Tips for Traveling Through Spain By Train

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In Europe, trains can easily be the best way to get around, especially in Spain. I asked Madrid based TPG Contributor Lori Zaino to delve into Spanish train travel: routes, tips and more to make your train travel through Spain easy and painless.

RENFE is the company that operates Spanish trains. Image courtesy of David Herraez Calzada /
RENFE is the company that operates Spanish trains. Image courtesy of David Herraez Calzada /

If you ask anyone in Spain, they will tell you they prefer train travel over planes. As Spain is a relatively small country, it’s an easy way to get from Point A to Point B without the hassle of airports, security, and small, uncomfortable seats. This post will outline everything you need to know in order to have a successful train travel experience in España

The train company that operates service throughout Spain is called the RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles—National Network of Spanish Railways) which started back in 1940s when Spain nationalized their railroads. RENFE operates the high-speed trains, called the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), the regular speed trains that travel from city to city within Spain, and the Cercanias (theses trains go from the city center to the suburbs). RENFE operates their routes along approximately 15,000 km (9321 miles) of railway, and their high speed trains can go up to 350 km (217 miles) per hour.

An AVE train
An AVE train

The most popular AVE routes go between Madrid and Seville and Madrid and Barcelona. You can get to almost any city in Spain from Madrid, and you can get to several from Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. For a full list of routes (the options are endless) by type of train, visit the list here.

Details and Advantages. People choose the the train over flying for a number of reasons:

  • There is no minimum time in advance to arrive at the train station. I’ve seen people arrive up to 10 minutes before the train departs! I personally wouldn’t cut it that close, but I usually arrive about 40-50 minutes before my scheduled departure, allowing me time to spare as I hate feeling rushed. This way I can grab a snack or water bottle, find my platform and not be stressed. Security is limited to putting your belongings on a moving belt to be scanned, but you don’t have to take anything out of them, nor do you have to pass through any kind of scanner. Occasionally there are lines here, but they move very quickly, as people simply drop their bags on the belt, and don’t need to waste time taking off shoes, belts, computers out of bags, etc.
  • Seats are more spacious and comfortable. As each actual train has different seat specifications, it’s impossible to explain exactly how much room you will have, but the seats are larger than airline seats, recline quite a bit and each seat has a power plug. Each train car usually has two to four TV monitors where they will show movies (depending on the length of the journey), and you are given free headphones.
  • Luggage requirements are ample and rarely enforced. Each person is allowed to bring on three bags, with a total weight of 25 kg (55 lbs) and a total size of  290 cm (114 inches).  However, I have taken countless train trips and have never seen anyone actually enforce this rule. That being said, I probably haven’t exceeded the requirements (I am a pretty tiny girl and can’t carry more than three bags), but it’s not like airline travel where you are one pound over and they immediately slap you with an extra charge. In fact, I have never actually noticed a scale at any point in the process in any of the train stations I have been to (e.g., Madrid, Barcelona, Cordoba, Seville, Malaga, Alicante), so I am not even sure if they are capable of enforcing the weight rule. There is obviously no limit on liquids and your luggage stays with you in the train car within your sight, so no lost or stolen bags.
  • You can get up and move around as much as you want. Most if not all trains have a dining car where you can buy snacks, and often times they will take a cart throughout the train offering drinks and snacks for purchase, depending on the route. There is no seat belt sign, no turbulence and there are plenty of bathrooms throughout the train. You do not have to turn your devices on or off during any point of the trip like you have to during airline travel. Occasionally, there are small delays but nothing like airline delays.
  • Most train stations are in the center of the city, therefore it’s not a hassle to arrive there. You don’t have to catch the “airport” bus or pay a high taxi fee to get to/from the train stations. Most are a short walk/bus/subway or taxi from anywhere in the city center, making it much less costly and time consuming than arriving to/from an airport on the edge of the city limits.

Train Vs. Plane (Or Bus Or Car). Typically, the train is slightly more expensive than air travel, especially if you consider the presence of low cost airlines. However, you are paying more for a more comfortable and essentially more direct ride (to/from city centers) without dealing with security. I would advise that you check on a case-by-case basis. Usually, I decide where it is I want to go, and I weigh the options of taking the bus, plane, train or renting a car. These are the questions I typically consider and I would advise you consider them, as well, if debating over what mode of transportation to use:

  • How do the prices compare?
  • How long is each route? Which ones leave at convenient times for me?
  • Do I have to change trains/planes/buses?
  • What is the parking situation? (some hotels in Seville charge over 20 euros ($27) a day to park)
  • How far is the airport from the city center compared to the train/bus station?

Once you have the answers to these, your options should be clear. Below, I have set up a simple chart for you to compare some prices to get an idea of how much it would cost to fly or train to popular destinations (one way only). I have also included the time as being door-to-door, including the time it would take to arrive to the airport/train station to/from the city center, and factoring in arriving at the airport two hours in advance, and the train station 40 minutes in advance. I used the date September 6, 2014 for each trip.

Date Company Route Time Cost
6-Sep RENFE AVE Madrid Seville 3 hours 20 min 40.75 euros
6-Sep Iberia Madrid Seville 5 hours 79 euros
6-Sep RENFE Alvia Madrid Santiago de Compostela 6 hours 40 min 17 euros
6-Sep Ryanair Madrid Santiago de Compostela 4 hours 20 min 42 euros
6-Sep RENFE AVE Barcelona to Madrid 3 hours 30 min 57.60 euros
6-Sep Vueling Barcelona to Madrid 5 hours 2 min 57 euros

As you can see, depending on how much money or time you have to spend,  for each city you have different options. This of course, also varies on how far in advance you book, which I will explain in further detail in the “Tips” section.

What’s New. RENFE is also launching some new options that are quite user friendly. The first option is the ability to pay with Paypal. As the RENFE website is often fishy and some users report having problems when using US credit cards (more detail on that below), this is a great option to facilitate secure transactions. Another new addition coming soon is the “Puerta a Puerta” (door-to-door) luggage service beginning July 1, 2014. For 22 euros ($30) per item, you can have your luggage transferred door-to-door, so you don’t have to lug it on the train with you. Also available on some routes as of July 1, 2014 is the silent car, perfect for those who may want to work quietly or sleep.

The tourist class section of a RENFE train with the 4-person table at the front.
The Tourist Plus class of a RENFE train with the 4-person table at the front

Classes. The AVE and long distance trains have three classes of service: First class (Club), Business class (Preferente) and Tourist class (Turista), as well as sleeping accommodations for those embarking on international travel. Some trains also have the Tourist PLUS (Turista Plus) class, which is a newer addition that offers 20% more legroom and there are only three seats per row instead of four in Tourist class. Business class offers newspapers, parking discounts, access to Sala Club (VIP lounge), and wider seats. First class has leather, larger seats with fewer rows per car. You are offered drinks (wine, beer and champagne included) and choice of meal. There is also a small conference room you can use.

Fares. First off, the RENFE website is tricky–especially if you don’t speak Spanish. I would recommend sitting with someone who does speak Spanish because if you can manage to get the website in English, it’s poorly translated and difficult to follow. Often times, it defaults back into Spanish again from English when you click forward onto a new page. They are slowly making improvements, but for now, brush up on your Spanish.

A chart with prices and information on an Ave train Madrid-Seville
A chart with prices and information on an Ave train Madrid-Seville

Above, you can see a screenshot of a typical fare list. On the left it says the train type, AVE, followed by the time of departure, arrival, and the length of time. Now, for the fares. From left to right, you have the fares for Turista (economy) class. In the blank column to the right, there are no fares, this means there is no options for Turista Plus (economy comfort) on this particular train. The next section is the price for Preferente (Business) and then the last column is the one all the way to right, and these are the prices for Club (First) class.

From top to bottom these are explanations of the Fares:

Blue Box 4M for Cuatro MesaYou only get the price listed here per person if you purchase FOUR of these, and the seats are facing each other two by two around a table. This is only a deal if you a traveling with four people, because if you only buy one, two, or three, it costs more per seat, and you have to sit across people you don’t know which can be awkward. The price provided is the price per seat assuming you purchase all four, which can be a great money saving option if you are traveling with friends or family.

Green Box P for Promo:  You can´t cancel, change or choose your seat with this ticket and it is only available for purchase on the RENFE website. This is usually 70% the cost of the Promo Plus ticket, therefore it’s a good money saving option. Usually, these fares sell out first, so if you’re buying last minute, chances are you may have to choose one of the next two fares.

Orange Box P+ For Promo Plus: If you cancel your ticket, you only lose 30% of the value of the ticket, if you change your ticket, it costs 20% of what you spent, and then the increased cost of the new ticket, and if you miss your train you can take the next one for 20% of what you spent if it has available seating.

Purple Box F for Flexible: You have the option to change the ticket for free, if you miss your train you can take the next one for free, and if you cancel you get 95% of the money you spent refunded.

If you have the Promo Plus or Flexible fare in the Preferente or Club sections, you can also visit the lounge, the Sala Club, where it’s available.

Tips & Tricks

  • Buy in Advance. Tickets usually go on sale between 62-90 days in advance. The prices steadily go up and the Promo fares often disappear the closer you get to the date of travel. If your tickets aren’t on sale yet, check back daily. Often times, especially during peak travel times like summer and the holidays, RENFE changes the schedule, so they aren’t always available as far in advance.
  • Credit Cards. Sometimes US credit cards (for security reasons) won’t work on the RENFE website. Be ready with a few different cards, and if your card has Verified by Visa, this usually helps. Sometimes, a phone call to your bank will also help the transaction to go through. Paying through Paypal, which is a new option available July 1, can be a good idea if your credit card isn’t working.
  • Print Your Ticket. The easiest thing to do after you purchase is to print your ticket right then and there. To go back in later and re-print is unnecessarily complicated, so make sure you are purchasing at a computer hooked up to a functioning printer.
  • Plane to Train. Madrid is working to have AVE trains leave from Terminal 4 in the Madrid Adolfo Suarez Barajas Airport. Until this launches, if you plan on getting to the train station from the airport, I would suggest booking a train a minimum of three hours after your landing time, especially if you are flying from the US. By the time you go through customs, get your bags, etc., at least one hour will have gone by. Then, with traffic and/or unforeseen issues like taxi strikes/delays and other impeding or unplanned situations, allocate another hour or so to arrive at the train station. This will put you in the station about an hour in advance. I would suggest the same for flights into Barcelona.
  • Board Early. Attempt to board the train as early as possible if you have a lot of large luggage. Any luggage that is too large to be put in an overheard space will have to go in compartments on the edge of each car. Space in these compartments is limited, and if you don’t snag a spot quickly they fill up. Once they are full, you may have to ride with your large bag in the aisle, which is rather annoying for you, as well as for passengers trying to walk by, or you will have to store it in another car. Usually, there are not problems with luggage theft, but I personally feel more comfortable knowing my belongings are stored with me in the same train car, so get there with enough time to get your bag where it needs to go.
  • Youth and Senior Discounts. There are various options for discounts:
  1. Youth Card. If you are a European resident and possess a youth card (ages 14-26) you can get 20% off the fare. Foreigners with cards from EYCA and GO 25 (IYTC) are also eligible.  You may be asked to show your card at the train station.
  2. Children. Children ages 0-4 ride for free on your lap. Children ages 4-14 will get a 40% discount, which is bookable online for residents of Europe and foreign travelers.
  3. Seniors. The Tarjeta Dorada (Gold Card) is available for seniors 60+. However, you must possess the card, only obtainable at a Spanish train station, before you can get the discount booking online. The card costs approximately 6 euros ($8) and you will receive the following discounts when using it to book: On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, a 40% discount. On other days, a 25% discount. The card is valid for one year. 
  4. Large families. This discount is only available for residents of Spain that are registered with the government as having a large family.
  • Your Rights. As per the terms and conditions, if the arrival at the destination is delayed by more than one hour, the passenger will be entitled to financial compensation equivalent to 50 percent of the ticket price. When this delay exceeds one hour and thirty minutes, the monetary compensation will be equivalent to the total price. So if you are delayed, it is important to know this information if you want to get some money back.
  • Spain Pass. If you are planning on touring Spain by train, consider purchasing the Spain Pass, which is a pass specifically designed for foreigners traveling on the RENFE system. Customers can choose a pass for 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 journeys, which must be used within one month of your first trip on most AVE routes. You can choose to travel in Business class or Tourist class. You must remember to later reserve a seat on the train for each journey you take. A four pass ticket in tourist class costs 163 euros, and in Business, 229 euros. The prices increase as the the number of journeys do.
The Tarjeta Tempo, is the RENFE's loyalty program card
The Tarjeta Tempo, is the RENFE’s loyalty program card
  • RENFE Tempo. This is the loyalty program for RENFE. With the Tarjeta Tempo, you can earn points for taking train trips as well as other things like staying in Melia hotels or Europcar or Avis car rentals, which you can later use to redeem for train travel.

Hopefully this information helps to make your train travel a little bit easier, or at least the booking process slightly less hectic. Feel free to share any tips, tricks experiences in the comments section below.

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