Last updated: June 2020
Have you ever thought that driving from the UK to Spain will be a great route for a road trip? Or are you moving to Spain and thinking to drive down your car as well? Here are some tips on how to make your journey easier and what to expect from an over 2000+km drive.
The Channel Crossing:
Depending on how much you want to drive and which area of the UK you are starting your journey from, there are a few options on which is the best route to take, as the UK is connected to France from quite a few cities along the coast. My recommended options would be the following 4 routes:
Dover to Calais
If you start your trip from London, this route might be the easiest for you. The drive to Dover takes only around 1,5 hours and the crossing is very fast as well. If you choose to cross via the Eurotunnel, you will get to France in about half an hour. If you choose to cross via the ferry, then your journey will be longer (but cheaper).
Portsmouth to Santander/Bilbao
This is the most direct route to Spain but also the longest, as you will have to spend 28 hours on the ferry. The crossing can be quite rough, especially during the night, when the ferry sails over the Bay of Biscay. Overall however, this is the best route if you are not keen on driving very long distances and if you want to save money on petrol as well.
Poole to Cherbourg
With only a 4 hours crossing and good sailing times, Poole is another great place to start your journey from. The ferry leaves every morning at 8AM, arriving to Cherbourg at 12PM (1PM local time). You can properly wake up while having a good breakfast and coffee before embarking on the drive to Spain.
Plymouth to Roscoff
The advantage of choosing either the Poole to Cherbourg or Plymouth to Roscoff routes is that you will save time by avoiding Paris and reaching the motorway towards the North of Spain faster. The Plymouth to Roscoff crossing is an overnight one, takes 8 hours and arrives in France at the early hours of the morning.
Depending on which route you take, the ferries will have more facilities than others. For example, the least comfortable route, in my opinion, is the Dover – Calais crossing. The ferries don’t have enough seats and I ended up sleeping on the floor.
For longer crossings, such as the Portsmouth to Santander or Bilbao, you will have to book a cabin as well, otherwise you won’t be able to buy a ticket. And it’s understandable, for 28 hours of crossing. All ferries have restaurants on board, usually a self-service one and a bar. There will be a daily menu with a few dishes to choose from. The price of a meal is around £10, and from my experience, the food is very good. My favourite was the coq au vin, from Baie de Seine ferry – on the Portsmouth to Santander route. The chefs on the boats are all French (as most of the routes are operated by Brittany Ferries) and they cook the food in big quantities. It might not look good on the plate but it’s delicious!
How to score a cheap ferry to France ticket
The South of England ferry routes to France are operated exclusive by Brittany Ferries, and it might seem impossible to get a cheaper ticket. But it’s not. Brittany Ferries has plenty of offers, especially for return ferry crossings to France but also to holiday trips to Spain. Here’s how to find cheaper ferry tickets to France:
First of all, do not check the ferry comparison websites as they will give you the full price you would pay directly with Brittany Ferries, if not more. Access the Brittany Ferries website but don’t use to booking engine that you will find on the home page. Instead, access their special offers page, which you can find by clicking on this link. Click on the offer you are best interested in and use the booking form that loads on the offer’s page.
You will not get any offer if you book directly on the homepage. I have booked many tickets to cross the channel as I used to go to France quite often. Living right next to the harbour in Poole made it very attractive for me to go to France to buy wine and cheese. And macarons!
The Best Routes to drive from England to Spain
I have drove from England the Spain quite a few times, and these are my recommended routes. I will set Malaga as the destination because that was my personal experience.
Poole to Cherbourg to Malaga
Depending on when you are travelling, there is a fast and a slow ferry from Poole to Cherbourg. In winter, the ferry goes to France during the day time and returns over night. It goes very slow, so expect a journey time of approximately 8 hours. In summer, the same ferry leaves Poole in the morning, at 8:30AM, arrives in Cherbourg at 12PM and returns to England later on, arriving at 10PM.
When you drive from Cherbourg to Malaga, expect to spend 2 nights in hotels, one in France and another one in Spain, due to the timings of the ferry.
The road out of the Cotentin Peninsula is quite straight forward and very good. Cherbourg is a small town and it won’t take long to join the motorway towards Bordeaux. You have about 50 kilometres until you can join the fast motorway on which you can drive with 130km/h. The 337 kilometres from Cherbourg to Nantes take approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes, on a day without traffic incidents.
Your first night will be in Nantes. As it is quite a long trip, I won’t recommend driving in the dark, once the sun has set. You will be tired and it’s harder to concentrate. Stay in a hotel close to the motorway, just outside Nantes, so you avoid the incoming traffic in the morning. Some recommendations are: Le sequoia apartment, La Vertabelle bed and breakfast and Au Gré du Hasard B&B (read reviews here). All of them are very close to the motorway and offer great value for money. And a good night’s sleep. Click on the names to read the reviews, see pictures and check the latest prices per night.
The next day will be long, with a 700 kilometres drive, from Nantes to Vitoria-Gasteiz, in Spain. This is the day where you will spend the most money on tolls as well, mostly in France. The motorways in France are good, but the ones in Spain are much better. Once you cross the border between France and Spain you will enter this spectacular scenery, with the road sinuously passing through long tunnels which exit on high viaducts and bridges. It’s a beautiful scenic drive.
The second night you will stop in Vitoria-Gasteiz, a small city in the North of Spain. I stayed at AC Hotel General Alava (read reviews here), which is part of the Marriot group, for only 60 euros a night. I had a gorgeous large room with a recently renovated bathroom that was pretty much the same size as the bedroom. Just around the corner from the hotel there is a typical Basque food restaurant which serves delicious fish dishes. It’s called Mesa jatetxea.
The third day is the longest, so plan to leave Vitoria Gasteiz early. It will take a little bit over 9 hours to cross Spain from North to South, but the roads are in great condition and not busy at all. The only part where you will spend some time will be passing through Madrid. Make sure you had some coffee before you arrive in Madrid, as you will need to concentrate quite a bit as there are many lanes and many merges. Once you pass Madrid, the journey becomes enjoyable again.
Plymouth to Roscoff to Malaga
Due to the overnight sailing, the trip from Roscoff to Malaga only takes two days. Roscoff it located in the Brittany peninsula and it does take a while to get onto the motorway: about 2 hours of slower driving. The scenery however is very pretty, the road passing through forests and traditional French stone villages.
You will spend the first night in this journey in Irun, a town just across the border, in Spain. I recommend the Ibis Hotel (read reviews here), which is conveniently located and quite modern. I paid 40 euros a night for a double room. They have an onsite restaurant as well which serves basic food. I didn’t notice any other restaurants around, as it’s quite an industrial area.
From Irun the trip to Malaga is pretty much the same as in the above section. From Irun to Vitoria Gasteiz there’s another hour’s drive.
Portsmouth to Santander to Malaga
This route is the easiest if you are not keen on driving through France. The ferry arrives in Santander in the evening, so you will need to look for a hotel pretty much as soon as you get off. I recommend Hotel Mirador de Gornazo (read reviews here), as it’s just off the motorway and outside Santander, so you don’t have to deal with the morning rush hour. There are no restaurants nearby, but the gas station in front serves some really good, cheap food. I paid 35 euros for a night here.
There is a highway from Santander all the way to Madrid, so you don’t need to worry about slower roads on this route. Be prepared though as they do cross mountains at a higher altitude, where in winter you might encounter snowy conditions. Make sure you have the proper tires for your car.
Driving from England to Spain is not your usual journey to the supermarket and back, so you need to make sure that your car is in good shape to do the trip. Check the oil of the car, the engine coolant, your lights and your tyres.
Is your car fit to do such a long journey? Driving over 2000km is not easy in a small car, such as a Fiat 500 for example. Small cars might be great for cities, but don’t try to take them for long journeys. The lack of space and the inability to be comfortable behind the wheel will make this drive more of a hell than an enjoyable road trip. Does your car have cruise control? This helps a lot, especially on motorways. If you are planning to do this trip often, consider investing in a car that will be easy to drive.
Toll roads and speed limits
Avoiding toll roads in France will take you back about 6 hours, so it’s better just to bite the bullet and use the high-speed motorways.
In Spain you do have an option to avoid the toll roads and still be on fast motorways. The only difference is that the toll roads are usually empty, whilst in France is not the case.
The speed limit on the motorway in France is 130km/h. Make sure you don’t go over as the radar systems in France measures the average speed on a section of the road and not just in a single point where they are installed. If you speed you will get a fine in the post.
In Spain, the speed limit is 120km/h on motorways.
Toll costs for driving from the UK to Spain (as of May 2020):
My last trip driving from the UK to Spain was in July 2019, so I gathered the exact toll road costs for the journey. These amounts are for Malaga – San Sebastian – Bordeaux – Cherbourg – Poole and Portsmouth – Santander – Madrid – Malaga routes.
In France, from Nantes to the border with Spain, there are 7 tolls. The first one is the largest one, 29.40 euros. In total, the 7 tolls add up to 44.8 euros.
In Spain there are 2 tolls from San Sebastian to Vittoria Gasteiz, coming to a total of 16.38 euros.
My last trip from Spain to the UK was in May 2020, from Malaga to Calais. I avoided all tolls in Spain, as the roads are very good and there is no need to pay for faster ones. From Irun to Calais, via Le Mans, there are 9 tolls that add up to 85.30 euros.
If you are traveling on the UK to Spain ferry, following the Santander route, you have the option to take the toll road around Madrid. The cost of this toll road is 6 euros. From Granada to Malaga there is another short section on which you can choose if you want to go on the toll road or on the old road. The toll costs here 5.20 euros. I recommend taking the normal road though, as this route is never busy, and I don’t really justify paying for the toll road for just around 15-20 kilometers.
How much does it cost to drive from the UK to Spain?
Depending on what car you are going to drive and which route you are going to take, the average fuel consumption will be around 3 full tanks from England to the South of Spain. Fuel is more expensive in France so try to fill up in England and in Spain if you can. There is a fuel station right at the border, when you cross from France to Spain, but it’s off the main road. The next one is 6 kilometers away. As a comparison, during my last trip, one litre of petrol in France was 1.6 euros, whilst in Spain it was 1.1. In France you can find cheaper fuel if you exit the motorways (1.3 instead of 1.6 euros per liter). If you drive from Calais, you will pass through Rouen, and that is a good place to stop and fuel up, I noticed the price per litre was 20 cents cheaper than on the motorway service stations.
My car, a Ford Fiesta, has a small tank and, from Calais to Malaga with a boot loaded with luggage, the cost of petrol is 210 euros.
Be very careful when it comes to gas stations in France. Avoid at all costs the ones which ask you to authorize your card at the pump before allowing you to put petrol in the car (Total Stations in particular). They will try to block 150 euros on your card and you will have to prove to your bank that you did not spend that much money on petrol, to get it back. If you need to refuel in France, usually BP is a safe choice.
A one-way ticket for the ferry crossing, depending on the time of the year, will cost you between £100 and £800, plus the cost of the cabin. This ranges between £40 – £110 in low season and £70 to £165 in high season, for an overnight crossing. For a day crossing the prices are between £26 and £70, depending on how many beds are inside and the comfort of the room (size, location on the ship and facilities inside). It is always cheaper the buy a return journey than a one way trip.
The most expensive ferry is the Portsmouth to Santander/Bilbao one, but if you look at the whole picture, you are saving money on fuel and get a day’s worth of relaxation on board.
If you have plenty of money to spend however, you can always choose to sail with Brittany Ferries’ flagship cruise ferry, Pont-Aven, which features a pool, a five-deck high atrium with panoramic lifts, a cinema, evening entertainment and luxurious cabins.
You also have to add to the costs the night you will spend in a hotel. I would not recommend driving by night and for such a distance you do need a good bed to rest. From my experience, the best place to stop for the night is the North of Spain.
Recommended Hotels Along the Route
These are some of the hotels I stayed at and which I recommend stopping by along the route. I usually book budget hotels which are close to the motorway so that I don’t have to get too far away from my route.
Ibis Hotel, Irun: This is a very good value for money hotel, with the same standards as any other Ibis Hotel. It is located in an industrial park, very close to the border with France. They have their own restaurant where they serve set menus – there are no other nearby restaurants around. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Fasthotel, Le Mans: This is a chain of budget hotels that you will find all over France. The rooms are small, with very compact bathrooms (if you’ve ever stayed at an EasyHotel – just like those), but the beds are usually comfortable. The rooms are cheap, and the hotel accept pets for a 5 euros fee. The hotel is located outside of Le Mans, next to the motorway. Around, walking distance, you will find plenty of restaurants and a big Auchan supermarket. The hotel will offer you a discount voucher for some of the restaurants around. They do serve breakfast, but I thought it was expensive so I skipped it. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Hotel Arena, Saint-Jean-de-Luz: This is a very convenient located hotel, with its own private parking. The room was very comfortable, with a fantastic shower. They do have a restaurant on site, but during my stay here it was closed because of the pandemic. This is a pet friendly hotel. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Auberge de la Selune, Ducey: When my car broke down in the middle of nowhere in France, in winter, during heavy snow, this hotel was a life saviour. I spend the night here whilst the car got towed and repaired at the garage in the village. The owner couldn’t be nicer, opening the hotel just for me, and overheating the room – which was a blessing after spending so many hours in the snow. He even brought me a bottle of wine. I had such a comfortable sleep here and, in the morning, I noticed how beautiful the village was as well. If you are stopping by to visit Saint Mont Michel on your way to Spain, this is the hotel to stay at, wonderful hospitality! You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Hotel Mirador de Gornazo, Santander: This hotel was my choice when my ferry to Santander arrived in the evening. It’s 15 minutes’ drive from the harbour, just off the A67 motorway towards Madrid. As I arrived quite late, the restaurant was closed. However, on the other side of the parking there is a petrol station with a café that serves very large portions of food, very cheap. You can click here to book directly on Booking.com
AC Marriot General Alava, Vitoria Gasteiz: This hotel was a treat, mainly because I managed to book it for 60 euros a night. It is a four stars hotel, in the centre of Vitoria Gasteiz. The rooms are very modern, with very large bathrooms. The restaurant’s menu wasn’t that attractive to me, so I ended up at the restaurant around the corner, which serves amazing fish dishes. I forgot my tablet here and they were kind enough to mail it back to me. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Hotel Reina Isabel, Medina del Campo: This small hotel was my stop over when the ferry to Santander arrived in the afternoon. It is a few hours drive from Santander, and one hour away from Madrid. It’s a very simple budget hotel with a free secured gated parking, in the courtyard. It is located five minutes’ walk from the main square in Media del Campo, where you will find plenty of restaurants for tapas and dinner. The town is not touristy at all and the prices reflect that. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
Hotel Montermoso Aranda de Duero: This hotel was very surprising. For a motorway hotel, it is very modern, with beautiful spacious rooms and private parking. They have a restaurant attached where you can sample the local cuisine. It is located just off the Madrid – Burgos motorway. They also sell cheap Ribera del Duero wine at reception, which makes a great gift when you return from Spain. You can check the reviews on Tripadvisor or click here to book directly on Booking.com
How long does it take to drive to Spain?
To drive to Spain from the UK it can take anywhere between 1.5 to 3 days, depending which route you take. For example, driving to Madrid, through France, takes about 1.5 days if you cross the English channel with a night ferry.
How long does it take to drive through Spain from North to South?
From Santander to Malaga it takes roughly around 14 continuous driving hours.
Is it safe to drive in Spain?
It is very safe to drive in Spain, especially on the motorways. The roads are in great condition, a pleasure to drive on. The roads I would avoid, especially in summer, are the ones around the most popular coasts. For example, the A7 which follows Costa del Sol, becomes a nightmare to drive on in summer due to the amount of rented cars and inexperienced foreign drivers who don’t know where they are going. Driving through Madrid is also a challenge, every time I’ve crossed it I encountered very heavy traffic.
Can I drive to Spain using my UK driving license?
Yes, you can. An International Driving Permit is not necessary if you own a British driving license.
Can I drive in Spain if the car does not belong to me?
You need to check this information with your insurance company. In Spain, the car is the one insured and not the driver.
How long can I drive your UK registered car in Spain?
You are only allowed to drive a UK registered car in Spain for 6 months.
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