Train Travel

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Train Travel

International overnight trains to Barcelona arrive from many European cities, including Paris, Grenoble, Geneva, Zurich, and Milan; the route from Paris takes 11½ hours. Almost all long-distance trains arrive at and depart from Estació de Sants, though many make a stop at Passeig de Gràcia that comes in handy for hotels in the Eixample or in the Ciutat Vella. The Estació de França, near the port, handles only a few regional trains within Catalonia. Train service connects Barcelona with most other major cities in Spain; in addition a high-speed Euromed route connects Barcelona to Tarragona and Valencia.

Spain's intercity services (along with some of Barcelona's rodalies, or local train routes) are handled by the government-run railroad system—RENFE (Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles). The high-speed AVE train now connects Barcelona and Madrid (via Lleida and Zaragoza) in less than three hours. The fast TALGO and ALTARIA trains are efficient, though local trains remain slow and tedious. In addition to RENFE, the Catalan government's FGC (Ferrocarril de la Generalitat de Catalunya) also provides train service, notably to Barcelona's commuter suburbs of Sant Cugat, Terrassa, and Sabadell.

Commuter trains and many long-distance trains forbid smoking, though some long-distance trains have smoking cars.

Information on the local/commuter lines (rodalies in Catalan, cercanias in Spanish) can be found at www.renfe.es/cercanias. Rodalies go, for example, to Sitges from Barcelona, whereas you would take a regular RENFE train to, say, Tarragona. It's important to know whether you are traveling RENFE or rodalies, distinguished by a stylized C, so you don't end up in the wrong line.

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country offer scenic railroad excursions. Particularly eye-catching is the train journey south of Barcelona toward Sitges and Tarragona and on to Valencia, with its views of the Costa Daurada's craggy coastline. The day train from Barcelona to Madrid runs through bougainvillea-choked towns before leaping out across Spain's central meseta to Zaragoza and Madrid, arriving in less than three hours. The train from Barcelona's Plaça de Catalunya north to Sant Pol de Mar and Blanes runs along the edge of the beach.

First-class train service in Spain, with the exception of the coche-cama (Pullman) overnight service, barely differs from second class or turista. First-class trains, on the other hand, such as the TALGO or the AVE, are wildly faster than second-class carriers such as the slowpoke Estrella overnight from Barcelona to Madrid. Legroom and general comforts are about the same (that is, mediocre). The AVE is the exception, however. Between Barcelona and Madrid or between Madrid and Sevilla, these sleek bullets with their tinted windows are superlative moving observation platforms. More than two dozen AVE trains leaving on the hours and half hours connect Barcelona and Madrid daily with departures from 5:45 am to 9 pm. Ticket prices in tourist class range start at €117.60 and vary depending on peak hours. Trips take from 2 hours and 52 minutes to 3 hours and 18 minutes.

After buses, trains are the most economical way to travel. Within the RENFE pricing system, there are 20% discounts on long-distance tickets if you buy a round-trip ticket, and there are 20% discounts for students and senior citizens (though they usually have to carry cards issued by the local government, the Generalitat, so they are not intended for tourists).

If you're planning extensive train travel, look into rail passes. If Spain is your only destination, consider a Spain Flexipass. Prices begin at U.S. €155 for three days of second-class travel within a two-month period and €200 for first class. Other passes cover more days and longer periods. The 10-day pass costs €365 in second class, €445 in first class.

Spain is one of 17 European countries in which you can use Eurail Global Passes, which buy you unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles and go between countries, get a standard pass; these are available for 15 days ($590), 21 days ($774), one month ($793), two months ($1,119), and three months ($1,380). If your needs are more limited, look into a Regional Pass, which costs less than a Eurail Pass and buys you a limited number of travel days in a limited number of countries (France, Italy, and Spain, for example), during a specified time period.

In addition to standard Eurail Passes, Rail Europe sells the Eurail Youthpass (for those under age 26), the Eurail Saverpass (which gives a discount for two or more people traveling together), a Eurail Flexipass (which allows a certain number of travel days within a set period), the Euraildrive Pass (four days of train travel and two days of Avis or Hertz car rental), and the Europass Drive (which combines three days travel by train and two by rental car). Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must buy your pass before you leave for Europe.

Many travelers assume that rail passes guarantee them seats on the trains they wish to ride—not so: you need to reserve seats in advance even if you're using a rail pass. Seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are wise on any train that might be crowded. You'll also need a reservation if you want sleeping accommodations. All reservations require an extra fee.

For schedules and fares, call RENFE. The easiest way for non-Spanish speakers to obtain schedule information is to go the RENFE website, www.renfe.es.

Train services to Barcelona from the United Kingdom are not as frequent, fast, or affordable as flights, and you have to change trains (and stations) in Paris. From Paris it's worth paying extra for a TALGO express to avoid having to change trains again at the Spanish border. Journey time to Paris (from London via Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel) is around three hours; from Paris to Barcelona, it's an additional seven hours. Allow at least two hours in Paris for changing trains.

Although overnight trains have comfortable sleeper cars for two or four in coche-cama class, first-class fares that include a sleeping compartment are comparable to airfares.

The Estrella, the overnight train from Barcelona to Madrid takes eight hours. A tourist-class seat costs €44.30. A bunk in a compartment with three other people, called clase turista damas-caballeros (tourist class), separates travelers by gender and costs another €56.70 for a total of €101. (But be warned: windows do not open and the heat can be suffocating.) The air shuttle (or a scheduled flight) between Madrid and Barcelona can, if all goes well, get you door to door in less than three hours for only about €40 more than the overnight train costs, and certain off-hour flights are available for as low as €20.

For shorter, regional train trips, you can often buy your tickets directly from machines in the main train stations. For a one-way ticket, ask for, in Catalan, anada (in Spanish it's ida); or for a round-trip ticket, anada i tornada. In Spanish, it's ida y vuelta.

Most travel agencies can sell you train tickets (though not for same-day travel), which saves standing in long lines at the station taquilla (ticket office).

In Barcelona a handy secret is the Passeig de Gràcia ticket office, where there is rarely a line. Lines at Sants can be long, though, with a separate line (marked salida inmediata), where same-day tickets can be obtained more quickly.

Visa and MasterCard are universally accepted at train-station ticket counters.

During peak travel times (Easter, August, and Christmas), it's important to make a reservation weeks or even months in advance; on routes between major cities (Barcelona to Bilbao or Madrid, for example), it's a good idea to reserve well in advance, especially for overnight trips.

You can make reservations over the phone by calling RENFE, online, or by waiting at the station ticket counter, preferably in Barcelona's Passeig de Gràcia, where lines are shorter or nonexistent.

The easiest way to make reservations is to use the TIKNET service on the RENFE website. TIKNET involves registering and providing your credit-card information. When you make the reservation, you will be given a car and seat assignment and a localizador (translated as "localizer" on the English version of the site). Print out the reservations page or write down car number, seat number, and localizer. When traveling, go to your assigned seat on the train. When the conductor comes round, give him the localizer, and he will issue the ticket on the spot. You will need your passport and, in most cases, the credit card you used for the reservation. The AVE trains check you in at the gate to the platform, where you provide the localizer. You can review your pending reservations online at any time.

Caveats: The first time you use TIKNET, you must pick up the tickets at a RENFE station; you can go to a RENFE booth at the airport as you get off your plane. A 15% cancellation fee is charged if you cancel more than two hours after making the reservation. You cannot buy tickets online for certain regional lines or for commuter lines (cercanias). Station agents cannot alter TIKNET reservations: you must do this yourself online. If a train is booked, the TIKNET process doesn't reveal this until the final stage of the reservation attempt. Then it gives you a cryptic error message in a little box, though if you reserve a few days in advance it's unlikely you'll encounter this problem except at Easter or Christmas or in the first week of August.

There is no line per se at the train station for advance tickets (and often for information); you take a number and wait until it is called. Ticket clerks at stations rarely speak English, so if you need help or advice in planning a more complex train journey, you may be better off going to a travel agency that displays the blue-and-yellow RENFE sign. A small commission (American Express Viajes charges €3.75) should be expected.

General Information

Estació de França (Av. Marquès de l'Argentera 1, Born-Ribera, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08003. 902/240–202. www.renfe.es.)

Estació de Passeig de Gràcia (Passeig de Gràcia at corner of Carrer Aragó, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08025. 902/240–202.)

Estació de Sants (Pl. dels Països Catalans s/n, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08014. 902/240–202.)

Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC) (93/205–1515. www.fgc.es.)

RENFE (902/240202. www.renfe.es.)

Information and Passes

Eurail. (www.eurail.com.)

Rail Europe (44 S. Broadway, White Plains, NY, 10601. 800/622–8600 or. www.raileurope.com. 2087 Dundas E, Suite 105, Mississauga, ON, L4X 2V7. 905/602–4195. www.raileurope.ca.)

From the U.K.

Eurostar (44 (0)01233/617575 or 0843/218–6186. www.eurostar.co.uk.)

National Rail Enquiries (0845/748–4950. www.nationalrail.co.uk.)

Rail Europe (800/942–4866; 800/274–8724; 0870/584–8848 credit-card bookings. www.raileurope.com.)

Channel Tunnel Car Transport

Eurotunnel (08443/35–35–35 in U.K.; 070/223210 in Belgium; +33 (0)/321–002–061 in France. www.eurotunnel.com.)

Channel Tunnel Passenger Service

Eurostar (08432/186–186 in U.K.; 44 (0)/1233–617–575 from outside U.K. www.eurostar.co.uk.)

Rail Europe (800/622–8600 in U.S.; 08448/484–064 in U.K. inquiries and credit-card bookings. www.raileurope.com.)

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