For a part of each of my trips, I generally pick up a rental car through my favorite consolidator, Auto Europe, and enjoy the freedom of having my own wheels.
I don’t use a car in big cities if I can avoid it. (You’d never drive your own car to sightsee in a European city—and it’s an expensive waste to pay for the rental and the parking.) But a rental car empowers you when exploring the small towns and countryside. On this trip, I picked a car up as I left Granada and dropped it upon arrival in Lisbon. While there is occasionally a small extra fee to pick a car up at the airport rather than downtown, I like the ease of taking the cheap public transit to and from the airport and avoiding inner-city driving.
This spring, my great little car put me in the driver’s seat for exploring the white-washed hill towns of Andalucía and the remote beach towns and beaches of the Algarve — both areas where having your own car is a real help. I was stung with a pretty steep drop-off fee to leave the car in a different country — something that I’d work to avoid if traveling on a tight budget. For me, the efficiency was worth the fee.
Driving in foreign lands can come with a little language barrier and a stint on the learning curve. For example, signs in Granada make it really clear that anyone who drives into restricted zones during high-traffic times without authorization will be ticketed. (Ignore that and a bill for $100 will be awaiting you when you get home.) If you’re staying at a hotel within one of these zones, you’re legal…but only if your hotel files your license plate with the local police.
I connected the bigger dots on my spring trip with excellent freeways in both Spain and Portugal. I always feel toll freeways are a good value (in terms of time saved, mileage improved, and relative safety enjoyed) compared to using toll-free national highways. In Spain, you just pay at each booth. In Portugal, the system was very slick. At the border, I popped my credit card into the machine, and it printed out a receipt explaining that periodically, as I drove through the country on the freeways, sensors would click on me and my card would be charged for that stretch of super freeway. The freeways cost me a little but getting around took hours less than it had on earlier trips.