Travelling by train in Spain

General information

Our guide to travelling by train in Span will tell you all you need to know about the major stations, how the ticketing works and how to travel on the fabulous trains.

There’s a lot to love about travelling by train in Spain.

The country has more high speed lines than any other in Europe, the trains that do and don't use them are rather fabulous and comparatively comfortable - and the scenery can be incredible.

But if you’re not Spanish, travelling in Spain by train can seem bewildering.




Yes there’s a lot of info to absorb, but the six key things to know are:

(1) Renfe is the national company which operates most train services including all express trains, hence the trains carry Renfe branding.

However. Adif is the name of the company that is responsible for the stations that the Renfe trains use.

So the presence of a station is often indicated by a sign saying 'Adif' - white letters on a black background.

(2) Spanish train services are placed into four broad categories;

(i) larga-distancia (long distance)
(ii) media-distancia*
(iii) local/commuter train services – the latter are named differently depending on the city, ‘Cercanias’ is a more common name, but ‘Rodalies’ is used in Barcelona.

*Spain is a large country, so some media-distancia routes can be more than three hours long.

(3) Advance discounted tickets are available on routes taken by the Larga-Distancia services, but not on the Media-Distancia services

(4) Seat reservations are compulsory on all Larga-Distancia services and on most media-distancia services, including all journeys on which the trains are specifically branded MD ‘Media-Distancia’

Reservations are automatically included when booking tickets online or at stations.

(5) Unless you are taking a local/commuter train, avoid turning up at a station in the expectation of buying a ticket and hopping on the next train to depart.

On the majority of Spanish train routes, gaps of more than three hours between departures are the norm.

(6) When taking larga-distancia train services, you will usually encounter a procedure similar to checking-in for a flight.

Tickets will be checked before accessing a luggage screening area and then tickets will usually be checked again at the entrance to the via (platform/track) that your train will be departing from.

It inevitably takes time to process all the passengers, so aim to be at the station a minimum of 15 mins prior to departure if you will be taking any of these trains –AVE, Alvia, Altaria, Avant, Euromed or Talgo.

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Seven Things That Are Good to Know About Spanish Trains.

The trains in Spain are far from plain – sorry we couldn’t resist that one, but the trains used on the larga-distancia routes undoubtedly have the wow factor!

1: However, taking a Spanish express train can seem initially bewildering, particularly if you want to travel on multiple different routes.

For what soon becomes clear when looking up journeys is the multiple different types of train service operated by RENFE.

Don’t be overly concerned about this for these three reasons:

(i) More often than not you won’t have a choice of more than one train service, particularly when travelling long distance.

(ii) On routes on which multiple types of train service do operate, certain types of train service TEND to be cheaper than others when booking ahead, so become the logical choice when making a booking.

(iii) The distinction between the train services is often technical – see below, and isn’t indicative of differences in the on-board experience.

Technical Explanation Alert:

There is a piece of train knowledge that can make the differences between the types of train service in Spain easier to understand.

It’s to do with the space between the rails on the track, the ‘gauge’, in Spain this is wider than on the railway tracks in other western European countries – where they use a standard gauge.

However, the Spanish high speed lines have been constructed to this standard gauge used elsewhere in Europe, so when Spanish express train services travel on to destinations not served by the high speed lines, they have to switch between the gauges.

This matters because the names of some Spanish train services are indicative of the fact that they switch gauges.

You may not care about that, we of course find it fascinating, but the key point is that you don’t need to care about it.


Though it does indicate when a journey will not be entirely be at high speed – the trains change gauges when they leave the high speed lines.

2 : What does make some awareness of the different train services worthwhile, is that on some routes, there can be a choice of different train services between two destinations.

When that is the case, one type of train tends to be cheaper than another.

RENFE operates the following services:

Larga-Distancia services: - reservations are compulsory and included with the ticket purchase.

Larga-Distancia services can be placed in four categories:

(i) Trains that spend the entirety of their journeys travelling on the high speed lines = AVE trains

(ii) Trains which spend some of the journeys on the high speed lines and then travel on to destinations not served by the high speed lines = Alvia and Altaria (Alta) and Intercity (IC) trains.

These are the gauge-changing trains (see above).

Note that you don't have to travel on an AVE train service in order to travel on a high speed line.

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

Intercity (IC) trains are 2nd class only.

(iii) Express train services that don’t travel on high speed lines = Euromed (Em) and Talgo trains.

Euromed trains are the fastest trains on the Barcelona – Valencia – Alicante

(iv) Trenhotel - overnight trains.


These train services fall into three categories:


(i) Avant (Av) - 2nd class (Turista class) only trains which spend the entirety of their journeys travelling on high speed lines.

Reservations are compulsory and included with the ticket purchase.

(ii) Media Distancia (MD) – These are the train services, which are branded ‘Media Distancia’ on timetables and which are used on four types of train services:

(a) Fairly lengthy routes between cities that are not taken by direct express (larga-distancia) trains.


(b) Travelling on the routes, which have been abandoned by the high speed trains – when that is the case, they’re a slower and cheaper alternative.

(c) Sharing non-high speed lines with larga-distancia Alvia and Altaria services that have spent some of the journeys on the high speed lines.
On these routes they tend to be cheaper, than the larga-distancia services.


(d) Sharing routes with Regional Express trains - they tend to be faster than those trains because they skip more stations.

Reservations are compulsory on these branded MD services and included with the ticket purchase.

(iii) Regional Express services on which reservations aren’t available.

These trains sometimes don't live up to their name for two reasons, they stop at most stations once they travel outside cities and they can travel comparatively long distances.

Though in cities they tend to skip most stations served by the local/commuter trains.

3: The trains which travel on high speed lines - the AVE, Alvia, Altaria and Avant services are also classified as 'Alta Velocidad' services.

When these train services all depart from a particular part of a station, you may encounter a sign pointing the way to the 'Alta Velocidad' trains.


4: If you are taking a train which has compulsory reservation, the Coche (coach/carriage) and Plaza (seat numbers) are on your ticket.

On the larga and media-distancia services, virtually all of the coaches/carriages only have one door on each side of the train, so you don’t have to choose between doors when boarding.


Then when you’re on the train, look for the seat number – there is nothing else to indicate which seats are reserved and which are free.

When first boarding the train you should seek out your seat number(s) and only occupy the seat(s) which you have been assigned.

If you have booked a ‘Promo’ or ‘Promo Plus’ ticket you have to sit in the seat you have been assigned – at the very least don’t move to what looks like an alternative seat until you have asked the conductor whether that’s possible.

5: On the trains the on board announcements will be bilingual, but the station names of the calling points will be in Spanish.

So it’s worth being aware of the full name of the station you will be heading to.

Be aware that the station names in Spain are rarely based on their location – stations tend to be named after people or nearby sites of religious significance.


6: 1st class = ‘Preferente’ and ‘2nd class = ‘Turista’.

7: If you’re lucky enough to be travelling in 1st/Preferente class, when you first encounter the train conductor/manager, they may say “Presse”.

If they do they’re asking if you would like a complimentary newspaper and not asking if they can check your

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International Trains:

The only international trains from/to Spain are:

(1) The high speed train services branded ‘RENFE-SNCF, which comprises a mix of TGV trains provided by SNCF and AVE trains provided by RENFE:

The TGV Duplex trains operate on this route in both directions:

(i) Paris Gare de Lyon – Valence – Nimes – Montpellier – Narbonne – Perpignan – Figueres/Figueras – Girona/Gerone – Barcelona/Barcelone

Spanish AVE trains operate on these routes in both directions:

(ii) Marseille – Nimes – Montpellier – Narbonne – Perpignan – Figueres/Figueras – Girona/Gerone – Barcelona/Barcelone – Camp De Tarragona – Zaragoza – Madrid

(iii) Lyon – Valence – Nimes – Montpellier – Narbonne – Perpignan – Figueres/Figueras – Girona/Gerone – Barcelona/Barcelone

(iv) Toulouse – Narbonne – Perpignan – Figueres/Figueras – Girona/Gerone – Barcelona/Barcelone (early April – late Sept only)

Some of the departures to/from Toulouse will be by TGV Duplex trains.

(2)  TGV Oceane and TGV Atlantique trains operate FROM Paris Montparnasse – Bordeaux – Bayonne – Biarritz – Hendaye TO Irun.

In the opposite direction to Bordeaux and Paris, these trains commence their journeys at Hendaye.

(3) Local cross border services trains from Barcelona to La Tour De Carol.

There are TER trains between La Tour De Carol and Toulouse, but most of them don't make good connections with trains from/to Barcelona – so plan journeys on this route with care.

(4) Trains, which don’t have to be reserved, that commence their journeys in Barcelona before calling at Girona, Figueres and Port Bou before terminating over the border in Cerbere.

Most of these trains connect into French TER trains from Cerbere on to Perpignan, Narbonne, Beziers, Montpelllier, Nimes and Avignon.

When making the return journey back to Barcelona these trains commence their journeys on the Spanish side of the border in Port Bou.


(5) A few French TER trains per day operate on a Avignon – Nimes – Montepellier – Beziers – Narbonne – Perpignan – Cerbere – Port Bou route.

They connect in Port Bou with trains to Figueres, Girona and Barcelona.

In the opposite direction - to France, these trains commence their journeys on the French side of the border in Cerbere - see above.

(6) They are frequent ‘Euskotren’ trains, not operated by RENFE, in both directions on the San Sebastian/Donastia – Irun – Hendaye/Hendaia route.

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Four Things That Are Good to Know About Spanish Train Tickets:

1: Limited numbers of discounted tickets are placed on sale online for the routes taken by AVE, Alta, Alvia, IC, EM and Talgo trains.

Though pay attention to the terms and conditions of the discounted tickets – more information is available on our Spanish train tickets guide.

2: Obtaining tickets for the cheapest possible price is less clear cut than is typical in other European countries.

On routes/trains on which discounted tickets are available, you don’t ALWAYS have to book months ahead to make the biggest savings.

3: Tickets aren’t discounted for the shorter distance Media-Distancia (MD) services, RE (Regional Express) and Avant services.

Though avoid booking tickets for the Avant services last minute at the station - in particular some Avant trains between Madrid and Toledo can sell out days in advance.


4: Despite the investment in high speed lines, Spanish long distance trains tend to operate less frequently than high speed trains in other European countries 

Hence some larga-distacia routes can have only 2 or 3 x trains per day.


It’s worth checking because when that is the case, it’s not unusual for seats to sell out days in advance in both Preferente and Turista Class on the most popular departures.

Particularly if you will be travelling to or from Barcelona and Madrid on the routes with the infrequent trains.

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Fifteen Things That Are Good to Know About Spanish Stations:

1: Unless you will be traveling on the commuter/local train networks in and around the big cities, if you want to book tickets last minute at the station, always check the departure times before heading to a station.

Gaps of more than 4 hours between departures are not uncommon, particularly if you WON’T be travelling to or from Barcelona and Madrid.

2: The via (platform/track) that a larga-distancia train will be departing from is normally confirmed 15 – 20 mins before departure.

At some stations the departure time on the screens will begin to flash to indicate that boarding has commenced.

Keep an eye on the departure/salidas boards, as the confirmation of the via (track/platform) that your train will be leaving from, isn’t usually announced.


3: The boarding procedure for boarding AVE, Alvia, Alta, Avant, Euromed, IC, and Talgo train services is similar to checking-in for a flight.

Tickets will be checked before accessing a luggage screening area and then tickets will usually be checked again at the entrance to the via (platform/track) that you’re train will be departing from.

Access to the ticket-checks may close around 5 mins before departure, to ensure that all passengers can be processed,

In effect what this will mean is that the train departure details will be removed from the departure information - so would be travellers arriving last minute at the stations won’t know which via/platform/track the train will be leaving from.

4: So keep your ticket where you can access it easily, you will need to show it prior to boarding.

The Coche (coach/carriage) and Plaza (seat numbers) will be on your ticket -  check the plaza number before you step on to the train.

5: Something else to watch out for is that on the main departure screens at stations the ‘departure/salidas’ information is as large as the info for arrivals, so take care not to confuse the two.

The ‘salidas’ info will be on the right and the arrivals will be on the left.


6: In the station there are also separate info posters listing the details of the arrivals and salidas/departures, so take not to mix them up.

7: Because you have to pass through ticket-checks before boarding larga-distancia departures, Spain is a country where you don’t have to be overly concerned about boarding the wrong train in error.

Though to give further reassurance, there are usually electronic displays on the train doors, showing the coach number, the final destinations and the calling points of the departure.

8: If you will be booking tickets/reservations at the station, allow extra time as not all ticket counter staff will speak English, so you may have to wait a little longer for a clerk who can, to become available.

9: At some large stations including Barcelona Sants and at both Atocha and Charmatin in Madrid, counters selling tickets for travel that day are divided into larga-distancia ticket desks and media-distancia ticket desks.

So take care not to mix up the two, you want to avoid waiting in line for no reason.


Oher stations have general ticket offices/desks that sell tickets for any train leaving that day.

10: Large stations will also have separate ticket desks/office which only sell advance tickets for larga-distancia journeys.

These advance ticket offices often use AVE branding on the doors and windows, but;
(i) they will sell advance tickets for other larga-distancia services and not just the AVE trains/services
(ii) they don’t sell tickets for AVE trains departing that day.


11: RENFE’s ticket machines aren’t, in our humble opinion, particularly easy to use, you have to scroll through the alphabet when searching for stations – and they seemed to only sell tickets for journeys by direct train when we used them.

12: The system used for assigning numbers to the vias/tracks/platforms at larger Spanish stations can seemingly lack logic, so it’s best not to wonder why and just follow the signs.

13: Larger stations in Spain don’t have names which equate to ‘Central’ etc, they either;
(i) only have the main city name
(ii) are named after the part of the city in which they’re located
(iii) are named in honour of an individual.

14: The Club lounges at major stations in Spain can be accessed by;

(i) Preferente/1st class ticket holders - but not if you booked at the most heavily discounted 'Promo' rate.

(ii) those that have booked 1st or Grand Class beds on the 'Trenhotel' trains

They cannot be accessed by holders of 1st class rail passes.

15: The larger stations in Spain tend to have unique characteristics compared to those in other European countries and in summary they are:

(i) Take-away food/drink counters aren’t particularly common, instead canteens/cafés where you sit and have your food/drink are the norm.

So if you want to buy something simple like a bottle of water or a snack, you might have to go into the canteens and purchase it – you won’t have to drink/eat your purchases at the table.

Other shops/news-stands etc in the stations don’t tend to sell drinks and snacks.

(ii) Larger Spanish stations don’t tend to house many stores/shops, though Malaga Maria Zambrano station is a notable exception – so don’t count on being able to stock up on travel essentials at the station.

(iii) Left luggage lockers can only be accessed once you have passed through security checks, when depositing AND collecting your bags.

So when you’re picking up your bags don’t go straight to your locker – you will have to hand any other bags you happen to have with you at the time, to the attendant for screening.

As the left luggage office are staffed, pay attention to the opening hours when dropping off your bags.

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