The Train in Spain: Essential information about trains and fares
Regina Bryan’s interesting article here on EuroCheapo last month sparked a discussion on rail fares in Spain. So we thought a few thoughts on Spanish rail travel might be in order.
The hop-on-at-will culture that prevails in many European countries when it comes to long-distance rail travel simply does not apply in Spain. All long-distance services in Spain and even the majority of inter-regional (or medium-distance) trains need to be pre-booked. Access to departure platforms at principal stations is strictly regulated, with only those holding a valid ticket and seat reservation for the upcoming departure being allowed through to the platform. On premium services, luggage is screened in X-ray machines.
So the whole mood of many Spanish main-line stations is more like that of an airport. This is not unique to Spain. Travelers on the Eurostar services that link London with the continent will be familiar with check-in procedures and passenger facilitation that reflect airline rather than railway thinking.
But in Spain, form and function are magnificently interlinked with some of Europe’s finest station architecture. There are grand modern concourses at many stations. Be it at the Estación de Sevilla-Santa Justa, the Málaga-María Zambrano station, or at dozens of similar stations across Spain, the concourses are often ultra-stylish spaces. They knock spots off airports in terms of interior design.
The price you pay for your train ticket in Spain depends very much on what class of train you choose to travel on and on many routes it will be considerably influenced by when you book. Dynamic pricing to reflect anticipated demand is not so pervasive in Spain as, for example, in France and the UK, but it is there to some extent.
Discounts on the higher grades of train (eg. Talgo, Euromed, AVE, Altaria, Alvia, Alaris) are offered at off-peak times on many routes, and you will often find particularly attractive discounts in the highest class of accommodation on those respective train types. Usually that highest class (what elsewhere in Europe would often be called First Class) is called Preferente in Spain, but on AVE trains (which like Eurostar operate a three-class system) there is a super-first class dubbed Club.
Let us illustrate the Spanish fares maze by way of example. Last month we traveled the rail route from Barcelona to Valencia. It is a 350-km journey that takes in some of the best and worst of Mediterranean coastal scenery, but all in all an interesting run through the Levante region of eastern Spain. All services on this route are run by Spain’s principal national rail operator RENFE.
Use the second-class-only Regional Express for the trip to Valencia and the one-way fare is €25.25. Opt for the much faster Euromed Train and you have a choice of travel classes: the regular Turista class fare is €44.50, while those who like their creature comforts will have to pay €73.10 if they buy a Preferente class ticket just prior to departure. For Talgo and Alaris trains, both still expresses but about 20 minutes slower than the Euromed Train, the standard one-way fares are a shade lower than on Euromed.
Book a month or more in advance on the RENFE ticket sales website and you will find some very good deals. Even on the premium Euromed services, you find Turista class ticket for €26.50 – and even less if you opt for Talgo or Alaris. The posh Preferente class also gets discounted, and you’ll find one-way tickets there for just over €30.
Slow but scenic savers
If you really are not able to book well in advance, then the slower train in Spain is always cheaper. Every morning two trains leave Barcelona Sants station at 8:30 a.m., both bound for Seville in the sunny south. Buy a ticket just prior to departure on the super-fast AVE and you will pay a whopping €142.30 for the Turista class ride to Seville. But if you have time to spare, then go for the slower of the two trains, classed as Alaris, and you’ll pay just €68.50. And the slower Alaris train takes a fabulous route through rural La Mancha (lots of windmills!) and Despeñaperros Pass to reach Andalucía.
Andalucían journey: Comparing train fares
Another journey we made last month was the short hop from Seville to Córdoba. This is another route where RENFE is effectively the only operator, but they do offer a choice of five different categories of train for the journey, each with its own price structure. Travel time on the fastest trains is just 40 minutes. The slow choice is the one-class only Media Distancia, while the fastest option is the sleek AVE high-speed train which offers three classes of accommodation: Turista, Preferente and Club.
If you just want to turn up and ride, then you can buy tickets for any train right up to departure time, subject of course to seats still being available. Remember this is Spain: you must have a seat reservation to join any train for the ride to Córdoba. But take a look at how much the fares (rounded to the nearest full euro) vary by category of train and class of service:
We went for the Avant option. True, it took a few minutes longer than the fastest AVE train, but the Spanish system of rail fares really makes you think about how much you value your own time. We did not judge it worth paying €16 more to save just those few minutes.