Given its well-designed and prompt public transportation network and a highway system that's easy for drivers to follow, Spain is a simple destination to navigate. Nearly the entire country is covered by rail lines -- some of them high-speed -- and by bus routes that safely carry you between big cities and towns.
There are very few difficulties to getting around Spain; if we had to pick one nuisance, it's the reduced schedules on Sundays and holidays (noted on timetables as domingos y festivos). But with the right amount of planning, even that's not such a big deal.
The majority of international visitors arrive at Madrid's Barajas Airport or Barcelona's El Prat, both of which are less than 15 miles from the city center. In all, Spain has 36 international and local airports, though the best options for connections are from Madrid or Barcelona. Both are well served by national and discount airlines, including Iberia and Air Europa, and offer daily flights to almost every corner of the country and also to the Canary and Balearic Islands.
While Spain's state-run rail network may not be the most efficient in Europe, it serves its purpose. RENFE, which runs the rails, has improved its timeliness in recent years. Madrid serves as the heart of the system, with service radiating to major cities in all directions.
Spain has several types of trains:
Long-Distance: There are high-speed ("AVE") and regular service ("Talgo" or "Talgo 200") trains, with fares based on type of train and class of seat (first/club, business or tourist class). Most long-distance trains have bar and restaurant service, air-conditioning, movies and reclining seats. Overnight trains offer sleeping berths (couchettes) for an additional fee. High-speed trains can cost up to 50 percent more than the slow trains, but get you to your destination much faster (Madrid to Barcelona, for example, is less than three hours by high-speed train, versus five and a half hours via slower services).
Medium-Distance: Talgo trains also operate medium-distance routes, which generally are just a few hours in length. Onboard amenities sometimes include a drink and snack cart.
Local: Denoted by the word cercanias, local trains offer just one class of seat and are usually under two hours. They tend to make a lot of stops.
Fares in Spain are among the lowest in Europe. You can purchase tickets online, at a RENFE ticket office or from a station agent. Local train tickets also can be bought from ticket machines, when available. And of course you can purchase seats in advance from a travel agency, but expect to pay an upcharge for the service.
At large stations, such as those in Madrid and Barcelona, make sure you get in line at the correct window -- some windows book only local trains (cercanias) and others handle long distance (largos recorridos). To make matters even more confusing, you'll likely find yet another window that only makes advance or international reservations.
Travelers over the age of 60 qualify for discounts between 25 percent and 40 percent. Show ID at a ticket window and request a gold card (tarjeta dorada). Children under the age of 13 also are discounted.
Buy tickets no later than one hour before departure, though that can even be cutting it close; naturally, you'll want to plan much further ahead when traveling on holidays and during peak tourist seasons, such as Holy Week. And specify whether you want one way (ida) or roundtrip (ida y vuelta).
Almost 200 cities and towns are served by Spain's excellent bus network. Intercity buses are clean and safe, making them a stellar option for all travelers, not just those on a budget.
The hardest part about using Spain's bus network is trying to figure out which bus company to use and where the bus station is -- easy in small towns, but a challenge in big cities, where the terminals could be miles apart. For example, Madrid has two main bus terminals -- Avenida de America and Estacion del Sur.
Some companies, such as Avanzabus, are established enough that they have English-language websites, but it can be hard to know if online timetables are up to date. More reliable are timetables posted at the stations themselves or the website Movelia, which allows you to make advance reservations for a small processing fee and is the best resource for information on buses in Spain. You can also buy tickets at the station on the day of your trip.
International car rental agencies are widely available in Spain; they include Budget, Hertz, Avis and Thrifty. European agencies, such as Europcar, and Spanish companies, including Pepecar, are also available.
Advance reservations online nearly always get you the best rate. Most pick-up and drop-off locations are at airports, with some at train stations or city offices.
Foreigners must be 21 years old and have had a license for at least one year to rent a car in Spain. U.S. and European Union driver's licenses are accepted.
A few points to keep in mind:
Highways are called autopistas and have speed limits of 120 kph (75 mph). Secondary roads are called autovias and have speed limits of 50 to 90 kph (31 to 56 mph).
Some of Spain's highways are toll roads -- look for signs with an "AP," "R" or the Spanish word peaje on them. While credit cards are accepted, it's recommended that you pay with cash, just in case there's a problem with the credit card reader accepting an international credit card.
Parking can be beastly in some cities and historic towns. It can get so crowded in some places, like Granada, that local governments have instituted fees during high-traffic times of day. If you're visiting a congested city, consider staying at a hotel that offers parking.
If the police pull you over for speeding or for speaking on a mobile phone while driving (it's banned), don't be surprised if you're asked to pay a fine on the spot. Pay in cash and ask for a receipt.
Taxis are a reasonably priced option in cities or if you need transport from a town to a rural destination. In general, Spanish taxi drivers are trustworthy and do not make a habit of bilking tourists.
In a city, hail a taxi on the street or seek one out at a taxi stand (parada de taxi), which are at train stations, airports and major intersections. Available taxis have green lights or signs that say libre (free) on them.
Taxis run on meters in cities; drivers taking you long distances won't necessarily use the meter, which is fine as long as you agree in advance on the fare.
Note that if you phone a taxi company to request a ride, you will need to pay for the taxi's journey to your pick-up spot. Also, it's common to pay a surcharge or a higher per-kilometer rate at night and on Sundays.
Most people going from mainland Spain to the Balearic Islands travel via ferry. Ferries depart from the east coast cities of Barcelona, Denia and Valencia. Express service is available. Tickets should be purchased in advance, as the ferries often sell out.
Additionally, it is possible to travel between Spain and Italy, Morocco, Algeria and even England via boat. Companies include Grimaldi Lines, Trasmediterranea and Brittany Ferries. Some ships offer luxury accommodations, swimming pools, restaurants, even nightclubs.
--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma