Spain has beautiful, must-visit cities that are not at all close to each other. 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 3,000 kilometers (about 1,864 miles).
For such long distances, of course, flying is the most convenient. There is a great network of local flights in Spain but then you'll skip the great sights in between. Many opt for ground transportation to see the Spanish countryside.
Spain has a good train network with the most high-speed trains anywhere in Europe, and with good connections to France and Portugal. Where there are no trains (or where they are too expensive), buses serve as a very economical replacement.
Booking Bus and Train Tickets
- The majority of train tickets in Spain can be booked via the RENFE website, the Spanish national train operator, and Rail Europe, an easy-to-use commercial distributor of train tickets and rail passes.
- Most bus tickets in Spain can be booked from Movelia, a commercial online booking site where you can find schedules, itineraries, rates and possible money-saving promotions. You can also try Alsa, the ticketing site for the biggest bus company in Spain. You'll need to use the Avanza website for Avanza buses and their affiliated brands (such as the Costa del Sol's Portillo).
If you are going to be doing considerable traveling over a longer period of time, you might want to consider a rail pass. Rail passes can be divided into three categories:
- 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 via the Eurail Select Pass with a two-country option. (There are also three-country and four-country Eurail Select Passes.)
- 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.
The Rail Europe website can assist in deciding what type of pass would be the best. But, the best thing to do is to look at the travel you have planned, get prices for individual leg tickets and then compare that to the price of a pass.
Bus and Train Companies
Though there are 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.
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.
National Train Network (RENFE)
RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles) 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 of train operated by RENFE and, in that case, you'll need to go a different website to see the timetables.
Of course, you can always use Rail Europe, as it's easy-to-use and they have English-language customer service.
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. AVE, the longest high-speed network in Europe running at speeds of up to 310 km/hour, allows you to get from Madrid to Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, and Malaga in under three hours. This beats the airplane when you factor in airport transfer times and the hassle of checking in.
Regional Train Companies
These regional train services are largely commuter services, but in each case there is at least one place you'll want to go on a regional route.
FGC is Catalonia's regionally-owned train network that is part metro and part suburban railway. Use the FGC website for timetables but book in person at the station. Many use FGC to get to Montserrat.
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).
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 because they stop at every station, but the scenery is usually fantastic.
This is 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)
Euskotren is the Basque local rail network. It connects San Sebastian and Bilbao as well as few smaller towns in the area.
Travel From Barcelona
Barcelona's national trains are all run by RENFE, but its local services might require using one of the smaller sub-companies. There are high-speed AVE trains to and from Barcelona to Madrid and Seville.
Train or Bus
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 northeast corner of the country, travel times are longer than from other cities, thus amplifying the advantage of the train over the bus.
Compare prices between the train and bus by checking Movelia bus times and prices and train schedules and prices on Rail Europe to decide when the price difference makes the slower bus worth your while.
Barcelona to Seville
Its a long way from northeast Spain to the south coast and land transport can be both expensive and lengthy. The only reasonable 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.
But flying might be your best bet.
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 take three times as long. Check the train schedules because prices vary greatly and you can sometimes get a direct train for only a few more euros than the bus.
Regional Train Services in Barcelona
Train travel in Catalonia can be complicated. Barcelona has:
- Barcelona Metro (run by TMB)
- Cercanias Barcelona suburban railway (run by RENFE)
- The FGC, a Catalonia-run service that is part metro, part suburban railway
How this Affects Travelers:
- 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.
Any services further away than these are on the standard national RENFE network and should be booked from their site or from Rail Europe.
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 and are bookable from Rail Europe as well. The exceptions are a few regional services.
Train and Bus Stations in Madrid
The main train station in Madrid is called Atocha and most services in Madrid depart from there. The main bus station is a little further out and there are a few other stations that you'll need to use on some occasions.
AVE Trains From Madrid
All high-speed AVE trains, which can be expensive, 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.
Alternatives to AVE Trains
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 money, 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.
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. You can check prices at different times of on Rail Europe. Also, check the schedules as there are some bus routes that are actually quicker than the trail. Examples are:
Regional Cercanias Trains from Madrid
The Cercanias is RENFE's suburban commuter rail service. It mainly serves Madrid's suburbs, but visitors to Spain may 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).
Trains and Buses in Andalusia
Train and bus travel in Andalusia is easy, with good high-speed trains and an extensive bus service for places 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. Cordoba is also on the Madrid to Malaga line.
Antequera is on the AVE train network. The AVE train station is around 20 kilometers outside the city center and there is no bus so you'll need to take a taxi.
Train and Bus Routes and Times
- Seville to Granada: Both the train and the bus take around three hours, but the bus is cheaper
- Granada to Cordoba: There are no direct trains, and the bus trip takes three hours
- Seville to Malaga: Though some trains are quicker than the bus, which is cheaper, most of the time both take around two and a half hours.
- Malaga to Granada: There are no trains from Malaga to Granada. The bus takes one and a half hours to two and a half hours.
- Marbella to Malaga: 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.
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 at the station.
Routes you might want to use Cercanias for these routes:
- 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
Travel in the Basque Country
Train travel in the Basque Country (the region that includes San Sebastian and Bilbao) is complex. There are so many regional train services, with a different website for each, that it can be difficult to plan day trips to the region.
For longer distances, you have your usual RENFE services and bus services (most of which can be booked on Movelia). Trains from the Basque Country to Barcelona are quicker and cheaper than the bus.
However, there are many routes 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.
Routes Where the Bus is Better Than the Train
- Bilbao to Pamplona 2-hour journey by bus. There is no train service (You could go via San Sebastian)
- Bilbao to Logroño. The bus is quicker taking an hour and 45 minutes vs. two and a half hours by train.
- San Sebastian to Logroño No train. Buses are bookable from La Estellesa.
- Madrid to Bilbao Train journey takes five hours. The bus journey time is about 45 minutes shorter.
- Bilbao to Burgos The bus trip takes about two hours and the train takes about 45 minutes longer.
- Bilbao to Haro: There are hourly buses and the journey takes an hour. The train takes almost twice that time.
- Bilbao to Santander: The bus trip takes an hour and a half. There is no train service.
- Bilbao to Zaragoza: The bus takes between three and four hours and the train journey takes a half-hour longer.
- San Sebastian to Zaragoza: The bus takes about three and a half hours, the same as the train. The buses run more frequently.
Regional Services in the Basque Country
There are some tips for taking the regional trains in the Basque Country depending on where you want to go:
- 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
- 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
Travel in North-West Spain (Galicia and Asturias)
Where there are train services in north-west Spain, they're excellent. Where there is no train service, 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.
- 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.
As with other areas of Spain, check train times at Rail Europe and bus times at Movelia.
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. The route follows along the coast, offering fantastic views of the rias (sunken valleys that are reminiscent of Norwegian fjords).
If you are in A Coruña and want 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 is 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.
Cercanias in Asturias
Like many cities in Spain, Oviedo has a suburban rail service, 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.
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 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.
There are no direct trains from Madrid to Paris. Travelers take a train from Madrid to Barcelona and then change to the direct train to Paris. While this is comparatively quick, it's probably still better to fly.
You will need to connect with the Paris-Barcelona train, usually in Lyon or Perpignan.
Portugal to Spain
There is a Trenhotel night train from Lisbon to Madrid, conveniently stopping in Coimbra, Salamanca and Avila en route.
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.