I want to drive from Barcelona to Madrid (around 600kms) this December.
- Is it beautiful?
- What are the safe car hiring options for foreigners?
Two years ago I drove from Madrid to Barcelona. I didn't rent a car, but used my own. However, I can add some hints:
As MastaBaba mentioned, the toll roads are sometimes quite expensive. On the other hand very often you can choose if you want to use the new and empty highway and pay the toll or if you want to use the old highway that is quite often next to the new one, but for free. On the other hand the old highways are full of trucks and locals.
There is a law in Spain that says that drivers have to be warned before every speed trap. So if you see a sign on the road that there will be a speed trap in the next few hundred meters, you should really slow down. On the other hand, if there is no sign, there is no speed trap.
I'm not sure if you want to do this in one day, but if you have some time, go off the highway and visit some of the small towns right on the highway. At least for lunch it is really worth it. Visit for example the region around Santa María de Huerta.
Driving into Madrid can sometimes be a little bit stressful. At least for me, it was one of the European cities with the most traffic (where I was the driver myself). However, if you want to park there, there is a huge parking space right below Plaza Mayor in the center.
'Beautiful' is relative, but if you take the highway, well, it's a highway.
Spain ain't, say, the Central African Republic, so, car hire is a pretty boring (and safe) business. All the regular players are available in Barcelona. I recommend booking through 3clickcarhire. They tend to give decent deals. This September, I also rented a car through 3clickcarhire in Barcelona, the provider being Budget Rent-a-car, where the cost of renting the car was pleasantly low and service good. Do realise that Spain has plenty of (sometimes expensive!) toll roads.
I've done this drive a couple of times. You can do it in under 6 hours easily on the motorway. I found parts of the trip extremely beautiful, but I guess it depends how used you are to the barren dry landscapes. There were lightning storms in the distance for long stretches of the journey, which looked amazing to us. However, I must admit that long stretches of the trip are a bit samey.
As other people have mentioned, there are loads of tolls you have to pay coming in to Barcelona. I think we paid around €30 in total. The other thing I remember is that there are NO signs for Madrid anywhere in the Catalonia region - the Catalans really don't like the Madrileños! This can be confusing at times, if you don't know exactly which road to take. Whereas on the other hand, there are signs for Barcelona even in the very centre of Madrid city, so the feeling isn't mutual.
Every time I've done the drive, I've been under time pressure to get to my destination, so I don't have much advice about stops. Zaragoza is quite nice. One beautiful stop along the way is Alcala de Henares. It's only an hour or so outside Madrid, so maybe a bit too close to be stopping, but it's a beautiful medieval town worth at least a quick walk around.
Regarding safe car hires, all the usual suspects are there. You have to remember that Spain is a first world country, so expect everything you're used to at home (except that hardly anyone speaks English).