Getting there and away
Citizens of the UK, Ireland and other EU countries do not at present need a visa to visit either France or Spain. A valid passport or national identity card is sufficient. There is no 90-day limit on the length of stay, though there are certain limitations imposed on citizens of some of the countries that have recently joined the EU. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and certain other countries can visit France or Spain as tourists for up to 90 days with a valid passport, and have no need of a visa.
Citizens of other countries visiting France or Spain will need to obtain a Schengen visa, valid for up to 90 days, which involves showing that you have sufficient funds and the necessary travel insurance. You should apply well in advance. Note that possession of a Schengen visa allows the holder to travel throughout the 26 Schengen countries during the period for which the visa is valid. Schengen visas cannot be extended.
Getting there and away
Whether accessing the region through France or Spain, the ever-increasing tentacles of budget air travel allow the visitor direct flights, principally through Biarritz or Bilbao, from London and a few regional UK airports. Not all flights are operated daily. Given that new flights regularly appear or are removed, it’s a good idea to check the airport websites (as well as the airline websites listed below) or a site such as Skyscanner in case an airport near you has suddenly acquired a connection to the region. Note that the flight schedules of budget airlines can be reduced (or suspended) in winter.
For those arriving on long-haul flights from the USA, Canada or elsewhere, it will almost certainly be necessary to fly first to either Madrid or Barcelona (or even London) and connect to Bilbao, San Sebastián, Vitoria-Gasteiz or Pamplona (for the Spanish provinces), or fly to Paris and connect to Biarritz for the French Basque Country.
For those wishing to take their own vehicles to the Basque Country, there are direct ferries from the UK to Bilbao. Sailing to Santander, in the neighbouring province of Cantabria, is another option with a drive of only around an hour to reach western Bizkaia province. Schedules vary according to season, as do prices, and while they are not cheap, could make sense for a party or family of four, taking into account that you won’t have to pay for car hire when you arrive.
For maximum flexibility, use of a car is advisable, and almost essential if you are visiting the remoter outposts of this region. If you are based in one place, however, and taking into consideration fuel prices, motorway tolls, parking costs and scarcity of spaces, making use of public transport for some trips while you are in the region is worth considering and often the extra cost is negligible, especially if you are travelling as a couple or on your own.
Unless you are bringing your own vehicle, a self-drive hire car is recommended. All you need is a UK, other national or international driving licence, a passport and a credit card. Vehicles can be picked up and returned at airports or in city centres.
RENFE in Spain and SNCF in France are the national rail networks relevant to this region. In the Spanish Basque Country, the FEVE company which once operated the coastal narrow-gauge line was merged with the main RENFE organisation in 2012. Euskotren operates trains from Hendaye in France to San Sebastián, from San Sebastián to Bilbao and towns in-between, leaving RENFE to connect the region’s major cities with other Spanish cities and towns. In France, the rail network in the Basque Country covers the coast between Bayonne and Hendaye, as well as the solitary inland line that connects Bayonne with Saint-Jean- Pied-de-Port at the base of the Pyrenees.
Bus is still a major mode of transport in France and even more so in Spain for travelling between towns and villages, and it should certainly not be dismissed out of hand as a useful way of getting around. In some cases, it is surprisingly faster than the train (for example, San Sebastián to Bilbao) and for reliability, cost and comfort, it often can’t be faulted. The major bus companies run smart, intercity coaches in the Spanish Basque Country and Navarre, while the coastal service in France which joins Bayonne and Hendaye – and points in-between – is also efficient, regular and user-friendly. While many smaller towns in the region, especially in Soule or northern Navarre, still retain bus services, these might operate only once or twice per day, so relying on them will result in you spending much of your holiday hanging around.