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Trains in Spain

We are hoping (fingers crossed) to visit Spain for two weeks in mid to late 2021. What experience do you have using the trains? We want to fly into Barcelona and out of Madrid and have the freedom to visit a few other places (Maybe Toledo, Sevilla, ?). Is the train system a good way to go, or should I rent a car? (My wife, my just graduating from college daughter, and me).

Thanks!

Posted by
1200 posts

The railways are a good way of getting between many of the major towns and most cities, including the four places you mention. It is well worth reading this introductory guide which covers the routes, types of trains, when/how to buy tickets, etc.

https://www.seat61.com/Spain-trains.htm

This doesn't apply to your 4 places, but if you add others bear in mind that whilst trains are good for many routes, there are also some inter-city routes where it is more practical to travel using the coach (bus) networks instead, since these can be quicker or have more frequent services than rail (or there may be no useful rail service at all). There are several major coach companies. Which one you use will depend on where you are or want to go (on a few routes they compete, but often one company has exclusivity). I'm sure if you mention particular routes, people here will point you in the right direction.

A car is useful if you plan to tour rural areas or to travel between cities making several stops along the way. On the other hand, cars are often a pain actually within cities, especially having to find parking or follow one-way systems. Central Sevilla, for example, isn't particularly car friendly.

Posted by
865 posts

Train will be easy for the places you have mentioned. And with 2 weeks those 4 locations can easily fill all your time. Depending on how long you stay in each place, it’s also easy to visit Córdoba by train (between Madrid and Seville).

Posted by
3565 posts

Spanish trains work well. Often better than trying to master those 14Century streets with access restrictions and limited parking.
Something to keep in mind is that you can buy a 4 seat ( table with 2 seats each across from each other) that might be cheaper than 3 adult tickets.

However, if you want to do a road trip of the 'white villages' between Seville and Granada, for example, then a one way car rental would be more practical.

Posted by
17875 posts

I agree with all the others and want to add that for the routes involved in your speculative itinerary, the fast trains will get you there much more rapidly than a car. For example:

Barcelona to Madrid: 2:30 to 3:10 by rail; 6:30 or more by car.
Madrid to Seville: 2:30 to 2:40 by rail; 5:20 or more by car.

Another plus for the trains is that all of you can pick up food to eat on the train, saving the time that would be required for a meal stop if you were driving. If the travel situation clears up early enough that you're comfortable buying non-refundable train tickets well in advance, you'll be able to save a lot of money by doing so.

There's a quirk involved in the Toledo trip: Toledo is on a spur railway line connected only to Madrid, so it isn't really "on the way" from Madrid to Seville if you are traveling by train (despite what the map tells you). However, the train is still the fastest way to include Toledo. Many people day-trip there, but it's worth an overnight or two if you can spare the time.

Most of Spain can be really hot in the summer, so if you end up making a mid-year trip, keep in mind the value of having centrally located hotels so you can take an air-conditioned break in the middle of the day if you need to. That's really not the best time of year for Madrid and Andalucia, and Barcelona--though more temperate--can get muggy.

Try to add some additional time to the trip. Two weeks is short for a trip including the places you've mentioned, and I suspect as you continue doing your trip research, you'll start thinking about the Alhambra in Granada as well, plus there's Cordoba--so conveniently located on the way from Madrid to Seville. Even before the pandemic hit, fitting Barcelona into a short trip was a challenge because of the need to pre-book timed tickets to see the interiors of many of its top sights. You must do the same for the Alcazar in Seville and the Alhambra as well.

Posted by
3489 posts

The trains in Spain run mainly in plain and painless efficiency. Buying tickets on-line from the government operator, RENF, can be not so smooth. To quote The Man in Seat 61, the process is "very fiddly". He recommends several services that offer the same access, at the same prices (or nearly so), and a lot less growling at your computer screen.
https://www.seat61.com/Spain-trains.htm#How_to_buy_train_tickets_for_Spain

Posted by
3565 posts

if you have some Spanish, and some understanding of buying transport tickets on line, Renfe isn't too bad. It does convert to English but not as well as desired. One finicky part is if you try to be specific as to the train station. Just choose city name + 'todos' for all scheduled. From there you can choose your time and station.
Your long distance tickets will save you money if you buy in advance. To Toledo, not so much. The only benefit is if you are traveling high season, weekend or need to be there or back at a certain time. Sometimes trains get full.

Posted by
2159 posts

We took a similar trip in 2017 - flew into Madrid; and after 3-4 nights, we took the train to Seville; and then took the train from Seville to Barcelona - flying home from Barcelona. I believe we had 15 days on the ground, not counting arrival and departure days.

The Spanish train system was extremely easy to negotiate. We bought our tickets in advance on the now-defunct loco2.com website. Today, I would use Trainline.

In all three cities, we used small-group tour companies for day trips: Segovia from Madrid, Cadiz from Seville, and from Barcelona - Tarragona, Priorat Wine Country, and Costa Brava/Girona.

Posted by
688 posts

Back in 2011 we took the train from Algeciras to Ronda and then 3 days later took it from Ronda to Madrid - and had no problems. Don't hesitate to drive if it's going to be more efficient and/or cost effective. Although I've never driven in Spain I have elsewhere in Europe on several occasions - just try to avoid large central cities if possible.

Posted by
942 posts

The Spanish trains are the best in the Continent IMHO. Clean, mostly on time and modern. Loved, loved the trains!

Posted by
2923 posts

I have limited experience with the trains in Spain. Bought my tickets on the Renfe site prior to going over. The trains were well maintained and ran on time. I did look up the departing and arrival stations on Google maps just to know where they were relative to my lodging.

Posted by
315 posts

Hi, I love the trains here. As someone upstream said — and I agree — the rail system in Spain is probably the best all round rail system in Europe. And I used to work on the railways in the UK.

To get a teasing glimpse of Spain's railways check out this link to a trailer of a Brit TV program which explores Spain's multi-faceted rail system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTgTbgBRG9I.
If you can try and track down the whole program — it will be worth your effort.
Enjoy your trip.

Posted by
20901 posts

Train system is excellent but being a newer system it also is not as extensive as other parts of Europe with more local train lines. But as a result of this, Spain has an excellent (and cheap) bus system that is often overlooked. We tend to use the buses more in Spain than other European countries so don't be afraid to consider using the buses if the train service is not adequate. Or if you run into the weekend suspension of service due to maintenance.

Posted by
24627 posts

mr omelette posts the same non travel self promotion 3 times and 3 reports to webmaster submitted

Posted by
1079 posts

Excellent start with open jaw flights. Two weeks = enough time to create memorable journey IF............... you realize Spain is the size of Texas. Lots of great advice incoming from forum folks who really know their stuff. Here are my thoughts:

  • BNB in Barcelona just outside of main tourist zone. Barcelona offers excellent subway system and great connections to railway. Create a mix of visiting destinations within Barcelona and a couple of day trips to compliment your visit. Barcelona is a huge wonderful menu of opportunities and discipline is important for prioritizing a few selections.
  • Fly Barcelona to Seville in in the evening and stay two nights.
  • Spain trains are fantastic so enjoy the AVE from Seville to Madrid for reminder of trip. Same recommendation for staying in BNB just outside of main tourist zone.

Electing to follow this journey provides a great variety of opportunities.

Regardless, enjoy your journey.

Posted by
11 posts

I agree trains in Spain are excellent, though this probably only relates to AVE (high speed), Cercanias (trains in large cities to connect short distance) and Alvia (half way between normal trains and AVE, high speed trains). The "traditional trains" can offer a good trip experience but they are terribly slow. 8 hours to get to San Sebastian from Madrid for instance....

So I would stick to AVE and great news is Granada is included now in the list of AVe connected cities! Here is a good, simple map to see what AVe connects
https://makespain.com/spain-train-map/

I agree with other comments above that the Renfe webpage is really poor. The user experience is not intuitive, but the major problem in my view relates to the short notice in which schedules are made available to be purchased, To explain it in simple words, it does not work like flights in which you can find schedules well in advance. In the case of Renfe tickets planning gets a bit complicated because they do not show the time table well in advance. My experience is that what you see piublished for a given month gets then offered for the months not yet available in terms of daily times... but this is not guaranteed! So it makes sense to be a bit conservative when booking other travel services.

Posted by
4606 posts

We lived in Germany for four years from 87-91 and used the trains quite a lot then. Even recently, we have used the trains in Europe and enjoyed the travel.

One thing to consider when traveling by train is to pre-purchase your rail ticket. We were in Barcelona and wanted to take a train to Tarragona (a key Roman city centuries ago) for the day. We had not pre-purchased our tickets.

When we arrived at the train station in Barcelona (about 45 minutes prior to the train departing), we got in line to purchase a ticket. There were 8-10 booths with cashiers selling tickets, but about 15 people in each line. We waited about half and hour and only four people in our line completed their ticket purchases. Sorry, but compared to the efficiency of the Germans, English or French, the Spanish just aren't as efficient. It reminded me of previous trips to Spain. I remember going into a bank to buy local currency and had to go to three separate windows to cash traveler's checks to get my cash and it took more than an hour.

Posted by
17875 posts

One can buy Spanish rail tickets from vending machines. That's what most people do (if they haven't purchased them online)--and not just in Spain. It's my impression that a lot of people standing in line to buy ticket at a staffed counter are doing so because there's something complicated about the transaction, so the line is likely to crawl.

In my experience, the situation at Madrid's Atocha Station is nightmarish. I stood in line for 3 hours last year because I thought I couldn't buy a Tarjeta Dorada (senior-discount) ticket from the vending machine; I was wrong.

Posted by
315 posts

Yes, if you haven't already booked your tickets online, or via the phone app, then use the vending machines as Anne says. The machines have instructions in four languages, including English. However, be aware that you can also buy tickets at many travel agencies (for example, El Corte Inglés department stores) in the larger cities (saves lining up at Atocha!) and at Post Offices (Correos) in smaller towns where the daily average number of passengers is around 100 or less per day..
RENFE is rolling out a plan to have vending machines in ALL its 2600 stations — largely in order to save on staffing costs.

There are two types of RENFE ticket vending machine in major stations:
a) For local/commuter trains cercanias/rodalies (en català); regional trains and media distancia (medium distance). You can also use these machines to apply a discount, such as Tarjeta Dorada — bit fiddly as you will need to key in your 9 digit card number.
b) For AVE only — you can also use these AVE machines to change your travel date/time up to 90 minutes before you travel, and/or your seat if you wish.
Also be aware that at larger stations there will also be vending machines for regional rail operators, e.g. FEVE in the Basque country, Asturias, Cantabria and Galicia, (FEVE also operates a line in Cartagena) and FGC in Catalunya.

Also, remember that AVE tickets also include a journey on the local train network at your station of arrival — you'll need to use a machine to activate this.

Posted by
4606 posts

Do the vending machines at the train station require a credit card with a pin or can I use my US credit card (no pin)?

Posted by
17875 posts

I didn't need a PIN for Spanish train tickets (or French, or British, or German...). Only once have I had a problem using my default-to-signature credit card in a ticket machine in Europe. That was for local tram tickets in Warsaw. Now, I am nearly always a solo traveler, and I have never bought a ticket for a really long trip (like Barcelona to Seville or Barcelona to Paris). I guess it's possible I've had good luck because my purchases have not been expensive. I believe I remember earlier reports of difficulty with the RENFE machines, so I hope we hear from some other folks.