Spain by Train – Spanish Rail Travel

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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.

Spain AVE Train
High Speed Trains

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.

Barcelona to Madrid Train
Bullet Train

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.

AVE Rail Map

Rail Map of High Speed AVE Train Routes

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.

Madrid to Seville Trains
Madrid Atocha

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. Some quite fantastic options on there for rail enthusiasts.

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.

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Reader Comments:

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Michael – the map has now been updated to show the recently opened stretch of AVE line from Albacete to Alicante.

  1. Jan Lauritzen says

    Important … if you are above 65 years you get 40% discount on Monday to Thursday travel if you buy a ‘Tarjeta Dorada’ which costs only Eur 6,00 … both on preferante and turista class .. and on preferente you get on certain departures a great meal including wines etc.

  2. Don Collins says

    Hello Gerry

    Here is some information which may well be of interest to your readers:

    If you are over 60 you can buy a “Tarjeta Dorada” for 6 Euro which will give you a 40% discount on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday it offers a 25% discount. The card lasts a year.

    Also if you are between 14 and 26 you can buy a “Tarjeta Joven” for 11 Euro which will give a 30% discount. This one I believe lasts a year?

    The best place to buy is at the railway station.

    I do believe there is a tie up with some banks where you can buy?

    Also some agents sell them but may charge a commission? You need to check this out. Attached below is the RENFE Site which is in English. Do hope this is useful for you:

    http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/horarios.html

    Regards.
    DC.

  3. Mrs. Christina Chetwynd says

    A very informative and an interesting article.. We do have a second home in Spain so we do travel back and forth a few times.. What is most interesting is, the travelling in Spain by train and going to various places like Seville Barcelona by the speed train. We ought to try it out some day. For people who have fear of flying, travelling by train is a wonderful idea and relaxing as well as interesting. Trains in Spain are very punctual. They are always dead on time. You can certainly rely on that.

    Thank you Gerry for this wonderful article. It will be saved on our computer and will be handy when we are in Spain to take speed train and travel round. A very interesting and informative article.

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Christina … it certainly makes some of the great cities of Spain so accessible in a way they never were in the past.

  4. Peter Robinson says

    Just update the info as Alicante to Madrid is now AVE plus over 60′s can get a carta Oro (senior rail card) which gives good discounts on both RENFE and AVE services
    Also if you register on RENFE web site you can book tickets and down load copies anytime or save to your IPhone and show at check in
    Great service in Spain . The UK is 100 years behind
    Enjoy the travel at high speeds and good service

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Peter. Madrid to Alicante in just 2 hours 5 minutes on the latest AVE connection. Incredible.

  5. John Alaimo says

    Hi Gerry,

    Not having been to Spain in many years, this article was extremely helpful. When I was in Spain I did ride, what was considered then, a high speed train, the TALGO. Very comfortable and fast for its day. But judging by your article it’s an entirely different rail system and I can’t wait to try it out. Thanks for the putting all this together for our benefit.
    John

  6. Ron (Naldo) Espin says

    I like travelling on trains and have done so in several countries. When I lived in Terrassa (Barcelona) in 1973 there was the national network (RENFE) and a catalan one – I remember a catalan friend saying RENFE stood for ‘Retrasos Enormes Necesitamos el Favor de Empujar’ (enormous delays – please push)! In 1976 I took the Iberian Express for the first time – left Paris at 6.10 pm and arrived in Madrid at about 9.15 am – the gauge size in Spain was different to the rest of Europe so you had to change at Hendaye/Irun. They eventually overcame this problem with the TALGO, their first ‘high speed’ train which somehow matched both gauges – I used it from Barcelona to Madrid in 1979 and it was a lot faster. The AVE is, I guess, the descendant of TALGO and,after reading your article, I hope to try it out someday.

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Ron … the whole rail infrastructure has certainly come on since those days and is amongst the finest in Europe these days.

  7. Linda Burum says

    what a wonderful time-saving article–so hard t get all this info all in one place. Many thanks

  8. N C Wedge says

    Another good article. My wife loves trains and this is a brilliant way to see France and Spain rather than Ryanair at 30000 feet. The break at Barcelona looks attractive before moving south – we have a place near Mojacar. Your piece was clear and detailed because I have looked up before and have ended up confused. One note the line from Almeria has come to a holt just before Vera-5 miles from us!

    Will print off your article.

    Many thanks Nic

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Nic – it’s certainly an interesting option with great scenery on the trip through France.

  9. Fritz Baumgartner says

    Hi Gerry

    In 2012 we used the train for our vists to Cadiz, Seville and Cordoba. It was a wonderful experience and we did book early and so got the best deals. We did use a travel agent who helped in this regard.

    This year I did the booking myself using Rail Europe which turned out very satisfactory. We are only doing one trip this time to Santiago from Madrid. Booked well in advance so again we got the best deal.

    Your article is very good and we certainly would encourage visitors who want to see the countryside and get to their destinations in comfort, reasonably quickly, and low budget to consider train travel.

    Best wishes

    Fritz

  10. Helen says

    Thank you for your article. Usually I rent a car and travel through Spain, but the thought of seeing Spain by train is very appealing.Next year I thought I’d initially travel from Algeciras to Ronda. Do you have any info on that trip?

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Hi Helen

      There is a very nice scenic train journey from Algeciras to Ronda. If you time it right you can get off and take a walk in the forest beside the train line then hop on the next train on that route.

      Regards

      Gerry

  11. James Bucknall says

    Hi Gerry:

    I travel by train in France or Spain every year. A couple of points.

    1. Seniors can buy a Tarjeta Dorada for 5 Euros which allows one to get nice discounts on most train travel in Spain. The equivalent is 60 Euros in France. Neither requires one to be a resident. I always buy the TD when I am in Spain.

    2. The Barcelona to Figueres track is now open.

    James

  12. Gill Edmanson says

    Hi Gerry,
    I do not like flying, and because of this we travelled by train to the Algarve, we had a carriage for sleeping in. It was an old train similar to Orient Express without any of the flashiness, in fact it was quite basic, but we had our own room with sliding door, which had like a settee in it that converted into a bed. A table that you lifted the lid of, which was a sink below for washing, but you had to go down the corridor for WC. They cooked a meal for us all on train and called us at about 8.00 pm when it was ready. Tables were just folded ones that were opened and put in place, as were the seats. Food very basic like a veg stew with a few bits of meat in it. But what an experience, we loved it, woke at about 6.00 am and opened blind to see mountainous region with wild boar perched on ledges, saw some astonishing sites, there was a bull run in one village where horses were all decorated and there riders looked spectacular in their clothing, and all the villagers were behind fences all the way down the Main Street of their village, in readiness of the attraction. It was great Euro Star, then TGV to Spanish border, then the old train to Lisbon, we then got a boat across to other side where the next station train was, which took us to the Algarve.

    That’s about it.
    Gill

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Gill … if you’re not in any great rush and enjoy train travel then it’s a great opportunity to enjoy adventures that you’d never get from air travel.

  13. Dave Turner says

    Many thanks Gerry for another really useful article – it will certainly help us putting together our next trip when we hope to explore the north coast and then venture down Madrid way.

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