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Spain by train - advice needed

I'm planning a 16 day trip in September, starting and ending in Madrid. I'm inclined to travel counterclockwise by train to Cordoba, Seville, Grenada, Barcellona, and back to Madrid with a possible side trip to Toledo or Segovia. I'm looking for advice on buying train tickets. When do I need to make the reservations? Do trains sell out? What's a good time of day to travel? What kind of reservation should I make? Any other random Spain train travel advice? I'm psyched to take the high-speed train. From what I've read, it eems like I should fly from Grenada to Barcellona, but reading the Yelp reviews of Vueling has me concerned. What do you think? Any considerations about getting to and from train stations and airports, checking bags, etc?

Madrid - 4 nights (incl. possible side trip to Toledo or Segovia)
Cordoba - 2 nights
Seville - 2 nights
Grenada - 2 nights
Barcelona - 5 nights
Madrid - 1 night

Posted by
1233 posts

And my own comments -

  • Not sure it matters which way you do it clockwise or anti-clockwise - so perhaps pick based on timings and cost. If you go clockwise you'll be in the south a few days later, probably not enough to make any real difference to the heat though ,
  • Vueling is fine. It's a low cost airline so it's not brilliant, but perfectly adequate. In a few days a daily Barcelona - Granada direct fast rail service will start in both directions. But it's still a longish journey. Nevertheless it's a new option whereas before Barcelona-Granada by train was very long. A fast Madrid-Granada service is also beginning soon.
  • It's likely timetables won't be posted on Renfe yet (see the link i posted above about the seemingly random nature of when this happens). But you can get a very good idea of what they will be in September by searching for your journeys but using next week for the dates.

PS remember its Granada with three "a" when doing searches on-line, not Grenada.

Posted by
6554 posts

We just returned from Spain. We took a ALSA bus from Madrid to Grenada--4 1/2 hours. It was a very nice, smooth ride. Then we took Vueling over to Barcelona--an hour's flight without incident. And the TGV fast train to Paris (6 1/2 hours) was also pleasant. We bought all tickets ahead.

Posted by
10 posts

Maybe I should do October instead? I was thinking La Mercè in Barca would be cool. But I don't want to melt in Andalucia. I also just realized I can fly into Madrid and out of Barcelona. That'll save me a day.

Posted by
3652 posts

In terms of trains, order wouldn't matter. I would look to see if the trip "falls out". Are there any events that could be interesting or complicate your plans? Where are you on Sundays and Mondays when places are closed or have short hours. I really wanted to see the ceramics museum in Sevilla, but it had shorter hours on Sunday and was closed on Mondays. I am seeing a lot of days in Madrid. It's beautiful but less historic and cultural than your other cities, IMO. I think your days in Cordoba (LOVE Cordoba) and Granada are fine. I don't think you have near enough time in Sevilla, especially if you will be there on a Sunday and Monday. I would do 3 days in Sevilla, 4 if you can swing it. With that number of days in Madrid, I'm guessing you are really interested in the art museums, yes? Segovia is wonderful and an easy day trip from Madrid. I like Toledo very much and would make every effort to get there. If it were me, I'd stay over at least one night in Toledo. Toledo is overrun by day trippers during the day and relatively peaceful until about 10:30am and later in the afternoon and evening.

I'm guessing you looked at flying home from Barcelona and it didn't work? I liked Vueling. It's a budget airlines but seemed just and nice as "regular" airlines. Employees in Barcelona were exceptionally nice. I would buy all those train tickets in advance which would give you a decent savings.

Make sure to purchase Alhambra and Sevilla Alcazar in advance. If your trip is this year, you should be purchasing Alhambra now. Purchase your Sevilla Cathedral ticket at Church of the Savior. Almost everything in Barcelona needs to be purchased in advance.

Nick would know the status of the trains out of Granada. If the train is not running without the bus/train switch, I'd take the bus for the whole trip.

EDITED TO ADD: We did essentially your trip at the beginning of November. Weather was very nice for us. Given Andalusia heat, my preference would be October over September and hotel rates could be cheaper.

Posted by
3753 posts

La Merce (they say) is fabulous, so understandable if you want to go for that. It will also mean a lot of accommodations are already sold out or higher priced.
I ran into the challenge of Sunday/Monday stay in Cordoba. It made choosing sites harder, so if you can put a weekend in Madrid and another in Barcelona, it should make the part in between doable. The Alhambra on a Sunday is feasible.
Personally, it took a bit for me to warm up to Sevilla, so I might agree to the 2 nights. Alternatively, since it is such a short trip, head to Sevilla late afternoon so one night Cordoba and 3 Sevilla. To be honest, your evenings/nights are better spent in Sevilla.
Yes to flying into Madrid and out from Barcelona (or vice versa).
I use wunderground website for historical temperatures and precipitations. I was in that area late Oct/early Nov 2017 and it was still a drought, none of the typical rain had arrived and weather was above normal. Sandals and shorts end October in Granada, but by Nov 9 in Madrid, I needed a hat and light gloves for their patron saint day activities. Segovia had snow flurries the next day.
My understanding that Andalusia high season runs until after All Saint's Day (Nov 1)....but that isn't necessarily for each and every hotel. Certainly by November Toledo was not overrun with tourists during the day and at night I could be the only person for several blocks.
Some say that any train ride of 4 hours or over should be replaced by a flight. I don't know what the new train times will be...unless, of course, you just like trains.
There is little savings on the Madrid to Toledo or Madrid to Segovia trains. Booking ahead, you can save up to 60% on some routes. I don't know your age, but the seat61 website can tell you which tickets to consider. Personally, I don't see the need for a Business class or even 1st class compartment. However, I did appreciate that some routes have 'silent cars'. I hate listening to people talking on my train trips.

Posted by
3652 posts

I wasn't referring to trains to and from toledo and Segovia from madrid when I said train tickets should be purchased in advance. Thank you for clarifying, Maria. It's the high speed trains that should be purchased in advance.

I don't believe 2 nights in Sevilla gives you enough to see the major sights, which to me would be the Alcazar, Cathedral and Plaza de Espana let alone a walk around the very beautiful old town. Two nights typically amounts to a bit over a day. If you are doing 2 nights, you would want to be VERY organized and have the tickets prepurchased and the itinerary very well planned.

Posted by
18349 posts

I agree that 2 nights is painfully short for Seville and 4 is unnecessarily long for Madrid unless you decide to see both Segovia and Toledo--and both are certainly worthwhile. It's not that Madrid is boring or unattractive, but that (in my view) it isn't as distinctive or historic as the other places we are discussing.

As already mentioned, the Alhambra ticket should be your first project as soon as you figure out the day you will want to see it.

Trains do sometimes sell out, though usually not very far in advance. The major issue is that there are bargain-priced (non-changeable/non-refundable) tickets available when tickets initially go on sale for a particular route and date. As other passengers buy those, the remaining tickets are costlier. Once you nail down your itinerary, you may find some good deals on train tickets. If you wait until just a few weeks before your trip to make those ticket purchases, you may be paying full price. To see how much difference the timing of your purchase can make, price some of your tickets for travel today or tomorrow vs. as far out as you can go on the calendar. Prices are available at renfe.com. Click on "Welcome" near the top to get the English page.

You don't have to worry about the Madrid-Toledo ticket; that fare is always the same. However, buying tickets at Atocha Station is an experience to be avoided if possible. The lines at staffed counters can be interminable, though I think Toledo tickets are sold in a different office. The vending machines are easy to use if they like your credit card and you aren't trying to use some sort of discount card they don't recognize.

For me, what matters about trains is how long they take, what time they depart, and how much they cost. Second-class is fine.

Actually buying from renfe.com can be tricky; mid-way through my transaction I was suddenly stuck in Spanish mode. And some credit cards work better than others. PayPal might work if your credit cards don't. If no luck with renfe.com, I think you can buy the same tickets at the same price on loco2.com. Be sure to conduct the transaction in euros so there's no funny business about the exchange rate. Do not use RailEurope; it will cost you more.

For excellent background information on Spanish trains, go to seat61.com and click on Spain in the left panel.

Posted by
1233 posts

If you're now thinking of flying into Madrid and out of Barcelona, then it seems to me to make more sense to go anti-clockwise. I'd suggest Madrid to Sevilla to Cordoba to Granada. You can do all of these by fast trains (although between Sevilla and Cordoba the distance is short enough that it doesn't matter much if you use a cheaper regional service). From Granada to Barcelona, I'd fly, although as mentioned above there is now an AVE service (or will be next week).

Personally, now you have a spare night I'd add it to Sevilla. I'd also take a night from Barcelona and add that to Sevilla or Granada.

I wouldn't become too fixated on the weather. Clearly, October is cooler than September on average. But for one specific year it might not make much noticeable difference. It might even rain - it does you know!

Posted by
3694 posts

Here’s what I would recommend, based on our 2017 trip to Spain. We really enjoyed being in Toledo to get over jet lag, and staying overnight, you’re able to enjoy the town after day trip people have left. We stayed at the El Greco Hotel near the Jewish synagogue and would stay there again.

Seville is worth four nights. And, we enjoyed beginning our time in Andalusia with a night in Cordoba.

Fly into Madrid. Immediately, take the train to Toledo - 2 nights
Madrid - 2 nights
Cordoba - 1 night
Seville - 4 nights
Granada - 2 nights
Barcelona - 5 nights

Posted by
3652 posts

I hesitate to say, but I really believe Cordoba should have two nights. I would do two nights there over Toledo, but don't get me wrong, Toledo is wonderful. I think you can go on for days tweeking a itinerary for a trip that would be wonderful regardless how you do it. I just wanted to "plug" Cordoba because it has not been discussed much in this thread. It is a lovely little city with a pretty river and bridge, a lovely, historic juderia with homes with wonderful patio gardens. Some people think Cordoba is all about the Mezquita, and while wonderful, there is a lot more to it. I agree that with flying out of Barcelona, it makes the most sense to do whatever you figure out with Madrid and Toledo, followed by Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada and Barcelona, in that order.

EDITED TO ADD-If Nick (who would be more of the expert on Spanish trains) thinks that you should do Sevilla to Cordoba to Granada, I'd go with his opinion.

Posted by
10 posts

Thanks for all the great advice! I'm intrigued by the idea of going straight to Toledo. On the upside, a smaller city is easier to deal with off the bat and my flight will be overnight from NYC so I'll have time to kill anyway. On the downside, there's the extra hassle of the train after the plane and there seems like there's a lot to see for someone with jetlag. My priorities are art and architecture. In Madrid, I anticipate spending a full day at the Prado and a half-day at the Reina Sofia. I'd also like to see some street art. I looked at the weather. September temps are brutal in Andulusia (last year there were 5 days of 100+ F temps in Seville). October looks like the smart move. I'm puzzling over the Sunday/Monday conundrum. Which city would it be the biggest issue if I were there on Sunday or Monday?

Posted by
18349 posts

Rick is good about summarizing days closed in his guide books. Barcelona is not so much of an issue because a lot of its top sights run 7 days a week. The modernista sights make too much money to close. I'd plan to be in Barcelona on Sunday and Monday because you'll have plenty to do, assuming you plan to see several of the modernista sights. If Barcelona is going to be art-museum-heavy, you'd better check the appropriate websites, because I believe most of the museums do close one day a week.

I don't remember the situation in Madrid, but since you're serious about art you should definitely check the Prado and Reina Sofia websites.

In general I would say that closing days are more of an issue when you have very few days in a city. With the limited target list that inevitably results from a very short stay, there may not be a full day's worth of high-priority activities available on Sunday or on Monday. Also, fiddling with your sightseeing schedule to accommodate closing days sometimes requires making separate trips to the same distant part of town on two different days, which is a painful time-waster when your schedule is tight. I ran into that very problem during Holy Week this year, when many sights in Andalucia had extra closing days or shorter hours.

Since you mentioned art museums, I want to put in a plug for the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, on Montjuic in Barcelona. In addition to paintings and sculptures there's a good modernism collection (mainly furniture, jewelry and decorative arts). And the museum houses a number of really impressive frescoes rescued from medieval churches in the Pyrenees. I spent 5 hours in the MNAC.

Posted by
3652 posts

I would make a list of everything you want to see by city, and next to each place note closed dates and hours and then see what it works out to be. Maybe none of your sights is closed on a Monday. Hard to say without looking them up.

Posted by
581 posts

Because you like art, I definitely recommend 4 nights in Madrid. We LOVED the Prado. We spent 4.5 hours there including lunch, and I wish we had more time. I really enjoyed the Reina Sofia, even though I am not a fan of modern art, but i found this museum to be amazing, especially Picasso's Guernica. We didn't have time for the Thyssen. I also recommend the Royal Palace and visiting Retiro Park.

So, we spent our 4 nights (3 days) in Madrid, and then spent one night in Toledo, which I recommend if you have the time. I would not take away any nights from Cordoba. You need at least 2 nights there. It was one of our favorite cities. The Mezquita is a highlight, of course, we but also loved the Alcazar gardens, Roman Bridge, wandering the Juderia, and the Palacio de Viana.

I do recommend 3 or 4 nights in Seville. I don't think 2 nights is enough. It is a beautiful city architecturally; highlights for us were the Real Alcazar, Cathedral, Casa De Pilatos, Plaza de Espagna, Triana, Flamenco show, and Mercado Barranca.

Flying open jaw, into Madrid and out of Barcelona, or vice versa, is a smart thing to do.

We purchased our train tickets from loco2.com because I kept hearing that renfe is difficult to use when paying with credit cards. Loco2.com was always responsive and immediately answered any questions I had. I highly recommend them.

Posted by
4731 posts

I suggest eliminating one or two places and spend more time where you visit. Barcelona is some distance from Madrid. There is a high speed train however. Grenada is away from Madrid and Seville.

I suggest focusing on Madrid, Seville and perhaps Cordoba.