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?
Train & Bus Fares: Spain & Portugal
Map shows approximate costs, in $US, for one-way, second-class tickets. For first-class fares, add 50 percent.
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 reservations when required, but they cost extra when using a rail pass. Dashed lines show bus connections, and dotted lines show ferry routes, neither of which are covered by rail passes.
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
Choose one of the passes below to check prices and to buy your pass (orders are fulfilled by Rail Europe).
Extra tip #1: If your train travels include France as well as Spain, it's worth noting that seat reservations on the direct France–Spain TGV trains (Paris–Avignon–Barcelona or Marseille–Barcelona–Madrid) cost the same with a single-country Spain Eurail Pass (or France Rail Pass) as they do with a Select Pass covering both countries ($13–32 in second class or $17–41 in first class, depending on distance). However, other Select Passes that include Spain, but not France (such as a two-country Portugal–Spain pass) only cover you to/from the French border, not in unnamed countries.
Extra tip #2: If you're considering a two-country Italy–Spain Select Pass, note that it doesn't cover any train travel through France (it does, however, get you a 20 percent discount on Grimaldi Lines ferries between Italy and Spain, as do other Select Passes and the Global Pass). If you're considering adding France to your Select Pass just to cover that stretch, keep in mind that you can also cover that route by buying a separate point-to-point train ticket (roughly $130 in second class) once you get to Europe (or fly).
Extra tip #3: If you're considering a two-country Portugal–Spain pass, note that it's priced in the highest category, even though neither of these countries, when part of a three- or four-country Select Pass, fall in the highest price tier. That means that, oddly enough, you may be able to save money by adding a third country (France or Italy) onto a two-country Portugal–Spain pass. The Portugal–Spain pass only makes sense over a three-country pass for one kind of traveler: adults over 26 who'd like the option to save money by getting a second-class pass (since travelers over 26 don't have a second-class option on three- and four-country Select Passes).
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 cost $35 for trips that include a meal.
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 cover all travel on trains run by Renfe, Spain's national railway. 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 Ferrol (rail-pass holders get 50 percent discount between Bilbao and Ferrol; no discount between San Sebastián and Bilbao)
- Local service around Barcelona (rail-pass holders get 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 (€5) can get a substantial discount on most train tickets (40 percent Mon–Thu, 25 percent Fri–Sun).
- 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 a 8–9-hour bus ride ($65, 2/day, not covered by rail passes) or an overnight train ($85 for ticket itself, covered if you have Eurail Select Pass covering both Portugal and Spain, plus sleeper-train fees)
- Sevilla–Granada: Buses and trains work out about the same on this route
- Sevilla–Lisbon: Buses are far cheaper here, as well as faster, since Sevilla–Lisbon trains all change in Madrid (bus: $50, 7–10 hours, not covered by rail passes; train: $190 for ticket itself, covered if you have Eurail Select Pass covering both Portugal and Spain, plus sleeper-train fees)
- Malaga–Gibraltar: Since there's no train connection on this route, buses are your only public-transportation option ($15, 3 hours, 5/day)
- San Sebastián–Bilbao: Buses generally make more sense here, as trains aren't covered by rail passes, and buses are about an hour faster and leave twice as frequently (tickets cost about the same)
- Get even more advice on Spanish trains in my full-size guidebooks for Spain: Rick Steves Spain and Rick Steves Barcelona.
Spain Rail Passes: Key Details
Single-country Spain Eurail Pass: Valid for one month, not two, after you've activated the pass (whereas multi-country Eurail-brand passes offer a two-month window of travel).