On a 3 week journey around Spain, I traveled to Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Granada, Ronda, Seville, Zaragoza, and Barcelona by train with a photographer friend.
Tickets were booked approximately 1 month ahead of time on The Trainline EU website, all of the above tickets for 2 passengers coming in at approximately £500, this was a mix of standard class and first class.
Apart from various city metro’s and National Rail in the UK, my experiences of traveling by train in another country were nil so I was unsure what to expect and had some worries of getting on the wrong train, or getting off at the wrong station but I needn’t have worried – Traveling Spain by train was easy, and a dream compared with UK train travel!
Spanish train stations all have baggage screening in place, presumably to stop you packing a bomb, knife or gun in your bag, but strangely enough, the screening of people is very haphazard. There was no screening of people at Madrid, and only a few stations were scanning people with hand-held electromagnetic wands. This didn’t make sense to me as there was nothing stopping people concealing weapons under loose clothing. Coats were asked to be taken off but I never saw anyone having their bag searched so perhaps more of a deterrent than true security. The queues moved quickly and there was no need to go to the extremes of removing electronics nor any liquid restrictions as at airports so it was all relatively quick and painless!
The RENFE website says you are allowed a total of 3 bags weighing no more than 25kg total but at no point did anyone weigh the luggage or query how many bags people were taking through security or onboard.
We found the best way to find the correct platform was to match the train number on the ticket (i.e 9903) with the one on the screens as these would often only show the end destination and not list the stations in-between.
It’s almost impossible to get on to the wrong train in Spain due to tickets being scanned as you head down to the platform. The only conceivable way you would be able to get on the wrong train were if your train was on platform 1, on the left let’s say, and you got on to the train standing on the right at platform 2. The scanning of tickets also stops people getting on the train without a valid ticket, therefore cutting down on the need to have ticket inspectors onboard the train. The only time I came across a ticket inspector onboard the train was on our way to Ronda where some stops were request stops hence the inspector needing to know where people were getting off at.
The trains were clean and comfortable – Cleaners came onboard at every final destination and rubbish was also collected throughout the journey. On the UK trains the seats are often stained with goodness-knows-what and there’s usually chewing gum deeply embedded into the carpet with rubbish overflowing, the Spanish trains in comparison were absolutely spotless. I can’t speak from personal experience but am told that the toilets were of the same high standard of cleanliness.
We traveled first class (Preferente) twice but I felt there was no added benefit to this – Coaches were less crowded, the seats a fraction larger but not enough to notice. In fact, I was really pleasantly surprised at how much leg room standard class (Turista) had.
Attendants came round handing our free earphones so as to listen to a music channel or the Spanish movie/tv programme that was showing. I thought at first the headphones were just for 1st class passengers but then discovered they were for everyone… I now have a rather large supply of headphones courtesy of Renfe 😉
A coffee/snack cart was also brought round at least once during the journey, with a buffet car also attached for those wishing to stretch their legs in search of refreshments. I believe it was on the train to Ronda where there wasn’t a buffet car but there was an onboard vending machine.
Most of the trains had electrical outlets for charging phones etc. Seat layout was airline style, 2 seats next to each other or 4 around a table. In first class, seats were either 2 next to each other or individual seats, the aisle dividing them.
We did have one ‘oops moment’ where we found ourselves sitting in the wrong carriage, but that lesson was soon learned and not repeated – Look for the coach number at the front/rear of the coach either as a small cardboard number or on a digital display – The coach number is displayed on the outside of the train too but upon boarding it can be unclear if to turn left or right for your coach! Seat numbers are easily found above each seat but these don’t have the coach number so best to check and check again before sitting down.
Maps of the route and the speed the train is traveling at (250kmph was our top speed) showed up on the tv screens which was really great, especially when we were unsure where the train was stopping / which stop was ours. Announcements were made in Spanish and English about 5-10minutes before reaching a station to allow everyone time to gather their belongings and head to the doors but sometimes it was difficult to hear/understand the place names said in English.
The busiest train we experienced was an afternoon service into Seville, all the seats were taken in our carriage and it was a little noisy, baggage space on the overhead racks was pretty much full but it was still a pleasant journey – Clean, people willing to move up their luggage to get yours on. Actually, we never needed to use the luggage storage at the end of each coach because the overhead storage was much larger than on the British trains where you can only really fit a briefcase – On the Spanish trains you can fit cabin-sized suitcases and bags overhead, if you’re tall enough to get them up there!
The only downside to the trains was lack of wi-fi and lack of an overhead fan, this made some of the journeys on the warm side as you were forced to go with their chosen temperature with no way to get a bit of a breeze on your face, unless you started wafting your ticket around!
The only ‘problem’ we had on the entire 3-week trip was getting to/from Granada because of ongoing engineering works, I guess it should have been expected that there would be a snag somewhere along the line (pun fully intended!). We were initially peeved because The Trainline had not notified us of this, signs informing of this were all in Spanish, and no one at the information desk spoke English but it actually turned out more than ok as we were allowed to catch an earlier replacement coach service which got us into Granada when we should have only just been catching the train. Coming back from Granada was the same, we thought it was just weekend works and it would be cleared up by Tuesday but on entering Granada station we realized it was going to be another replacement coach service. We didn’t know what time the coach left or how it would affect ongoing travel but honestly, these Spaniards have it sorted and it was no problem, plenty of time to spare. I wish my experience in the UK had been the same when they closed down Reading station for a weekend!!
One thing I did find dangerous was the amount of space between the train and the track, and there was no warning of it – Not 1 single ‘Mind The Gap’ notice or announcement, even in Spanish! Had I been traveling with a heavy suitcase or a pushchair/buggy I would have found getting on and off the train very difficult and dangerous – 1 slip and a leg, if not more of you, would be stuck between the train and the platform.
At the end of the day I’d say to anyone who is wondering if they should travel Spain by train – Go for it. Do not hesitate, it’s an absolute pleasure and very easy to manage.