Spain is an ideal destination for independent travelers who don't necessarily like to make hotel bookings in advance. With the exception of peak seasons, such as holidays and festivals, it's possible to just show up and find well-priced and even exceptional lodging. That's a rarity in many spots in Europe, especially large cities.
Spain also has the best-established network of historic buildings-turned-hotels, appealing wonderfully to history and architecture buffs and those seeking the bragging rights of having slept in a massive 10th-century fortress.
Regardless of which Spain lodging you choose, expect variable pricing from season to season. Note that some small properties -- especially family-run ones -- close in the summer or during the holidays.
Here's a look at where to stay in Spain.
Hotel quality in Spain is government-regulated, with all establishments rated on a scale of one to five stars (with five being the best). Hotels are emblazoned with a capital letter "H" and the star rating on a placard at the entrance. The ratings take into account such characteristics as amenities, services, room size and staffing. The cream-of-the-crop five-star properties -- such as the world-famous Ritz-Carlton in Madrid -- are further distinguished with a words like deluxe, grand luxury or grand class rating (in Spanish, gran lujo or gran clase).
One-star hotels are pleasant enough, with basic in-room amenities and hotel services. As you go up in star ratings, you'll also go up in price and amenities. Five-star beach resort hotels like the Gran Melia Don Pepe in Marbella, for example, offer swimming pools, top-end end fitness centers, spas, fine dining and room service, among other amenities.
Expect any property denoted as a hotel to have at least one restaurant and private, ensuite bathrooms; breakfast is often included in the nightly rate. Three-star properties and higher will have air conditioning, televisions, minibars, Wi-Fi and toiletries; some one- and two-star hotels offer these amenities too.
Large international and Spanish chains such as Sol Melia are omnipresent in all major cities and in big resort towns along the coasts.
In addition, more and more chic boutique hotels are popping up on the peninsula, especially in modern cities like Barcelona and Bilbao. One of the most well-regarded is the four-star Hotel Espana in the heart of Barcelona; it's a restored Catalonian modernist building dating back to the 1850s.
Spain Hotel Resources:
If you truly want to capture the essence of classical Spain, your visit to the country must include at least one night in a parador.
Officially called paradores de turismo, paradors are castles, forts, palaces, monasteries and other historic edifices that the Spanish government has converted into posh lodging options equivalent in quality to four- and five-star hotels. The Parador de Granada, for example, is housed inside a small, 15th-century convent on the property of the famed Alhambra.
Some of the funds generated help pay for the upkeep of the buildings, which often are in remote yet scenic parts of Spain that otherwise wouldn't see a lot of revenue from tourism. The parador at Tortosa is approximately 60 miles from the city of Tarragona in northern Spain, and is a gorgeous, ochre-colored castle from the 10th century.
Paradors are pricey and can be very popular -- some sell out six or eight months in advance, especially during holidays. If you're planning to travel outside of the holiday seasons and have parador stays in mind for five or more nights of your vacation, consider purchasing a discount card from Paradores-Spain.com, which reduces your rate at most paradors.
Spanish Parador Resources:
Spain Hostels and Residential Hostels
Many people think of bunk beds, backpacks and curfews when they hear the word "hostel." While Spain does have youth hostels in the traditional sense, in general hostales are more like small hotels than refuges for 20-something wanderers.
There are two types of hostels in the country: the "hostal-residencia" (denoted by "HsR" on the main entrance sign) and the "hostal" (marked "Hs"). Both are graded on a three-star system.
Residential hostels are on par with one- or two-star hotels except they don't have on-site restaurants (though some have bars or cafes). Many residential hostels include a simple breakfast in the daily rate. Some but not all rooms have private ensuite bathrooms (if they do, check in advance whether they provide towels or any toiletries). Owners may or may not accept credit cards, so be sure to ask before you arrive (you're likely to find at least one person who speaks English).
Hostels, meanwhile, are nearly identical to residential hostels, but generally they do not provide breakfast. Otherwise, there's very little difference.
A word of advice: Don't be misled by the star-rating system: Many hostels are as nice as hotels, even if they're coroneted with just one or two stars. The pretty, two-star Hospederia Los Palmitos, for instance, sits on the cliffs of southeast Spain in San Jose and offers five double rooms, one triple and nine suites with televisions, air conditioning, minibars, private bathrooms and balconies.
Spain Hostel Resources:
Pensiones (called casas de huespedes and denoted with a "CH" on the sign) are family-run lodges with just a handful of rooms. Sometimes they are within the family's home itself, allowing you to catch a glimpse of Spanish life.
Expect basic and sometimes threadbare comforts -- a small room with timeworn furniture and a sink with a towel or two. Shared bathrooms are the norm. Breakfast is usually served, often prepared by the lady of the house, who likely doesn't speak English (nor may anyone else). These tend to be cash-only operations.
There's no website dedicated to pensiones, but you'll commonly find them mixed in with other low-budget options on many hotel booking engines.
Similar in price but often of poor quality are the habitaciones and camas you'll see advertised in bus or rail stations or on signs outside buildings. These are best avoided.
Spain Monasteries and Churches
If you are planning to walk all or a portion of the northerly pilgrim route known as the Camino de Santiago -- which runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain -- you can opt to stay at lodging specifically earmarked for pilgrims.
Monasteries and churches, such as the 83-bed Albergue de Peregrinos Itzandegia in the town of Roncesvalles, offer dormitory-style accommodations, access to bathrooms and a warm meal in exchange for a very low rate (six to eight euros on average). Some accommodations are even more basic. In the village of Granon, for example, pilgrims sleep on mats on the floor of the bell tower of San Juan Bautista church.
Reservations are sometimes accepted in advance.
Spain Rural Guesthouses and Agritourism
If you have your own transportation and are interested in getting out of the cities and into the country, your main lodging option will be a room in a B&B-like rural guesthouse (casa rural, or CR) in a small village or on a ranch or farm. You can expect an experience a lot like that at a bed and breakfast -- country charm, big breakfasts, friendly innkeepers, pretty environs and the possibility of participating in chores.
Spain Agritourism Resources:
Ecoturismorural.com (Spanish only)
Camping in Spain
Spain has many scenic natural areas and national parks where camping is a logical option. Like hotels, campsites are given a star rating based on amenities and quality. Highly rated campsites have swimming pools, grocery stores and restaurants on site.
Spain Camping Resources:
--written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.