In the early 90s a rail journey from Malaga to Madrid took over ten hours. Whilst travelling on that rickety old train was a great way to see the scorched countryside of Andalucia and Castilla La Mancha as it meandered its way to the capital it was hardly an attractive means of transport for travellers with limited time in the country. Fast forward to today and we find a whole different landscape for travellers with ultra modern high speed trains linking many of the main cities and regional trains of the highest European standards. Nowadays you can hop on the train in Malaga’s Maria Zambrano station and get off in Atocha in Madrid just 2 hours 25 minutes later. If you’re planning a tour of Spain then rail travel is undoubtedly an option worth considering.
Getting to Spain by Train from the UK
I often wondered how former Arsenal footballer Dennis Bergkamp managed to get to major European matches when he suffers a serious fear of flying. Now after some research I realise that getting to Barcelona and Madrid from London isn’t that big a deal. If you’re a frequent rail traveller then you’ll already know that train services from London to the continent are outstanding with connections available to pretty much anywhere in Europe. The best way to get to Spain is to take the Eurostar service to Paris Nord from where you transfer to the Gare de Lyon. From this station you take the TGV service to Barcelona Sants. Please note there is no longer a direct service from Paris to Madrid. Once you’ve arrived in Barcelona you can take a few days to discover the city then head off to Madrid on the high speed AVE service which then connects with Seville and Malaga. Or you can head down the coast to Valencia and Alicante on the EuroMed which is an ideal service if you’re planning holidays to Spain by train as its an overland option for getting to Benidorm and the popular resorts of the Costa Blanca.
So how long does this take? You might be surprised to learn that journey time from London to Barcelona via Paris (excluding transfer time in Paris) is now only 9 hours (2½ hours to Paris plus 6½ hours to Barcelona) which is obviously a very interesting option if you enjoy rail travel. An alternative route worth considering is to transfer to Paris Montparnasse then get a high-speed TGV service to San Sebastian via Hendaye in the Basque Country. You can then use regional services to discover the north of the country. If that’s appealing then you might even consider taking a ferry from the UK to Bilbao or Santander from where you can hook up with the Spanish rail network.
You can book train tickets from towns and cities all over the UK to Paris through the Rail Europe website, tickets go on sale 90 days before the train’s date of departure. Buying through tickets from your local railway station to Paris should be cheaper than travelling to London and beginning your journey from there. However, nothing’s that simple in the world of travel so it’s well worth looking at what cheap deals are on offer by train to London at National Rail or at TheTrainLine.
If you do decide to book your rail travel to London separately and join the Eurostar service there you should try to book a reduced price ticket to “London International (CIV)” from your local station. This destination refers to St Pancras railway station from where the Eurostar departs for the continent. Few rail travellers are aware of this ticket option, however, it isn’t available from every station and a Eurostar booking confirmation is required before you can get one.
For an in depth overview of all the train options connecting the UK with Spain take a look at Seat61. This website will tell you the current timetable for London-Paris-Barcelona trains and provides great travel tips related to the journey. After reading his description of the trip and looked at his photos from along the way I wouldn’t mind getting myself to London right away. The site also provides invaluable information on how to get to many other destinations in Spain via Paris. Loco2 is another very useful website for booking train services from the UK to Barcelona or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. Their system allows you to book journeys to Spain from any station in the UK.
Booking Trains in Spain
Travelling around Spain by train is a dream thanks to the AVE high speed trains. The first AVE line began operations in 1992 on the Madrid-Cordoba-Seville route which gets you from Madrid to Seville in just 2½ hours. Next came the Madrid to Zaragoza route which opened in 2003 and has now been extended to connect the capital with Barcelona in just 2½ hours. In 2010 the Madrid to Valencia line was completed and connects the cities in 1½ hours then in 2014 the Albacete to Alicante stretch was opened allowing rail travel from Madrid to the Costa Blanca in just over 2 hours.
This is one of Europe’s finest rail services with a guarantee on the Madrid-Seville route that if your train is more than 5 minutes late you’re entitled to a full refund. This guarantee applies on the Madrid-Barcelona route but for delays over 15 minutes. Such punctuality has been one of the key elements that has contributed most to the growth of the AVE network together with the excellent customer service provided during the ticket sales process and during the train journey itself.
Travel Tip: Book AVE Tickets 62 Days in Advance
You get the best deals on AVE trains by booking as soon as possible after tickets become available online. More specifically, this is 62 days before the departure date of the train. Tickets are available directly through the RENFE website or from Rail Europe.
Timetables for all high speed and long distance trains in Spain appear on the Spanish Rail (RENFE) website which also allows you to book tickets online and print them out so there’s no worry about ticket collection. It seems that quite a few people have problems trying to complete bookings on the RENFE website. If that’s the case then it might be worth taking a look at the Rail Europe Website which allows you to book AVE Tickets Online. They also allow for the purchase of numerous European rail passes. This site is very useful as everything appears in plain English but they will add a commission onto ticket prices for their services.
Whilst the AVE trains are the quickest way to get around Spain by train they are also the most expensive. An alternative is to book journeys on the excellent Alvia trains which travel on the same high speed railway lines but are less expensive. They can also travel on the older rail tracks so are available to many more destinations. These Alvia trains are very comfortable with plenty of legroom and reclining seats and are only a little slower than the AVE (250 km/h) on the same routes. On a sombre note it was one of these trains that crashed due to driver error on its way to Santiago de Compostela in July 2013.
If you’re in the north of Spain a great way to get around and see the lovely countryside of the region is by using the FEVE narrow-gauge railway system which runs across the Basque Country to Galicia. Forget high-speed rail travel, probably it’s biggest attraction is that it’s so slow!
Rail Passes in Spain
My first ever visit to Spain was as a student when I did InterRail. With a 30 day train ticket in my pocket and a rucksack and tent on my back I headed to the South of France for a few days before deciding to visit Lisbon (may as well get my money’s worth I thought!). So back to the train station in Nice for an overnight train to Hendaye on the France-Spain border and into the Basque Country. I eventually made it to Lisbon then went to Malaga from where I tried to visit Gibraltar but the border was closed. Where next? I fancy Switzerland, so off to the Alps I went. What great times they were travelling around Europe with that rail pass. I did it another time after finishing university heading first to the Munich Beer Festival then to Athens, Corfu, Italy and all over Germany.
I’m delighted to see that the InterRail Pass is still available for residents of the European Union now providing access to over 30 countries (oh how it’s grown). Non-EU residents can get a Eurail pass to discover the continent by train. There are many rail passes available in Europe which allow you to get discount rates on rail travel in individual countries, combinations of countries or on a grand tour of Europe. These passes provide for unlimited rail travel in the geographic zone that you buy the pass for over a fixed period of time. With specific reference to Spanish rail travel you can get a Spain InterRail Pass which provides you with the flexibility to discover Spain by rail. The different pass options allow you to travel on 3, 4, 6 or 8 days within a month.
Escorted Tours of Spain by Train
For extended rail tours of Spain take a look at the Great Rail Journeys website. They offer extensive rail tours of Spain, Europe and the rest of the world. There are some quite fantastic options on there for rail enthusiasts. Anthony Lambert is one of our newsletter subscribers and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He recently published this excellent article describing his tour of Andalucia on the luxury Al Andalus hotel train.
What do you Think About the Train in Spain?
Have you travelled around Spain by Train or used the high speed AVE service between cities? What about experiences from the old days before the development of this modern rail network? Any tips for visitors or anecdotes from the past will be much appreciated by our readers. Please us the comments box below.