By Rick Steves
Are rail passes a good value for Spain?
If you'll be taking three or more long train rides in Spain, a rail pass can make sense. Otherwise, it's unlikely to save you any money, especially if your train travel doesn't extend beyond Spain. A rail pass doesn't provide much hop-on convenience in Spain, since many trains require paid seat reservations, as indicated in train schedules (see below for more Spain-specific reservation advice). Furthermore, many areas of Spain aren't well served by its train system — for many trips, buses and even flights may be a better option.
How do I see whether a rail pass makes sense for my trip in particular?
Use this map to add up approximate pay-as-you-go fares for your itinerary, and compare that cost to the price of a rail pass for the number of days you expect to spend on the train. Fares shown on the map include seat reservations when required, but they cost extra when using a rail pass. Dashed lines show bus routes, which aren't covered by rail passes. "(N)" indicates that a route has only overnight train service.
Also, follow the links below for:
• More tips for figuring out whether a pass makes sense for your trip
• The basics on choosing among rail passes
• More tips for getting the most out of a rail pass
• General advice on deciding between first and second class
• Fare-estimate maps outside Spain & Portugal
• Answers to frequently asked rail-pass questions
For most trains between most major destinations, yes, you do. Seat reservations can sell out well in advance of the train's departure, especially for people traveling with a rail pass, so book your seats as soon as you feel comfortable committing to a certain time and date (you can book up to 60 days out, though Spanish train schedules may not be published all that far ahead of the seasonal adjustments to the schedules, which usually happen in mid-June, September, and December). Most seat reservations cost $10–20 in second class; first-class reservations can cost $35 for trips that include a meal. Even kids young enough to travel for free (under age 4) need a (free) reservation to ride Spanish trains.
Extra tip: Between Madrid and Toledo, you'll pay just as much for a (required) seat reservation with a rail pass as you would in flat-out paying for a point-to-point ticket, so it makes no sense to use a pass on this stretch.
What do rail passes cover in Spain?
Aside from the extra reservation fees required for most high-speed trains (see above), rail passes for Spain cover all travel on trains run by Renfe, Spain's national railway — which now includes the slow coastal trains between Bilbao and Ferrol. Passes can get you a discount on some international ferries, but not Tarifa–Tangier routes.
Rail passes do not, however, cover most privately run trains. Here's where you're most likely to encounter them:
- Along the north coast between San Sebastián and Bilbao (the bus is faster)
- Local service around Barcelona (rail-pass holders get a 50 percent discount)
- Local service around Valencia
If a rail pass doesn't pencil out for your trip, you may be able to shave off the cost of your train tickets with some of these tips:
- Round-trip train tickets in Spain are about 20 percent cheaper than two one-way fares.
- Seniors (60 and older) who buy a Tarjeta Dorada (€6) can get a substantial discount on most train tickets. While it's not sold online, you can buy discounted tickets in advance, get this card at the station, and present both to conductors.
- Advance-purchase discounts for expensive AVE trains are available about 60 days ahead. The best deals have limited seat availability, sell out early, and have refund or exchange restrictions. The Renfe site now accepts PayPal, but is otherwise chronically unable to take US credit cards.
- Consider skipping the train: Buses tend to be cheaper than trains, and are sometimes also faster and/or more frequent for certain connections. Most of the time, however, you must choose between more frequent departures, faster travel times, and lower cost. On a few routes, flying may be your best option (provided you've booked in advance), even considering the time and hassle of getting to/from airports. Here are some rough estimates, for comparison's sake, on popular routes:
- Barcelona–Madrid: Bus is much cheaper than the train, but much slower (bus: $40, 8 hours, 14/day; train: $165, 3 hours, hourly); flights often nearly as cheap as bus ticket on this route
- Barcelona–Sevilla: Flying is often much cheaper than the fastest train connection on this route ($45 versus $200)
- Madrid–Segovia: Buses leave a little more frequently (2/hour) than trains, but take an hour longer; the cost is about the same
- Madrid–Sevilla: Bus is far cheaper on this route, but much slower (bus: $30, 6 hours; train: $115, 2.5 hours); both leave about hourly
- Madrid–Lisbon: Flying may be your fastest and even cheapest option, as plane tickets can go for just $40. Otherwise it's an 8–9-hour bus ride ($65, 2/day) or a longer, less convenient train ride ($70, 1/day, at least 11 hours with two connections)
- Sevilla–Lisbon: Bus and train tickets cost roughly the same (about $50), but the bus is more frequent, and often faster (bus: 7–10 hours, 2/day including an overnight bus; train: 9 hours with two connections, 1/day)
- Sevilla–Lagos: While regional trains connect many towns along the Algarve coast, they only connect to Spanish stations via Lisbon (and Lagos is the Algarve's westernmost station) — fortunately you can bus between Sevilla and Lagos ($25, 5/day in summer, 2/day off-season)
- Sevilla–Granada: Buses and trains work out about the same on this route
- San Sebastián–Bilbao: Buses on this route are about an hour faster and leave twice as frequently as trains (tickets cost about the same — and trains on this stretch aren't covered by rail passes)
- Get even more advice on Spanish trains in my full-size guidebooks for Spain: Rick Steves Spain and Rick Steves Barcelona.