Train Travel

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TRAVEL TIPS

Train Travel

The chart here has information about popular train routes.Prices are for one-way fares (depending on seating and where purchased) and subject to change.

International trains run from Madrid to Lisbon (10 hours 30 minutes, overnight), Barcelona to Paris (6 hours 20 minutes), and Madrid to Paris (9 hours 45 minutes).

Spain's wonderful high-speed train, the 290-kph (180-mph) AVE, travels between Madrid and Seville (with a stop in Córdoba) in 2½ hours; prices start at about €58 each way. It also serves the Madrid–Barcelona route, cutting travel time to just under three hours. From Madrid you can also reach Lleida, Huesca (one AVE train daily), Málaga, Toledo, and Valladolid.

The fast Talgo service is also efficient, but other elements of the state-run rail system (RENFE) are still a bit subpar by European standards, and some long-distance trips with multiple stops can be tediously slow. Although some overnight trains have comfortable sleeper cars, first-class fares that include a sleeping compartment are comparable to, or more expensive than, airfares.

Most Spaniards buy train tickets in advance online or at the train station's taquilla (ticket office). The lines can be long, so give yourself plenty of time. For popular train routes, you will need to reserve tickets more than a few days in advance and pick them up at least a day before traveling. The ticket clerks at the stations rarely speak English, so if you need help or advice in planning a more complex train journey, you may be better off going to a travel agency that displays the blue-and-yellow RENFE sign. A small commission (e.g., €2.50) should be expected. For shorter, regional train trips, you can often buy your tickets from machines in the train station.

You can use a credit card for train tickets at most city train stations, but in smaller towns and villages it may be cash only. Seat reservations are required on most long-distance and some other trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are wise on any train that might be crowded. You need a reservation if you want a sleeping berth.

The easiest way to make reservations is to go to the English version of the RENFE website (www.renfe.com—click "Welcome" on the top line) or use the RenfeTicket smartphone app (to buy tickets using the app, you need to register and to have bought a RENFE ticket with your credit card). Go to "Journey Date," and "Times," but be aware that the site can often be wonky, with unpredictable broken links. Input your destination(s) and date(s), and the site will indicate seat availability; book earlier if you're traveling during Holy Week, on long holiday weekends, or in July and August. (The site allows you to make reservations up to 62 days in advance, which is important in qualifying for online purchase discounts.) When you've completed your reservation, you can print out a PDF version of your ticket, with the car and seat assignment; you will also get a confirmation by email with a localizador (locator number) that you can use, in case you can't access the PDF file, to pick up the tickets at any RENFE station (most major airports have a RENFE booth, so you can retrieve your tickets as soon as you arrive in Spain); central stations in most major cities have automated check-in machines. You'll need your passport and the credit card you used for the reservation. You can review your pending reservations online at any time.

Caveats: You cannot buy tickets online for certain regional lines or for commuter lines (cercanías). Station agents cannot alter your reservations; you must do this yourself online. The RENFE website may not work with all browsers, but it does accept all major credit cards, including American Express.

Discounts

If you purchase a ticket on the RENFE website for the AVE or any of the Grandes Líneas (the faster, long-distance trains, including the Talgo) you can get a discount of 20%–60%, depending on how far ahead you book and how you travel: discounts on one-way tickets tend to be higher than on round trips. Discount availabilities disappear fast: the earliest opportunity is 62 days in advance of travel. If you have a domestic or an international airline ticket and want to take the AVE within 48 hours of your arrival but haven't booked online, you can still get a 10% discount on the AVE one-way ticket and 25% for a round-trip ticket with a dated return. On regional trains, you get a 10% discount on round-trip tickets (15% on AVE medium-distance trains).

If there are more than two of you traveling on the AVE, look for the "4M" symbol (in a navy square) quoting the price per person for four people traveling together and sitting at the same table. If you select the price, it tells you how much the deal is for one, two, and three people. You have to buy all the tickets at the same time, but they’re at least 20% cheaper than regular tickets.

Rail Passes

If you're coming from the United States and are planning extensive train travel in Europe, check Rail Europe for Eurail passes. Whichever pass you choose, you must buy it before you leave for Europe.

Spain is one of 24 European countries in which you can use the Eurail Global Pass, which buys you unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, your best bet might be a Select Pass, which allows you to travel on as many as 10 days of your choice within a two-month period, and among up to four bordering countries (e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Spain). Prices (for passengers 26 or older) run $423–$656, depending on the number of travel days and countries you select.

If Spain is your only destination, a Eurail Spain Pass allows between three and eight days of unlimited train travel in Spain within a one-month period for $280–$493 (first class) and $225–$396 (second class). There are also combination passes for those visiting Spain and Portugal, Spain and France, and Spain and Italy.

Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride: not so. Reserve seats even if you're using a rail pass.

Contacts

Eurail. www.eurail.com.

Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; 800/361–7245; www.raileurope.com.

RENFE. 902/320320; 902/109420; www.renfe.es.

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