Car Rentals, gassing up, tolls and driving in Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia and Basque Country

Renting (or even better, borrowing) a car is the way to go if you want to go across northern Spain. The below are some (semi-)useful and random things to know about driving around in Spain.

The below is our actual experience in June/July 2018, and we flew into Bilbao and ended our 10 day trip in San Sebastian.

Where to rent and drop off?

Well, most airports will have rental counters, and you'll find the usual suspects. So not much to add here to what most guide books will tell you. We rented a car at the airport Bilbao, via Hertz, but that last bit is mostly because we found a deal connected to our flight via Expedia.

Everything was pretty smooth, but we did drive around the parking garage, and could not get out... luckily no one was behind us, so we backed up and drove around again. Turns out that - we found out after driving back to the Hertz attendants and actually asking - the gates are license plate activated and should (!!) open without tickets. They should just open automatically. Most people we stood in line with did however also get stuck in front of the gates.

Solution: either get lucky and the gate opens (it did at our second attempt - we used the left most lane) or press the assistance button. I'm guessing you need to mutter rental car - or the Spanish equivalent to get the gate to open...

Once on our way, we were expecting lots of traffic (17:00 or so on a Monday around Bilbao). Not so much. As a matter of fact, after getting out of the vicinity of Bilbao there is no traffic. Really. None. So nice!

More on driving and tolls, as well as gassing up below.

We dropped our car of in San Sebastian. That turned out to be very smart. Hertz has a location outside of San Sebastian in the Garbera Shopping Center (map is here). The staff was very friendly and happily ordered us a taxi into town. It was a 20 minute ride or so, and cost under Euro 10.

So unless you have plans to go from San Sebastian to other places in Basque country, ditch the car, save yourself the hassle and cost of parking and just do what we did.

Tolls and how they work

We only encountered tolls in a few spots. Mostly around A Coruna (Galicia) on the AG55 to Malpica and between Bilbao and San Sebastian (Donostia) driving on AP8 across Basque country. Most of what we drove was the A8 and A6, which across Cantabria and Asturias have no tolls at all. And generally speaking, no traffic either!

Tolls are relatively low, certainly compared to driving around France. You can pay in a number of ways. For us only "two" mattered, either drive through the gate with an attendant, or attempt to use the machine. All of these seem to offer card payments. The third one - a toll tag / electronic toll - was no option with our rental car.

As every good newby, our first payments where with a person. And in cash, because of course, we had no idea how this works and what it costs... After one try and observing others next to us, we figured out the machine work equally well and often are faster. Mostly because there is only one gate with a person, and a few more with machines.

The nice things about the machines is that they give change. We paid all our tolls in cash, and you throw in your coins - a good way to get rid of them 5 Euro cent coins. When using paper money, you get change, so that is also easy. Just make sure to wait for it...

Our advice, just use the machines, try out a card if you have to, but just throw money in and be on your way quickly.

Gassing up - what do I need to know?

Well... this is the one that I always wonder about. Why don't guide books describe this in some form or fashion. Being from Europe, and living in the US, I still get confused, so here is what we saw.

Cantabira, Asturias, Galicia:
  • Wait for the attendant, someone will come and do this for you - at no additional charge
  • Tell them how much gas - most attendants will quickly figure out you are a tourist and use "full?" to ask you
  • While the attendant is gassing, go inside and line up to pay - and of course, remember the pump number
Basque Country:
  • Do it yourself
  • Gas up before you pay - after hours (23:00 till 5:00 or so), this might change and you may need to pay first
  • Use any form of payment, including ATM - Maestro, Credit or other means
Turns out to be easy, just don't start pumping and offend the attendant. Just be patient if no one comes running towards you immediately.

Where do I go - Directions on the high ways?

This is Europe, so this sounds obvious to all of us born in Europe or those having driven across Europe: you drive in the direction of the next big city. For example, if you need to go to Pechon (Cantabria) from Bilbao, you would take the A8 in the direction of Santander. Don't aim for San Sebastian - which is the other way. Now. once you are close to Santander, start paying attention, because you are not actually going to Santander. Start following Torrelavega, and then repeat with Gijon. Easy.

Of course, you can blindly follow your TomTom, GPS, Google Maps etc. but we found it very easy to just drive the signs for large cities. Kind of fun, and a bit more old school.

All of the above experienced in June and July 2018.


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