Taking the AVE Train in Spain

by Gray Cargill on June 22, 2011

Spanish countryside

Spanish countryside

One of the quickest and most convenient ways of getting between cities in Spain is by high-speed train, known as “AVE” (“Alta Velocidad Espanola”). While it may be less expensive to take a regular train, a bus, or a cheap regional flight, if you have limited time on your trip–as I did–it’s a huge time-saver and worth the extra cost. And it was a vastly superior experience to any of my recent airline flights lately. Below I’ve outlined how to book and take the train, as well as some details about my own experience, in hopes this will be helpful to first-timers. (Please note that if you have a Eurail pass, these directions may not apply to you. I did not have a Eurail pass, since I just needed this train both ways.) If any of you have experience taking the train in Spain and would like to add information to this, please do so in the comments below.

Renfe website

Renfe website

How to book your AVE train tickets

You can book tickets at the station, but your choices of departures might be limited, as these trains tend to fill up (mine were both packed). If you absolutely need to travel on a certain day, it’s best to book in advance. You can buy tickets 60 to 120 days in advance, and starting at the 60 day mark, you can take advantage of Internet specials (“tarifa web”) which greatly reduce the cost to around 48 Euros one-way. I wound up paying almost $300 US for my round-trip tickets, as I could only take advantage of the tarifa web going one way (due to the time I wanted to depart). There is also a Renfe counter at the airport in Madrid, if you are catching a train the same day you fly in to the city.

Before my trip, I found these excellent instructions for booking the AVE train in Spain at the TripAdvisor website. It provides all the detail you could possibly want about booking through the RENFE website, as well as information about what you need to know when you arrive at the train station. I won’t reinvent the wheel by repeating it all; I’ll just suggest you read it if you’re planning on taking the train there.

As the instructions note, sometimes US credit cards aren’t accepted on the website. That was what happened to me. Even though I called my credit card company to alert them of my upcoming travel and they released the payment, it still didn’t go through. I followed the instructions word-for-word, so I’m not really sure what the problem was. I think the website just didn’t like my card. So I wound up contacting travel agent Petrabax, the company recommended in the instructions, and worked with them through email to secure my tickets. It was very quick and painless. I should have just done that in the first place, it would have saved me time and frustration trying to go through the website.

Renfe Ticket

Renfe Ticket

How to Read Your AVE Train Ticket

  • First of all, the ticket I printed out at home was my ticket, the same way you can print e-tickets for flights. You don’t need to exchange it at the train station for anything else.
  • Reading straight across the ticket, you first see your “Salida” (departure) information; in this case, you’re leaving from Sants Station in Barcelona at 9am.
  • Next is your “Llegada” (destination/arrival) information, which in this case is Madrid’s Atocha Station, where you’ll arrive at 11:52 am.
  • Next up is the train information: AVE indicates that this is a high-speed train and the number of the train is 03092. Over on the right, the word “Turista” indicates you are traveling tourist class (the train’s version of economy or coach).
  • “Coche 5” means that your seat is in train car #5, and “Plaza 08A” means you’re in Seat 08A.
  • The total in this case was 45.80 Euros plus tax, which was the Tarifa Web discount.
  • If you need help finding the platform from which your train departs, I suggest finding an employee to ask. All you really need to know how to say is “Donde esta….” and point to the train information on your ticket. They’ll know what you want.

Atocha Station

Atocha Station

Atocha Station in Madrid

My first trip on the AVE train was from Madrid to Barcelona, departing from Atocha Station. I wish I’d had more time to explore it. Atocha is a lovely train station with an indoor arboretum and some restaurant choices where you can grab a bite to eat before your trip. The AVE train platforms are downstairs, and you’ll have to send your luggage through an x-ray machine (just like at the airport, only a bit quicker).

Atocha is friendly to English speakers in that departure information is announced over PA in both Spanish and English. The taxi stand here, however, was very disorganized, resulting in a free-for-all to try to get a cab. A very nice Spanish man I’d met briefly at Sants station commandeered a taxi for me; he was my guardian angel that day.

Sants Station

Sants Station

Sants Station in Barcelona

Sants Station in Barcelona isn’t as beautiful as Atocha, but it serves its purpose and also has places to get a quick bite to eat. Departures were not announced in English. I know it’s unrealistic to expect that when you’re in a non-English-speaking country, but it definitely ratchets up the nerves when you’re not quite sure what’s going on and you need to catch a train.

On the day I traveled back to Madrid, there was a bit of a delay and a line of people clogged my area. I couldn’t understand what the station representative was telling passengers (in Spanish) about what was going on. When I tried to ask a question in my very broken Spanish, my guardian angel, who spoke fluent English, stepped in and explained to me that there had been an accident the day before, and the train had gone off the tracks. No one was hurt, and this rarely happens, but they were being extra careful. We were going to be departing from a different platform. Thank goodness for him, because otherwise, I never would have known.

Spanish countryside

Look at those colors!

The Train Experience

As for the trip itself, I wish to God flying were this pleasant. Why is the AVE train so pleasant?

  • Seats are by twos, so there’s no middle seat.
  • It’s a very smooth ride. I didn’t even feel the train leaving the station. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t looked out the window and seen the platform moving past.
  • It’s clean.
  • The seats are roomy, comfortable, and recline.
  • You can get up and walk around any time you feel like it.
  • People are very quiet through most of the trip.
  • There are trays in the seat backs in case you want to eat or work.
  • There is a snack car, and you can also bring your own food and drinks aboard.
  • There is ample shelf space above seats to store smaller bags and carry-ons, and racks at the entrance to the car for larger suitcases (thank God, since I brought my 25-incher). I never had the opportunity to use the phrase I had practiced so long, “¿Dónde puedo poner mi maleta?” (Where can I put my suitcase?”) It was obvious where to put it.
  • If you need to be entertained, they play a movie and hand out free headsets.
  • Even my one train that was delayed was not delayed for very long–and certainly wasn’t as problematic as my flights have been lately.

(And keep in mind, I was traveling economy class. I can only imagine how much better the other classes, Preferente and Club, are. I do know Club class serves a free meal.)

But the #1 reason why traveling by train in Spain is so pleasant is the gorgeous Spanish countryside. I wasn’t sure how much I’d see beyond a blur, since the train travels at speeds up to 300 km/hr. But everything at a distance could be seen quite clearly. At first, it reminded me of Vermont, with rolling green fields, farmland, and trees. And then the slightly rolling farmland became a much more dramatic landscape with massive ridges everywhere. The colors were incredibly rich, from the vivid greens to the orange-tan of the soil to terra cotta colored rooftops in small villages along the way. It was much more interesting to look out the window than watch the movie.

Spanish countryside

...and those mountains!

What else do you need to know?

  • The AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona takes about 2 hours and 50 minutes, and there are multiple departures every day.
  • The train stops once between Madrid and Barcelona, at different towns depending on your departure time. In my case, it was Zaragoza.
  • Bring your passport, you’ll need to show it, along with your ticket.
  • If you aren’t on the platform with your ticket in hand 2 minutes before the train departs, they won’t let you on the train.
  • In both cities, the train stations are right in the city, not outside it as airports are, so they’re easy–and cheap–to get to either by Metro or cab.

Summary

All in all, this is a great way to travel between cities in Spain. Given all the problems I’ve had with delayed and cancelled flights this past year, it was a breath of fresh air to have two journeys that were so smooth and relatively trouble-free. The only real stress I felt was the typical worry that I might not get on the right train, but that passed quickly. My one experience traveling by train in the US left a lot to be desired. But in Europe, they really know what they’re doing. I cannot recommend this style of travel highly enough–and if my words don’t convince you, maybe my photos of the Spanish countryside will.

Spanish countryside

The train passes by some cute little villages.

Gray Cargill May 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Good to know, Dennis. Thanks for sharing.

Dennis May 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Great information, thanks for sharing. I just purchased online through Rail Europe and it was a breeze, none of the problems described in trip advisor. My credit card (Canada) was accepted 1st try. Tickets (Renfe) arrived by email in a few minutes, and surprise surprise, look exactly like the photo’s on this site. I believe their head office may be in India, so if your credit card rejects, try advising them of an impending on line purchase in India, that might help.

Gray Cargill June 25, 2011 at 11:34 am

Smelly animals??? Oh no! You wouldn’t think about that happening in Spain. If you have to stop every 10 minutes, that must have been a very long train ride. Ugh.

Abby June 25, 2011 at 10:57 am

Great review!! So much information. One of my “worst” (I say that loosely, because even the most horrifying travel memories bring a smile to my face after some time) was taking a local train in Spain. It was so bumpy, we stopped every ten minutes, it was packed, there were smelly animals, it was hot, I could go on!

Gray June 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Preferente for less than Economy? You scored big, Jeff. Nice deal. Leah, yes, I agree. It would be ideal in California (or hey–how about LA to Vegas?).

LEAH June 24, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Train is such a great way to travel.

I wish the states would implement high speed rail. We desperately need it in California.

Jeff B June 24, 2011 at 11:04 am

l love the trains in Spain and Europe. I did take the AVE from Barcelona to Madrid and it was so much better than flying. It was also a lot faster considering how long it takes to get to central Madrid from the airport. I was able to book online using the instructions on Trip Adviser but it was not easy. I think I booked the trip about 3-4 weeks out. The interesting part of the booking is that all the discount tickets for the Economy class were sold out but not for Preferente, so I got the Preferente discount tickets for less than the regular price Economy. There was a meal included which was ok. The seating configuration was 3 seats in a row with a single seat on one side. There was also a power outlet and movies. Of course the scenery was great. I really wish we had these types of trains in the US.

Gray June 23, 2011 at 5:13 am

Really? I wonder if that’s the regular trains or if it includes all trains? I was really impressed with the emphasis on being quiet. It immediately made me like these people. 🙂

Eurotrip Tips June 23, 2011 at 4:59 am

That’s what I love about trains in Europe: they offer incredible panoramas, which we wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see if we took the plane or drove. I am surprised at the quality of your ride because Spanish trains do not generally have a good reputation, but this post might just change my mind!

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