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Major routes throughout Spain bear heavy traffic, especially in peak holiday periods, so be extremely cautious; Spain has one of the highest traffic accident rates in Europe, and the roads are shared by a mixture of local drivers, immigrants en route elsewhere from eastern Europe and north Africa, and non-Spanish travelers on vacation, some of whom are more accustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road. Watch out, too, for heavy truck traffic on national routes. Expect the near-impossibility of on-street parking in the major cities. Parking garages are common and affordable, and provide added safety to your vehicle and possessions.

The country’s main cities are well connected by a network of four-lane autovías (freeways). The letter N stands for a national route (carretera nacional), either four- or two-lane. An autopista (AP) is a toll road. At the tollbooth plazas (the term in Castilian is peaje; in Catalan, peatge), there are three systems to choose from—automàtic, with machines for credit cards or coins; manual, with an attendant; or telepago, an automatic chip-driven system mostly used by Spanish drivers.

Getting Around and Out of Barcelona

Arriving in Barcelona by car from the north along the AP7 autopista or from the west along the AP2, follow signs for the Ronda Litoral (the coastal ring road—but beware: it’s most prominently marked "Aeroport," which can be misleading) to lower and central Barcelona along the waterfront, or the Ronda de Dalt (the upper-ring road) along the edge of upper Barcelona to Horta, the Bonanova, Sarrià, and Pedralbes. For the center of town, take the Ronda Litoral and look for Exit 21 ("Paral.lel–Les Ramblas") or 22 ("Barceloneta–Via Laietana–Hospital de Mar"). If you are arriving from the Pyrenees on the C1411/E9 through the Tunel del Cadí, the Tunels de Vallvidrera will put you on the upper end of Via Augusta with off-ramps to Sarrià, Pedralbes, and La Bonanova. The Eixample and Ciutat Vella are 10–15 minutes farther if traffic is fluid. Watch out for the new variable speed limits on the approaches to Barcelona. While 80 kph (48 mph) is the maximum speed on the rondas, flashing signs over the motorway sometimes cut the speed limit down to 40 kph (24 mph) during peak hours.

Barcelona’s main crosstown traffic arteries are Diagonal (running diagonally through the city) and the midtown avenues, Carrer d’Aragó, and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, both cutting northeast–southwest through the heart of the city. Passeig de Gràcia, which becomes Gran de Gràcia above Diagonal, runs all the way from Plaça de Catalunya up to Plaça Lesseps, but the main up-and-down streets, for motorists, are Balmes, Muntaner, Aribau, and Comtes d’Urgell. The general urban speed limit is 50 kph (30 mph).

Getting around Barcelona by car is generally more trouble than it’s worth. It’s better to walk or travel via subway, taxi, or bus.

Leaving Barcelona is not difficult. Follow signs for the rondas, do some advance mapping, and you’re off. Follow signs for Girona and França for the Costa Brava, Girona, Figueres, and France. Follow Via Augusta and signs for Tunels de Vallvidrera or E9 and Manresa for the Tunel del Cadí and the Pyrenean Cerdanya valley. Follow Diagonal west and then the freeway AP7 signs for Lleida, Zaragoza, Tarragona, and Valencia to leave the city headed west. Look for airport, Castelldefells, and Sitges signs to head southwest down the coast for these beach points on the Costa Daurada. This C32 freeway to Sitges joins the AP7 to Tarragona and Valencia.

For travel outside Barcelona, the freeways to Girona, Figueres, Sitges, Tarragona, and Lleida are surprisingly fast. The distance to Girona, 97 km (58 miles), is a 45-minute shot. The French border is an hour away. Perpignan, at 188 km (113 miles) away, is an hour and 20 minutes.

Gasoline

There are some 60 gas stations in Barcelona and environs, often open 24 hours, especially around Barcelona’s rondas. Virtually all stations are self-service, though prices are the same as those at full-service stations. At the tank, punch in the amount of gas you want (in euros, not in liters), unhook the nozzle, pump the gas, and then pay. At night, however, you must pay before you fill up. Some stations allow for credit cards at the pump. Most pumps offer unleaded gas and diesel fuel, so be careful to pick the right one for your car. Unleaded gas (gasolina sin plomo) is available in two grades, 95 and 98 octanes. Prices per liter (www.elpreciodelagasolina.com) vary little between stations: €1.23 for sin plomo (95 octane) and €1.34 for unleaded (98 octane). Diesel fuel, known as gas-oleo, is about €1.12 a liter and, what’s more, gets you farther per liter, so renting a car with a diesel engine will save you major fuel money.

Parking

Barcelona’s underground parking lots (posted "Parking" and symbolized by a white P on a blue background) are generally safe and convenient. Garage prices vary; expect close to €4 an hour and €25–€40 per 24-hour day. Airport parking runs from €5.48 for up to two hours to €18.75 per day for up to four days and €15 per day thereafter. The long-term parking located between Terminal 1 (T1) and Terminal 2 (T2) costs €87 up to 20 days and €3 per day after that.

Barcelona’s street-parking system runs 9 am–2 pm and 4 pm–8 pm (with on-call attendants) weekdays and all day Saturday. Park in the specially marked blue spaces (about €2.60 per hour in the most expensive zones), and look for a nearby ticket vending machine. Tickets are valid for one, two, or three hours, but renewable in half-hour increments. The ticket must be displayed on the front dashboard. On the streets, do not park where the pavement edge is yellow or where there is a private entry (gual or vado). Parking signs marked "1–15" or "15–30" signify you can park on those dates of the month on the side of the street where indicated. Whenever you feel you have found an open space, be alert for triangular yellow stickers on the pavement that indicate a tow-away zone—the spot might not be so lucky after all. If your car is towed in Barcelona, you will find one of these yellow triangles, with the phone number and address of the municipal car deposit where your vehicle now resides, on the pavement where you left your car. A taxi will know where to take you to get it back.

The fine and towing charges, with taxes and storage fees, can set you back as much as €175, depending on the make and model of the car, and where and when you've parked illegally. Note that you will need to bring your passport and produce the vehicle registration documents at the pound. To avoid risking this annoying and expensive catastrophe, park in a parking lot or garage. If your car is towed in Bilbao, contact the ayuntamiento, or town hall.

Towing Contact Information

Barcelona. 901/513151.

Bilbao Ayuntamiento (Town Hall). 94/420--4200.

Rental Cars

Currently, one of the best ways to rent a car, whether you arrange it from home or during your travels, is through the company’s website—the rates are the best and the arrangements the easiest.

Generally you’ll get a better deal if you book a car before you leave home. Avis, Hertz, Budget, and the European agency Europcar all have counters at the airports in Barcelona and Bilbao and in other cities. National companies work through the Spanish agency Atesa. Smaller, local companies offer lower rates. Cars with automatic transmission are less common, so specify your need for one in advance. A SatNav system programmable in English is likely to be well worth the cost of the option. Rates for pickup at Barcelona airport can start as low as €13 a day and €30 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, manual transmission and unlimited mileage, booked online, but commonly run at least twice that amount. This does not include the tax on car rentals, which is 21%.

Your own driver’s license is valid in Spain, but you may want to get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) for extra assurance. Permits are available from the American or Canadian Automobile Association, or, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association or Royal Automobile Club. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.

If you are stopped you will be asked to present your license and passport (or photocopy). In Spain anyone over 18 with a valid license can drive; however, some rental companies will not rent a car to drivers under 21.

The cost for a child’s car seat is €3.50 a day; the cost per day for an additional driver is approximately €4.50 per day.

Automobile Associations

American Automobile Association (AAA). Member services are provided through state and regional affiliates. 800/222--3395; 407/444--8000; www.aaa.com.

National Automobile Club. Individual membership is open to California residents only. 650/294--7000; 800/622--2136; www.thenac.com.

Local Agencies in Barcelona

Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Aeropuerto El Prat, El Prat del Llobregat, Catalonia. 93/521--9095; www.enterprise.es.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Carrer Muntaner 45, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08011. 93/323--0701; www.enterprise.es.

Vanguard Rent. Carrer Londres 31, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08029. 93/439--3880; www.vanguardrent.com/en/.

Major Agencies

Avis. Estació de Sants, Carrer Rector Triad 104, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08014. 902/110293.

Avis. Carrer Còrsega 293–295, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08008. 902/110275; www.avis.es.

Europcar. Viladomat 214, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08029. 93/439--8403; www.europcar.es.

Europcar. Estació de Sants, Pl. Paises Catalanes s/n, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08014. 902/105055; www.europcar.es.

Hertz. Estació de Sants, Carrer Viriat 45, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08014. 902/998707; www.hertz.com.

Hertz. Centro Comercial L'Illa, Av. Diagonal 622, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08021. 93/410--1034; www.hertz.com.

Wholesalers

Auto Europe. 888/223--5555; www.autoeurope.com.

Europe by Car. 212/581--3040; 800/223--1516; www.europebycar.com.

Eurovacations. 877/471--3876; www.eurovacations.com.

Kemwel. 877/820--0668; www.kemwel.com.

Road Conditions

You can reach all major cities and destinations by high-speed autopistas, two- and three-lane freeways where 110 kph (63 mph) is the legal speed limit, and vehicles that cannot move at at least 60 kph are banned. Tolls are steep, sometimes as high as €20 for two- to three-hour sections, but these freeways are spectacular touring tracks with terrific views of the countryside (billboards are prohibited), and they make the Iberian Peninsula into a relatively small piece of geography. Once you are off these major roads, all bets are off. Trucks can hold up long lines of traffic, and averaging 60 kph (36 mph) can be challenging. Still, the scenery, by and large, remains superb.

Signage on autopistas can be erratic and the lettering too small to decipher early enough to make decisions. Add to this the different languages (Spanish, Catalan, Euskera) appearing on road signs within a few hours of each other, and a certain amount of confusion is guaranteed. Only slower speeds can alleviate this problem by giving motorists more time to react.

Traffic jams (atascos) can be a problem in and around Barcelona, where the travel on the rondas slows to a standstill at peak hours. If possible, avoid the rush hours, which can last from 7 am until 9:30 am and 7 pm to 9 pm.

Long weekends, called puentes (literally, bridges), particularly those that start on Friday, routinely provoke delays leaving Barcelona. Avoiding the rondas in favor of the Tunels de Vallvidrera (straight out Via Augusta) can save time if you’re headed north. Most of Barcelona vacation during August, so if you’re hitting the road at the beginning or end of this month you’ll likely encounter lots of traffic, particularly on the roads heading up or down the coast.

Roadside Emergencies

The rental agencies Hertz and Avis have 24-hour breakdown service. If you belong to an auto club (AAA or CAA), you can get emergency assistance from their Catalan counterpart, the Reial Automovil Club de Catalunya (RACC), or the Spanish branch Real Automovil Club de España (RACE). There are emergency telephones on all autopistas, every 2 km (1 mile), with service stations generally found every 40 km (25 miles).

Traveling with a European cell phone is essential for safety and convenience, keeping in mind that coverage in the mountains is erratic.

If your rental car breaks down, be especially wary of anyone who stops to help you on the road: highway robbery has been known to be all too literal here on occasion, as bands of thieves puncture tires and steal belongings (nearly always on toll roads and freeways, sometimes at knife- or gunpoint) while pretending to offer assistance.

Emergency Services

Real Automovil Club de Catalunya. Diagonal 687, Diagonal, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08028. 93/495--5058; 902/156156; www.racc.es.

Real Automovil Club de España. Carrer Muntaner 107, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08036. 93/451--1551; 900/112222; www.race.es.

Rules of the Road

In Spain, motorists drive on the right. Horns are banned in cities, but that doesn’t seem to keep irate drivers from blasting away.

Children under 12 may not ride in the front seat, and seat belts are compulsory. Speed limits are 50 kph (31 mph) in cities; 100 kph (62 mph) on N roads; 120 kph (72 mph) on the autopistas and autovías; and, unless otherwise signposted, 70 kph (44 mph) on secondary roads. Barcelona’s rondas now limit motorists to 80 kph (48 mph) and sometimes, at peak hours, cut the speed limit down to 40 kph (24 mph). If you're caught driving over the limit by 10 kph (6 mph), you can expect a substantial fine.

Right turns on red are not permitted. In the cities people are more often stopped for petty rule-breaking such as crossing a solid line or doing a U-turn than for speeding. However, Spanish highway police are especially vigilant regarding speeding and illegal passing, generally interpreted as crossing the solid line; fines start at €100 and can go as high as €600; in the case of foreign drivers, police are empowered to demand payment on the spot.

It is illegal to use a hand-held phone, headphones or earphones while driving. If you're traveling with an infant or a young child, you can be fined for not having a carrier seat of approved design.

On freeway ramps, expect to come to a full stop at the red stop (not yield) triangle at the end of the on-ramp and wait for a break in the traffic. Expect no merging to the left lane, especially from trucks, which, by law, must remain in the right lane.

Drunk-driving tests are becoming more prevalent. It is illegal to drive with an alcohol level that exceeds 0.5% BAC (blood-alcohol count) or 0.25 on a breath test; this is about three medium-size glasses of wine or three beers for a man of average height and weight, but it’s best to be extra cautious. Penalties vary from one region of Spain to another; in the worst-case scenario, you can be fined as much as €1,000 or wind up in jail for three to eight months.