tips for driving in spain and portugal

How to get around Spain and Portugal in a Car

Driving in a foreign country is never easy. New roads, unfamiliar landmarks, unknown place names, different signs, and if you’re from the UK you’ll probably be driving on the other side of the road too. After many years driving in Europe, I think I can accurately say it is one of the most fulfilling driving experiences, enjoying spectacular scenery and little, or no congestion (except of course in the cities). While it’s relatively easy to catch a train to almost anywhere in the country, some places are only accessible by car. Driving in Portugal and Portugal might sound challenging but with an International Driving Permit and knowledge of the key driving rules you will soon feel comfortable behind the wheel. If you are considering renting a car in Spain or Portugal, there are some things you should be aware of, I have listed my helpful tips for how to get around Spain and Portugal in a car:

Rules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

1. Drive on the Right (pass on the Left)

Start with the obvious, in Spain and Portugal we drive on the right.  So, if you usually drive in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, South Africa, India, Japan, Australia or New Zealand, you certainly need to remember this!

2. Lane DisciplineHelpful Tips for Getting Around Spain and Portugal in a Car

There’s been plenty of debate in the U.S. over the question of lane discipline over recent years. One thing that’s certain is that they are far more strict about it in Europe. When driving on the Autopista in Spain, the autoroute in France or autobahn in Germany, stay right and only move out into the second or third lane for overtaking, moving back across as soon as it is safe to do so. When there are three or four lanes, it is OK to stay in the second or third lane if the “slower” lanes are heavily populated with trucks and slow-moving vehicles.

Lane discipline is particularly important when driving on the German autobahn, where large stretches have no speed restrictions. Here, faster vehicles can approach from behind in the blink of an eye, so keep your wits about you and don’t loiter in the overtaking lane any longer than you have to.

Lane discipline is strictly enforced in Portugal. That might not seem immediately obvious when you watch the way some locals drive, but we will say more about that in a moment. The rule on multi-lane roads is to stay right unless you are passing other vehicles. Passing on the right is a road traffic offence, and will result in a stern word from a police officer and a fine. The exception is in congested, slow moving traffic if the right lane happens to move faster than the left lane.

3. International Driving License (IDL)

If you are visiting Spain from a member of the EU or Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway, you can drive with your own national driving license. If you are from outside the EU and you hold a U.S. or Canadian driver’s license, there are four things you will need in order to rent a car:  Your U.S. driver’s license, your passport, credit card, and an International Driver’s Permit. This is a recognized document that translates the information from your U.S. driver’s license into 12 languages. The IDP is inexpensive and can be obtained online in a matter of minutes. Without one, you will face problems trying to rent a car or deal with authorities in the event that you are stopped by the police. Typically, they do not speak fluent English.

4. Signage

Road signs are very different in every country. A good road map will also indicate the common signs and what they mean. And we love this helpful and humorous post on Spanish and Portuguese road signs.

5. Bringing the Family?

Children under 135 cm tall (that’s about 4 foot 5 inches) must travel with the appropriate harness, seat, booster seat etc. and should sit in the rear of the vehicle. This isn’t necessary in taxis when travelling in a town or city – but once a taxi goes on the motorway, children should travel with the required seats etc. Pets also need to be harnessed while the car is in motion – you can buy a special lead in most pet stores.

6. You May Not Know This But…

It is compulsory to keep a high-visibility reflective jacket in the vehicle. If something happens to your car on a motorway, you must put on the high-vis vest before exiting the vehicle so you are visible to other vehicles. You can also get fined for driving barefoot, bare-chested or wearing flip flops behind the wheel because these actions are said to impede the driver’s control of the vehicle. If you are going to the pool or the beach, remember to keep a pair of sandals in the boot.

7. Police in Spain

There are three types of police in Spain:

• Municipal Police; Blue uniform, responsible to the local mayor, their duties include traffic and parking violations.
• National Police (La Policia); Black uniform, duties include protecting important people and buildings, also responsible for investigating more serious crimes.
• Civil Guard (Guardia Civil); Green uniform, if you’re caught speeding on a freeway, these will be the boys who take your money from you, also responsible for national security.

However, there are also regional police forces in Autonomous Communities across the country including Mossos d’Esquadra (Troopers) in Catalonia, the Ertzaintza in the Basque Country, and the Policia Foral in Navarre.

8. Police traffic officers in Portugal

Portugal’s roads are policed by two distinct bodies. In Portugal, there is not the same distinction between the police, the military and the judiciary as there is in the US and in northern European countries. This can lead to confusion for those who are driving in Portugal for the first time.

The Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) or Republican National Guardis a paramilitary force, and operates in much the same way as the Guardia Civil in Spain or the gendarmes in France. They chiefly patrol rural areas and Portugal’s network of autoestrada and report to the nation’s Ministry of National Defence. GNR officers wear blue uniforms.

The Polícia de Segurança Pública (PSP) or Public Security Police is a more conventional police force in the US sense of the word. This branch is non-military and reports to the Ministry of Internal Administration. The PSP chiefly manages urban areas. You can recognise the officers by their blue and white uniforms.

9. RoundaboutsRules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

The very word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of American drivers, but once you get used to them, you will come to love roundabouts. They are a great way of keeping the traffic flowing at busy intersections. Just remember that vehicles already on the roundabout have priority over those joining and you will be fine.  You’ll find too that the indicator isn’t always used but don’t let that stop you using yours and putting the mirrors to good use as well.

10. Accessing Motorways

Slip roads onto motorways can sometimes be quite short so again – make sure your mirrors are well adjusted and be aware that you may need to come to a stop as passing drivers often don’t yield to the traffic merging in. So be prepared to stop until you’re certain it’s clear.

General Safety rules 

Driving safely and avoiding the unwanted attention of police officers in Europe is largely a matter of common sense. However, there are some specific rules that are a little different from the U.S. and are important to keep in mind:

  • Don’t drink and drive – in most European countries, including Spain, France, and Italy, the blood alcohol limit for driving is significantly lower than in the U.S. DUI is a serious offense and can lead to major fines and even imprisonment. The legal drinking limit in Spain & Portugal is 0.5 grams per liter which is in common with most European countries.  It’s impossible to say what that actually means in terms of units of alcohol because it is so dependent on what you’ve eaten as well as your height, weight and other factors but it’s not a lot.
  • No right turn on red – in Europe, a red light means stop and there are no exceptions. Even if you are turning right, you must wait for a green light.
  • Lights on – in some countries, daytime running lights are a legal requirement. Check if the country you are visiting is on the list.
  • Watch your speed – speed cameras are common in Spain and across Europe. and fines can be significant. Make sure you are familiar with the speed limits in the country where you are driving, but also watch the signs carefully. There are four main bands of speed in Portugal and Spain: The limit is 50km/hour in built up areas, 90km/hour outside built up areas, 100 on roads with a hard shoulder or on a dual carriageway, and 120 on motorways. See the EU’s page on speed limits for Spain and Portugal for more.
  • Put the phone away – distracted driving is the number one cause of fatalities on Europe’s roads, and mobile phone use is one of the biggest distractions. Using a phone while driving is classified as a major driving offense in most European countries. Driving in Spain with a cell phone in your hand means an automatic fine of €200, and other countries have similar penalties. Avoid temptation by switching yours off and putting it somewhere out of reach before you start driving.
  • Flashing headlights –When driving on a freeway (Autopista), don’t react angrily to cars flashing their headlights before overtaking you…. It’s the law! They are warning you that they are about to pass.
  • Fasten your seat belts – even in the back: Across the European Union, it is a requirement that everyone in the car is properly buckled in. That applies to all passengers, including those in the back, and again, an on-the-spot fine will be handed to the driver if a police officer spots someone without a seat belt on. Note that under-12s are only permitted to sit in the back, and must have either a child seat or booster seat that is appropriate for their weight and height.

Parking in Spain and Portugal – Tips & PitfallsRules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

1. Avoid the Tow Truck

Don’t be fooled into thinking parking customs are relaxed if you see a car parked in an unusual location.  Only park in a proper parking space. If you don’t park in a proper space, you run the risk of getting a fine or being towed away which can be a costly pain to sort out.

  • In general, parking is permitted in blue parking zones called zona azul or zoa O.R.A., which are marked with signs in Spanish and have a maximum of two-hour limits during the day but no parking limits between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Yellow lines: In residential areas, don’t park next to a yellow line. If you do, you will most likely be towed away.
  • Cars must be parked on the right-hand side of the roadway, except on one-way streets, which may allow parking on both sides of the road.
  • Paid parking spots typically have two-hour limits and are marked with signs and blue or green lines. These spots can be paid for at roadside meters or machines, or by using a mobile app in some cities.

2. Bumper to Bumper Parking

Don’t expect others to leave space around your vehicle to let you out. Street parking is another form of art and drivers here nuzzle right up and even touch park to get in and out of a space. If you value your bumpers and paintwork or want to avoid any extra charges on a rental, park in a car park – not on the street.

3. Hotel Carparks

Parking is rarely included in your hotel room rate – unless you are staying in a rural location. Expect to pay around 20 euro per night. If you are staying in a city like Madrid and Barcelona, and not driving much, consider returning the vehicle and hiring another when you hit the road again. In smaller historic cities, consider choosing hotels outside the old quarter, not only because parking is cheaper and more accessible but you’ll likely avoid streets which are pedestrianized and an ordeal to navigate.  If your hotel has no car park, check if they have an agreement with a nearby carpark and be sure to get the hotel to stamp your ticket.

4. Public Carparks

When touring and driving in Spain & Portugal, our advice is to always park in a well-lit public carpark with your boot or trunk backed right up against the wall.  Most towns and cities operate a metered parking system that only allows parking for two hours at a stretch. If you don’t get back in time you face a potential fine or worse, your vehicle has been towed away!

Helpful Tips for Getting Around Spain and Portugal in a CarRules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

1. Congestion on the Roads

Traffic on bank holiday weekends can be overwhelming especially leaving large cities like Madrid and Barcelona. If you can avoid driving on a bank holiday – you’ll thank yourself. If you are travelling with Totally Spain, we can advise you regarding best routes to take and public holidays to avoid.

2. High-Speed Trains for the Long Journeys

You can take the AVE high-speed train for long journeys in Spain – especially if you are travelling in peak season. All the AVE stations have car rental offices nearby so you can enjoy the picturesque scenery and hop in a car when it makes sense to do so.

3. Toll Roads in Spain & Portugal

If you decide to drive significant distances in Mediterranean Europe, for example in France, Spain, Italy, or Portugal, the quickest way from A to B is by using the network of toll roads. These provide well-maintained roads that are usually congestion-free, but you will need to pay your way. The fees vary but are based on the distance traveled, and work out at around 12 cents per mile. Most employ a simple system where you take a ticket when you enter the tollway and pay at a manned booth when you exit. The majority of toll roads accept cash or card payment, but check in advance and make sure you have some Euros on you.

The word for toll in Spain is ‘peaje’ and is Portuguese is ‘pedágio’ and it’s well worth taking these options while driving in Spain and Portugal. In Spain, you can pay with cash or card but the system is a little different in Portugal because you need to register a credit card as you enter the country and then your toll charges on major motorways are automatically deducted from that card. Note that this does not cover the Via Verde toll.  This must be paid at the toll booth. It seems a bit strange at first but you’ll get used to it. Just remember to stop at the appropriate booth to register when you arrive into Portugal.

4. When to Leave the Motorway

If you aren’t in a hurry, we recommend taking the smaller more scenic country roads where you’ll find the UNESCO heritage sites, the walled cities, the national parks and the authentic cafes and restaurants. It’s true the scenery can be dramatic on some of the motorways but if you are behind the wheel you don’t really get a chance to appreciate it. When you are driving on the smaller national roads, you can pull over and take a few pictures of those gorgeous beaches or fields of sunflowers or olives and vines.

Fueling Up in Spain and PortugalRules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

1 Fill Her Up

If you pull up at a large service station, you’ll probably need to fill the tank yourself. Make sure you put the right fuel in. Petrol is called ‘gasolina’ and diesel is called diesel – pronounced dee-es-sell’ or ‘gasoleo’ in Spain and Portugal. If you are at a smaller petrol pump, you might have somebody there to help you. You’ll need to ask them: ‘Me lo llenas’ – pronounced ‘meh lo yay-naz’ meaning – could you fill the tank?

  • Gas stations: While you can typically fuel up almost anywhere in Spain, the major difference in Spanish gas stations from American ones is that fuel is labeled differently in Spain. Leaded gasoline is called super or super 68, unleaded is called sin plomo 98 or Eurosuper 95, and diesel is called gasoleo. Additionally, you must shut off the engine, radio, lights, and your mobile phone when refueling.

2 Snacks On The Road

Our best advice is to avoid the chains if you have the time. You can’t expect a service station chain to produce anything other than bland food – although thankfully there are exceptions but we can’t go into them here. You can use the tried and test Michelin guide for Spain and Portugal which is handy for highlighting the pretty towns and country restaurants that are worth a detour from the motorways.  If you are travelling long journeys in the heat of July and August, our advice is to eat as little as possible and to hydrate frequently. Wait until you get to your destination and then relax and enjoy your meals which are bound to be of a much higher standard than anything you’ll find by the petrol pump.

Car rentals

1. Automatic Shifts Costs More

Car hire can often be a large expense on a holiday but because Spain and Portugal are very competitive marketplaces you’ll find relatively good value for money. That said, you should bear in mind that manual shift is considerably cheaper than automatic. And if you have an accident or breakdown in an automatic, it will be significantly more difficult to find a replacement vehicle.

2. Beware of the Extras

Car-hire firms make their money from the extras so try to bring your own SatNav, Trunki child car seats and only add extra drivers if you’re sure they will drive.

3. Work Out Your Itinerary Before You Hire

The one-way drop off (also known as one-way rentals) is a great way to plan a self-drive holiday. It means you can fly into Seville and fly out of Madrid or even Bilbao.  As long as your rental is for 3 days or more, then one-way drop off is free. BEWARE of hiring in Spain and dropping off in Portugal or vice versa. Fees are exorbitant.

4. Take Photos Before You Drive Away

Before you turn on the ignition, we recommend photographing the outside and inside of the vehicle – including the fuel tank level (you’ll need to switch on the car for this). It’s the safest way to make sure you don’t get charged for bumps or grazes on the bodywork that were there beforehand – but might not have been highlighted by the rental company.  Try to highlight to the rental company any additional damage BEFORE you leave the car depot.

5. Small is beautiful

For many visitors, the best part of driving in Portugal or Spain is visiting the tiny villages with their narrow, twisty streets. These were originally donkey tracks, and many have not changed much since the invention of the automobile. Under these circumstances, an SUV or luxury sedan is the last thing you need. Rent as small a car as possible, as long as it will comfortably accommodate the passengers and luggage you need to carry. Given that gasoline and diesel cost around €1.50 per liter (more than $5.00 per gallon) in Portugal and Spain, your wallet will thank you for choosing a smaller, more economical car, too.

6. Consider your own insurance

Rental companies will, of course, offer a range of insurance options from the basic standard cover, which is enough to comply with the law for driving in Portugal and Spain to fully comprehensive cover where you don’t have to pay a cent in excess or deductible. The problem is that the former really offers very little comfort and can leave you liable for a four figure excess if the vehicle is damaged or stolen while in your care. The latter, on the other hand, can increase the overall rental cost by as much as 50 percent. For these reasons, it is well worth doing a little homework and speaking to your own vehicle insurer, credit card company or travel insurance provider. There’s a good chance they will be able to offer better cover for a lower price.

If Things Go Wrong when Driving in Spain and PortugalRules of the Road in Spain & Portugal

If You Breakdown in Spain and Portugal

You need to phone road assistance which is ‘asistencia de carretera’ – the details will be in your car insurance folder. Usually you will be transferred to somebody who can speak English and help you. Just in case you aren’t, here are some of the basics…

neumatico – tire
pinchazo – puncture
aceite – oil
tubo de escape – exhaust
volante – steering wheel
frenos – brakes
fallo electrónico – an electrics failure
battery – bateria
cadenas – chains for ice/snow
multa – fine
la grua – the tow truck
denuncia – claim/complaint

Be aware of what’s going on. Put on your high-vis vest if you break down on a highway or motorway, put on your warning lights, leave the vehicle, lock it, and phone for help. You should also, with great care, place the emergency triangle on the road about 50 meters behind the vehicle. Only accept help from a police vehicle or motorway assistance. Don’t hand over keys until you have seen their ID which is called ‘accreditacion’. It is always better to wait for motorway assistance than attempt to change a tire – for your own safety and the rest of the vehicles on the road. Just make sure you move away from any danger and wait for the right help to come.

Drive defensively and enjoy the experience

Driving habits vary from one country to another. Spend a few days driving in Spain, for example, and you will soon notice it is the locals who are worst at following the rules. So perhaps the most important piece of advice is to expect the unexpected. Remember those defensive driving tips from when you first learned to drive and you can enjoy a safe, relaxed driving experience. There’s a whole continent just waiting to be explored, and no better way to do it than from behind the wheel.

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About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, how I look at the world and continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages. Western Europe is my backyard, in particular Spain, France, Germany, and Italy—countries where I have spent my life, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working.