain Pass, or the Eurail Spain Pass.
- Two country passes. You can use the Eurail Select Pass to pair Spain with Portugal, France, or Italy.
- Multiple country passes. The Eurail Global Pass lets you travel on four adjacent countries by train.
It always takes a bit of number crunching to figure out if a pass is more affordable than buying individual tickets, or more affordable than doing a combo like flying, renting a car, and taking the bus however if you love seeing the countryside by ground and prefer trains over buses or cars, then getting a train pass in Spain definitely makes sense.
Driving in Spain – Car
As Canadians, we’re used to driving everywhere. Canada’s an enormous country, and long distance public transportation is definitely lacking here.
Happily, the public transportation system in Spain, like most European countries, is excellent. During our time in Spain, we did rent a car for our road trip through Spain and Portugal, but most of the time we relied on public transportation to get around,
In Spain, you drive on the right hand side of the road, and the driver’s seat is on the left side of the vehicle. Coming from Canada, this was familiar to us, making driving easier, but if you come from the UK or Australia, where you drive on the left side the road, it may be more of a challenge to get adjusted.
The driving age in Spain is 18, and you’ll need both a valid driver’s license and an International Driver’s Permit (IDP).
Freeways (autovias in Spanish) are plentiful and well maintained throughout Spain. We found the highways we traveled in Southern Spain to be smoothly paved, with lines recently painted. We did find plenty of roundabouts on the roads in Spain, including large, busy roundabouts in Madrid.
As North Americans, we’re used to wide roads with plenty of parking. It was definitely a challenge to adjust to driving in Spain through the narrow, winding roads of historic city centers like Avila, Spain, where roads were originally designed for pedestrian or horse traffic.
Parking in Spain
Parking in large cities like Seville and Madrid was incredibly difficult, and even smaller centers like Avila’s city center didn’t have a lot of readily available parking. On street parking is often in small, tight spaces, which may be a challenge if your parallel parking skills aren’t on point however there are parking lots and even parking garages around some of the major tourist areas around the country.
Spain’s toll system
We found Spain’s road toll system to be much less complicated and confusing than toll roads in Portugal.
You can pay Spanish tolls with a credit card or cash manually, or electronically, via the Via-T system.
For manual tolls, you grab a ticket from a booth when you enter the motorway, and then pay the toll at another booth as you exit, in either the credit card or cash lane.
Some motorways allow electronic payments, but you’ll need a special VIA-T device. Look for the Telepeaje, VIA-T or T sign on the motorway. You must use one of the lanes with the VIA-T sign if you’re using a device and the device automatically registers the amount of the toll. These devices are available, for a small fee, from many banks in Spain however you’ll need an account at the bank to get one.
Toll costs vary depending on the road and the prices vary from region to region. You can find Spain’s toll costs on numerous sites however this one from Sixt (just click on Spain) is quick and simple.
Pros of Renting a Car in Spain
Renting a car in Spain let us visit small towns and villages in Spain and Portugal that would have been very difficult to see without a vehicle. It was also the most cost effective option for our family of four and allowed us to spend as much or as little time at each destination without worrying about tight timelines.
Cons of Renting a Car in Spain
One of the major hassles of renting a car in Spain was the renting a car hassle factor. We had to figure out insurance for the car, tolls on the motorways, and deal with sometimes confusing directions. The worst was probably having to find parking, especially in city centers, where parking was hard to find and often expensive.
While Spain has a good train system, buses pick up where trains aren’t available. Buses also run on many routes that are also served by trains, and we often found the bus fares to be more affordable than train fares. However, bus routes often took much longer than train routes.
We found bus transportation in Spain generally very affordable. Most smaller centers, like Nerja, Spain, are well served by public long distance bus routes.
In recent years, ALSA has bought out many smaller bus companies, giving it a more consistent feeling and more options when booking online.
Buses can be booked via Movelia, Alsa, or Avanza websites.
Advantages of Taking the Bus in Spain
One of the best things about taking the bus in Spain is that buses serve almost every small town in Spain. Sure, there are some remote parts without bus service, but most towns have good bus connections. Plus, buses are generally clean and comfortable, and run on a reasonable schedule.
Cons of Traveling by Bus in Spain
While buses are affordable in Spain, one of the main disadvantages of taking the bus is that it’s much slower than high speed trains, flying, or even driving by car. This is especially annoying on non-direct bus routes that have multiple stops. If time if of the essence, then definitely opt for the more expensive direct buses with minimal stops.
Ferries aren’t the first thing most people think of when it comes to transportation in Spain.
That said, around 20 ferry companies operate in Spain. They operate to and from:
- the Canary Islands
- the Balearic Islands of Ibiza, Formentera, Mallorca and Menorca (most depart from Barcelona, but some route via Dénia and Valencia.)
- Spain to Morocco
- the UK, Italy and other countries, including North Africa and Morocco.
- between islands in Spain (for example, from Fuerteventura to Lanzarote)
We took the ferry from the extreme south of Spain in the town of Tarifa to the Moroccan city of Tangier, across the Gibraltar Strait. There are two companies that run the route, FRS and Inter Shipping.
The crossing is relatively short, at only about an hour and the ferries often have food and entertainment onboard.
Tip: If the water’s choppy, the crossing from Tarifa to Tangier by ferry can be pretty nausea inducing.
You can also take a ferry directly from Barcelona to either Tanger Med (on GNV ferries) or Nador (on Grimaldi Lines) . Ferry sailings from Barcelona to Tanger Med are operated by the ferry companies GNV and Grimaldi Lines. Both crossings take about 30 hours.
Traveling by Plane in Spain
Spain is well served by discount and regular fare airlines, and flying is often the quickest (and even cheapest) way of getting around the country. Spain is a large country (the second largest in Western Europe), so it can take a while to get from the north down to south or even from east to west.
It’s a whopping 529.5 kilometers (321 miles) from the major centers of Madrid to Seville, for example. The journey takes about two and a half hours by train, five and a half hours by car, and only one hour by plane.
If time permits, many tourists prefer to slow down and see the Spanish countryside by train, bus, or car.
Spain’s main airlines are Iberia, Iberia Express, Vueling, Air Europa, Wamos Air, and LEVEL. Plenty of other airlines operating in Spain, including Ryanair, EasyJet and Lufthansa.
Heads up! Laws banning short haul flights in Spain are under consideration in 2022, to help shrink the region’s carbon output. It’s a serious possibility, as France set a law in effect that banned short-haul domestic flights on routes where train journeys of two and a half hours or less existed as an alternative.
While most people think of major treks like the famous El Camino de Santiago, it is possible to get around most cities and towns just by walking.
So, while walking may not be feasible for long distances between cities in Spain, it’s a fantastic way to see many of the sites in town.
Walking is one of our favorite ways to see a new country, and wandering through the narrow streets of the city center showed us the best of Seville and the centro of Madrid. Walking the winding city centers is also one of the things we loved about Spain.
Taxis, Ubers and Other Ride Hailing Options
To get around locally, taxi services and Uber* (or local ride hailing services) are generally good options in Spain. While in city rates aren’t bad, long distance rates can get pretty high so other methods of transportation is advised.
*Uber is regulated in Spain and it doesn’t operate in every city, including Valencia. It just returned to Barcelona in 2021 after a two year absence.
The Best Ways to Get Around Spain
Whether you choose trains and airplanes to buses or car rentals, there’s no denying Spain is a large, beautiful country with plenty to see and lots to do. No matter which mode of transportation you choose, Spain has lots of options for you and you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
When planning a tour of the country, pay attention to not only your budget but also your timelines. Saving a few dollars can cost you hours that might be better spent visiting a beautiful destination in Spain or chomping down on some delicious tapas.