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This is what I learned after my car broke down in Spain

The Local Spain's Editor shares her experience of breakdown on a roadside in Spain, and why it's best to avoid doing it during August.

This is what I learned after my car broke down in Spain
What should you do if you break down in Spain? Photo: Thamkc/Depositphotos

As I found out this summer on my annual northeast drive from stifling Madrid to the breezier Mediterranean climes of the Costa Daurada south of Barcelona, breaking down can really put a downer on the holiday vibe.

First of all, you don't want to do it at night on an unlit highway, you probably don't want to do it when your only passenger is a dog, but what you most definitely want to avoid, at all costs, is breaking down on August 1st.

Thinking that I could beat the holiday traffic – that much talked about Operacion Salida when pretty much all of Spain clogs up the roads en route to the coast or ancestral pueblos for their hols – I left home at an unsociable 4.30am knowing that Spaniards on the whole, even those desperate to go on holiday, don't like to get up early.

But just one and a half hours into the journey on a lonely stretch of highway somewhere in Castilla La Mancha, my faithful steed, an old white Mercedes saloon dating from the 1990s, gave up the ghost.

Just as I was overtaking an extraordinarily long vehicle driving slowly with warning lights flashing along its length – it might well have been a replacement blade from one of the wind turbines that interrupt the horizon on such a drive across Spain – my lights dimmed, the engine cut and the car slowed.

Thankfully a turn-off appeared just to my right and I just about managed to pull off the A-2 and cruise up the slip road to finally judder to a halt on the side of a roundabout with a sign post to an industrial estate.

This is when you are supposed to leap out of your vehicle, don a reflective vest and place warning triangles on the road behind you but luckily for me, as even my hazard lights weren't working, a Civil Guard Trafico patrol car pulled up within seconds and told me not to bother as they would park behind me with flashing lights on to warn other drivers.

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Stock photo: Guardia Civil

A panicky rummage around the glove compartment and I found the insurance document with the 24 hour roadside assistance number.

Within half an hour a tow truck arrived, just as the sun came up to reveal fields of sunflowers stretching as far as the eye could see, and after a quick glance beneath the bonnet, the driver informed me that it looked like I needed a new alternator.

The car was loaded onto the flat bed and I climbed into the cab to sit beside the tow truck driver in his cab, leaving a confused and yelping hound peeking over from the back seat of the Merc, and we headed back towards Madrid.

I'm sure it depends on your roadside assistance insurance package but my driver offered me the option of returning all the way to Madrid where he could drop me off at a garage of my choice, or heading to the nearest town to find one.

This is when I discovered that August 1st is not a good day to break down.

Many businesses close on August 1st, some for the whole month, and my usual mechanic, whose mobile number I happen to have stored in my contacts, wasn't best pleased at being called first thing on the first day of his holidays.


Closed for the holidays – the WHOLE month of August. Photo: Fiona Govan/The Local Spain

“We open again on September 2nd,” he informed me rather grumpily. “And no, I don't know any other garages open in August.”

My tow truck driver had an idea. We could drive around the industrial estates that encircle Guadalajara until we find some sign of life and hopefully a mechanic who wasn't that keen on holidays and who happened to have an alternator that would fit my car.

One hour and several stops later and we finally found an open garage door and a collection of overall clad men busily working in the interior.

“No promises, but we'll take a look and if we can get the part sent out here this morning – we'll need some luck as everyone is on holiday, you know – then we might just get you on the road again by this afternoon,” said a cheery mechanic.

After a six hour wait with a restless dog in an airless portacabin I got the good news – the new alternator had arrived! It was fitted within 20 minutes and by 3pm, breathing a huge sigh of relief while thanking my lucky stars, we were back on the road heading towards Barcelona.

Apart from a rather awkward moment at a petrol station when the car refused to start after a fuel refill because the battery had been run down by the faulty alternator – luckily I had jump leads in the boot and an accommodating shop assistant to lend her car – we arrived at our destination, 12 hours later than expected but hugely grateful of the fact that the trip may well have had to have been aborted all together. 

Here are my tips: 

  • Make sure you have a torch in car
  • Ensure your phone is fully charged or that you have a portable charger so that you can phone roadside assistance
  • Have the roadside assistance number stored in your phone and in an easily accessible place in your car
  • Pay attention to where you are – knowing the exact kilometre on the road that you have broken down on really helps when talking to roadside assistance (they don't really appreciate being told “somewhere between junction 17 and 26”)
  • Keep jump leads in your car, especially if it is old and temperamental like mine
  • Don't break down during the August holidays if you can help it

Before you go: 

The essential paperwork that must in the car at all times is:  

  • Driving Licence (Carnet de Conducir)
  • Car registration document or rental document (Permiso de Circulación)
  • ITV certificate (Ficha Técnica)
  • Insurance policy document
  • European Accident Statement (Declaración Amistosa de Accidente de Automóvil) DOWNLOAD HERE

Also compulsory:

  • Fluorescent high visibility jacket (one each for driver and all passengers)
  • Two warning triangles


Photo: woodsy007/Depositphotos

In case of a breakdown: 

If you do break down, the guidelines state that you should:

Stop in a safe a place as possible, and switch on hazard (warning) lights.

The driver should put on a hi-vis jacket and ask passengers to do the same.

Passengers should move away from the vehicle to a place of safety, behind a barrier or fencing away from oncoming traffic.

Place the two warning triangles to alert other drivers of the obstacle. If on a motorway, place one 50 metres behind the car and another 50 metres behind that. But if on a road with two-way traffic place one in front of the car and one behind.

Call roadside assistance:

They will send out a tow truck (grua in Spanish) to collect your vehicle but find out what options you have. 

For me it seemed all the car needed was a simple repair and a local garage was able to do it but it may be that you want to be taken home or towards your final destination and get it fixed there.

Depending on the insurance policy you have, you may be entitled to a replacement hire car while your vehicle is being fixed.

Discuss options with the road side assistance operator. 

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LIFE IN SPAIN

Why you should think twice about buying a car in Spain, even if it’s second hand

A combination of supply and demand problems caused by the pandemic and a lack of microchips is making cars much harder to come by in Spain. Here's why you should perhaps consider holding off on buying that vehicle you had in mind for now.

Why you should think twice about buying a car in Spain, even if it's second hand

Getting your hands on a car – new, second hand, or even rental – is becoming much harder and more expensive in Spain.

The car industry has been hit by a perfect storm of conditions that have made new cars harder to come by and, as a result, caused prices to rapidly increase. 

According to Spain’s main consumer organisation, Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios (OCU), the microchip crisis affecting the entire globe, combined with an overall increase in the price of materials needed for car manufacturing and increased carbon emissions legislation has created a shortage of new cars in the country.

New cars

With less cars being manufactured, prices of new cars have gone up: a recent OCU report reports that new car prices have increased by 35 percent, higher even than Spain’s record breaking inflation levels in recent months. 

READ ALSO: Rate of inflation in Spain reaches highest level in 37 years

It is a shortage of microchips and semiconductors – a global problem – that has caused car production in Spain to plummet. In the first eight months of 2021, for example, production fell by 25.3 percent compared to 2019.

This is not a uniquely Spanish problem, however. The entire world is experiencing a shortage of semiconductor microchips, something essential to car manufacturing as each car needs between 200 to 400 microchips.

France’s car exports, for example, have fallen by 23.3 percent, Germany’s by 27 percent, and the UK’s by 27.5 percent.

Simply put, with less cars being produced and specialist and raw materials now more expensive, the costs are being passed onto consumers the world over.

Equally, these industry-specific problems were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.The average wait for a car to be delivered in Spain is now around four months, double what it was before the pandemic, and depending on the make and model you buy, it can be as long as a year.

Car dealerships across Spain were forced to sell cars during the pandemic to stay afloat, and now, when consumers want to purchase new cars, they don’t have enough to sell and can’t buy enough to keep up with demand due to the materials shortages that have kneecapped production.

Second-hand cars

With the scarcity and increased prices in the new car market, the effect is also being felt in the second-hand car market too. With many in Spain emerging from the pandemic facing precarious financial situations, then compounded by spiralling inflation in recent months, one would assume many would go for a cheaper, second hand option.

Yet, even second-hand prices are out of control. In Spain, the price of used cars have risen by 17 percent on average so far in 2022.

Cars 15 years old or more are 36 percent more expensive than they were in the first half of last year. The average price of a 15 year old car is now €3,950 but in 2021 was just €2,900 – a whopping increase of 36 percent.

As production has decreased overall, purchases of used models up to three years old have declined by 38.3 percent. Purchases of cars over 15 years old, on the other hand, have surged by 10.4 percent.

If you’re looking to buy a second-hand car in Spain, keep in mind that the reduced production and scarcity of new models is causing second-hand prices to shoot up.

Rental cars

These problems in car manufacturing have even passed down to car rentals and are affecting holidaymakers in Spain.

Visitors to Spain who want to hire a car will have a hard time trying to get hold of one this summer, unless they book well in advance and are willing to fork out a lot of money.

Over the past two years, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a shortage in rental cars in Spain. However, during peak holiday times such as Easter, the issue has been brought to the forefront.

It’s now common in Spain to see car rental companies hanging up signs saying “no hay coches” or no cars, similar to the no vacancy signs seen in bed & breakfasts and hotels.

READ ALSO: Why you now need to book a rental car in advance in Spain

While all of Spain is currently experiencing car rental shortages, the problem is particularly affecting areas of Spain with high numbers of tourists such as the Costa del Sol, the Balearic Islands and the Canaries.

According to the employers’ associations of the Balearic Islands, Aevab and Baleval, there are 50,000 fewer rental cars across the islands than before the pandemic.

In the Canary Islands, there is a similar problem. Occupancy rates close to 90 percent have overwhelmed car rental companies. The Association of Canary Vehicle Rental Companies (Aecav) says that they too have a scarcity 50,000 vehicles, but to meet current demand, they estimate they would need at least 65,000.

According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), fewer than 20 million foreign tourists visited Spain in 2020 and revenues in the sector plummeted by more than 75 percent. While numbers did rise in 2021, the country still only welcomed 31.1 million foreign visitors last year, well below pre-pandemic levels and far short of the government’s target.

Many Spanish car rental companies have admitted that the fleet they offer is down to half after selling off vehicles in the pandemic due to the lack of demand.

End in sight?

With the microchip shortage expected to last until at least 2023, possibly even until 2024, it seems that the best course of action if you’re looking to buy a new or used car in Spain is to wait, let the market resettle, and wait for prices to start going down again.

If you’re hoping to rent a car when holidaying in Spain, be sure to book well in advance.

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