Either you’re moving to Spain to live or you’re going to visit Spain just for a vacation – either way, if you’re going to go to Spain: this post is for you.
There are many different ways to get around Spain, and we are going to try and talk about all of them.
To skip directly to the section you need:
- Which airport?
- Train or bus?
This sounds crazy because you might want to look at flights first but you need to have an idea of where the nearest airport is and if it is the best airport for you.
If you’re going to Madrid you already have your answer. But if you want to go to Andalusia or Galicia are you really better off flying directly into Madrid?
If you fly into MAD airport you can take an 11 minute train to Estación de Chamartín (or 25 minutes to Estación de Atocha). These are the two biggest train stations.
Chamartin serves big cities:
While Atocha serves a bit more
Obviously, different cities have different connections, but the above map shows just about every major train line in Spain.
BUT a train from Madrid to Bilbao takes up to 6.5 hours. To get to Almeria (Andalucia) it takes 6 hours. To get to Vigo (Galicia) it would take 7-10 hours. Via trains and buses you could still be 10 hours from your destination if you fly into Madrid.
You have to figure out if it’s cheaper to save 70 bucks on a flight into Madrid but then spend 90 bucks on a train to get to your future town. Also how long you have in Spain will determine if you want to spend more to get closer to your destination.
Here is a basic guide to the best airport to use depending on where you’re headed.
- If you’re going to the middle or east: fly into Madrid or Barcelona
- If you’re going to the north or west: it may be easier to fly into Portugal or France then take a bus/train down. Check before committing to Madrid.
- If you’re going to the south it is easiest to fly into Malaga and take an 8 minute train to Malaga María Zambrano station which gets you to the main train station, and the main bus station is just across the street. From Malaga you can get to anywhere in Andalucia easily. Faster than Madrid.
The biggest airports have better transportation in/out and more flights. Here are the biggest airports:
- 1. Madrid (MAD)
- 2. Barcelona (BCN)
- 3. Palma de Mallorca (PMI) for the Balearic Islands
- 4. Malaga (AGP) – probably the best choice for Andalusia
- 5. Alicante (ALC) – in Valencia
- 6. Gran Canaria (LPA) – anyone going to the Canary Islands has about a hundred ways to get there with the other biggest airports: #7 Tenerife, # 9 Lanzarote #11 Fuerteventura #14… it goes on and on
- 8. Ibiza (IBZ) for the Balearic Islands
- 10. Valencia (VLC)
- 12. Seville (SVQ) in Andalusia
- 13. Bilbao (BIO) in Basque Country
Play around with your favorite flight website (Expedia, Booking, etc) to see how much money Madrid vs a more local airport would cost. Pay attention to transfers. Then consider further transportation (look at Alsa Bus or Renfe Trains). Is it cheaper and worth your time to go to Madrid or just fly closer?
Train or Bus?
Unless you’re going to a city with a major airport, you’ll be looking at either a train or a bus ride after your flight arrives.
Booking a train journey is very simple. All trains in Spain are run by Renfe. These trains are clean, safe, and fairly economical. Renfe might lack the punctuality of the DeutschesBahn in Germany, but they’ll get you where you’re going.
Trains are much faster than buses, so they are much more expensive. But we’ve never been on a train that cost more than €45 per person, and we’ve never been on a bus that cost more than €15 per person.
If you overlay those two maps from above, you get basically the entirety of Spain’s rail network. But, if you look closely you will notice that there are definite “islands” and dead ends that make trains more or less useless for the more “off the beaten path” destinations. Getting off the beaten path will absolutely involve a bus.
Spain has an over-reliance on buses. They converted loads of rail lines into bike paths so you can’t get far on a train. Buses are much slower than trains, and the seats are smaller. The only good things I can say about buses are that they are cheap and they usually have free WiFi (the trains almost never do for some reason).
There are at least 8 major bus companies operating in Spain. Each one has different routes, connections, schedules, etc. The two largest and most common are:
Alsa: The largest and easiest to use in our experience. They connect just about every city, you can use their website to book tickets in advance. (You could also buy your tickets from the driver, but we’ve seen people try this and get denied because the bus was already full.) But their website is a bit funky, sometimes it’s down, and sometimes it won’t calculate connections for you.
Movelia: This is probably better than Alsa, if a bit more expensive. It’s not a single bus company, more like a federation of 70 different companies. They take more care in helping you plan connections, and they offer more direct routes to major destinations. That being said we’ve never used this company based on Alsa being more convenient where we live.
Between these two bus companies you should be able to plot a course to any Spanish city (not village, see below).
Every small city will have a bus station connected to the provincial capital. So you may have to take a bus or train only to a big city, then take a local bus to a small village.
If you’re going to a small city or need to get across a large city you probably won’t see connections with Alsa. For example you want to go to Gibraltar – you can only get as far as Algeciras by Alsa, then you will have to take the local bus to La Linea de la Concepcion. Alsa does not go directly to La Linea.
Google the route you want (ex: “Algeciras La Linea bus”) and look for a website that looks something like this. Check the timetable and just make a note of it. You can’t book these ahead and will need to pay the bus driver directly.
You can take taxis within a city for a very reasonable fee. The most we have ever paid in a taxi was €15 but that was due to the heavy traffic and a longer distance.
If you are trying to get to the next village over taxis are an option but a bit more expensive.
We once waited for a bus for about 30 minutes only to learn that the schedule we had found online was inaccurate. We were not alone in our ignorance, the locals were left in the dark as well. We would have had to wait for an additional 2 hours for the next bus, but since we had to catch a train we had to take a taxi.
An intercity taxi ride will cost a whole lot more than the intercity bus, but it will be very quick.
For a quick price/travel time comparison, here are the prices for our area.
The local bus costs €2.50, and takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
The taxi costs €30, and takes 20 minutes.
Ride Sharing Apps
The two major ride sharing apps that most people are familiar with are Uber and Lyft. Lyft does not seem to be available in Spain at all, and Uber is only available in Madrid and Barcelona.
A more local option is Cabify. Cabify is similar to Uber, but they are available in more cities. There have been numerous taxi driver protests against ride sharing apps, and their position in Spain is ever changing. In a few months they might be banned, or they might expand. I have no idea.
There is one option that I’d never heard about before coming to Spain, Blablacar.
Blablacar is far less similar to Uber or Cabify. You first enter your point of origin, destination, dates, and desired departure time. Then the app shows you different drivers who are making the same journey on the same dates. You get to choose which driver based on their rules, prices, or reviews left by previous passengers.
Once connected to a driver you then contact them and organize where and at what time you will get picked up.
You pay the driver a small fee, which depends on the total travel time, and that’s that. It’s basically hitch hiking, but with technology.
As nice as it sounds, don’t rely on it. The one time we were interested in using it (the buses would have taken 13 hours with 50 local stops. The trains didn’t exist, and flying was too expensive) there wasn’t anyone taking the same journey as us. I think that relying on Blablacar is a gamble, but it might really pay off.
Rent a Car
Most train stations will have a car rental desk to help you out. The most common companies are Avis, Enterprise, Alamo, Europcar, and Hertz.
To rent a car in Spain, you need
- To be at least 21 years old, 22 in the Canary Islands, or 25 for certain kinds of cars.
- An ID (if you are a non EU citizen, your passport is best).
- A drivers licence that you have had for at least one year.
- A credit/debit card in your name for the deposit (€150 seems standard).
- To know how to drive stick (or be willing to pay more for an automatic).
You might need (Certain rules are only enforced by certain employees so you might need these things depending on who you rent from).
- An international drivers licence (Non EU citizens only). I‘ve read that some rental agents asked for this, and others did not. If you want to get it to be safe, find your local AAA office, and ask for one. Mine was $20 and provides a good bit of “peace of mind”.
- An extra pair of glasses (sometimes). If you wear corrective lenses you technically need a second pair of glasses in case your pair breaks.
Driving in Spain requires a bit of knowledge that you might not be familiar with if you are coming from the States, such as how to use a roundabout, and how to interpret European road signs, and how to fit down an ally that only has 1 cm of wiggle room on either side.
I am a fairly confident driver, but I would hesitate to even consider driving in some of the old towns that we’ve been through.