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Boarding an AVE train in Valencia

Spain by train

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

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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 a tad bewildering, hence the weight of info below!

What's particularly worth knowing:

The 16 key things most worth knowing about taking the trains in Spain are:

(1) Renfe is the national company which operates most train services, but 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) Renfe's daytime train services are placed into three broad categories;

  • larga-distancia = the express trains
  • media-distancia; Spain is a large country, so some media-distancia routes can be more than three hours long.
  • urban local/commuter train services which are named differently depending on the city - ‘Cercanias’ is a more common name, but ‘Rodalies’ is used in Barcelona.

(3) The high speed lines radiate from Madrid and connect the capital with most other large cities including Alicante, Barcelona, Burgos, Girona, Granada, Leon, Malaga, Murcia, Ourense, Oviedo, Seville, Valencia and Zaragoza.

Trains can continue beyond the high speed lines to provide direct services between Madrid and the likes of Algeciras, Bilbao, Cadiz, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela and Vigo.

(4) Renfe places its larga-distancia trains into multiple categories - AVE, Alvia, Intercity, Avant or Euromed or Torre Oro - which are largely to do with whether they solely use the high speed lines, or partially use them before transferring to/from the conventional 'classic' routes.

(5) Because the high speed lines only radiate from Madrid, direct cross country services are less common:
Euromed = Girona - Barcelona - Valencia - Alicante
Torre Oro = Barcelona - Valancia - Albacete - Cordoba - Seville - Cadiz
Other trains operate on these routes:

  • Barcelona - Zaragoza - multiple destinations in northern Spain
  • Santander and Gijon - Madrid - Alicante and Valencia
  • Barcelona - Zaragoza - Cordoba - Seville and Malaga

(6) Renfe doesn't have a monopoly on Spanish train services.
When travelling on the larga-distancia routes between Madrid and destinations to the east and south, including Alicante, Barcelona, Malaga and Valencia, you can choose between travelling on up to four different high-speed train services:

  • AVE = full service trains operated by Renfe
  • iryo = full service trains very similar to the fastest trains operated in Italy by Trenitalia
  • avlo = more basic, 2nd class only trains operated by Renfe
  • Ouigo = more basic, 2nd class trains, similar to those which can be found on many high speed routes in France.

(7) All four services offer similar journey times.
The avlo and Ouigo services are typically cheaper because of the more limited on-board experience - plus they have more restrictive luggage allowances, which in turn require travellers to be at the stations earlier.
Though the full service iryo trains are also competitively priced, in order to attract passengers away from the Renfe operated AVE trains.

(8) Though for the time being Renfe has the monopoly on providing the high-speed express trains from both Barcelona and Madrid to destinations in northern Spain.

(9) The Renfe ticket booking service doesn't sell tickets for the iryo and Ouigo services, but the prices of all four services can be compared and booked on Trainline.

(10) Advance discounted ticket prices are available on routes taken by the larga-distancia services, but not on most routes taken by the media-distancia services.
Though the periods of time ahead of travel, that tickets are released for sale, can vary according to the specific type of train service; for example, it can be up to 6 months ahead for AVE trains, but around 2 months ahead for Euromed services.

(11) 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.

(12) There are no overnight train services, either in Spain or to/from Spain - but there are French overnight trains to the border locations of Cerbere and La Tour De Carol.

(13) Madrid has two main railway stations:

  1. Atocha for destinations to the south and east including Barcelona, Cadiz, Girona, Granada, Malaga, Murcia, Seville and Zaragoza.

  2. Chamartin for destinations to the north including Bilbao, Burgos, Leon, Ourense, Oviedo San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela and Vigo.

Though construction work is underway at Atocha, as the future plan is that many high speed services will travel direct between destinations in north and south Spain, travelling through Madrid and calling at both stations.
As a result most of the trains between Madrid and both Alicante and Madrid are currently using Chamartin station.

(14) When taking the high speed train services, from a major station 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 train services; AVE, Alvia, Avant or Euromed .
The boarding procedures are even longer when taking avlo or Ouigo services, as the station staff will also need to check whether luggage requirements are being complied with.

(15) Unless you are taking a local/commuter train, avoid turning up at a station in the expectation of buying a ticket and swiftly boarding the next train to depart.
On the majority of Spanish train routes, gaps of more than three hours between departures are the norm.

(16) The cities along the Atlantic Coast of northern Spain are linked by a system of narrow gauge lines, similar to those used by Swiss mountain railways, most of which are part of the FEVE network.
Services between cities can be comparatively infrequent, but Euskotren, which is not managed by Renfe, operates a network of lines in north-east Spain, around Bilbao and San Sebastian/Donastia.
Trains on its routes, which include those which link San Sebastian with both Bilbao and the French border at Hendaia / Hendaye, tend to operate every 30 to 60 mins.

A local train waits departure from beautiful Valencia Nord station A local train waits departure from beautiful Valencia Nord station
High speed trains line up at Madrid-Atocha station High speed trains line up at Madrid-Atocha station
 A MD train on the left and an IC train on the right A MD train on the left and an IC train on the right
From an AVE train between Madrid And Barcelona From an AVE train between Madrid And Barcelona
Beautiful Bilbao-Abando station Beautiful Bilbao-Abando station
A typical departure info screen on a via (platform/track) A typical departure info screen on a via (platform/track)
The part of Atocha station used by the Cercanias (local) trains The part of Atocha station used by the Cercanias (local) trains
First class seating lounge on an AVE 102 train First class seating lounge on an AVE 102 train

Travelling on the 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!

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

The multiple different train services:

What soon becomes clear when looking up many Spanish rail journeys is the multiple different types of train services operated by the nantional rail company, Renfe - and on some routes to/from Madrid there are also iryo and Ouigo services, which are not operated by Renfe.
So on many routes, there will be a choice of more than one train service, particularly when travelling long distance.
On the 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, if saving money is your key criteria
Use Trainline to compare the costs of Renfe's trains with the iryo and Ouigo services.

The distinction between the train services is often technical (see below) so mainly isn’t indicative of differences in the on-board experience; though the low-cost, more basic Avlo and Ouigo services are an exception.

The trains which travel on high speed lines: the AVE, Alvia, IC (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.

Technical Explanation Alert:

There is a piece of railway 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, which is known as the ‘gauge’, in Spain this is wider than on the railway tracks in other western European countries that 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.

The Larga-Distancia (long-distance) trains:

Reservations are compulsory and included with the ticket purchase on the Larga-Distancia services; which can be placed into four sub categories:

(1) Trains that spend the entirety of their journeys travelling on the high speed lines = the AVE trains.
Though the avlo, iryo and Ouigo services ogten provide alternative services to the AVE trains on the high speed routes between Madrid and Alicante, Barcelona, Malaga, Murcia, Seville and Valencia.

(2) 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:
the Alvia trains = Madrid ↔ northern Spain and Cadiz
the Euromed trains = Barcelona ↔ Valencia - Alicante
the Torre Oro train. Barcelona ↔ Valencia - Alabacete ↔ Cordoba - Seville - Cadiz
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.

(3) IC trains . which don’t travel on high speed lines at all = the IC (Talgo) trains.
Intercity (IC) trains are 2nd class only.

The Media-Distancia trains:

These train services fall into three categories:

(1) Avant (Av): These are 2nd class only trains which spend the entirety of their journeys travelling on high speed lines.
Reservations are compulsory and included with the ticket purchase.

(2) Media Distancia (MD): These are the train services, which are specifically branded ‘Media Distancia’ on timetables.
But it is a broad term, which covers four types of train services:

  • Trains which travel fairly lengthy routes between cities that are not taken by direct express (larga-distancia) trains.
  • Trains which still travel on the routes which have been abandoned by express trains, because those express trains have been switched to the high speed lines.
    When that is the case, these MD services can provide a slower, but cheaper, alternative to taking a high speed train.
  • Trains which share the non-high speed sections of routes taken by Alvia and IC services.
    On these routes these MD train services tend to be cheaper, than those alternative 'larga-distancia' services.
  • Routes which are also taken by Regional Express trains; and on these routes the MD trains provide a faster service because they skip more stations.

Reservations are compulsory on these branded MD services and included with the ticket purchase - except on the Barcelona <> Port Bou via Girona route.

(3) Regional Express services on which reservations aren’t available (see below).

The Regional-Express trains:

On the Regional Express services reservations aren’t available, so they're the only trains which travel between towns and cities in Spain on which seat reservations are not mandatory.

Though these trains sometimes don't live up to their name for two reasons;

  1. they stop at most stations once they travel outside cities
  2. they can travel comparatively long distances.

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

Boarding:

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.

For any journey by a larga-distancia train service, the AVE, Alvia, IC and Torre Oro trains you must travel in the seats you have been assigned.
This is because of the specific terms and conditions of booking tickets to travel by the larga-distancia train services.
When booking Basico or Elige tickets there will be an option to pay an additional charge to choose window or aisle seats.
So if you haven't taken advantage of the seat selection service when booking, you can't then choose to sit in an alternative seat when boarding.
If you opted to choose a seat, the logic is that you will therefore be satisfied with that seat, so won't be able to seat in an alternative.

Travelling with bicycles

add a bike to a booking on the Renfe website add a bike to a booking on the Renfe website

Non-folding bikes can only be taken on board any of the express train services - Altaria; Alvia; Avant; AVE; Euromed and Talgo if they are disassembled and placed in a bag or case measuring no more than 120 x 90 x 40cm (length-height-width).

If you don’t want to disassemble a non-folding bike, you can only take it on the regional/local ‘Media Distancia’ services, including those that are specifically branded MD or Regional-Express, and the local trains in cities – including the Cercanias and FEVE trains.

If you will be travelling for less than 100km, you apparently don’t need a ticket, but for longer journeys there is flat rate bike transport fee of €3, which can be booked at station, or online on the Renfe website.
Adding the bike to an online booking will typically also ensure your bike will have a reserved place on the train.

If you purchase a bike ticket at a major station allow plenty of time for this, as the process is what's used for oversized items of luggage, hence a procedure that's a lot more complicated than purchasing a typical train ticket; which is why it's now better to add the bike when booking online.

Some of these trains won’t have dedicated bike storage and on those that don’t, you can take a bike on board and be guided by the conductor as to where you should leave it – BUT there’s a slight possibility that the conductor will decide that there’s no room for a bike.

If bike storage is a provided for on the train you will be taking, you have to store a bike in these dedicated spaces, but by booking online you can be sure that space will be available.

On board summary:

1st class = ‘Comfort’ and ‘2nd class = ‘Estander’.
(Until recently Preferente indicated 1st class and Turista indicated 2nd class)

If you’re lucky enough to be travelling in 1st/Comfort 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 ticket.

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.

Notes on the major stations in Spain:

Larger stations in Spain don’t have names which equate to ‘Central’ etc, they either have;

  • only the main city name
  • are named after the part of the city in which they’re located
  • are named in honour of an individual.

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

(1) 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.

(2 Larger Spanish stations don’t tend to house many stores/shops, though Madrid Atocha and Malaga Maria Zambrano station are notable exceptions; so don’t count on being able to stock up on travel essentials at the station.

Finding Your Train & Boarding:

The train departure info is listed on these 'Salidas de trenes' posters The train departure info is listed on these 'Salidas de trenes' posters

Something 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.

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

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 info screens, as the confirmation of the via (track/platform) that your train will be leaving from, isn’t usually announced.

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.

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

Boarding an AVE service:

At the main stations the boarding procedure for boarding AVE, Alvia and Euromed 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.
So keep your ticket where you can access it easily, you will need to show it prior to boarding.

Access to the ticket-checks will close around 2 -3 mins before departure, to ensure that all passengers can be processed,
In effect what this will mean is that around 2-3 mins before departure, the train departure details will be removed from the departure info screens.
So would be travellers arriving last minute at the stations, won’t know which via/platform/track, the train will be leaving from.

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.

The lounges:

The Club lounges at major stations in Spain can be accessed by Comfort/1st class ticket holders who have booked 'Prémium' tickets.

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

Left luggage:

The left luggage lockers can only be accessed once you have passed through security checks at the entrances/exits to the left luggage areas of a station, when depositing AND collecting your bags.
As the left luggage offices are staffed, pay attention to the opening hours when dropping off your bags.

Also 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.

Detailed info on the major stations

Click the buttons below to discover how to travel to and from the stations by public transport, plus links to additional info including the station and city websites.

Notes on the ticketing:

The Spanish national operator Renfe has recently simplified the types of ticket available and how they can be used which is welcome news.

It can be worth persevering with booking a ticket for a long-distance journey on the Renfe website for these two reasons:

  1. You can save money by booking in advance;
  2. Trains can sell out completely days in advance.

Despite the investment in high speed lines, Renfe's long distance trains tend to operate less frequently than high speed trains in other European countries
Hence some larga-distancia 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 Comfort (1st) Class and Estander (2nd) 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.

Though something to look out for is that the Renfe booking service doesn't sell tickets for the iryo and Ouigo services, which now offer alternatives to travelling on Renfe's trains on many of the high-speed routes.
These two services and Renfe's trains can be compared by using Trainline.

Saving money on Renfe's long-distance trains

The Spanish rail operator does not sell specific types of discounted tickets, instead limited numbers of tickets at cheaper prices are typically made available on all types of ticket on each departure for the routes taken by AVE, Alvia, Euromed, IC trains and the Torre Oro train.
The Basico tickets are cheaper because they have more stringent terns and conditions around exchanges and refunds; and if you book these tickets your seat(s) will be in the equivalent of second class; more information is available on our Spanish train tickets guide

However, in general, obtaining tickets for the cheapest possible price is less clear cut than is typical in other European countries.
How popular/busy a train is likely to be, tends to have a bigger impact on prices, in comparison to how far in advance you are booking.

On the routes between Madrid and Barcelona and Malaga and Seville a few of the departures can be significantly cheaper, no matter how far ahead you book.
Though with tickets typically available on the these routes 6 months ahead of the travel date, the very cheapest tickets prices can have 'sold out' within a few months of the tickets being placed on sale.

On the Alvia routes between Madrid and northern Spain, tickets are typically placed on sale two months ahead and the further ahead you book, the cheaper the tickets will be.

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

Booking 1st class tickets online:

The online booking service of the Spanish national rail operator, Renfe, doesn't sell 1st class tickets, instead the type of tickets available are categorised by the their terms and conditions and the benefits they provide to travellers.

Prémium ticket benefits include a complimentary service of at seat refreshments including a hot meal; and as these meals are only served in Comfort/1st class in AVE and Euromed trains on Mondays to Fridays; so if you book a Prémium ticket your seats will be in Comfort/1st class on these trains.

When booking tickets for journeys by the Alvia, AVE, Euromed and Torre Oro trains, along with most journeys by IC trains, Elige tickets will be available and an upgrade to Comfort/1st class will be an option.
Click on the Estander/2nd class price and you will see the 'Elige + Comfort' button which provides the access to the upgrade.

Booking at the station:

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.

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

Large stations will also have separate ticket desks/offices which only sell advance tickets for larga-distancia journeys.
These advance ticket offices often use AVE branding on the doors and windows, but;

  • they will sell advance tickets for other larga-distancia services and not just the AVE trains/services
  • they don’t sell tickets for AVE trains departing that day.

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.

Also worth knowing:

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 3 hours between departures are not uncommon, particularly if you WON’T be travelling to or from Barcelona and Madrid.

Child tickets:

Renfe is the operator of the national rail services in Spain and it has a blissfully simple child tickets policy, namely children aged 5 -13 and under are entitled to a 40% discount on any of its rail tickets.
If you want to place a child aged four and under in its own seat, they will also have a 40% discount on the ticket price, but if you'll be happy to travel with the child on their lap, then there is no charge.

Tickets for dogs:

Taking a larger dog (11-40 kg) on AVE trains Taking a larger dog (11-40 kg) on AVE trains

On the standard long distance express trains, the AVE, Alvia, Euromed and IC services, you can add a dog as an extra when making booking:
The flat rate prices, irrespective of distance and departure are:
Basic (second class) = €20
Comfort XL or Elige + Comfort tickets (first class) = €10
Premium Class = no charge

However, dogs can only be taken on board most of these larga-distancia services if they can travel in a container measuring no more than 60x35x35 cm and do not weigh more than 10kg.

If your dog weighs between 11kg and 40kg it can be taken on a few departures by AVE trains on routes between Madrid and Alicante, Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza.
These departures now have a dog paw symbol, when looking up a journey on the Renfe website.
Though you will need to select the more expensive 'Elige' tickets and the reservation fee for the dog is €35.
Note that:

  • you can take smaller dogs which weigh up to 10kg on departures with no paw symbol,
  • you can't take dogs which weigh between 11kg and 40kg on any Alvia, Euromed or IC service,
  • the English translation implies that you will be reserving a seat for the dog, but you will be reserving a place on a special mat that will be placed on the floor in front of the seat,
  • you cannot use the seat selection service that's typically available when booking 'Elige' tickets.

On the other trains operated by Renfe, including the Avant, MD and Regional-Express services, the dog can weigh more than 10kg and it doesn't have to be placed in a container.
For travel on these services it looks as though the dog ticket price will be 25% of the Adult rate.

Journeys from Barcelona

The journey guides include access to booking links and information about the trains, tickets and destination stations. Plus for the scenic routes there are insights on how to make the most of the rides on the trains.

Journeys from Madrid

The journey guides include access to booking links and information about the trains, tickets and destination stations. Plus for the scenic routes there are insights on how to make the most of the rides on the trains.

Most scenic routes:

Barcelona > Puigcerda > La Tour De Carol
Bilbao <> Santander
Bilbao <> San Sebastian/Donastia
Bilbao <> Miranda de Ebro
Malaga > Ronda > Algeciras
Malaga <> Cordoba
Ferrol <. Gijon
Granada <> Almeria
Leon <> Monforte de Lemos
Leon <> Oviedo
Oviedo <> Santander
Zaragoza <> Canfranc
Zaragoza <> Valencia

Short videos showcasing some of these journeys have been uploaded to the ShowMeTheJourney channel on YouTube.

Malaga <> Cordoba Malaga <> Cordoba
Barcelona <> La Tour De Carol Barcelona <> La Tour De Carol
Malaga <> Ronda Malaga <> Ronda
Bilbao <> San Sebastian/Donastia Bilbao <> San Sebastian/Donastia
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