Spain Tickets & Rail Passes

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Our guide explains what to look out for when booking Spanish train tickets online, so that you can buy the optimum ticket.

If you're not used to booking tickets for train journeys in Spain online, then it can be particularly quirky - Renfe is the national rail operator in Spain and its website uses unique terminology.

So either take 10 minutes to go through the info below, it will save you money and confusion, or click on the specfic questions on this list.

When Are Spanish Train Tickets Made Available Online?

Will I Save Money If I Book  Spanish Train Tickets In Advance?

What Are The Cheapest Spanish Train Tickets?

What Do I Need To Know If I Want To Save Money On Spanish Train Tickets?

Why the type of train service you will be travelling by matters when booking Spanish train tickets.

Why the route you will be taking can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

Why the departure time can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

Why your travel date can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

What Is A Turista Ticket?

What Is A Preferente Ticket?

What Are Turista-En Lace/Preferente-En Lace Tickets?

What Are Promo Plus Tickets?

What Are Flexible Tickets?

What Are Mesa Tickets?

What About The Refunds If The Train Is Late?

Why Are Some Ticket Prices Seemingly Exceptionally Cheap?

How To Use Rail Passes In Spain


And yes there's a lot of text, but hopefully not too much - we wish booking Spanish tickets wasn't quite as complicated as it can seem.

WHEN ARE TICKETS MADE AVAILABLE ONLINE?

This varies according to the route and trains you will be taking.

If you'll be taking AVE or Alvia services you can usually book up to 6 months ahead

If you will be travelling on other trains*, Renfe's own ticket booking site states that bookings open 62 days ahead of the travel date, but in practice, 2 months ahead seems to be the cut-off point for availability.

*Tickets for journeys by Regional trains are not sold online.

Don't be overly concerned about this being a tad vague - Spain is no longer country in which you have to rush to book when tickets are placed on sale, in order to obtain the cheapest price.

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WILL I SAVE MONEY IF I BOOK IN ADVANCE?

The short answer to that question is usually, but not always.

You definitely won’t if you be travelling by Avant or Media-Distancia train services - tickets for journeys by these train services aren't discounted.

In contrast, for many long distance (‘larga-distancia’) express train journeys, Spain’s national rail operator Renfe applies a particularly extreme form of ‘airline style pricing’ to its tickets.

Those Spanish high speed lines cost €billions to build, so Renfe is understandably keen to ensure that travellers pay the maximum possible price for journeys.

Meaning that demand often has a bigger impact on ticket prices, compared with how far ahead you are booking.

If you will be travelling on AVE or Euromed services, the more popular departures can be always more expensive, no matter how far head you book.

In contrast you’ll be much more likely to make big savings if you can book ahead for journeys by Altaria and Talgo trains and for most journeys by Alvia train – particularly when travelling between Madrid and northern Spain.

The type of train service and route you will be taking also impacts on how far ahead you need to book, in order to make big savings.

If you want to travel on a specific AVE or Euromed departure you might only save less than €10 when booking two months ahead, compared with booking only a few days ahead.

Though on the routes taken by Altaria and Talgo and Alvia trains you can, more often than not, save 30-40% (or more) by booking at least a couple of weeks ahead.

However, that is broad advice, the core point we’re making is that saving more than 30%, when booking Spanish train tickets in advance, can be the exception rather than the norm.

Spain is not a country where you can typically save more than 50-60% of the ticket price by booking ahead.

Though if you want to be able to;

(i) choose from any departure on your chosen route, or
(ii) need to travel at a specific time on routes with less frequent services

then booking a minimum of five days ahead is recommended - as some departures can sell out.

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WHAT ARE THE CHEAPEST TRAIN TICKETS?

Promo tickets are the cheapest type of tickets sold by Renfe– and they tend to still be available up to the day of departure.

Renfe tends to differentiate the different types of ticket by their terms and conditions, rather than price - ‘Promo’ does not literally mean ‘promotional price’.

When booking on the English language version of the Renfe website, the terms and conditions of each type of ticket aren’t translated - but the key thing to note about ‘Promo’ tickets is that they are departure specific.

If you subsequently need to change your travel plans, or miss the train you are booked on to because you have arrived too late at the station, they CAN’T be exchanged/transferred to a different departure.

If you subsequently want to cancel your travel plans, then Promo tickets can’t be refunded either.

So other types of tickets, Promo Plus’ and ‘Flexible’ can be worth considering if you book ‘Promo’ tickets months ahead, they can be a false economy, if you do subsequently change your travel plans.

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WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW IF I WANT TO SAVE MONEY ON SPANISH TRAIN TICKETS?

In addition to how soon in advance you are booking, these other four factors are worth keeping in mind:

(1) Both the route you will be taking AND the trains that travel on them impact on ticket prices.

(2) It’s not unusual for one or two specific departures per day on a route, to be (much) cheaper than the other departures.

(3) Tickets tend to be more expensive on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays and around national holidays.

(4) Taking a direct train can be more expensive than journey options which involve a change of train.

These four factors aren’t exceptional, they also matter when booking tickets in advance in other European countries, but they’re more extremely applied in Spain.

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Why the type of train service you will be travelling by matters when booking Spanish train tickets.

Aside from local train services, Spanish national train operator Renfe places the majority of the train services it operates into categories, with each category having a specific service name.

Ticket pricing and the type of tickets available isn’t a factor in how each train service is defined - the train categories are based on speed and what percentage of the journey the train service spends travelling on a high speed line.

But these specfic types of train DO impact on ticket prices - so here are five factors to be aware of when looking up Spanish train journeys;

(i) AVE train services stay on the high speed lines for their entire journeys, so they’re the fastest trains in Spain, but the cheapest deals available can be harder to track down on AVE services.

(ii) While Alvia train services spend only some of their journeys on the high speed lines, so prices per km can be cheaper on Alvia routes.

(iii) When looking up long distance ('larga-distanccia') journeys, it soon becomes obvious that when travelling between most cities, you will only have one choice of train service.

However, when there is a choice of train services, tickets are often cheaper for the faster trains, if you can book ahead.

(iv) In contrast to the larga-distancia routes, tickets aren’t discounted on the media-distancia routes, so if you will be travelling by an Avant or Media-Distancia train service - you won’t save money by booking in advance online

(v) However, if you WON'T be travelling on the 'larga-distancia' trains/routes you might be able to save money by being selective about which train service you take.

If there is a choice between Avant and Media Distancia services, the Avant services will always be more expensive because they are (much) faster.

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Why the route you will be taking can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

Spanish train ticket prices are closely tied to demand, the more popular a specific train departure is, the more expensive it will be.

But this impacts on routes too, the high speed routes, particularly those to/from Madrid, are inevitably popular.

The Spanish national rail operator Renfe, understandably wants to exploit this popularity, so high demand journeys such as Madrid ↔ Barcelona, tend to be more expensive.

So the popularity of a journey matters more than distance when Renfe is calculating ticket prices.

For example it’s generally more expensive to travel between Madrid and Barcelona than it is to travel between Madrid and more far-flung cities such as Bilbao and Vigo.

Less-popular routes means less-frequent trains, but these are also often the routes on which you can make the biggest savings when booking in advance.

So it’s still possible to find a bargain – for example, you can make the five hour + journey between Madrid and Bilbao for under €20!

It’s generally less expensive to travel between Madrid and cities in northern Spain, than it is to travel between the capital and destinations to the east and south.

Another very good reason for booking a route with less frequent trains in advance online, is that some train departures can sell out completely a couple of days ahead of the travel date.

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Why the departure time can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

On many ‘larga-distancia’ routes, trains don’t operate particularly frequently, but if you will be travelling between the larger cities on the high speed routes, you can expect to choose between more than 10 x departures per day.

On these journeys, some specific departures per day are inevitably more popular than others - so this is when the fact that demand impacts on Spanish ticket prices, particularly matters.

As soon as tickets are released for sale, some departures on these more frequent routes will be charged at a higher price, so some departures will be consistently more expensive, no matter how far ahead you’re booking.

So try and keep your departure/arrival times as flexible as possible and search through the departures on your travel date.

It’s not unusual for one or two departures to be more than €30 cheaper than any other departure that day.

So you can typically save MORE than €30 by choosing an earlier or later departure - but might save LESS than €30 by booking ahead.

The most popular departure times can vary per route, but on routes with several departures per day it can be wise to avoid setting off between 09:00 and 10:00 and between 16:00 and 18:00.

Also on routes which have a choice of train services, the slower services may not be cheaper at times of high demand – a slower Alvia train service departing Madrid at 17:00 can be more expensive than a faster AVE train, leaving at 13:00.

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Why your travel date can matter when booking Spanish train tickets?

On some routes ticket prices can be particularly expensive either side of holidays, especially on Fridays and Sundays - the rise in demand can mean that the cheaper tickets won’t be placed on sale.

Instead you can make big savings by travelling a week or two either side of a holiday weekend and other times of high demand.

So if you can be flexible with your travel dates, it can pay off to look up prices for a week ahead and a week after the travel date you initially had in mind.

Though this seems to matter less on routes with more frequent AVE trains such as between Madrid and both Barcelona and Seville.

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WHAT IS A TURISTA TICKET?

It is the equivalent of a second class ticket.

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WHAT IS A PREFERENTE TICKET?

It is the equivalent of a first class ticket.

Travel on AVE or Euromed trains on Sunday – Friday and the Preference ticket price includes a complimentary airline style light meal served to passengers at their seats.

On Saturdays Preferente prices can be cheaper as the meal is not served - and there tends to be less demand for Preferente tickets

Also worth knowing is that some train services including all Avant and Intercity and most Media Distancia services are Turista/Second class only.

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WHAT ARE TURISTA-EN LACE/PREFERENTE-EN LACE tickets?

‘En-Lace’ tickets indicate that your journey will involve more than one train, but the booking will include all the trains you will be taking to complete your journey.

When looking up some journeys, the ‘En-Lace’ tickets can be bargain-priced, but don’t rush to book them.

The journey will inevitably longer and more awkward than taking the direct trains.

Though if you’re not bothered by the journey time, then in Spain you can often save money by changing trains.

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WHAT ARE PROMO PLUS TICKETS?

For long distance (‘larga-distancia’) train journeys in Spain, ‘Promo’ tickets are the cheapest type of ticket sold, but they can’t be swapped to an alternative departure, or refunded if you subsequently change your travel plans.

So you will be booking ahead ‘Promo Plus’ tickets can be worth considering because if you book this type of ticket

(i) you will receive 80% of the ticket price refunded if you then want to book a different service

(ii) youwill receive 70 % of the ticket price if you subsequently cancel your journey.

‘Promo Plus’ tickets cost more than ‘Promo’ tickets, but the price difference can be as little as around €3.

Another plus of ‘Promo Plus’ tickets is that RENFE’s more standard delay compensation terms don’t apply to Promo' tickets.

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WHAT ARE FLEXIBLE TICKETS?

More expensive than ‘Promo’ or ‘Promo Plus’ tickets, ‘Flexible Tickets are still departure specific - you can’t just turn up at the station and hop on the next train.

The big advantage of the Flexible ticket is that you can transfer your ticket to another departure, either ahead of, or on your travel date.

In effect this means that if you want, or need to take a later departure because you didn’t make it to the station on time etc, then it won’t cost you any extra to take a later train.

Simply take your ‘Flexible’ ticket to a ‘Larga Distancia’ or AVE ticket desk and it will be re-issued for the next train to depart.

Also if you cancel your travel plans altogether, you will receive 95% of the price you paid for the ticket.

Another advantage of Flexible tickets is that you can choose your seat on the train when booking, but in effect this means you can choose to sit by the window or on the aisle.

Book ‘Promo’ or ‘Promo Plus’ tickets and your seats will be assigned for you.

We can’t be 100% certain about this, but if you have a ‘Flexible’ ticket, if you’re not happy with your seat because you want to face forward etc AND other free seats are available, you can ask the train conductor if you can move seats.

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WHAT ARE MESA TICKETS?

On some departures a few of the seats will be grouped around tables, four people will share the table.

Mesa tickets allow for all four seats around these tables to be booked together, so that four people can travel as a group.

The price per person is discounted, though it tends to be similar to the ‘Promo’ price and for this reasons the same conditions as ‘Promo’ tickets apply – meaning that they can’t be exchanged or refunded and RENFE’s less generous delay compensation applies see below.

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WHAT ABOUT THE REFUNDS IF THE TRAIN IS LATE?

RENFE offers a particularly generous ‘delay compensation’ scheme, and it is often cited that it offers a 50% refund of the ticket price if a long distance/larga-distancia train arrives more than 15 mins late and a 100% refund if a train arrives at a destination more than 30 minutes late.

However, these terms ONLY apply to AVE services AND can only be claimed if you have booked ‘Promo Plus’ or ‘Flexible’ tickets.

If instead you have booked a ‘Promo’ ticket then on ANY journey, including AVE services, you can claim a 50% refund if the train reaches your destination more than 60 mins late and can claim a 100% refund in the event of a delay of more than 90 mins.

Note that these terms for ‘Promo’ tickets apply irrespective of booking Preferente/first class and Turista/second class tickets

IF you HAVE booked ‘Promo Plus’ or ‘Flexible’ tickets and won’t be travelling on an AVE service then the following delay compensation terms apply:

Alvila, AV City and Euromed services – more than 30 mins delay = 50%, more than 60 mins delay = 100%

Talgo, Altaria, Intercity and Trenhotel services – 60 mins or more delay = 50%, more than 90 mins delay = 100%

Media Distancia – more than15 mins delay = 25%, more than 30 mins delay = 50%, more than 60mins = 100%

Avant = – more than 15 mins delay = 50%, more than 30 mins delay = 100%

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WHY ARE SOME TICKET PRICES SEEMINGLY EXCEPTIONALLY CHEAP?

When looking up some journeys, including between Madrid and Barcelona, you can often spot what seem like bargain prices, around 50% cheaper than the standard fare.

But check the journey times carefully before rushing to book these, they can be much longer and also usually involve a change of train.

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USING RAIL PASSES:

If you will be travelling with a Eurail or InterRail multi-country ‘Global’ pass, don’t let the fact that you’ll have pay to reserve seats prior to boarding most Spanish train services, hold you back from including Spain on your travel itinerary.
 

Rail passes can be good value in Spain, tickets on the high speed routes between Madrid and Barcelona, Malaga and Seville can be comparatively expensive, so only paying the reservation fee can be a money saver – particularly when the limited numbers of discounted tickets have sold out.

Though as will be seen below 1st class Eurail and InterRail passes aren’t such good value, particularly if you’re planning on taking multiple long-distance high speed journeys.

Those €23.50 1st class reservation fees listed below include a light meal, similar to those served on airlines – though the meals aren’t served on Saturdays, and in our opinion don’t by themselves justify the price difference with the 2nd class reservations.

If you are considering making 4 – 10 journeys by AVE and Avant trains (and no others) on these routes then a RENFE Spain Pass can be worth considering.

The big tick in the box for a RENFE Spain Pass is that reservations are included in the price – though you will need to make reservations before boarding, either using the online pass portal, or at stations.

Reservation fees for Eurail And InterRail:

(i) AVE trains: 1st class = €23.50*; 2nd class = €10

All of the fastest high speed trains between Madrid and Barcelona, Girona Figueres, Malaga and Valencia are AVE trains.

Most of the high speed trains between Madrid and both Alicante and Seville are AVE trains.

AVE trains also operate between Barcelona/Madrid and Malaga/Seville and on some departures between Madrid and Leon.

*The €23.50 charge includes a light meal and it is not served on Saturdys, so on Saturdays the 1st class fee MAY also be €10.

(ii) Euromed, €23.50*; 2nd class = €6:50

Euromed trains operate on the Barcelona - Valencia - Alicante route

The €23.50 charge includes a light meal and it is not served on Saturdys, so on Saturdays the 1st class fee MAY also be €10.

(ii) Alvia trains 1st class =  €23.50 OR* €10; 2nd class = €6:50

*If you will be travelling by Alvia train to destinations also served by AVE trains, you will have to pay the €23.50 fee.

Alvia trains provide most of the services between Madrid and northern Spain

(iii) Avant: 1st* and 2nd class = €4 these short distance high speed trains are 2nd class only, so 1st class pass users need to pay the fee and travel 2nd class.

(iv) Altaria, IC and Talgo: 1st class =  €10; 2nd class = €6:50

(v) Media Distancia = 1st* and 2nd class = €4.50 most of these trains are 2nd class only, so 1st class pass users need to pay the fee and travel 2nd class.

A notable exception are the regional trains on the (i) Barcelona - Girona - Figueres - Port Bou - Cerbere and (ii) Barcelona - La Tour De Carol routes, fees don't have to be paid to travel by these trains.

Booking these reservations:

Spanish national rail operator RENFE does not sell rail pass reservations online so if you want to make reservations before you arrive in Spain the best option is to use the InterRail reservation service or the Eurail reservation service.

Doing so is particularly recommended if you will be taking a NOT particularly frequent service, such as a direct AVE train between Barcelona and Malaga/Seville or a train between Madrid and northern Spain.

Though be aware that both of these reservation services will charge a booking fee per reservation, but you won’t pay booking fees if you book the reservations at a Spanish station.

The ticket booking desks at Spanish stations can vary - at most lage stations there will be separate ticket desks for reservations for trains leaving that day and for advance reservations..

Using an advance reservation desk can take time, so a good option is to use one of these ticket offices to book all the reservations you'll need while travelling in Spain.

Be aware that reservations may be completely sold out on the most popular trains, so if you want to book reservations on your travel date, the best option is to head for the station early in the morning -  and then be flexible re: the times you will actually be travelling.

If need be deposit your bags in a left luggage office and then return to the station later in order to catch your train.

Also not all ticket counter staff will speak English, particularly outside of Barcelona and Madrid, though don’t be overly worried about this – when we were using Spanish ticket desks with our InterRail Pass, the staff were exceptionally helpful.

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