Renfe is the excellent national train system that runs most of the services in Spain. A handful of small private railway lines also operate.
You’ll find consignas (left-luggage facilities) at all main train stations. They are usually open from about 6am to midnight and charge from €4 to €6 per day per piece of luggage.
Spain has several types of trains, and largo recorrido or Grandes Líneas (long-distance trains) in particular have a variety of names.
Alaris, Altaria, Alvia, Arco & Avant Long-distance intermediate-speed services.
Cercanías (rodalies in Catalonia) For short hops and services to outlying suburbs and satellite towns in Madrid, Barcelona and 11 other cities.
Euromed Similar to the Tren de Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains, they connect Barcelona with Valencia and Alicante.
FEVE (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha) Narrow-gauge network along Spain’s north coast between Bilbao and Ferrol (Galicia), with a branch down to León.
Regionales Trains operating within one region, usually stopping all stations.
Talgo & intercity Slower long-distance trains.
Tren de Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) High-speed trains that link Madrid with Albacete, Alicante, Barcelona, Córdoba, Cuenca, Huesca, León, Lleida, Málaga, Palencia, Salamanca, Seville, Valencia, Valladolid and Zaragoza. There are also Barcelona–Seville, Barcelona–Málaga and Valencia–Seville services. In coming years, Madrid–Bilbao should also come on line, and travel times to Galicia should fall. The same goes for Madrid–Granada and Madrid–Badajoz.
Trenhotel Overnight trains with sleeper berths.
All long-distance trains have 2nd and 1st classes, known as turista and preferente, respectively. The latter is 20% to 40% more expensive.
Fares vary enormously depending on the service (faster trains cost considerably more) and, in the case of some high-speed services such as the AVE, on the time and day of travel. Tickets for AVE trains are by far the most expensive. A one-way trip in 2nd class from Madrid to Barcelona (on which route only AVE trains run) could cost as much as €108 (it could work out significantly cheaper if you book well in advance).
Children aged between four and 12 years are entitled to a 40% discount; those aged under four travel for free (except on high-speed trains, for which they pay the same as those aged four to 12). Buying a return ticket often gives you a 10% to 20% discount on the return trip. Students and people up to 26 years of age with a Euro<26 Card (Carnet Joven in Spain) are entitled to 20% to 25% off most ticket prices.
If you’re travelling as a family, ask for a group of four seats with a table when making your reservation.
On overnight trips within Spain on trenhoteles, it’s worth paying extra for a litera (couchette; a sleeping berth in a six- or four-bed compartment) or, if available, single or double cabins in preferente or gran clase class. The cost depends on the class of accommodation, type of train and length of journey. The lines covered are Madrid–A Coruña, Barcelona–Granada, Barcelona–A Coruña–Vigo and Madrid–Lisbon, as well as international services to France.
Reservations are recommended for long-distance trips; you can make them in train stations, Renfe offices and travel agencies, as well as online. In a growing number of stations, you can pick up pre-booked tickets from machines scattered about the station concourse.
The romantically inclined could opt for an opulent and slow-moving, old-time rail adventure with numerous options across the peninsula.
Al-Andalus This is a luxurious train journey that loops through Andalucía, taking the slow route between Seville, Ronda, Granada and Córdoba among other stops. Options vary from three to six nights. Prices for the seven-day/six-night itineraries start at €3600 per person in high season; the single supplement costs €1800.
Transcantábrico For a journey on a picturesque narrow-gauge rail route, from Santiago de Compostela (by bus as far as O Ferrol) via Oviedo, Santander and Bilbao along the coast, and then a long inland stretch to finish in León. The eight-day trip costs from €3600 per person in high season; there's a €1800 single supplement. The trip can also be done in reverse or in smaller chunks. There are 11 departures from April to October. Check if your package includes various visits along the way, including the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, the Museo de Altamira, Santillana del Mar, and the Covadonga lakes in the Picos de Europa. The food is exceptional, with some meals being eaten on-board but most in various locations.
The trains don’t travel at night, making sleeping aboard easy and providing the opportunity to stay out at night.
Train travel can be expensive in Spain but there is one trick worth knowing. Return tickets cost considerably less than two one-way tickets. If you’re certain that you’ll be returning on the same route sometime over the coming months (three months is usually the limit), buy a return ticket and you can later change the return date, which works out a lot cheaper than buying two one-way tickets.