From driving in Spain to how much to tip – essential advice for the first time visitor to Spain

The number of American citizens holding a passport has increased exponentially over recent decades, with an incredible 21.4 million new passports issued in 2017 alone. It’s now estimated that around 37 percent of Americans are passport holders, up from 15 percent 20 years ago. Europe remains the top destination for leisure travelers, and Spain, in particular welcomed 2.65 million American tourists in the same year, a figure that consistently rises with each passing year.

If you are planning to join them, you will almost certainly have a whole list of questions, or at least uncertainties at the back of your mind. These might relate to visa and document requirements, driving in Spain and overcoming language differences, to name just a few. Here, we’ll provide answers to all these questions.

Driving in Spain is the best way to get around

Don’t be fooled into thinking European countries are all tiny. This country covers an area of almost 200,000 square miles – in other words, it’s about the same size as Texas. While there is a public transport infrastructure in terms of trains, planes and buses, driving in Spain is by far the best way to get around and see the country.

Driving in Spain is not so different to driving in the US, and as long as you are over 21, have held your US license for a year or more, and have obtained an international driving permit, you will have no problem renting a car. There are, of course, some specific rules about driving in in this country that you will need to understand and follow. You can read the full details at the International Drivers Association website, but these are the key points you need to understand about driving in Spain:

  1. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is a must-have for driving in Spain with a US license. It’s neither complicated nor expensive to obtain one. You just need to fill out an online form and it will be with you in a matter of days. There’s even a fast track service where you can obtain an IDP electronically in minutes, should your decision to rent a car be a spur of the moment one.
  2. In Spain, they drive on the right, just like in the US. However, lane discipline is more strictly enforced than at home, and when on multi-lane highways, you should always stay right unless passing other vehicles. In particular, the far left lane is for passing only, and you must move back to the middle lane as soon as it is safe.
  3. Spanish police are very strict with drivers who exceed speed limits, use their cell phones while driving or drive in Spain while under the influence. It is not worth risking any of these activities, as you could face a hefty fine or even imprisonment for DUI.
  4. Road signs are mostly intuitive and easy to understand – but it is worth familiarizing yourself with the most important ones before you hit the open road.

Visa requirements for your visit to Spain

Spain is part of Europe’s Schengen zone. This is a collection of 26 European countries, and once you have entered one, you have freedom of movement within the zone. If you hold a US passport, there’s no need to obtain a visa, provided you are staying no longer than 90 days.

The same applies to passport holders from other major countries including Canada and Australia. If you hold a different non-EU passport, you can check the visa requirements online. The good news is that even if you do need a visa, obtaining one as a tourist is not difficult, and it will grant you full access to the Schengen zone, provided you enter the zone in the country that issued the visa.

Dining in Spain

This country has a reputation for fresh, healthy and delicious cuisine. One immediate difference that you will notice compared to the USA is that restaurants and cafes are typically small privately owned businesses, particularly in the smaller villages and towns. Of course, when you visit cities like Barcelona and Madrid, you will see the names of some familiar global chains.

Getting off the beaten track is a vital part of exploring a new country, so be prepared to explore. Learning a little Spanish will get you a long way, particularly when you are away from the major cities. There are also some great translation apps available for your smartphone, which can be extremely helpful if communication is a problem.

Make sure you have some Euros on you at all times. Large restaurants will accept credit cards, but some smaller ones do not, so if you’ve always got €100 or so tucked away in your wallet, you will avoid embarrassment. Tipping is common but not mandatory – around ten percent is the usual amount, so a little less than you might be accustomed to tipping in the US.

Spanish culture

This is a large country by European standards, and it consists of multiple regions. Each has its own distinct culture and characteristics. Sometimes this even extends to the language and dialect, as you will notice if you travel from Galicia to Catalonia to the Basque country, for example.

So what does this mean for a tourist visiting Spain for the first time? The golden rule is to keep an open mind and not to make assumptions. Think about it the other way around – someone visiting the US for the first time might spend a week in Houston then fly to New York and wonder where all the boot-wearing, pickup-driving “typical Americans” they are accustomed to have gone.

Like the US, Spain has a whole range of cultures and customs just waiting to be discovered. Happy travels!