How To Use A Spain Rail Pass
Now that we are living in Spain, our goal is to try to explore as much of the country as possible. We’ve rented a car to explore Catalonia and to visit San Sebastian. But, because we love train travel in Europe, we wanted to see what it would be like to experience train travel in Spain. So, we spent almost three weeks exploring the country with a Renfe Spain Rail Pass.
In this Spain Train Guide, we will explain the Spanish rail network. This includes a guide on how to go about booking trains in Spain, the good and the bad. We talk about how to book Spain rail tickets. Most importantly, we explain how to book and use the Renfe Train Pass, which is a great option for travelers exploring Spain. Overall, our goal is to make train travel in Spain easier!
Included just above is a table of contents on the main topics we discuss in this blog post. If you have a particular question about Spain rail travel, feel free to jump to the section of the post that answers your question.Check out more tips in our Ultimate Spain Food Guide - How To Travel in Spain
Train Travel in Spain And Europe
Growing up in the US, the train was rarely an option. Train travel is just plain difficult, or expensive. Other than a few trips between Washington DC and New York City, most of our travel was by car or air. It’s one of the reasons why we were thrilled to move to Europe. Rail travel through Europe is often easy and a good value. It also takes the stress out of driving and flying.
Spain train travel is much the same. The Spain rail map is extensive covering cities across the country. It can be cost-effective and efficient. Plus, I just love the romance of traveling through Europe on a train. And, as much as we’ve had some nightmare train journeys in Eastern Europe, we’ve had a lot of success on train routes in Spain. There are over 2,000 train stations in Spain with almost 1500 miles of track within the Spain rail system. During this particular train journey, we traveled from Barcelona to Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Valencia, and back to Barcelona, while using the Spain Rail Pass.
High-Speed Trains in Spain
Let’s start by explaining how high-speed train journeys in Spain works. One of the reasons why I love traveling by train through Spain is because of the high-speed train options. We take the high-speed train from Girona to Barcelona and back every time we fly from Barcelona airport. It only takes 38 minutes. The train is also really nice. During this trip, we took a direct train from Barcelona to Seville, traveled clear across the country, and did it in about six hours. It was the longest single journey we made, and it went by in a flash.
Renfe is the Spanish train company that manages all rail travel in Spain. When looking at a Renfe timetable, there are several train options available. The AVE Train Spain (Alta Velocidad Española) is the high-speed train, similar to the TGV in France. The Renfe AVE Train runs from their two hub cities of Barcelona and Madrid, meaning almost the entire country is easily accessible to travelers. It also means that travelers from the US can fly into Barcelona or Madrid and spend their holiday exploring the country while seeing the country. This is much better than spending a vacation at the airport.
Other High-Speed Trains
There are other “high” speed trains in Spain, including the Talgo Train Spain, the AVANT, EuroMed, and Alvia. I say high speed in the way that I do because they might not be as fast, but are more direct than a local train. You may also see trains designated as “MD” or Media Distancia or LD for “Larga Distancia.” Media Distancia normally refers to local trains that make a lot more stops. Sometimes all of these trains travel between the same cities. It’s important to pay attention to how long the journey is. If you see “ALSA” that means a bus.
For example, between Girona and Barcelona, I can book a 38 or 39-minute train that is normally listed on the website as AVE, TGV, or Avant. Or, there are MD (Media Distancia) trains, which take 1 hour 37 minutes to travel the same distance. The high-speed train is on average €17 and the MD is €11, When booking Spain train reservations, it’s up to the traveler to decide how much to spend, both for the ticket and the time on the train.
How to Book AVE Spain Tickets
You can book individual AVE high-speed train tickets online through the Renfe train tickets booking system (Check out the Renfe English site here). When looking at train options, look for the trains that say AVE. On some routes, there are AVE options as well as TALGO and AVANT trains. These are perfectly good alternatives. Just check the length of the journey to make sure you are not booking a local train. There are other trains you might see when booking an individual journey. EuroMed links Barcelona with Valencia and Alicante. Alvia trains run from Madrid to Cadiz and Huelva as well as to some areas of the Basque Country, like Bilbao and San Sebastian.
There are Turista and Turista Plus seats on the AVE train, which correspond to Second Class and First Class. Turista Plus seats are 2×1 rather than 2×2. On some trains, you will see Preferente instead of Turista Plus for the first class coach. Preferente sometimes comes with a hot meal. To be honest, there is not a heck of a lot of difference and other than taking a super long journey, the Turista class is fine. Some of the trains also include silent cars (Silencio) for more comfort. Just a note, you are not allowed to eat in the Silencio cars. Most of the trains have power sockets at each seat. Most trains do not have wifi-enabled cars.
There are three kinds of prices available generally. Promo is usually the cheapest, but it is non-refundable. Promo+ is a little more expensive and is refundable but only at about 85%. Flexible is the most expensive, but it is refundable up to 95% of the price paid. Prices are less expensive for shorter journeys.
What is a Renfe Train Spain Rail Pass
If you plan to travel around Spain, consider purchasing a Spain Renfe Rail Pass, which is similar to a Eurail pass that many travelers are probably more familiar with (there are some differences in how they each operate). This pass means you can travel on AVE and other long distance trains all with one ticket. You need to reserve a seat, which I will explain, but it doesn’t make a difference how expensive the trip is. The rail pass can be booked for 4, 6, 8, or 10 journeys. Prices range from €195-€410 per person.
Only non-residents of Spain can purchase a Renfe pass. You will need to use your passport as an identifying document when purchasing. Once you purchase the pass it is good for six months, meaning you must finish your trip within six months. Once you start traveling, you have one month to finish your trips (i.e. 8 trips in one month). Unlike the Eurail Pass, there is no option for unlimited travel. There is a lot to consider when determining whether to purchase these Renfe tickets.
Where to Travel on a Renfe Spain Train Pass
The most popular cities that are booked on with Renfe AVE tickets, are Barcelona-Madrid, Madrid-Valencia, and Madrid-Seville. But, you can also book train tickets to get to Malaga, Cordoba, and cities in Northern Spain, like Bilbao, Pamplona, and Zaragoza. Check out the AVE Experiences for more inspiration.
We started where we live in Girona, but did not use the pass to get to Barcelona. It was cheaper to just buy a ticket. We used our rail pass to travel clear across the country from Barcelona to Seville. In Seville we ate all the tapas while exploring the city for a full week, learning about the history of Andalusia. After, we trained from Seville to Cordoba, which houses an enormous Catholic church, which was once a mosque, called the Mezquita. After, we visited Granada. There are some issues using the rail pass to Granada because of continued track work. It might be necessary to purchase a ticket separately, which from Cordoba only costs €20-€30. After, we traveled to Malaga to spend time eating tapas near the beach. Then, we continued from Malaga to Valencia (with a transfer in Madrid) as we made our way back towards home in Girona.
That was our route, which took almost three weeks. But, there are cities across the Spain rail map that can be accessed in one holiday in Spain with the rail pass, making it super valuable and super flexible.
How to Book a Renfe Spain Rail Pass
It’s important to think about how many trips you will take before making the purchase on the RENFE booking site. Some journeys are counted as two trips. For example, if you travel from Barcelona to Seville direct it is counted as one trip. If you change trains in Madrid, it then becomes two trips. Every time a new train is boarded is another trip is used. Once you decide how many journeys you need the purchasing process is relatively simple. Relatively.
Whether booking Spain train tickets or using the Renfe Pass, be patient when using the Renfe website. Although improvements are in process, the website is not the best. Although it is in English, some pages or headers switch back to Spanish. When I don’t understand, I copy the language and use Google Translate to figure it out.
Details on the pass can be found here and you can follow the links for “Purchase here.” You must enter your passport country and number. You can pay via a credit card or via Paypal. There are often problems with the English site and US credit cards, so, yes, be patient. In the end, the pass is worth it. Once you complete the purchase, you will receive an electronic pass that can be printed to use during your trip.
There is a second Renfe site where you can book (it’s a mystery why). Go to this link, which is only in Spanish. At the bottom click “Comprar Abono” (Buy Pass). The next series of pages are in English. You may need to register with the site to make the purchase. But, this is an alternative if the site above doesn’t work.
How to Use The Renfe Spain Pass
After booking the Renfe train pass, it’s necessary to then reserve your seats just like you have to with a Eurail pass. This can be done on most routes online through the Renfe website. In order to make seat reservations on the site, you must register your pass first. When booking a seat you might see “Journey Validation” and not seat reservation, just to be prepared.
For some routes, you might need to visit a train station to make the reservation. There is no extra cost to do this. The reservation can be made at the Renfe kiosks (automated machines) or at the ticket window. If using the kiosk, you can only reserve one seat at a time if you are traveling as a couple or with friends. When finished with one ticket, just start again and choose a seat near the last one reserved. You don’t need to do this at the station you are traveling from. Meaning you can reserve your ticket from Madrid to Seville at the Barcelona Sants station. You can choose which car and which seat (facing front or back).
Pro Tip On Using Your Renfe Rail Pass
You must be prepared to show three things at the station on each day you travel: 1) Your printed Renfe Spain Pass; 2) Your printed seat reservation; and 3) Identification. We were only asked for this twice during our trip, but it is better to be prepared than not.
Tips on Traveling The Spain Train System
So, we’ve covered a lot already on how to book Renfe tickets and the rail pass, but there are a few more tips I want to share about train trips in Spain.
- Pay attention to where the station is. Most high-speed train stations in Spain are in the city center, but some are not. Cities like Barcelona and Madrid have more than one train station. It’s important to note which station you are traveling from and how long it takes to get there to ensure you don’t miss your train.
- Try to arrive at the station about 30 minutes before departure. At every station, you need to go through security and have bags scanned, which takes a few extra minutes.
- Whether booking tickets or seat reservations, I like to say book or reserve in advance. That’s when the best seats are available at the best price. When using the Spain Rail Pass, costs are not an issue, but there might be limited seats available. All that said, some seats are released 90 days in advance. Some high-speed train tickets are only released 60 days in advance. Sometimes it’s even 30 days. When it comes to reservations on the rail pass, we booked our seats a week in advance and it was too late to get the train we wanted. We needed to be more flexible. I would recommend two weeks to 30 days as the sweet spot.
- If you have a connection, it’s usually quick and easy. The one exception is Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station. It’s big and multi-level and directions are confusing. Have your tickets ready to present and just ask station employees to point you in the right direction.
Is The Renfe Spain Pass Worth It?
This is the real question, right? Think about the cities you want to travel to and figure out how many trips are needed. You can enter a departure and arrival station on the Renfe site to see whether there is a direct train, or if there is a connection. Remember that if there is a connection, that counts as two journeys for purposes of the pass. Take a look at the average price for tickets between the cities on your train itinerary. You won’t be able to enter your exact dates if they are more than 60 or 90 days, but this is a good guide.
Look at the average price for those individual tickets and then figure how whether the rail pass is more economical. Remember that the passes cost between €195-€410. This means that journeys average between €41-€49 per journey. Any ticket that averages less than €40 is probably not a journey you want to take with the pass, for example, our typical trip from Girona to Barcelona. But, tickets between Barcelona and Seville can cost more than €100. Even tickets between Barcelona and Madrid can average €75 or more one way. This is the best way to determine if the Renfe Train Pass is worth it.
FAQs – Touring Spain By Train
There are few other questions we’ve been answering for train lovers traveling around Spain. This is probably one of the more complicated and technical blog posts I’ve written because there is so much to explain. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments below. We will try to update this post frequently as the Renfe booking systems change. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about train travel in Spain:
Renfe tickets get more expensive as the date nears, so it is better to plan ahead. On busy days, like holiday weekends, some trains are actually full. If you like to make last minute plans then the Renfe Spain Pass is probably the best value, particularly if you are flexible.
Some people say you can bring unlimited luggage on Spain high-speed rail journeys. I’ve read you can only bring three bags per person. In the end, if you can, pack light. You will need to lift the luggage onto the train and be able to store it. Sometimes this might mean lifting the luggage overheard to store it.
In Italy and other European countries, you must validate all rail tickets on the platform before entering. In Spain, you do not need to validate your ticket, but you generally need to show your ticket to a ticket-taker. You also must keep your ticket with you on board in case the conductor asks.
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Train Travel In Spain – The Renfe Train Spain Rail Pass
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*This post contains compensated links. Find more info in my DISCLAIMER. We were supported by Renfe Spain during our 3-week journey around Andalusia and Valencia, but all views are my own, particularly about the usability of the Renfe website.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.