01 of 08
Everything you need to know about public transport in Spain
Few countries in Europe have as many beautiful cities as Spain. And nowhere else are they so spread out. To visit the tapas bars of Seville, the modernist architecture of Barcelona and the medieval cathedral in Santiago de Compostela and return to your starting point, you would need to cover around 3,000km.
For such long distance, of course, flying would make the most sense. There is a great network of internal flights in Spain but then you'll skip the great sights in between.
But have no fear. Spain has an ample train network, with the most high-speed trains anywhere in Europe. Where there are no trains (or where they are too expensive), buses serve as a very economical replacement.
There are also good international train connections with France and Portugal.
Quick Guide to Booking Bus and Train Tickets in Spain
- If you know you're only going to travel by train, you can plan your itinerary using this .
- The majority of train tickets in Spain can be booked via renfe.com and Rail... Europe. RENFE's website is horrible to use, so book with Rail Europe if possible. Prices are roughly the same, though Rail Europe doesn't show RENFE's offers that you're unlikely to ever get (such as the 4M offer, where your seats are a little cheaper if you book all four round a table).
- Most bus tickets in Spain can be booked from movelia.es. If you have problems with Movelia, try alsa.es, the biggest single bus company in Spain. Some of the smaller companies are not on Movelia. You'll also need to book Avanza and their affiliated brands (such as the Costa del Sol's Portillo) from their own site.
Should You Take the Bus or the Train in Spain?
Broadly speaking, trains are faster than buses, but more expensive. And most trains are run by one company, while the bus network is more fragmented. One would think that this means trains are better, if you can afford it. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
- Some bus services are quicker than the train - and they're almost always cheaper. For example, Madrid to Bilbao and Madrid to Granada are both quicker (and cheaper) by bus.
- There are regional services, particularly in the north of Spain, that are not a part of the RENFE website (even though most are indeed run by RENFE). These can't be booked online, but they'll never sell out anyway.
Rail Passes in Spain
Rail passes can be divided into these categories:
Continue to 2 of 8 below.
- Spain-Only Passes: you have two choices, the Eurail Spain Pass and the Renfe Spain Pass
- Two-Country Passes: Pair Spain with Portugal, France or Italy
- Multiple Country Passes: the Eurail Global Pass allows you to travel freely in 28 countries, while the Eurail Select Pass allows you to pick from four adjacent countries.
02 of 08
Bus and Train Companies in Spain
Though there are a lot more bus companies than there are train companies in Spain, it's actually easier to book a bus ticket than a train ticket in Spain.
Bus Travel in Spain
Over the past ten years many of the many Spanish bus companies have been bought out by one company, ALSA. This makes it pretty easy to book buses in Spain. If it’s not run by ALSA, it’s almost certainly on the Movelia aggregator site. And if it’s not there, it’s probably run by Avanza, who stubbornly refuse to appear on Movelia.
National Train Travel in Spain with RENFE
RENFE is the national train operator and runs most train services in Spain. However, in some cases a route might be covered by a different brand operated by RENFE - and you'll need to go a different website to see the timetables.
In a decade writing about travel in Spain, the Renfe website has undergone many redesigns, but it’s still awful to use. It might not crash as often as it used to, but it is still confusing, often broken, with English... language pages missing and a difficult booking system. Plus, half the time it won't accept foreign bank cards.
A better bet is to book train tickets in Spain with Rail Europe, a reliable international site with good English-language customer service.
A comparison of the two sites side by side may imply that tickets are cheaper on Renfe, but this is usually not the case. Take for example the alluring 4M tickets you see on Renfe. It takes some effort to discover this is only valid if you buy all four seats around a table. The attractive price is the price for just one of those four seats.
High-Speed Trains in Spain
The AVE is Spain’s high-speed network. It is a part of the Renfe network, but you’ll hear it referred to by itself so much that you might think it’s a different company. The AVE allows you to get from Madrid to Barcelona, Seville, Valencia and Malaga in under three hours, beating even the plane when you factor in airport transfer times and the hassle of checking in.
AVE trains are also bookable on Rail Europe.
Regional Train Companies in Spain
These regional train services are largely commuter services, but in each case there is at least one famous sight that might require using these services.
FGC is Catalonia's regionally-owned train network that is confusingly part metro and part suburban railway (thanks Catalan nationalism). Check out the FGC website for timetables but book in person.
The main reason you'll want to use FGC is to get to Montserrat.
Read more about Trains and Buses in Barcelona
Cercanias RENFE (Most larger cities)
Many cities in Spain have a Cercanias suburban rail network. Though owned by RENFE, their tickets are not available on the normal RENFE site or from Rail Europe: you'll need to go to the Cercanias RENFE site for timetables but you should book in person. (they never sell out).
Cercanias are generally commuter trains, serving the city suburbs. It is rare you'll need to use the Cercanias, apart from in Madrid and perhaps Barcelona.
Read more about Trains and Buses in Madrid
FEVE (mainly northern Spain)
FEVE is Spain's narrow gauge railway network. It operates mainly in northern Spain, connecting cities that don't have an existing RENFE rail connection. Services tend to be very slow 'all stops' services, but the scenery is usually fantastic.
Another RENFE company that is not bookable through the normal website. Visit the FEVE site for timetables, but book in person.
Euskotren (Basque Country - San Sebastian and Bilbao)
The Basque local rail network. A lot like FEVE (only born out of regional nationalism), it connects San Sebastian and Bilbao as well as few smaller towns in the area.Continue to 3 of 8 below.
03 of 08
Train and Bus Travel from Barcelona
Barcelona's national trains are all run by RENFE, but its local services are a little complicated (see below). There are high-speed AVE trains from Barcelona which can rival the plane for getting across the country quickly and cheaply.
Should You Travel by Train or Bus from Barcelona?
Barcelona is well served by trains - it is very rare to find a train that is slower than the bus. Because Barcelona is tucked so far up in the north-east corner of the country, travel times in general are longer than from other cities, thus amplifying the advantage of the train over the bus.
Exceptions to this would be the high-speed trains to Madrid and Seville, which might be prohibitively expensive for some people.
Compare prices between the train and bus by checking bus times and prices on Movelia and train prices and schedules on Rail Europe and decide for yourself when the price difference makes the slower bus worth your while.
How to Get from Barcelona to Seville and the Rest of Andalusia
Its a long... way from north-east Spain to the south coast and land transport can be expensive and lengthy.
The only sensible land transport to Andalusia is the Barcelona to Seville route. There are both direct trains from Barcelona to Seville and services with a well-timed connection in Madrid which get you there in around five-and-a-half hours. There is also a slow train that is quicker and cheaper than the bus.
But flying might be your best bet. At the time of writing there are some excellent cheap services from Ryanair.
Travel from Madrid to Barcelona
The high-speed train between Spain's two biggest cities make this one of the quickest and easiest journeys to make in Spain: but it is expensive. Bus prices tend to be half the price of the train, but (30€ to 45€) but take three times as long. Check the train schedules because prices vary greatly and you can sometimes get a direct train for only 15€ more than the bus. Read more about travel from Madrid to Barcelona.
Regional Train Services in Barcelona
Petty local 'nationalism' makes regional train travel in Catalonia more complicated than it ought to be. Barcelona has:
- Barcelona Metro (run by TMB) that functions like you'd expect
- Cercanias Barcelona suburban railway (run by RENFE), much like many cities in Spain.
- The annoying one: the FGC, a Catalonia-run service that is part metro, part suburban railway.
How does this affect you?
- You can use Metro tickets on any metro line, whoever runs it, as long as it is in zone 1.
- For suburban journeys - on FGC and Cercanias services - buy your tickets at the station. They don't work on each other's networks.
- The websites operate independently of each other, so don't expect the timetables of one company on the other's site.
Which Company Runs Which Service?
The FGC occupies an unusual position between the Barcelona Metro and the Cercanias. Lines you’d expect to be run by one is actually run by FGC.
- Barcelona to Montserrat FGC
- Barcelona to Sitges Cercanias.
- Barcelona to Barcelona Airport Cercanias
- Barcelona to Mataro Cercanias
- Barcelona to Vilanova Cercanias
- Barcelona to Reus Bus!
Any services further away than these are on the standard national RENFE network and should be booked from their site or from Rail Europe.Continue to 4 of 8 below.
04 of 08
Trains and Buses from Madrid
The train and bus network from Madrid is probably the simplest in the country. Madrid's central location means you can get pretty much everywhere in the country by bus and train. All trains are run by RENFE's and are bookable from Rail Europe, apart from a few regional services (see below).
Train and Bus Stations in Madrid
The main train station in Madrid is called Atocha and it is located around 20 minutes walk from Puerta del Sol. Most services in Madrid depart from here. The main bus station is a little further out.
But there are a few other stations too that you'll need to use on some occasions. Read more about Madrid Bus and Train Stations.
AVE Trains from Madrid
All high-speed AVE trains in Spain start or pass through Madrid (there are a couple of routes that don't actually stop in Madrid but they still have to go through the city). This means that in under three hours you can get to Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga or Seville.
But the AVE train can be very expensive.
Read... more about the AVE train in Spain.
The AVE is too expensive! Is there an alternative?
Unfortunately for those on a tight budget, the AVE train has replaced most cheaper trains. You'll need to take a bus if you want to save some pennies, which will usually at least double your journey time. You could consider flying, but with airport transfer times and costs, you might not be any better off. Book bus tickets at movelia.es
Train prices vary at different times of day: it might be worth your while to travel at a different time of day rather than take the bus, particularly in the case of Madrid to Barcelona. Check prices at different times of on Rail Europe.
AVE Trains v Buses: Prices and Journey Times
- Madrid to Malaga
AVE Train Price: 80€. Journey Time: 2h20-2h50
Bus Price: 25€ Journey Time 6h
- Madrid to Barcelona
AVE Train Price: 60-120€. Journey Time: 2h20-2h50
Bus Price: 30-45€ Journey Time 7h20-8h40
- Madrid to Valencia
AVE Train Price: 40-60€. Journey Time: 1h40-2h10
Bus Price: 35€ Journey Time 4h15
- Madrid to Seville
AVE Train Price: 75€. Journey Time: 2h30
Bus Price: 25€ Journey Time 6h
Bus Services from Madrid that are Quicker (or Nearly Quicker) than the Train
Oddly, there are times when the bus is quicker than the train.
- Madrid to Bilbao
Train Price: 50€. Journey Time: 5h
Bus Price: 30-50€ Journey Time 4h15h
- Madrid to Granada
Train Price: 70€. Journey Time: 4h. At the time of writing this service requires a change to a bus in Antequera.
Bus Price: 20€ Journey Time 4h30
- Madrid to San Sebastian
Train Price: 20-50€. Journey Time: 5h15-7h15.
Bus Price: 35€ Journey Time 5h-6h30
Regional 'Cercanias' Trains from Madrid
The Cercanias is RENFE's suburban 'commuter' rail service. It mainly serves Madrid's suburbs, but visitors to Spain will be interested in the following services.
- Madrid to Aranjuez
- Madrid to El Escorial
- Madrid to Madrid Barajas Airport Terminal 4 (for other airport terminals, take the metro or bus).
- Also, as there are several stops in Madrid city center, you can easily get from Sol to Nuevos Ministerios to Chamartin train station and Atocha train station quicker than you could by Metro or bus.
You can check train times at the Cercanias Madrid website. But buy your tickets in person (they won't sell out).Continue to 5 of 8 below.
- Madrid to Malaga
05 of 08
Trains and Buses in Andalusia
Train and bus travel in Andalusia is easy, with good high-speed trains and an extensive bus service for where there are no rail services (such as along most of the south coast). Everything is run by RENFE and bookable on Rail Europe, apart from the Cercanias suburban routes and the short FEVE route in Cartagena.
High-Speed AVE Train in Andalusia
The AVE train connects Seville to Madrid, via Cordoba, in around two-and-a-half hours. And the journey from Seville to Cordoba takes just 45 minutes. Cordoba is also on the Madrid to Malaga line, making Cordoba to Malaga a mere hour on the train.
Beware of the Antequera AVE Train Station!
Antequera is on the AVE train network. Great news! Well, not quite. The new AVE train station is around 20 kilometers outside the city center and there is no bus. Seriously. Unless you have someone to pick you up, you'll need to take an expensive taxi.
Services Where the Train is Better Than the Bus
- Seville to Granada But the train and the bus take around... three hours, but the bus is cheaper (23€ instead of 30€).
- Granada to Cordoba There are no direct trains, whereas the bus gets there in three hours for 15€.
- Seville to Malaga Though some trains are quicker than the bus, most of the time both take around two-and-a-half hours. But the bus costs just 19 euros and the train costs 25 to 43€.
- Malaga to Granada There are no trains from Malaga to Granada. The bus costs around 14 euros and takes from one-and-a-half hours to two-and-a-half hours.
- Marbella to Malaga (or anywhere!) There is no train station in Marbella, so you'll need to take the bus.
Regional Train Services in Andalusia
Malaga, Seville and Cadiz-Jerez have Cercanias networks, the suburban commuter network that most large cities in Spain have.
These services are not bookable by the normal train websites such as RENFE or Rail Europe. Check times at Cercanias RENFE but buy your tickets in person (they won't sell out).
Routes you might want to use Cercanias for include:
Continue to 6 of 8 below.
- Jerez to Cadiz
- Cadiz and Jerez to El Puerto de Santa Maria
- Cadiz and Jerez to Jerez Airport
- Malaga to Malaga Airport
- Malaga to Torremolinos
- Malaga to Benalmadena
- Malaga to Fuengirola
06 of 08
Train and Bus Travel in the Basque Country
Train travel in the Basque Country (that's the region you'll find San Sebastian and Bilbao in) is horrible. There are so many regional train services - with a different website for each - that it can be a real headache to plan day trips to the region.
Let's Start with the Good News
For longer distances, you have your usual RENFE services (check Rail Europe for train times) and bus services (most of which can be found on Movelia). And trains from the Basque Country to Barcelona are quicker and cheaper than the bus, which makes them a no-brainer.
However, there are a lot of services where it is better to take the bus than the train. Also note that a lot of services, particularly heading west, only depart from Bilbao, not San Sebastian, while services heading south and south-east are often better by bus, particularly from Bilbao.
Journeys Where the Bus is Better Than the Train
- Bilbao to Pamplona Bus 2h, 15€. No train (You could go via San Sebastian)
- Bilbao to Logroño. Both cost... around 14 euros, but the bus is quicker (1h45 rather than 2h30).
- San Sebastian to Logroño No train. Buses are bookable from La Estellesa.
- Madrid to Bilbao Train Price: 50€. Journey Time: 5h. Bus Price: 30-50€ Journey Time 4h15h
- Bilbao to Burgos Bus 1h45-2h, 14 euros. Train 2h20-2h50, 18-23€.
- Bilbao to Haro Bus Hourly buses - 1h, 10 euros. Train 1h50, 11 euros, twice a day.
- Bilbao to Santander Bus 7 euros, 1h30. No train.
- Bilbao to Zaragoza Bus 3h15 to 4h, 20 euros. Train 4h30, 16 to 21 euros.
- San Sebastian to Zaragoza Bus 3h15 to 3h45, 23 euros (plus they're more frequent) Train 3h30, 16 to 22 euros (and they're only two per day).
Regional Services in the Basque Country
Some things to note about regional trains in the Basque Country. Blame regional nationalism for this confusing set up.
Continue to 7 of 8 below.
- As is the case in many major cities in Spain, both Bilbao and San Sebastian have Cercanias suburban train networks.
- There is also the FEVE narrow-gauge railway, with slow but picturesque routes from Bilbao to Santander and Leon.
- There is also the Transcantabrico, a luxury tourist train that runs from Bilbao to Leon and Santiago de Compostela.
- Furthermore, there the Euskotren local train network that connects Bilbao to San Sebastian, as well as Bilbao and Bermeo plus San Sebastian to Hendaye (on the French border).
- Bilbao also has a metro system and a tram.
07 of 08
Train and Bus Travel in North-West Spain (Galicia and Asturias)
Where there are train services in north-west Spain, they're excellent. For the rest of the time, you have the bus.
- Train travel within Galicia is best by train. There is a very cheap, fast service from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra and Vigo.
- There are no regular train services between Galicia and Asturias, though there are from Galicia to Castilla y Leon. Where no train service exists, there are good bus connections.
- The north coast of Galicia and Asturias has a narrow-gauge railway (run by FEVE) which offers a very picturesque (but slow) coastal journey. (See below)
- There are also some 'tourist train routes' that offer beautiful journeys on historic trains through the most beautiful parts of the region.
- There is also the Transcantabrico, a luxury tourist train that runs from Bilbao to Leon and Santiago de Compostela.
FEVE Narrow-Gauge Railway
One of the most unique things... about train travel in north-west Spain is the FEVE narrow gauge railway. It starts in Ferrol, on the north coast of Galicia, and ends in Oviedo. It largely traces the coast, offering fantastic views of the rias (sunken valleys that are reminiscent of Norwegian fjords).
When I was in A Coruña and wanted to visit the Playa de las Catedrales, said to be the most beautiful beach in Spain, taking a bus to Ferrol and a FEVE train to the beach was the quickest and cheapest way to make the journey.
Be aware that the train service is very slow. Check train times at RENFE FEVE. Buy tickets in person at the station (these trains never fill up).
Like many cities in Spain, Oviedo has a suburban rail service, known as Cercanias. Asturias is a small region, so this rail service can conveniently connect all three major Asturian cities - Oviedo, Gijon and Aviles. Check train times at the Cercanias Asturias website, but buy your tickets at the station.Continue to 8 of 8 below.
08 of 08
International Train Travel to Spain
Spain has land borders with Portugal and France and so, unsurprisingly, there are good train connections between the three countries.
High-Speed Trains Between Spain and France
There is now a high-speed train from Barcelona to Paris which gets you between Europe's two most popular cities in under seven hours. There are no border controls as both France and Spain are in the Schengen Zone so the journey is quick and stress free, with none of the need for extended check-in times or travel to out-of-town airports.
The efficiency of this journey means they've now canceled the direct trains from Madrid to Paris. Making the journey from Madrid to Barcelona and then changing to the direct train to Paris is quicker than the old route was, but it's probably still better to fly.
All other trains from France to Spain (as well as those from Italy and Switzerland) have been canceled. You will now need to connect with the Paris-Barcelona... trajectory, usually in Lyon or Perpignan.
Trains from Portugal to Spain
There is a Trenhotel night train from Lisbon to Madrid, conveniently stopping in Coimbra, Salamanca and Avila en route (albeit at ungodly hours of the night).
If you're visiting Porto, continue your Iberian vacation with a trip to Galicia. There is a train from Porto to Vigo. From Vigo there is a great train connection to Santiago de Compostela and A Coruña.
There used to be the Elipsos Trenhotel from Lisbon through Madrid and up to the Basque Country and into France, but this service has been canceled.