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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!

Temporary Covid-19 changes:

The Covid-19 travel advice page on the Spanish national rail operator, Renfe, website is available here.
The key piece of info is that wearing of face masks on trains is mandatory,

International train service alterations:

The international trains from and to Spain have been particularly impacted by the pandemic.

The overnight Trenhotel services from both Hendaye/Hendaia and Madrid to Lisbon have been permanently withdrawn.

On the high speed route between Figueres and Perpignan only 50% of the usual service is available in each direction on the Barcelona <> Paris route, though the Madrid <> Marseille service and the daily Barcelona <> Lyon service are now operating as per their usual schedules.

What's particularly worth knowing:

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

(1) Renfe is the national company which operates most train services including all express trains, hence most trains carry the 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) Renfe doesn't have a monopoly on Spanish train services and one of the exceptions is the Euskotren network of lines in north-east Spain, around Bilbao and San Sebastian/Donastia.

(3) Renfe's daytime train services are placed into three broad categories;

  • larga-distancia
  • media-distancia
  • local/commuter train services; these 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.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.

(6) 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.

(7) When taking AVE (high-speed) 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 train services; AVE, Alvia, Altaria, Avant or Euromed

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 service operated by RENFE.
So on many routes, will have 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 ten to be cheaper than others when booking ahead, so become the logical choice when making a booking, if saving money is your key critera .

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 services which now provide an alternative to the AVE trains on the Madrid ↔ Barcelona route 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.

(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, the Euromed trains and the Torre Oro train.
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.

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

(4) Trenhotel overnight trains.
All Trenhotel services have been suspended until further notice due to the Covid-19 crisis.

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 (except on the Barcelona <> Port Bou via Girona route) on these branded MD services and included with the ticket purchase.

(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

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 can fit a bike in the case or bag, then you don’t have to buy a bike ticket; for an express train or any other journey.

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, you can add it as an 'additional service'.
Though at major stations 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 there is no guarantee that spaces will be available; and the MD trains in particular can be very infrequent.

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.

These gauge changing are used for both Alvia and Euromed services These gauge changing are used for both Alvia and Euromed services
An AVE 100 train An AVE 100 train
An AVE 103 train An AVE 103 train
One of the trains used on Media-Distancia services One of the trains used on Media-Distancia services

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.
  • Those that have booked 1st or Grand Class beds on the 'Trenhotel' trains

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.

Madrid Puerta De Atocha Madrid Puerta De Atocha
Sevilla-Santa Justa Sevilla-Santa Justa
Valencia-Nord Valencia-Nord
Bilbao-Abando Bilbao-Abando

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, Spanish 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.

Saving money:

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 no longer be available 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 4 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:

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 = no charge

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

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

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

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

Journeys

# Jump to a city

Journeys from

Journeys to

Barcelona

Journeys from Barcelona
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Barcelona to Avignon by train
Barcelona to Béziers / Beziers by train
Barcelona to Bilbao by train
Barcelona to Bordeaux by train
Barcelona to Burgos by train
Barcelona to Figueres by train
Barcelona to Genève / Geneva by train
Barcelona to Girona/Gerona by train
Barcelona to Latour-de-Carol by train
Barcelona to León by train
Barcelona to London by train
Barcelona to Lyon by train
Barcelona to Madrid by train
Barcelona to Malaga by train
Barcelona to Marseille by train
Barcelona to Montpellier by train
Barcelona to Murcia by train
Barcelona to Narbonne by train
Barcelona to Nîmes / Nimes by train
Barcelona to Pamplona by train
Barcelona to Paris by train
Barcelona to Perpignan by train
Barcelona to Port Aventura by train
Barcelona to Port Bou by train
Barcelona to San Sebastian/Donostia by train
Barcelona to Sevilla / Seville by train
Barcelona to Tarragona by train
Barcelona to Toulouse by train
Barcelona to Valence by train
Barcelona to Valencia by train
Barcelona to Zaragoza by train
Journeys to Barcelona
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Lyon to Barcelona by train
Madrid to Barcelona by train
Marseille to Barcelona by train
Paris to Barcelona by train

Madrid

Journeys from Madrid
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Madrid to Algeciras by train
Madrid to Avignon by train
Madrid to Avila by train
Madrid to Barcelona by train
Madrid to Bilbao by train
Madrid to Burgos by train
Madrid to Cadiz by train
Madrid to Cordoba by train
Madrid to Girona/Gerona by train
Madrid to Jerez de la Frontera by train
Madrid to León by train
Madrid to Malaga by train
Madrid to Marseille by train
Madrid to Montpellier by train
Madrid to Murcia by train
Madrid to Pamplona by train
Madrid to Paris by train
Madrid to Ronda by train
Madrid to Salamanca by train
Madrid to San Sebastian/Donostia by train
Madrid to Santiago de Compostela by train
Madrid to Segovia by train
Madrid to Sevilla / Seville by train
Madrid to Tarragona by train
Madrid to Toledo by train
Madrid to Valencia by train
Madrid to Zaragoza by train
Journeys to Madrid
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Marseille to Madrid by train
Paris to Madrid by train
ShowMeTheJourney

This is one of more than 150 train guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.