The quality and age of buses vary considerably from luxurious modern vehicles in most cities to old ramshackle relics in some rural areas. Private bus services are often confusing and uncoordinated, and buses may leave from different locations rather than a central bus station ( estación de autobuses), e.g. Madrid has eight bus stations and most cities have two or more (possibly located on the outskirts of town). There are left luggage offices ( consignas) at central bus stations. Smoking isn’t permitted on buses.
Before boarding a bus at a bus terminal, you must usually buy a ticket from the ticket office or a machine. Otherwise you can buy a single ticket from the driver or conductor as you enter the bus (they usually give change for small banknotes). Passengers usually enter a bus from a front door (marked entrada) and dismount from a centre or side exit ( salida). Most buses are driver-only operated, although some city buses (e.g. blue buses in Madrid) have the entrance at the rear where you pay a conductor who sits by the door. You must usually signal before the stop ( parada) where you wish to get off by pressing a button (which activates a bell in the driver’s cab).
Most bus services in cities run from around 6am until between 11pm and midnight, when a night service normally comes into operation (which is usually more expensive). There’s usually a ten-minute service on the most popular routes during peak hours and an hourly night service, although services are considerably reduced on Sundays and public holidays. City buses are often very crowded and buses that aren’t air-conditioned can be uncomfortable in the summer. Most city buses have few seats, so as to provide maximum standing room. There are numerous bus routes in major cities and it can be difficult to find your way around. Urban buses are generally very slow and although there are special bus and taxi lanes in some cities (e.g. Madrid), there are still frequent traffic jams. Consequently, many people prefer to use the metro (e.g. in Barcelona or Madrid) or taxis. Fares are similar in other cities and there are reductions for pensioners and young people up to 21. Tickets are available from bus offices and tobacconists.
Bus and metro fares are the same in Madrid and tickets can be used on both systems. In Barcelona, a ten-ride T-10 pass can be used on all urban public transport, including the metro. In Madrid and Barcelona (and some other cities), tickets are valid for an entire bus route, but not for transfers to other buses. Day and multi-day passes offering unlimited travel are also available, plus a range of season tickets ( abono), e.g. for a week, month or a year. In some cities (such as Madrid), those aged between 15 and 21 can buy a youth card ( carnet joven) providing discounts on public transport and other discounts (e.g. entrance fees to museums). Multi-ride tickets and passes must be stamped in a special machine upon boarding a bus and there are on-the-spot fines for anyone found travelling without a valid ticket. Routes are numbered and terminal points are shown on buses and displayed on signs at stops in most cities. Bus timetables and route maps are available from bus company offices, bus stations and tourist offices. Tourist buses are provided in major cities, most of which follow a circular route, and bus companies offer excursions throughout Spain (packages may include meals, sightseeing and ferry travel).
In rural and resort areas, bus services are often operated by the local municipality and services are usually irregular, e.g. four to six buses a day on most routes, although some have an hourly service (there may be no service during the lunch break, e.g. 1.30 to 3pm). The first bus departs at anytime between 6.30 and 9am, and the last bus may depart as early as 4 or 5pm on some routes (most last buses depart before 9pm). However, bus services are usually reliable and run on time. Small towns can often be reached only via their provincial capital and in the centre of Spain it’s difficult to get from one major city to another without going via Madrid. Local bus timetables may be published in free newspapers and magazines.
In addition to local city and rural bus companies, there are many long-distance bus companies, including Alsa (the largest and part of the National Express group), Auto Res and Continental-Auto. Inter-city buses are usually faster than trains and cost less. Long-distance bus companies are usually privately owned and their fares are quite competitive. The most luxurious buses are comfortable and offer air-conditioning, films and sometimes free soft drinks. All the main companies have telephone and internet information and booking services. Further information can be obtained from Alsa (902-422 242, http://www.alsa.es), Auto Res (902-020 999, http://www.auto-res.net) and Continental-Auto
(902-330 400, http://www.continental-auto.es).
There are regular international coach services between Spain’s major cities and many European cities. For example, Eurolines (part of the National Express group) runs coach services from the UK to some 45 destinations in Spain. Journeys are very long, e.g. from London it’s 25 hours to Barcelona and 28 hours to Madrid, and fares are often little cheaper than flying (it’s worth comparing bus fares with budget flight fares). Unless you have a fear of flying or a love of coach travel, you may find one or two days spent on a coach a nightmare. Coaches are, however, comfortable, air-conditioned, equipped with toilets and show films.
Most services operate daily during the summer holiday season and two or three times a week out of season. Discounts are provided for students and youths on some routes. Bookings can be made at travel agents in Spain and abroad. Apex returns are considerably cheaper.
Few Spanish cities have retained their tram systems ( tranvía), although trams have been reintroduced in Bilbao (through the city centre) and Valencia (where trams are air-conditioned). Barcelona also has a city-centre tramline, called ‘ Combino’.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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