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Train Travel in Spain: A Helpful Guide

Train Travel in Spain: A Helpful Guide

Train travel in Spain is an environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and scenic means of getting around this huge country.

Operated by Renfe, the train system in Spain is sophisticated and efficient. It links major Spanish cities with smaller towns inland and on the coasts of Spain. You can rely on Spanish trains to get you from city to city as part of a wider travel itinerary as well as for independent day trips from Alicante, Málaga, Valencia, Seville, Barcelona, and more.

This guide is a window into what you need to know about traveling by train and how to buy train tickets in Spain.

All you need to know about train travel in Spain

Renfe (pronounced Ren-fay) is responsible for the national train system in Spain. The company operates mainline, regional, suburban, and local trains across the country.

High-speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) are specific trains that service major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, and Seville in a fraction of the time it takes by road. AVE trains reach maximum speeds of 300 km/h (186 mph).

Avlo trains are low-cost high-speed services. These have fewer onboard frills that save passengers money but journey times are on par with AVE trains.

Several other providers operate within the Renfe umbrella. Renfe Feve serves northern Spain and FGC operates around Barcelona.

Visit OpenRailwayMap to view all railway routes.

platform at an underground train station with people waiting on the platform.

There are so many modes of transportation around Spain, but train travel is one of the most comfortable and convenient.

What’s it like traveling by train in Spain?

Trains in Spain are very comfortable and modern with onboard bathrooms and air-conditioning. High-speed AVE trains usually have Wi-Fi although it’s not always guaranteed that it will work throughout the entire route. It’s wise to use a VPN to protect yourself against cyber threats.

Seats are sold as per Standard Class (2nd class) and Comfort Class (1st class).

Básico (Basic) is the cheapest fare available and applies only to Standard Class.

Elige (Choice) is a semi-flexible ticket and gives you a choice of Elige Standard Class or Elige Confort in Comfort Class.

Premium is totally flexible and is available in Comfort Class. It often involves other perks such as onboard dining and/or lounge access.

Seats are generally configured as airline rows of twos or as four-person table seats. First-class carriages have the added perk of solo seating for those traveling alone.

Standard classes are comfortable for the average traveler although first-class train travel in Spain has additional legroom.

Most regional Spain trains are equipped with a cafe bar where you can buy food and drink. It’s fine to take your own food which was purchased elsewhere onboard. Alcohol is permitted on trains but rowdy behavior is not.

train station full of people with two boards above showing departure times for train travel in Spain.

Valencia has two different train stations depending on whether you are traveling locally or further afield on the fast trains.

How to buy train tickets in Spain

The best way to book train travel in Spain is online. Omio and Trainline are the safest and most user-friendly websites for booking rail tickets in Spain. You’re required to register an account and will need to type in your passport number as part of the booking process.

These platforms have apps where you can store mobile tickets and keep an eye on service interruptions. Subject to availability, you’ll be able to state a preference for window/aisle seating. The classes may be listed differently than stated earlier but it’s easy to figure out what you’re getting with each tier.

They list prices in different currencies and accept most foreign credit and debit cards. Both sites apply a minimal service charge to your booking.

Omio is preferred for booking rail tickets in Spain. It displays more information about what to expect onboard, such as Wi-Fi and meal availability.

It’s important to pay attention to the terms and conditions regarding validity. Most tickets are valid on the selected train and refunds/amendments are not possible until you pay extra at the time of booking.

Of course, if the service is canceled then you will either be assigned to the next available train at no additional cost or receive a refund.

It’s also possible to book Spain train travel directly on Renfe. This website lists the fares in euros and as an added perk, does not apply a service fee. However, it’s cumbersome to use.

You must use the Spanish names of each city (and spell them correctly). The Spanish-English translation isn’t always very clear. The site doesn’t always accept non-Spanish payment cards.

It is, however, the best website to check for train times and to compare prices. But often, you can get a better price on Omio or Trainline, even with the small transaction fee applied. Compare each website to see which is offering the best deal.

It’s worth having a quick look at the schedules but heading to Omio and Trainline to make a reservation. Besides, these sites are easier to search using the standard English-language spellings of Spanish locations.

train on tracks that are next to a body of water and mountains in the background.

Trains in Spain can take you to some pretty spectacular places.

When to book train travel in Spain

Practically all Spain trains require a seat reservation. These are free and mean there’s no chance of spending the journey dangling over other passengers in the aisle (a far cry from the sardine-style approach of British trains).

Due to this rule, booking rail tickets in Spain ahead of travel time is often mandatory.

Long-distance and high-speed train travel in Spain always requires advanced booking. This is crucial during summer as well as peak times such as Christmas, New Year, and Easter when Spanish nationals are visiting friends and family.

It’s also wise to check out regional and local festivals in Spain as this can result in certain routes being oversubscribed.

Booking train tickets in Spain ahead of time is also much cheaper. You can save over half the full-price fare when you plan ahead by a few weeks or more.

Shorter journeys of an hour or less generally don’t require notice and can be booked on the day. That being said, it’s always wise to pre-book, especially during peak travel seasons and if you’re on a commuter journey (like Barcelona to Girona, for example).

Trains in Spain are usually open for booking 60 days in advance. AVE services may open up to 90 days ahead.

beautiful train station with no one inside the waiting area and wide arches above which make train travel in Spain more relaxing.

There is a confusing number of train stations in Barcelona, but most long-distance trains will go through Barcelona Sants.

A quick guide to Barcelona-Sants Train Station

Barcelona-Sants (Sants Estación) is the main and largest railway station in Barcelona. It’ll never win any awards for its architecture but it functions well as a travel depot.

Sants is located in the Sants-Montjuïc district.

It’s connected to the Sants Estació metro station which is served by lines 3 (green) and 5 (blue). Line 3 heads to the Gothic Quarter and Plaça de Catalunya.

It’s also possible to hail taxis from the forecourt or use apps. Consult our guide to Uber in Barcelona and alternative services.

Platforms 1-6 receive TGV services to and from Paris and AVE high-speed trains to and from Madrid, Seville, and Málaga, as well as other French cities. This is also where to go for Alvia trains to San Sebastian and Bilbao in northern Spain.

Platforms 7-14 are used for suburban trains and EuroMed services to Valencia and Alicante.

There are several day trips from Barcelona possible by train. Note that not all of these depart from Barcelona-Sants so it’s important to check.

Espanya, Plaça de Catalunya, Francia, and Passeig de Gràcia are other major train stations in Barcelona.

Where to stay near Barcelona-Sants

Hotel Barceló Sants is located within the terminal. There are better areas to stay as part of a longer travel itinerary in Barcelona although it’s handy if you have an early arrival or late departure. Rooms are ultra-modern and practically equipped. The best ones have city views.

inside of Madrid Atocha train station.

The Madrid Atocha Train Station is probably my favorite station in Spain thanks to the tropical garden inside.

A quick guide to Madrid Atocha Train Station

Madrid Atocha Train Station (Madrid Estación de Atocha) is the main railway terminal in the Spanish capital. In complete contrast to Barcelona-Sants, this trainshed is an architectural masterpiece.

The art nouveau facade is simple yet majestic and almost perfectly symmetrical. The concourse houses an indoor “rainforest” of around 400 different species of plants and flora. Considering the green nature of Madrid it’s very fitting, and also a welcome treat during the arid summer months.

Madrid’s train station is located in its namesake Atocha neighborhood, just off the southern end of El Retiro Park and the botanical garden.

It connects to two metro stations: Estación Del Arte and Estación Atocha. Both are served by Line 1 (blue).

Most high-speed trains depart from platforms 1-15. This extended part of the station is known as Madrid Puerta de Atocha (or, Madrid-Puerta de Atocha-Almudena Grandes).

Madrid Atocha-Cercanías is a separate area with platforms labeled 1-10. Cercanías means commuter and indicates that suburban services arrive and depart from here. This route map of Cercanías Madrid is useful for getting around the suburban areas.

Tickets will specify which part of the station your train departs from. Omio makes it very clear ahead of booking although Trainline doesn’t confirm which station you’ll be using until the confirmation email is sent.

Departures marked as Planta Primera means that the train leaves from the upper level. Planta Baja refers to the ground floor.

Madrid Chamartin (Estación de Madrid-Chamartín Clara Campoamor) is the other train station. It’s located eight miles north of Atocha and somewhat far from the city center.

This station serves connections to the north – such as San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, and Santiago de Compostela. It’s also the cheapest place to get the fast train to Valencia, so you may very well find yourself here. You can get here easily on the metro.

Every northbound Cercanías train from Atocha stops at Chamartin.

Where to stay near Madrid Atocha

Only YOU Hotel Atocha is so close you can practically smell the succulents! Rooms feature cool decor like exposed brick walls and vintage-inspired desks. Top-tier rooms have balconies and their suites may tempt you to blow your life savings.

Seeing as Atocha is quite central, you can also check out accommodation in some of the best areas to stay in Madrid. Lavapiés and Retiro are worthy contenders.

train going past with blurring in front as it zooms past.

There are a lot of regional trains in cities like Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid that can take you on great day trips.

Interrail Spanish train travel

Interrail passes are available for use on Spain trains.

The Interrail Spain One Country Pass is valid for European citizens and residents. It comes as a three, four, five, six, and eight-day flexi pass. Seat reservations are required for high-speed, international, and night train services.

The Global Pass is also available as a flexi or continuous pass for Europeans.

Eurail passes are available for non-Europeans.

For both passes you will need to make sure that you book your

Traveling Spain by train versus rental car?

Traveling by train in Spain or renting a car? The pros and cons of train travel and hiring a car in Spain are listed below.

Before we get there – you could always consider a hybrid approach. It might make sense to cover greater distances by train (such as Madrid to Barcelona) and then hire a car locally.

Pros of train travel in Spain

  • Spanish train travel is kinder to the environment than driving or taking short-haul flights
  • Booking train tickets in Spain is straightforward with Omio/Trainline
  • The train system in Spain is well-connected and efficient
  • No need to worry about parking a hire vehicle
  • Spanish trains are comfortable and maintained
  • Train travel in Spain means you can catch up on work, trip planning, or indulge in relaxation time
  • Pets are permitted on most routes although terms and conditions apply

Cons of Spain train travel

  • Can be expensive when tickets are not reserved in advance
  • Cheaper fares are non-transferable
  • Booking rail tickets in Spain last minute isn’t always possible
  • Antisocial behavior on public transport is always a risk
  • Trains aren’t always comfortable for travelers with babies and younger children
  • Pets aren’t permitted on all trains
fast trains parked inside a train station.

The fast trains in Spain are sleek and comfortable. Getting from Madrid to Valencia in under two hours is one of my favorite (and most frequented) journies.

Pros of renting a car in Spain

  • Allows more flexibility to an itinerary
  • Greater opportunities to travel beyond classic vacation destinations in Spain
  • Road conditions in Spain are exemplary
  • More comfortable for families with young children
  • Driving in Spain is awesome for US folks – they drive on the right!

Cons of car hire in Spain

  • It can be expensive – especially for solo travelers or if an accident occurs
  • Petrol costs need to be included in your budget
  • Not eligible for lead drivers under the age of 21
  • Younger drivers (under the age of 25) might have to pay a surcharge
  • Driving in Spain is less awesome for Brits – remember to drive on the right!
inside of madrid atocha train station.

The Madrid Atocha station is well connected so if you arrive in Madrid, you can get almost anywhere in Spain from this station.

Packing checklist for Spain train travel

Once you’ve committed to traveling by train in Spain, it’s just a case of packing your bags and not missing your departure.

The official luggage limit is 25 kg per passenger although it’s not enforced. Baggage is stowed in overhead racks or in designated areas at the ends of the carriage.

Some stations will scan bags ahead of boarding a long-distance train route in Spain.

  • Water – long-distance trains will have a cafe bar onboard. However, it’s good to reduce plastic consumption when possible. Tap water in Spain is safe to drink so remember to take a reusable bottle. This stainless steel water bottle is my go-to (I have a few colors now and they last for years). It comes in two sizes and keeps liquids ice-cold for up to 24 hours.
  • Snacks – pick up some pastries or a sandwich for your journey in case there are issues with food supply. You might also want to pack healthy nibbles like fresh fruit, nuts, and olives (maybe some cheeses) from the market – these stackable container pots are great for organizing your haul.
  • Warm layer – air-conditioning can result in a nippy carriage. Pack a practical blanket scarf as a snuggly cover-up or an oversized hoodie.
  • Book/eReader – not that you’ll tire of the scenery, but having something to read is always wise for train travel in Spain (or any other country). The Kindle Paperwhite comes out tops for eye comfort, portability, and battery life. It also works with Audible audiobooks.
  • Noise-canceling headphones – don’t be that person watching videos on your device without headphones. Noise-canceling headphones will help block out any irritating noises from other passengers while you tune into a podcast. These over-the-ear Sony headphones are super comfy although you might prefer a pair of noise-canceling earbuds.
  • Combination lock – an obvious one, but you’ll need a padlock for your main suitcase or backpack.