How is it best to travel around Spain’s 500,000 sq km of land? With 17 autonomous communities and countryside varying between the rugged and the rolling it really is worth exploring if you have the transport to do so. And if you don’t?
You can take a plane between some of Spain’s major cities. However, internal flights do not come cheap and they certainly won’t connect you to all the towns and cities you’ll want to visit. So what about the train?
Taking the train is actually a very good alternative if you want to explore Spain a little further. Overall, the train’s fast, cheap and modern and surprisingly punctual. Depending on where you are based you might have to travel a little distance to your nearest train station but you might be pleasantly surprised if you do.
Renfe is the state-owned company that is responsible for Spain’s rail network. They have an impressive range of trains and you can take a look at them as well as purchasing a ticket from their website www.renfe.com
The crown of Spain’s rolling stock has to be the AVE. This high speed train can reach up to 300 km/h and even at these speeds it feels as though it hasn’t left the platform.
Taking the AVE is a pleasurable experience. The trains are fast, smart and under populated. In a recent statistical release it was claimed that 25% of Spain’s high speed train stations are used by less than 100 people a day. Great news for travellers but not great for Renfe.
Most AVE trains have very few stops and they are ideal if you want to relax on your journey. If you do want to travel on one of these you will need to reserve your ticket in advance and you can book up to three months ahead of the day on which you want to travel. Unfortunately, these amazing trains only run along very selective lines.
They can, however, reduce your travelling time significantly. So, for example, a journey from Madrid to Valencia takes only one hour and thirty minutes and from Madrid to Córdoba only one hour forty minutes. This makes a weekend visit to these interesting destinations a viable option.
The AVE isn’t the only means of travelling by rail in Spain. There are several other different types of train which operate at varying speeds and at different levels of comfort.
The Avant and Alvia trains also travel at high speed. Although not as fast as the AVE, they can reach up to 200/ 250 km/h. Like their big sister, they’re spacious, comfortable and air-conditioned. The Alvia includes two different classes (turista and preferente) and a single café bar.
Media Distancia trains, as the name suggests, are somewhere between the fast AVE, Avant and Aliva and the more local commuter train. They might not travel quite as fast (up to 160 kmh) and don’t have the benefit of all the services but they are still a comfortable method of travelling and are significantly cheaper if cost is a factor.
The cercanías are commuter trains that operate in and around the larger Spanish cities. They are the slowest groups of trains but can still reach a speed of 120 km/h. More recent stock still provides a good level of comfort.
You can choose from three classes of ticket:
- tourist standard class (turista)
- first class (preferente)
- club first class (some lines)
With club you get access to a VIP lounge, free parking, newspapers and magazines, hot meals and drinks served at your seat and a table to eat them on.
Preferente includes all of these services too but doesn’t guarantee a table or drinks served at your seat. All tickets mean that you can benefit from air conditioning, the cafeteria car, baby changing facilities and power sockets, TV screens and radios. Club first class service is only available on some AVE trains.
There are different types of tickets:
Flexible – full price, refundable and changeable.
Promo (P) – no changes and no refunds
Promo+ (P+) – limited changes and refunds.
Mesa (M) – small groups of three or four people with a table
P and P+ are cheaper than flexible which allows you to change or ask for a refund. With Promo + however, you can still get the benefits that come with flexible tickets of being able to choose your seat from a seating plan if you book on the Renfe site.
There are regular discounts available and children younger than four years old can travel for free. If you are over 60 you can apply for a ‘Tarjeta Dorada’ or ‘golden ticket’. These can be obtained from the train station and cost six euros.
With this card you will pay less and can have up to 40% discount on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 25% discount on Friday, Saturday and Sunday if travelling on an AVE. Just be aware that in some cases it might be cheaper to take advantage of a Promo rather than purchase a flexible ticket using your Dorada card.
You are best to book your tickets online, although you can also buy them at the train station. You can book them through the Renfe site and the booking form can be displayed in English. It is quite straight forward to navigate if you are aware of what the different classes of ticket are.
For example from Alicante to Madrid:
Pets and bikes
There are variations in what you can take with you on the train depending on the type of train you are using. It is best to check individually, before setting out, what the arrangements are. However, in most cases you can take your bicycle with you.
Small pets are also usually allowed, provided they do not disturb other passengers. Your animal must have its ‘passport’ and be securely and hygienically transported. This includes dogs, cats, ferrets and birds but they must not weigh more than 10kg. On AVE you pay 25% of an economy class seat for the privilege of taking your pet with you. When travelling first class, their ticket is free. As always, best to check before you travel.
The larger Spanish train stations offer a range of facilities, as you would expect. They usually contain a number of shops and perhaps a bar and café area. Be prepared for the fact that you will need to have your luggage scanned before you board the train. There isn’t a body scanner as such but bags and coats must be put on a conveyer belt and pass through the scanner for checking.
Some of the train stations in Spain are worth a visit whether you are intending to travel by train or not. Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha is quite spectacular. It has a tropical garden and a pool with swimming turtles in the centre and plenty of shops and places to browse.
There is no doubt that if you haven’t travelled by train in Spain before, it’s time to give it a try.