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Tips for Traveling Through Spain By Train

by on June 26, 2014 · 28 comments

in Destination Edition, Destinations, Europe, Trains

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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 / Shutterstock.com

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

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.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Guest

    We spent 38 days traveling around Spain this spring almost entirely by train and agree with everything in this article. Especially the comment about Renfe being picky about which U.S. credit cards it will accept.

    I think the reason most U.S. cards are rejected by the Renfe site is because they lack Chip and Pin technology. It’s generally a good idea for anyone looking to travel overseas to track down a card with this technology (only a few U.S. banks currently offer it.)

    I usually use a Chase Sapphire Preferred card for my travel expenses but most European vending machines, gas pumps, and many booking sites like Renfe’s, won’t accept that card. Probably because it is a Chip and Signature card. Whenever that card failed, my Chip and Pin card from Pen Fed always worked.

  • dee seiffer

    Great post, Lori. Definitely bookmarking it. Hubby and I plan to go to Madrid and Barcelona in Spring 2015. We love trains and want to fly to Madrid and take the train to Barcelona.

  • iahawkeye88

    This was very helpful!! I searched to see if there was something like this for Italy, is there one that I missed?

  • susannah

    The man in seat 61 (seat61.com) is an excellent resource for train travel in Europe and beyond. TheTrainline.com is the best source of tickets and schedules in the UK.

  • rachel

    lori, what’s the best way to get from Biobao airport to San Sebastian area?

  • Joseph Alberts

    ditto. after the article headline this post should have had a link to seat61.com and nothing more.

  • PN

    Seat61.com is a GREAT resource for all train travel, but especially it was my bible when travelling around europe…

  • Chris Martin

    When we visited Spain around 2 years ago….we traveled from Barcelona to Grenada by Plane and bus (via Malaga) and then by bus from Grenada to Madrid. For those who travel on a tight budget, bus is much cheaper than the trains and usually takes about the same time (sometimes its even quicker). Definitely look at all options as our flight from Barcelona to Malaga was only 65 Euros total for 2 people and the bus ride to Madrid was much cheaper than the train fare. The buses are nice too….similar to greyhound, however I can’t remember if it had air conditioning or not.

  • Lori

    Chris, this is very true. Actually, they have a relatively new bus that is “extra-luxury”, with WiFi, charging sockets, leather seats and they have an “attendant” that brings you drinks, etc. I know this route goes between madrid-seville a few times a day if you ever come back. It’s called the Supra, in case you ever want to try it! https://www.alsa.es/en/services/supra/

  • Lori

    Rachel, obviously you always have a taxi as an option, but I think the best way is the airport bus, I believe the line is the Bizkaibus line, and it’s under 2 euros for a ticket.

  • Lori

    You know, in my past experiences, train travel in Italy seems to be more straightforward than in Spain. I think their website is slightly easier to navigate. Perhaps I will post on train travel through Italy soon!

  • Lori

    oops I read this wrong! I thought you were speaking about the city center, I just saw SanSe. I would say an Alsa bus, or renting a car. Trains aren’t worth it for this route. There is also a website called BlaBlaCar where you can find people driving to places you need to go and pay them to join. I’ve always wanted to give it a try.

  • Guest

    We traveled last year all around Spain by train, and i agree with everything here. The one point i would emphasize is BUY EARLY. Your point about this can’t be over-emphasized. We were able to buy first class at the same price as third by buying early.

  • rick b

    I had a fun time in Madrid buying tickets for the next day. Website crapped out for unknown reasons, the kiosk takes ONLY PIN cards, while elsewhere in Europe chip + signature worked just fine. I then had to wait 30 minutes in line for the one cashier who could sell tickets for next day, and 2 slots before mine, all cashiers go on the famous long lunch, with no one else left there willing or able to help. Spain had the worst customer service of any country! Be ready in advance, or be ready to wait in lines.

    The trains themselves were reasonably comfortable, although overpriced compared to what you get in Italy, for example.

  • Tony

    Thank you for this article, we are heading to BCN this Oct and the info here has helped.

  • Lana

    Would it be easier then just to get a euro rail pass to avoid all this problems?

  • James

    Just a note about US Credit Cards – If you can navigate through the slightly cumbersome renfe website (there is an English version for those not speaking Spanish), it accepts Visa / Mastercard etc without the need for Chip and PIN technology. By far the most pleasant way to travel ’round Spain, and buy early – the flexible tickets are only slightly more expensive than regular ones and easily interchangeable (as the name implies).

  • BobChi

    Excellent information. You might comment on the ins and outs of using an overnight train where available. I took one from Madrid to Barcelona last year, and it was cheaper than day trains, buses or planes, and also saved a night’s hotel bill, plus the time of part of a day’s activities making the trip otherwise. There are several night travel options in different price categories, though there are not a lot of night trains total.

  • Louie Murcia

    thank you for this valuable report. i will be heading to barcelona in august and your tips will come in handy!

  • george

    Great article!! Talking about printing boarding tickets i have to say that is also possible to get the e-ticket on the renfe apps for iphone or android and show the phone at the station.

  • sp2

    it depends on how many train trips you are taking if a rail pass will be cheaper — and many (if not most) trains in Spain require you to pay small amounts for seat reservations (that have to be booked/paid/reserved in advance) with a rail pass. So you still have to go through some hoops in Spain to get a seat. Rick Steve’s website has some good pointers on the use of rail passes in Spain.

  • grt

    Great post, Lori! And just in time, as I today booked my first trip to Spain for May 2015 — and have been doing initial research on train travel.

    And thanks, TPG — my open jaw AA business class ticket (DEN-CDG, MAD-DEN [with one stop each way]) cost just $62 in fees — using 100k miles from my Citi Aadvantage Executive MasterCard I got a few weeks ago. To purchase the same tickets would have cost $4200. While I’m not impressed of the planes American is using to get me there (maybe the 763s will get upgraded by then?).. but still, it’s a great value. The early bird gets the worm :)

  • HighPlainsDrifter

    “The trains in Spain run mainly on the plain.” ….(sorry)

  • grt

    PS — for those that might think I[‘m a total moron (and, perhaps I am!)… on my first trip to Spain, I’m doing a stint in Paris prior, too :)…which is why I’m going through CDG on the first leg.

  • forsure

    yep. Get a chip and pin card. I carry one as a back-up (from Andrews AF Credit Union)… and it has saved my life many times.

  • jake11

    A decade or more back I was on the last TWA STL-MAD and chose to spend my 7 days using an Iberian Rail Pass, about $250. Most nights were spent on the train so no hotel, Madrid-Lisbon-San Sebastian, etc. most nights in s sleeper. Exquisite! Don’t know about the availability of this pass nor the equipment currently available.

  • Kevin Furay

    Hi Lori,

    Great info! I know you have a lot of knowledge so what would you recommend for travel from Pamplona to Madrid? I believe our options are bus, train or plane. Any reason to choose one over the other?

    Thanks for the article and keep them coming!

  • Santiago

    Gee, Lori! Excellent information contained here. Quite right, too, about
    Renfe’s highly improvable website and even one of the comments to your post on
    the sometimes poor customer care at stations (not always, though, and also
    slowly improving with the new young hires). However, you missed a few pointers:
    (1) For instance, I wonder why you haven’t even mentioned taking the Cercanías
    trains (Renfe’s commuter rail) from the airport to the train station in both
    Madrid and Barcelona, for sure the most direct, fastest way to get between the
    two. (2) Speaking of which, I’ve also not seen you mention the fact that
    Cercanías trips are free of charge if you hold a long-distance ticket and use
    Cercanías on the same date as your long-distance trip (next day for night trains).
    This definitely makes Cercanías the top travel option between the airport and
    the train station in Spain’s two most populous cities. (3) Renfe’s refund
    policy when trains are delayed varies depending on the service chosen. For
    instance, delays of as little as 15 minutes in one-hour trips on AVE trains may
    get you a 100% ticket refund. (4) Also related to this, you forgot to mention
    the fact that you won’t be allowed to get your refund within the first 24 hours
    after your scheduled arrival time. You have to wait those 24 hours before
    you’re entitled to getting your money back, something to bear in mind if you’re
    traveling to another country before that time. (5) And finally, there
    used to be a night train to almost every coastal city from Madrid up to the end
    of the 1990s (you could even take your car along on those trains!), but I
    believe –someone please correct me if I am mistaken– there are only three such
    trains today per day (six with their returns): Madrid-Barcelona, Madrid-Galicia
    in northwestern Spain and Barcelona-Galicia.

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