Renting a car is a fantastic way to see both Spain and Portugal. With the freedom to roam, you’ll discover parts of the countryside and local life you wouldn’t otherwise be able to encounter. And while the countries’ major cities are definitely worth your while, smaller villages and towns along the coast or in rural areas definitely deserve your time too. Driving in Spain and Portugal is fairly straightforward. But there are a few things to keep in mind before heading out. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Bring Your Driver’s License

driving in Spain and Portugal on highwayIt may seem obvious, but you’ll need more than your passport to rent a car when driving in Spain and Portugal. A valid U.S. driver’s license is required, however we do recommend getting an international driver’s license before you arrive. While it’s becoming less and less necessary and not required by rental companies any longer, there is a small chance you may be asked for one if stopped by the police. It’s a cheap and easy process and offers a bit more security while on the road. Find out more here.

2. Use a Car Only When Necessary

driving on road in Tenerife

While a car is the most efficient and comfortable way to get around most places in the U.S., it’s not always the case in Spain and Portugal. If you’re only hoping to hit major cities—say you’re hopping from Barcelona to Madrid to Seville, with an occasional day trip in between—there’s no need to drive at all! Spain and Portugal’s major cities are best explored on foot or via public transportation. And many touristed towns can be accessed by train for day trips. Parking in big European cities tends to be complicated and expensive. Thus, a train or quick plane ride is quickest and most comfortable way to get from city to city. (Read more Tips on Traveling in Spain by Train.)

3. Drive with Ease

driving in Spain and Portugal in the woodsDriving in Spain and Portugal is relatively easy. Highways are well-marked, fairly well-paved, and safe. Use Google Maps for directions and you’ll have few issues getting to your next destination.

4. Determine the Right Pickup and Drop-Off Location

nighttime driving in Madrid When it comes time to rent a car, it’s good to keep in mind your pickup location. Many rental car offices have pickup spots right at the airport, close to the airport, or in town near train or bus stations. While it may seem convenient to rent the car right in town, it can sometimes be more complicated to get out the city. It all depends on your travel plans. Luckily, your travel designer can advise you on the best pickup and drop-off locations.

5. Notice Not All Cars are Equal

driving in Spain and Portugal yellow car

Cars can look and feel a bit different in Spain and Portugal. Luckily, you won’t have to worry about driving on the left hand side of the vehicle or the road! But you will notice that the size of many European models is a bit smaller than most U.S. models. It’s also very important to note that the majority of cars in this part of the wold have manual transmissions rather than automatic transmissions. So if you’re not comfortable driving a stick shift, be sure to let your travel designer know. We’ll always ask you just in case.

6. Remember These Road Rules

gas station driving in Spain

Most road rules in Spain and Portugal are generally the same as in the U.S.—always wear a seatbelt, green means go, don’t speed, etc. But there are a few small differences to keep in mind:


The speed limits are noted in kilometers, not miles. The primary number on your speedometer and on the highway signs is always going to be given in kilometers.

Safety Equipment

If you need to pull over on the side of the highway, you are required to put on a reflective safety vest before exiting your vehicle. If you expect to be there for more than a couple minutes, you are also required to place a reflective warning triangle behind your vehicle so other drivers can clearly see you. Your rental car should provide this for you in the glove compartment.


When it comes time to fill up the tank, pay attention to the type of vehicle you’re driving and the instructions given to you by your rental car company. In Spain, there is no leaded gasoline, just unleaded and diesel. Unleaded is called sin pluma 98 or 95 in Spanish and sem chumbo 98 or 95 in Portuguese. You may see that diesel is called gasóleo. Your rental car will likely run on 95, but double check just in case. Your credit card should work for payment, but it’s always a good idea to keep cash on you just in case.


Roundabouts abound in both Spain and Portugal. If you’re not used to them, the general rule of thumb is that anyone already circling the roundabout has the right of way, and you should yield accordingly. Also be sure to utilize your turn signals while circling and exiting the roundabout.

Righthand Lane

While it’s relatively common in the U.S. to stay in the righthand lane of any highway if you’re going slower than the rest of the traffic, you’ll quickly notice how necessary it is to do so while driving in Spain and Portugal. Unless you’re actively passing someone else, stay in the right lane. Otherwise, you’re likely to get tailed (or honked at) by a frustrated and hurried driver.

No Right on Red

In both Spain and Portugal it’s prohibited to turn right on red. So if you’re pulled up to intersection and want to turn right, you’ll need to wait until the light is green.

7. Park with Caution

parking in Spain in Barcelona Parking in Europe can be tricky. There’s simply less space! Before you park your car, look for any signs or road markings around you that may indicate 1) no parking, 2) loading zones, or 3) payment required. Often parking in a garage is the quickest and safest option. You’ll find garages all around cities and small towns (search parking garages in Google maps!). Just make sure that once you’re ready to leave, you pay at the pay station before you get into your car. These stations are usually located around the stairs and elevators. Most garages won’t have pay booths at the exit.

8. Watch for Pedestrians

pedestrians while driving in Spain and PortugalPedestrians very much have the right of way in Europe. Even on busy roadways you’ll find crosswalks, and you’re required to stop for folks. Watch out for motorcycles, bikes, and electric scooters as well, which tend to creates rules of their own. If you’re driving from village to village in a rural area, you’re also likely to encounter people walking along the side of road on an afternoon stroll, or a group of cyclists. You may even come across a herd of cows, goats, or sheep! Just remember that you’re not alone on the road.

9. Prepare for Tolls

toll boothsYou may encounter the occasional toll in Spain, but you will definitely hit some while driving through Portugal. You’ll grab a ticket at the first toll stop and pay the fee at the next one, which marks the distance you’ve driven. Most places take credit card but it’s always a good idea to have cash on you just in case.

Want more tips on driving in Spain and Portugal? Contact your travel designer with any specific questions and we’ll be sure to get you the answers.

Ready to get on the road and explore this exciting peninsula? Reach out to us and get started on your unforgettable Spain-Portugal itinerary.