Train travel in Spain
 

High-speed Spain:  An S103 AVE about to leave Madrid Atocha for Barcelona, now taking just 2h30

Buy train tickets for Spain

Buy train tickets in Spain

Buy a Spain Pass

www.renfe.com or www.petrabax.com

   
 

See Spain by train...

Once upon a time, Spain had one of the most backward train networks in western Europe.  Now, they have one of the best, indeed, one of my favourite rail systems.  High-speed AVE trains (Alta Velocidad Española) link major cities at up to 300 km/h (186mph), and if you book in advance online you can find some great cheap fares.  This page will give you a heads-up on how to travel cheaply around Spain by train.

A guide to taking the train in Spain

small bullet point  Spain by train, in a nutshell - the key points.

small bullet point  Railpasses for Spain & the Renfe Spain Pass

small bullet point  Spanish train fares & classes explained

small bullet point  What are Spanish trains like?

small bullet point  How to buy train tickets for Spain

small bullet point  How to use www.renfe.com

small bullet point  How to transfer between Madrid Atocha & Chamartin

small bullet point  Train services between Barcelona & Madrid

small bullet point  Madrid Atocha station guide

small bullet point  Madrid Chamartin station guide

small bullet point  Barcelona Sants station guide

small bullet point  Tours & vacations to Spain by train

small bullet point  Travel insurance, mobile data, VPN & other tips

small bullet point  Hotels & accommodation in Spain

International trains to & from Spain

small bullet point  UK to Spain by train, the no-fly way

small bullet point  Trains from Barcelona to other European cities

small bullet point  Madrid, Seville, Malaga, Alicante to other cities

small bullet point  Trains from other European cities to Spain

small bullet point  Madrid to Lisbon by train

small bullet point  Paris to Barcelona by high-speed train

Other train travel information

small bullet point  Eurail passes - for overseas visitors

small bullet point  Interrail passes - for European residents

small bullet point  General European train travel information

small bullet point  Luggage on trains & Left luggage at stations

small bullet point  Taking your bike & Taking your dog


Useful country information

Train operator in Spain:

 

Renfe, see www.renfe.com for train times, fares & online booking in Spain, but see this advice on using it - you'll find www.raileurope.com or Omio.com easier to use. 

Local trains around Bilbao, San Sebastian, French frontier:  www.euskotren.eus

Local trains in northern Spain (ex-FEVE): www.renfe.com, look under Cercanias for Cercanias-AM.

Madrid metro: www.metromadrid.es.  Barcelona-Montserrat railway: www.fgc.cat.

 

Railpasses:

 

Beginner's guide to European railpasses    Buy a rail pass online

Time:

GMT+1 (GMT+2 from last Sunday in March to last Saturday in October)

Currency:

£1 = approx €1.15,  $1 = approx €0.8.   Currency converter

Tourist information:

www.spain.info

Cars & car hire:

Taking your car by train = Motorail     Car hire in Spain

Hotels & hostels:

Find hotels in Spain    Hotel reviews see www.tripadvisor.com.

Page last updated:

13 February 2024


Spain by train, the key things to know

Railpasses for Spain

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Spanish train fares & classes explained

In July 2021, Renfe introduced a completely new fares structure for all its long-distance trains including the high-speed AVE, and also changed the terms it uses for 1st & 2nd class.  It's easy to get confused between what's a class of accommodation and what's a fare type, so here's a run-down of Renfe's new classes & fares.

Standard & Comfort class

Básico, Elige & Premium fares

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What are Spanish trains like?

AVE trains

AVE or Alta Velocidad Española is Spain's front-rank high-speed train.  Reservation is compulsory, and all trains have a cafe-bar.  AVEs are now being fitted with free WiFi.  If you pay the Premium fare, an airline-style hot tray meal with wine is included although on some departures you get a snack box instead, see the food & drink section above.  AVE trains come in various types.

S100:  The original French-designed AVE used between Madrid & Seville and also now used into France, see the photos below.

S102 & S112:  The Spanish Talgo-designed AVE used between Madrid & Malaga, Barcelona & Malaga/Seville, a classy train indeed, see S102/S112 photos here.

S103:  The German-designed AVE used between Barcelona & Madrid plus some Madrid-Malaga trains, see S103 photos here.

An AVE train to Seville ready to leave Madrid Atocha   Inside the Sala Club (1st class lounge) at Madrid Atocha.

All aboard!  This is an S100 AVE from Madrid to Seville.  All AVE trains have a cafe-bar serving drinks and snacks, or you feel free to bring your own food, wine or beer on board. 

 

Cafe-bar.  All AVEs and most Intercity & Alvia trains have a cafe-bar serving snacks, hot & cold dishes, tea, coffee, beer & wine.  This is an S100 cafe-bar.

AVE Preferente class on an S100 AVE train   Included meal on AVE with premium ticket in comfort class

AVE Comfort (former club seats) with reclining seats, power sockets for laptops & mobiles.

A hot meal & wine is included in Comfort class, but only if you pay the Premium fare, see above.

AVE Turista Plus class on an S100 AVE train to Seville   AVE Tourist class on an S100 AVE train from Madrid to Seville

AVE Comfort (former preferente seats) with reclining seats, power sockets for laptops & mobiles.

AVE Standard (2nd class) with comfortable seats, power sockets for laptops & mobiles.

Alvia & EuroMed trains

These S130 trains operate the EuroMed services linking Barcelona with Valencia & Alicante, as well as Alvia trains from Madrid to Cadiz & Huelva.  They consist of little articulated coaches built by the Talgo company sandwiched between two duck-billed power cars.  There are other Alvia services operates by similar trains with a diesel power-car added, and a few Alvia trains (including Barcelona to Bilbao, Pamplona & San Sebastian) operated by the wedge-nosed S120 type, of similar high quality.  All Alvia trains have a cafe-bar.  On EuroMed services a hot meal with wine is usually available in Comfort class on weekdays & Sundays if you buy a Premium ticket or add the meal to an Elige ticket, see the information above.

An Alvia train at Barcelona Sants   Turista (2nd class) seats on an Alvia train

An Alvia train at Barcelona Franca.  It's a type S130 nick-named patito or little duck, for obvious reasons!

 

Standard (2nd class) seats on an Alvia train.

Preferente (1st class) seats on a EuroMed train to Alicante   A EuroMed train at Barcelona Franca station

Comfort (1st class) seats on a EuroMed train.

 

An S130 EuroMed train at Barcelona Franca.

Intercity trains

These run on many long distance routes, including Madrid-Ronda-Algeciras, Madrid-Granada, Madrid-San Sebastian.  Most (including Madrid-Algeciras) are former Altaria trains, little articulated trains built by the Talgo company and hauled by a separate locomotive, they have adjustable axles so they can run at up to 200 km/h on the high-speed AVE lines (which are standard European gauge) then go though a gauge-changing shed to emerge on traditional Spanish broad gauge to complete their journey on the classic Iberian gauge network.  A few Intercity trains have been created by rebranding former Alvia trains built by CAF, for example on the Madrid-San Sebastian route, which also have gauge-changing wheels.  All Intercity trains have a cafe-bar.

An Altaria train (now rebranded Intercity) at Madrid Atocha   Preferente seats on Intercity train

An Intercity train built by Talgo at Madrid Atocha.

 

Comfort (1st class).

Turista (2nd class) on an Intercity train   Altaria train, now rebranded Intercity

Standard (2nd class) seating.

 

An Intercity train at Algeciras, about to leave for Madrid.

Avlo, Iryo, Ouigo...

Spain's high-speed lines have been opened up to competition.  Renfe now has a lo-cost brand called Avlo, and competitor operators Iryo & Ouigo now operate on key routes including Barcelona-Madrid, Madrid-Valencia, Madrid-Cordoba/Seville/Malaga.  See the Barcelona-Madrid page for a run down of these 3 operators.

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How to buy train tickets for Spain

 

Buy Spanish train tickets online

  Buy train tickets to Italy at Raileurope.com

When does booking open?  Anything between 15 days and 11 months, Renfe is a law unto itself when it comes to booking horizons, see the introduction.

What can these sites sell?  They can sell Renfe's mainline trains and sometimes competing high-speed trains run by Avlo, Iryo or Ouigo.  They can't sell tickets for Renfe's suburban (cercanias) routes including Latour de Carol-Barcelona or Cerbère-Portbou-Barcelona, nor can they sell tickets for Euskotren (Hendaye-San Sebastian-Bilbao) or the former FEVE routes (Bilbao-Santander-Gijon-Ferrol).

Option 1, buy at Raileurope.com

The quickest & easiest way to buy Spanish train tickets is at Raileurope.com with cheap advance-purchase fares & print-at-home or collect-at-station tickets.  You can choose to pay in €, £ or $. There's a small booking fee.

Raileurope.com links directly to Renfe's (Spanish Railways) ticketing system and charges the same price as Renfe themselves with the same print-your-own ticket delivery.  Unlike Renfe's own site it's in plain English without any of Renfe.com's quirky translations and no credit card rejection problems.

Raileurope.com can book the lo-cost Barcelona-Madrid Ouigo Spain trains as well as the normal Renfe trains, but cannot book lo-cost Avlo trains

Anyone from any country can use Raileurope.com as international credit cards are welcomed.  It can also sell international trains between Spain and Portugal or France, as it links to the French, German, Italian & British ticketing systems.  Who are Raileurope.com?

Important:  If you have a baby or infant, remember to add them as a child and enter their age, they'll still go free but will get the free infant ticket which is now necessary in Spain.

Option 2, buy at Thetrainline.com or Omio.com

www.omio.com & www.thetrainline.com also connect to Renfe's ticketing system to sell Renfe tickets at exactly the same prices as Renfe with the same print-your-own or collect-at-station tickets, very easily, all overseas credit cards accepted.  Both charge a small booking fee.  They can also book Ouigo Spain trains & Avlo trainsWho are Thetrainline.com?

Option 3, buy at Petrabax.com, easy to use, in US$

If you'd rather pay in USD, use www.petrabax.com.  This is a US-based agency which also links directly to the Renfe ticketing system to sell the same trains as Renfe.com with the same print-at-home tickets.  They add a small mark-up, but it's easy to use in plain English and it avoids the English translation and credit card acceptance problems people can experience with Renfe.com.  Anyone from any country can use Petrabax, including the United States, Canada, Australia, India & Singapore.

Option 4, buy at Renfe.com

You can of course buy tickets direct from Spanish Railways at www.renfe.com, in € with print-your-own tickets.  Unfortunately, Renfe.com has more than its fair share of quirks and a reputation for rejecting a significant proportion of overseas credit cards.  It's very fiddly to use.

Pretty much the only reasons to battle with renfe.com rather than buying easily from www.raileurope.com or www.thetrainline.com is that you avoid paying any booking fee and it may allow you to select a specific seats from a seating plan for an extra fee.  However, www.raileurope.com or www.thetrainline.com allow you to specify seating options and they both show you your seat numbers before you pay, so you can always compare them with a seating plan then run multiple enquiries if you don't like the first ones you are given, adding seats to your basket until you get ones you like.  Then cancel the ones you don't need and pay for those you do.

If you want to try using Renfe.com please read the advice on using Renfe.com below.  It frustrates many people, though I have to say it has always worked fine with my own credit card and it now also accepts PayPal.

Renfe.com also doesn't handle connections well, so if you want to book (say) from Bilbao to Seville you'll have to guess that this involves a change in Madrid, then book as two journeys, Bilbao to Madrid and Madrid to Seville - whereas Raileurope.com can generally book from anywhere to anywhere as one transaction, even if connections are involved.

So if you want a quick and easy transaction, use www.raileurope.com or www.thetrainline.com, but if you really want to avoid their small booking fee and are prepared to overcome confusing translations and a website which keeps slipping back into Spanish, try using Renfe.com with the help of the advice below.

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How to use www.renfe.com

Renfe ticket website screenshot
Renfe ticket website screenshot
Renfe ticket website screenshot

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Guidebooks

Lonely Planet Spain - click to buy onlineLonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring - click to buy onlinePaying for a guidebook may seem an unnecessary expense, but it's a tiny fraction of what you're spending on your whole trip.  You will see so much more, and know so much more about what you're looking at, if you have a decent guidebook.  For the independent traveller I'd recommend either the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide, both provide an excellent level of practical detail and useful background. You won't regret buying either of these guides!

Amazon logoClick the images to buy online at Amazon.co.uk

Alternatively, download just the chapters or areas you need in .PDF format from the Lonely Planet Website, from around £2.99 or US$4.95 a chapter.

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European Rail Timetable & maps

Thomas Cook European Timetable -  click to buy onlineTraveller's Railway Map of Europe - buy onlineThe European Rail Timetable (formerly the Thomas Cook European Timetable) has train & ferry times for every country in Europe plus currency & climate information.  It is essential for regular European train travellers and an inspiration for armchair travellers.  Published since 1873, it had just celebrated 140 years of publication when Thomas Cook decided to pull the plug on their entire publishing department, but the dedicated ex-Thomas Cook team set up a private venture and resumed publication of the famous European Rail Timetable in March 2014.  You can buy it online at www.amazon.co.uk (UK addresses) or www.europeanrailtimetable.eu (shipping worldwide).  More information on what the European Rail Timetable contains.

Rail Map Europe is the map I recommend, covering all of Europe from Portugal in the west to Moscow & Istanbul in the east, Finland in the north to Sicily & Athens in the south.  Scenic routes & high-speed lines are highlighted.  See an extract from the map.  Buy online at www.europeanrailtimetable.eu (shipping worldwide) or at www.amazon.co.uk (UK addresses).

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Hotels in Spain

Find hotels at Booking.comMy favourite hotel search: www.booking.com

Booking.com is my favourite hotel booking site and I generally use it to book all my hotels in one place.  I've come to trust booking.com's review scores, you won't be disappointed with any hotel that scores 8.0 or more.  Crucially, booking.com usually lets you book with free cancellation, which means you can confirm accommodation risk-free before train booking opens and/or you can hold accommodation while you finalise your itinerary and alter your plans as they evolve - a feature I use all the time when planning a trip.  I never book hotels non-refundably!

Backpacker hostels

www.hostelworld.com:  If you're on a tight budget, don't forget about backpacker hostels.  Hostelworld offers online booking of cheap private rooms or dorm beds in backpacker hostels in Paris and most other European cities at rock-bottom prices.

Environmentally aware, actively ethical adventures in Spain:  www.wildsideholidays.com

For environmentally-aware guesthouses offering walking, hiking, riding or nature-watching in the Spanish countryside and national parks, try www.wildsideholidays.com, a new site listing independent, environmentally-aware properties across Spain.  It was started by British ex-pats Clive Muir and Sue Eatock, when they found nowhere to advertise their own wonderful property deep in the heart of the Sierra de Grazelema near Ronda in Southern Spain.

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Custom-made tours of Spain

Railbookers logoRailbookers, railbookers.co.uk

If you want to tour Spain by train, with all your train reservations and hotels sorted for you to your own specification, contact train tour specialists Railbookers and they'll create the best rail holiday for you, hassle-free.  They take good care of their clients and get a lot of repeat business.  In particular, check out their Ultimate Barcelona, Madrid & Seville tour on their US & Canada site, or a top seller on their UK site, Madrid & Andalusia.  They have offices in the UK, USA & Australia.

UK flag  UK call 0207 864 4600, www.railbookers.co.uk.

US flag  US call free 1-888-829-4775, www.railbookers.com.

Canadian flag  Canada call free 1-855-882-2910, www.railbookers.com.

Australian flag  Australia call toll-free 1300 971 526, www.railbookers.com.au.

New Zealand flag  New Zealand call toll-free 0800 000 554 or see website.

Tailor Made Raill logoTailor Made Rail, tailormaderail.com

Tailor Made Rail can arrange tours of Spain by train based on your own requirements, they welcome complex itineraries.  As it's a package, they'll take care of you if anything happens on one part of the trip, for example, a national strike.  They're TTA-protected - like ATOL, but not only for agencies that sell air travel.

Call their dedicated seat61 phone line 020 3778 1461 and quote seat 61 when booking.  From outside the UK call +44 20 3778 1461.  Lines open 09:00-17:30 Monday-Friday.  Their website is www.tailormaderail.com/destinations/spain.


Car hireCar hire logo

Car hire comparison:  www.carrentals.co.uk

The award-winning website www.carrentals.co.uk compares many different car hire companies including Holiday Autos, meaning not only a cheapest price comparison but a wider choice of hire and drop off location.


Travel insurance & other tips

 

Staysure travel insurance

 

Columbus Direct logo

Always take out travel insurance

You should take out travel insurance with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover from a reliable insurer.  It should cover trip cancellation and loss of cash & belongings up to a reasonable limit.  These days, check you're covered for covid-19-related issues, and use an insurer whose cover isn't invalidated by well-meant but excessive Foreign Office travel advice against non-essential travel. An annual policy is usually cheapest even for just 2 or 3 trips a year, I have an annual policy with Staysure.co.uk myself.  Don't expect travel insurance to bail you out of every missed connection, see the advice on missed connections here.  Here are some suggested insurers, I get a little commission if you buy through these links, feedback always welcome.

UK flag  www.staysure.co.uk offers enhanced Covid-19 protection and gets 4.7 out of 5 on Trustpilot.

UK flag  www.columbusdirect.com is also a well-know brand.

US flag  If you live in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

 

Maya.net logo

Get an eSIM with mobile data package

Don't rely on WiFi, download an eSIM with a European mobile data package and stay connected.  Most newer mobile phones can download a virtual SIM including iPhone 11 & later, see device compatibility list.  There's no need to buy a physical SIM card!  Maya.net is a reliable eSIM data retailer with a 4.5 out of 5 Trustpilot rating and a range of packages including unlimited data.

 

Curve card

Curve card

Get a Curve card for foreign travel

Most banks give you a poor exchange rate then add a foreign transaction fee on top.  A Curve MasterCard means no foreign transaction fees and gives you the mid-market exchange rate, at least up to a certain limit, £500 per month as I write this.  The money you spend on your Curve card goes straight onto one of your existing debit or credit cards.  And you can get a Curve card for free.

How it works:  1. Download the Curve app for iPhone or Android.  2. Enter your details & they'll send you a Curve MasterCard - they send to the UK and most European addresses.  3. Link your existing credit & debit cards to the app, you can link up to two cards with the free version of Curve, I link my normal debit card and my normal credit card.  4. Now use the Curve MasterCard to buy things online or in person or take cash from ATMs, exactly like a normal MasterCard. Curve does the currency conversion and puts the balance in your own currency onto whichever debit or credit card is currently selected in the Curve app.  You can even change your mind about which card it goes onto, within 14 days of the transaction.

I have a Curve Blue card myself, it means I can buy a coffee on a foreign station on a card without being stung by fees and lousy exchange rates, just by tapping the Curve card on their card reader.  The money goes through Curve to my normal debit card and is taken directly from my account (in fact I have the Curve card set up as payment card on Apple Pay on my iPhone, so can double-click my phone, let it do Face ID then tap the reader with the phone - even easier than getting a card out).  I get a little commission if you sign up to Curve, but I recommend it here because I think it's great.  See details, download the app and get a Curve card, they'll give you £5 cashback through that link.

 

Express VPN

Get a VPN for safe browsing.  Why you need a VPN

When travelling you may use free public WiFi which is often insecure.  A VPN encrypts your connection so it's always secure, even on unsecured WiFi.  It also means you can select the geographic location of the IP address you browse with, to get around geoblocking which a surprising number of websites apply.  See VPNs & why you need one explainedExpressVPN is a best buy with a 4.7 out of 5 Trustpilot ranking which I use myself - I've signed up as an ExpressVPN affiliate, and if you go with expressvpn.com using this link you should see a special deal, 3 months free with an annual subscription.  I also get some commission to help support this site.

 

Anker Powerrbank

Carry an Anker powerbank

Tickets, reservations, hotel bookings and Interrail or Eurail passes are often now held on your mobile phone.  You daren't let it run out of power, and you can't always rely on the phone's internal battery or on being near a power outlet.  I always carry an Anker powerbank which can recharge my phone several times over.  Buy from Amazon.co.uk or Buy from Amazon.com.

Touring cities?  Use hill walking shoes!

One of the best things I've done is swap my normal shoes for hill-walking shoes, in my case from Scarpa.  They're intended for hiking across the Pennines not wandering around Florence, but the support and cushioning for hiking works equally well when you're on your feet all day exploring foreign cities.  My feet used to give out first and limit my day, now the rest of me gives up before they do!

 


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