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Spain Train -- Tourist vs. 1st class

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We are planning on taking the daytime Altaria train from Barcelona to Madrid in September and have a couple of questions. First, what is the difference (besides price) between tourist class and 1st class? Second, should we buy our tickets before we leave for Spain, or get them in Barcelona? We have not ruled out flying but thought it might be less of a hassle to take the train. We will be visiting Barcelona on our own for 3 or 4 days and then meeting up with a tour group in Madrid for a 17-day excursion through central/southern Spain and Portugal.

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