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Train vs car rental dilemma

4 of us, two mothers and their college-aged daughters, are traveling from Madrid to Cordoba to Sevilla to Tarifa to Granada, then back to Madrid in a 2 week period at the end of August. We already have our accommodations lined up, but now are wondering the best way to get around. Initially we thought we'd rent a car when we left Madrid, because we thought it would be more economical (for 4) and allow us to be spontaneous in between our destinations. But we recognize it can be a hassle to have a car in the other cities, and there is the ease of traveling by train between Madrid-Cordoba-Seville. Tarifa and Granada are less-straight forward by train. Any specific suggestions or recommendations for us? Thanks for reading!

Posted by
14678 posts

Avoid having a car in Madrid (and also nearby Toledo), Cordoba, Sevilla. A car there is not needed (it will stay parked in a garage the whole time) and it will be a wasteful hassle to have. The train is a better option, and in the end not more expensive when you factor in the cost of the rental and parking while the car will be sitting idle in a garage in those cities.

In your shoes however, I would rent a car in Sevilla, on your way out of town, to visit the Andalucia portion between Sevilla, Tarifa and Granada. For example you could visit Arcos, Ronda, Nerja and other countryside and small town locations in the area which are not as easily connected by train/bus.

Once you are in Granada, you could potentially return the car upon arrival, since you won't really need a car there either. Granada is small and walkable. That of course depends on your plans after Granada. If you plan to fly back from Granada to Madrid and then home, then leave the car upon arrival in Granada. If you intend to roam around southern Spain or the Sierra Nevada after Granada, then keep it. Just make sure you choose accommodations with parking facilities on the premises or nearby.

Posted by
16893 posts

Have you already made some plans based on having the car, such as reserving hotels with parking or hotels on the edge of the city? Was there any interim place you expected to "spontaneously" visit, or would you be just as happy to arrive quickly by train?

Instead of all car or all train, you also have the option to pick up a car in Seville and drop it any where in Spain, although the car selection might be different at that location (e.g., if you require an automatic transmission). If you have a car on hold, I'd shop around before changing that booking.

Reserved train tickets are cheaper when purchased in advance, and two weeks is no longer very much in advance. If using, you can avoid credit card issues by paying with PayPal. There's also no deadline to buy tickets if you decide to buy them in a train station or travel agency upon arrival.

Posted by
18942 posts

For Germany, I'm a big advocate of rail travel. Germany has the most extensive and 2nd most dense (by 1%) system in Europe. Not so in Spain. The density of Spain's rail system is only 25% of Germany's - meaning there aren't many places you can get to by rail. I hear that Spain has a good system of buses, but I don't know anything about them. If you are going primarily between major rail hubs, and you can find good rail connections, fine. If not, and you can't find buses, rent a car.

Posted by
7175 posts

AVE Train - Madrid to Cordoba to Sevilla
Rental Car - Sevilla to Tarifa to Granada
Bus - Granada back to Madrid

I think mixing it up, as Roberto suggests, not only gives you variety and flexibility, I think its probably the most efficient and possibly the most cost effective. Book your RENFE train fares ASAP.

Posted by
15477 posts

If you'd asked 4-5 months ago, I'd have recommended traveling mostly by train without hesitation, but now that your trip is almost here, you may not be able to get the cheap tickets and train travel for 4 may be prohibitive.

I haven't been to Tarifa, but going there are direct routes to Granada by bus or train to/from Cordoba, Seville and Madrid and won't take any longer than driving and will be more comfortable.. These are big cities and you will have to drive through them to get to the historic centers and then you have to find (and pay for) parking. If you have hotel reservations, your itinerary is set and the only question is what time to leave. The Madrid-Cordoba-Seville route will take less than 1/2 the time by train than driving.

I'd spend a couple hours on the Renfe website and the bus sites (for Granada, maybe Tarifa), looking at schedules and prices, and do the math. Don't forget to factor in parking costs, gas, insurance. Then weigh the advantages of train/bus and decide. It may be that the convenience of the train and the time saving is worth spending more.

Posted by
2 posts

Wow! What a great travel community. Thanks for all the prompt replies. I have a friend, who lived in Madrid for a year as a student and just returned from traveling (all by train) with her mom, and she never bought her train tickets in advance. I checked with her last night and she confirmed that we'd be ok waiting to purchase when we arrived in each city. We're leaning toward the train, car, bus plan that Roberto suggested. The bus from Granada to Madrid is reasonably priced and not too much longer than the train.

Thanks everyone!

Posted by
1495 posts

We base out of Malaga and rent a car when we desire to "wander", but here are some points to consider relevant to your trip:
- public transport is available from point to point and in Spain public transport is convenient, comfortable, safe and relatively inexpensive
- EFFECTIVE travel with a car requires:
- purchase of an IDP from AAA ($25),
- better trip planning (use google earth and it's street view) to understand the route to hotels, parking lots and other destinations,
- a plan for covering any valuables left in the car (we carry a single black bed sheet) and our preference is to park outside of the main tourist zones (prefer a residential area) and walk to our destination. Once you exit the car please do not open other doors and move around valuables in order to cover them.
- a plan for selecting the right size car. With four people and luggage you most likely would benefit from a mid size hatchback
- plan for gas expense, restroom stops, tolls (which we strive to avoid as non-toll roads are just as good as toll roads) and some added frustration for navigation
Keep in mind you are traveling during the hottest time of the year and whatever you have in the car, yourselves included, are subject to the boiling effects of a sun drenched hot climate. Hmmmm.... how well does make up hold up in .......????? This is my wife's experience talking. ;)
Even with access to a car, if we are going from point to point (e.g. Malaga to Seville) we use public transport for the convenience and hassle free experience. Plus we prefer to let "others" do the driving, gaze out the windows and strive to increase our interaction with locals.
My counsel is to take public transport and reduce the travel stress.

Posted by
1 posts

When you do rent a car I would also recommend getting the smallest car you can -- in some of these smaller towns the roads are small and tight and the parking garages are even smaller. I just returned from a driving trip to Granada and the parking garage for the hotel that was near the centro had a 180 degree turn to get in and out - I had to make a 9 point turn to get the car out without scraping the sides. Also in the center of Granada cars are prohibited unless you are hotel guest so be sure to register your license plate number with your hotel when you arrive.

Posted by
15477 posts

The advantage to buying tickets in advance is the ability to get lower prices. The disadvantage is the lack of flexibility. Take into account that there may be lines to purchase tickets. You need to allow enough time to get to the station, buy tickets, find your platform, go through security and board the train. They leave on time and if I rremember correctly, the doors close 2 minutes before departure.

Posted by
323 posts

I vastly prefer traveling by car, but it takes a lot of planning to make sure you will have parking, and have a easy drive in and out of the city avoiding some of the extremely narrow streets. If you already know where you're staying and can't change, or prefer not to, then a car is probably not going to work.

You don't need a car in Madrid, and Cordoba is extremely difficult to get in and out of by car, and even harder to figure out what to do with it when you get there. The old center of Granada has restricted car access, if you bring a car, expect to be a 10-15 minute walk to the old center. If you do go for a car, go for the smallest one you can tolerate. The spaces in most garages are extremely tight.

Getting a car in Sevilla and returning on arrival in Madrid might work, but make sure parking and road access in Sevilla won't be a problem. I find street view on Google maps invaluable in deciding if I will be comfortable driving to a given location. If you're looking to change hotels, or in deciding on parking at the one you already reserved, be skeptical when told "parking is available at a location nearby." Find out where that location decide accordingly.

Here's some places Ive stayed with a car, all have their own garage. Granada and Sevilla were relatively easy to get in and out, Cordoba was very dfficult.
Sevilla: Hotel Becquer
Granada: Hotel Saray
Cordoba: Hostal Almanzor (Listing says parking nearby, but it is their garage, and the owner may take your car there and bring it back if you prefer)

Posted by
3 posts

I'm more for the option of renting a car and road trip through Spain. For me it is always a better choice because the journey is a lot more relaxed, spontaneous and allows you to visit more cities. The fact is that the train may be simpler and cheaper option for most travelers, but it doesn´t not allow you making a spontaneous tours of all the sites that are on the way to your target destination. If you decide for renting a car, my recommendation is renting as a smaller car.

Posted by
40 posts

We rented a car in Spain this past May. The car allowed the country drives which I enjoyed immensely. We could stop at the miradors and really see the country including the beautiful mountain scenery and the white towns of Andalucia.

The autovias and the two-lane highways were very well marked and we had no difficulty getting around.

On the other hand, navigating in the cities was a major hassle. The streets change names every little bit. The street signs are hard to find and read (ie. they are high on a building in small letters hidden behind a tree). They don't put street names on large, easy to read, over the street signs as we do here. GPS would direct us down wrong way or blocked streets. In every city it was a relief when we found our hotel and parked the car until we left.