Arrival by train from Germany / Switzerland
A train journey from Germany to Spain is quite a long and complicated affair, but in recent years the connections have improved considerably. Since 2013, it has been possible to travel directly from France to Barcelona on fast trains without changing trains. There is also a new fast train from Frankfurt via Karlsruhe and Strasbourg to Lyon and Avignon in southern France. Alternatively you can go to Paris, change there with the subway the station and then take directly a TGV e.g. to Barcelona.
Caution: Those who travel with the Interrail-Ticket pay such high surcharges in Spain (and also for ICE in Germany as well as TGV in France) that it is questionable whether it is worth it at all.
The TGV train from Frankfurt, Mannheim, Karlsruhe and Baden-Baden to Marseille runs daily. For those travelling to Spain, the transfer points Lyon and Avignon are ideal. However, the TGV (French high-speed train) arrives there only in the evening, so you have to stay overnight. I stayed overnight in Lyon, directly at the station there are some hotels and a huge shopping centre. One can sleep comfortably or look at Lyon in the morning and drive at 14:30 further to Barcelona. The trains between France and Spain can be booked either on the website of the French Railways (SNCF) or the Spanish Railways (RENFE). Booking on the SNCF website was, in our opinion, much easier, but the tickets were often more expensive than on the RENFE website. With both you get an online-ticket, which you have to print out, as with the Deutsche Bahn. There are also so-called mobile-tickets in France and Spain, but we did not try this.
If you leave Germany by train for France via Cologne or Saarbrücken, it is better to travel via Paris. Disadvantage is the casual change of the station in the capital of France. The TGV connections from Germany and Spain unfortunately depart from different stations in Paris.
Cost of the rail journey to Spain: The prices are very different depending on the connection, time of day, day of the week and season. We managed to buy a ticket at Bahn.de from Munich to Lyon for about 70 Euro despite the Christmas season. From Lyon to Barcelona we drove the next day for about 60 Euro (per person). Such prices can of course only be found if you book in advance on the internet. For the train connection from Germany, the BahnCard is valid up to the French station where one changes trains. The TGV trains and the AVE trains (the Spanish version of the super fast trains) are good, fast and comfortable. Often you travel at a speed of 300 km/h towards the sun.
Travelling in Spain by train
Travelling by train has changed a lot in Spain in recent years. The ailing, state-owned Spanish railway company RENFE has become a modern European railway company. The fares for the non-high-speed trains are still favourable. The AVE (Spanish high-speed train) is not exactly cheap, but in terms of speed it is probably the best train in Europe at the moment.
In Spain, a high-speed network of several thousand kilometres has been built over the last 20 years. This is comparable to France or Japan. There is currently a line from Barcelona in the north via Madrid in the centre to Seville in southern Spain. There are junctions to Malaga (since 2006) and Valladolid (since 2007). A new long route from the capital of Spain to the Mediterranean coast (Valencia and Alicante) has been opened in recent years. A line to the northwest of Madrid is under construction and partly finished. The line to Portugal (Lisbon) is currently not being built on the Portuguese side (as of early 2022). The reason is a lack of money due to the economic crisis. The AVE is very reliable and punctual. The fares are significantly higher than on other Spanish trains. There are few alternatives with slower, cheaper trains on these main lines. AVE trains are often much cheaper when booked online. Prices of less than 50 euros from Barcelona to southern Spain are possible, but by no means for every train.
In addition, the high-speed route Barcelona-Valencia, which has been extended up to 250 km/h, is interesting for the tourist. Most other routes are rather slow, but cheap (about 5-10 Euro per 100 km). Unfortunately, the Spanish railway network is quite wide-meshed. Above all, a railway line along the coast south of Cartagena to Almeria and Malaga is missing. Here you have to take the bus or long detours.
Tickets can be bought in advance at the ticket counter or on the Internet. A big annoyance at RENFE are the still very long waiting times at the ticket counters, especially in the big stations. What use is a billion-euro new line to gain 2 hours if you don’t even have a few ten thousand euros a month for additional staff at the counters? Sometimes, like me in Valencia, you have to wait up to an hour. You draw a number, which is called when it’s finally your turn. Of course you can also buy tickets on the Internet. The internet presence of the Spanish Railway RENFE is not optimal compared to the German Railway. Especially tickets for short distances are now available at easy to use machines. At larger stations there are also counters without long waiting times, where you can only buy tickets for trains departing in the next few minutes. The shops in the big stations are mostly overpriced. You often have to spend a lot of time looking for timetables that have been put up for sale. Each company has its own timetables or the trains of the others do not appear on the timetables. The staff at the information desk is not very motivated in some places. The train stations in the metropolises are well connected to the subway network.
Secondary lines are not operated by RENFE, but by state or private local companies. The narrow-gauge railway Alicante – Denia, for example, is well known. The fares of such railways are usually very reasonable, but the travel speeds are slow. However, a lot is currently being expanded and rebuilt at local level.
Overall, the Spanish railway is exemplary, especially on the new high-speed lines. The secondary lines are very cheap, but also slow. The service could still be improved significantly (also with regard to the English skills of the staff, for example). The main problem are the few routes. For example, the tourist city of Marbella with over 100,000 inhabitants is not accessible by rail at all.
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