Taking the Train in Spain: Madrid to Barcelona

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During our recent trip to Spain we knew we wanted to see more than one city, but we didn’t have the luxury of time to see much more than that.  After some thought we decided on the two iconic cities of Madrid and Barcelona.  We booked flights into Madrid, and via an open-jaw, out of Barcelona back to the United States.  If you are going to explore different cities on your travel I recommend trying to fly into one city and out of another in a similar fashion so you don’t waste time or money backtracking.

Our first few days of our trip were spent in Madrid using points to stay at both the Westin Palace Madrid and the Radisson Blu Madrid Prado (see linked reviews). We found Madrid to have lots of activities that appealed to travelers of all ages, but we focused on these family friendly activities in Madrid.

How to Get from Madrid to Barcelona:

Deciding how to get from Madrid to Barcelona, or really between many European cities, is a little tricky simply because there are multiple options to consider.  We could have flown on a roughly one-hour nonstop flight operated by Vueling or similar for around $60, but we decided the hassle of getting out to the airport(s), getting through security, dealing with bag fees etc wasn’t the best option.

Instead, we decided to take the roughly 2 1/2 hour high speed AVE train ride that would depart from the hearts’ of the respective cities and avoid the hassles of security, cramped seats, etc.  Not only did it sound like a logistically simpler solution, but train rides are more of a novelty for us at this point than plane ride, so it sounded kind of exciting.

From a price perspective it wasn’t necessarily cheaper to take the train than to fly, and in our case was probably a few dollars more for the tickets since we decided on Turista Plus seats instead of the cheapest available seats.  However, after completing the journey I have no doubt we made the right decision to take the train instead of fly between Madrid and Barcelona.

Buying Train Tickets in Spain:

Once we decided we were going to be taking the train between Madrid and Barcelona we had to figure out how to buy tickets online.  The first basic online search I did took me to a website where tickets were over $100 each for economy seats, and that didn’t sound right to me, so thankfully I kept searching.

Turns out lots of the sites you may find at the top of your search are ones that are only selling full fare tickets, which of course are going to be much more expensive – though their websites may be easier for English speakers to navigate.  Once we finally made our way directly to the RENFE website we found many more ticket options at much lower prices.  The trade off was that the website wasn’t the easiest to navigate for those not familiar with all the seating options and sprinkled in Spanish.

Train Tickets Madrid to Barcelona

If you are going to be booking a similar trip, the best resource I found in breaking down the RENFE website and train options was actually this post on The Points Guy’s website written by someone who lives in Spain.  I won’t rehash everything in that post here since it does a great job on its own, but I will say that I agree you absolutely need some basic Spanish skills or at the very least feel really comfortable using an online translation service, because the RENFE site is a little clunky and will switch from English to Spanish in some areas.  You also don’t want to wait until the last minute to buy your tickets as your ticketing options will be more limited and the prices will be higher.

For our journey, we opted for Turista Plus Promo Plus tickets – what that means is that we had a little extra legroom over Tourist class, there are three seats across instead of four, and we had assigned seats.  It was not as fancy as the First Class (Club) or Business Class (Preferente) seats would have been, but it was plenty nice for us.  The Promo Plus part means that it wasn’t the most restrictive/cheapest tickets (those were sold out), but any changes or cancellations would have resulted in some fees.

I had read that the RENFE website didn’t work well with many US credit cards, and indeed that was the case when I tried to initially pay for our tickets.  However, the PayPal option worked just fine and all-in our train tickets were 55€ each, and thankfully we didn’t need to make any changes or cancellations.

Remember to use a card with no foreign transaction fee like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to buy train tickets such as these since it gives bonus points on travel charges and won’t cost you extra just because the charge is in euros.

Getting to the Madrid Train Station:

On our fourth morning in Madrid it was time to wake-up early and head to the train station to catch our ride to Barcelona.  We had booked an earlier departure both because of the cheaper price, but also so we didn’t waste a day in transit since we only had a couple of days in Barcelona.  The Madrid-Puerta De Atocha train station was actually very close to our hotel, the Westin Palace Madrid, and was probably no more than a five minute cab ride.

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The station was large, bright, and pretty well organized even for train novices like us.  There was some basic baggage screening to go through before getting to the train tracks, but that didn’t take more than about 5-10 minutes on our morning visit.

I do remember us being a bit confused on where to wait and when to board the train.  We had some time to kill before boarding that we spent getting snacks from the shops, and then maybe 20-30 minutes or so before departure there started to be some activity for our actual train.  Eventually an announcement was made, and everyone filed out a door toward the tracks.

Train from Madrid to Barcelona

We weren’t entirely sure we were headed the right way until our tickets were checked and then we saw the departure sign below which eased the remaining doubt we had.

Train from Madrid to Barcelona

Our next job was to try and figure out which part of the train to board.  Our tickets said Coche 2, so we assumed that meant the second car of the train, and indeed that seemed to be the case.   We had assigned seats, so we quickly got comfortable in seats 8A, B, and C.

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RENFE Tourista Plus Seat

Enjoying the High Speed Train from Madrid to Barcelona:

The train departed right on time and was a very smooth and fast ride.  The trains reportedly go up to 310 km/hour, and it was really fun to see the countryside between the two cities.  It was equally as fun to then get a little bit of rest as the train flew along the tracks!

Train ride from Madrid to Barcelona

Train ride from Madrid to Barcelona

We had more space and were more comfortable than we would have been on a flight between the two cities.

Upon arriving at the train station in Barcelona after our smooth train ride we were able to easily catch a cab to take us to our final hotel of the trip, the Le Méridien Barcelona.

We very much enjoyed this easy way to get from Madrid to Barcelona and stay tuned for details on our time in Barcelona as we found the city to be very different from the Madrid we had just left!

Have you taken the trains in Spain?  What was your experience?

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, I will be booking this for X’mas 2015 as well, how timely

    Seat61 recommends http://www.loco2.com (english) can book many Europe trains (including Lisbon to Madrid and AVE to Barcelona) and I’ve tried it, looks promising so far
    Note that train tickets open up 2 months before

    Were there any security/theft concerns aboard the train?
    Gotta ask, since Spain is the worst in pickpocket (Barcelona #1, Madrid #4)

    • “Were there any security/theft concerns aboard the train?
      Gotta ask, since Spain is the worst in pickpocket (Barcelona #1, Madrid #4)”

      100% right on! On our train ride into Barcelona from the airport, we were targeted by a couple, each in working apart. This woman was constantly texting on her cellphone to her accomplice while changing seats every few minutes. All of this activity was to find an opportunity to steal a purse or wallet either on the train or when we had to exit. Finally, the stop before we were to get off, she gets up, turns to me and says in English “This is your stop. You need to get off here.” After not paying any attention to her, she exited the train empty handed. As the train started to pull out, she met up with her male partner-in-crime.
      Yes, in Spain, and especially in Barcelona, one needs to be very aware of who is and what’s going on around them. Be careful!!!

  2. For our September trip, we opted to fly in and out of Madrid and then take a round trip flight to Barcelona. Why? For one, Madrid is a major airline hub and easier to book a direct flight from LAX. I am not even sure about Barcelona. I am using ff miles, so I have to take what is available. The reason for flying to Barcelona is to use my British Airline Avios. I acquired a lot of these a few years back when they were worth something. Now, I am happy to use them up.

    I do love train travel and would go that way if it was in this trips budget.

    • We also have an Iberia flight to/from Madrid in Sept (on Avios, of course). Have 16 nights and was planning a car rental. Mable now I’ll take a look at a train segment or two.

  3. Great post! I loved the trains from Paris-Brussels-Cologne-Dusseldorf too! Incredibly easy to see multiple countries quickly since they go city center to city center. The train station in Cologne is literally next door to the amazing Cathedral there! Very easy to store your luggage and spend a few hours in Cologne before flying home from Dusseldorf! B-europe.com was easy for booking, too.

  4. Thanks for sharing. We’re doing a similar trip in September so it’s great to see your opinions along the way. We’ll be staying at the Radisson Blu Madrid, taking the high speed train to Barcelona, staying at the Le Meridien (very interested to get your opinion of that property), then taking the high speed train to Paris for our last 2 nights.

  5. Love that several of you have similar plans in the works! The train really was a great way to get between the two cities in a short amount of time with very minimal hassle. Would do it exactly the same way next time!

  6. Hi Summer, My husband, 17 year old son, and I took the first class trains through Italy last year and loved it. As with you, train travel is more of a novelty for us and a lot more relaxing for short distances than dealing with the airports. Originally, we had difficulty on the website and finally gave up but it turned out to be a fortunate situation. The website was giving us very high prices and we were ready to pay it but we experienced difficulty booking it. We were close to the train station anyway (near St. Regis in Rome) so we stopped by in person and saved ourselves hundreds of dollars by booking the first class in person. Don’t ask me the details because I’m not sure what happened but from then on we booked everything in person and got great prices!

  7. My husband and I have often traveled by train in Europe, starting back in 1993. Back then we had to use a travel agent or the Eurail office (pre-internet). So much more relaxing than driving a rental car, especially going in and out of cities. We took the Thalys last April from Brussels to Amsterdam – so convenient. Last month we took a train in Portugal from Porto to Coimbra and bought the tickets in Porto the day prior to traveling – we were able to take advantage of senior discounts! We have also taken many day trips using trains in various European countries – the rail systems in Europe are extensive and efficient. And, a few times we’ve also taken long-distance buses on routes not served by trains, or equally well served by both.

  8. I also recommend train travel in Japan. It is highly reliable and timely. They say you can set your watch by the train time table.

  9. My partner is from Zaragoza and we always run into the credit card issues trying to buy tickets in advance from the States. The advanced tickets are often 50% less or more then buying them at the station the day of travel. I don’t normally use Pay Pal but I will now after your suggestion.

    • Scott and others. There can be, for no good reason, problems buying train tickets through some venders with a US credit card. I experienced this with Thalys only a few weeks ago. Even Visa security could not get Thalys to function, but did say that the problem was with Thalys and not an issue with Visa, Chase, my card, or me. However, there are ways of booking through other agents and the Loco2 site that UAPhil mentions is one good one. Come vendors add a fee for this so watch out but if I recall loco2 is not one of them. Frustrating that a simple ticket purchase can be a bit of a hastle.

  10. I used the loco2 site to buy a train ticket from Madrid to Barcelona a couple of months ago. It worked fine – easy to navigate; the end result was a Renfe ticket (not a third party ticket). Much easier than trying to navigate the Renfe site. (I paid 88 euros for the basic seat – probably the same deal I would have gotten on the Renfe site.)

  11. I will be doing a train trip in Switzerland this fall. Does anyone know if the same ticket pricing applies there, ie, purchase of tickets is cheaper a month or so out vs. buying at the station? I have read that there is not much difference in buying at the station rather than in advance.

  12. Hey, we will be doing the same sort of trip as you next month but with a 15 month old. Into Barcelona, train to Madrid, and back home from from Madrid. How would you manage taxis with car seats? I may try to bring the Cosco Scenera NEXT one on the plane and along with us (only booked at lap child but hoping for an empty seat and nice gate agent), but just curious what you would think.

    • That is as good as strategy as any – that is a vey tough age for a solid car seat solution without spending a small fortune.

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