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How does train travel in Spain compare to the UK?

Train travel in Spain is generally very good and foreign residents here often talk about how good the rail services are compared to their home countries, particularly those from the UK. But is it really that different? Read on to find out.

AVE train in Spain
How do trains in Spain compare to the UK? Photo: AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER

Spain’s main and most extensive rail network is RENFE, which is a national and state-owned company. Conversely in the UK, train companies have been privatised and there are many different ones that run in different areas of the country.

This makes a big difference in how all the different rail services are run, including how much the tickets cost.


Long distance

Social media is full of people complaining about the price of rail travel in the UK, but is it really that much more expensive than in Spain? The Local Spain did some research to find out.

Let’s take two journeys of around the same length – Barcelona to Córdoba which is a distance of 536 miles and London to Aberdeen which is a similar distance of 545 miles.

If we book the cheapest available ticket one month in advance for a return journey from Barcelona to Córdoba returning one week later, it comes out at €188.75 per person.

If we book a return journey on the same dates from London Aberdeen and again go for the cheapest available time, the cost is €215.30. That is a total difference of €26.55.

But what about if you want to go on a spontaneous trip and book on the day, what about the price difference then?

Surprisingly, booking on the day from Barcelona to Córdoba and returning one week later is actually cheaper than booking in advance at €161.50 per person.

Note that this isn’t always the case with RENFE trains, sometimes booking in advance can save you money.

Booking a train from London to Aberdeen on the day and again returning a week later costs a total of €237.70.

Again, as you can see travelling long distances on the day is also cheaper in Spain, with an even bigger difference of €76.20.

Short-distance travel

We’ve looked at the price of long-distance trains, but how does Spain compare to the UK when it comes to short distances?

Let’s look at Barcelona to Sitges which is approximately 24 miles vs Oxford to Reading which is 25 miles.

A single ticket on Catalonia’s Rodalies trains costs €4.60, while the general price of a single to Reading costs €13.32.

This shows that travelling short distances on trains is also cheaper in Spain.


You may pay more for trains in the UK, but do they actually get you there any faster than the Spanish trains? Unfortunately, on long-distance trains the answer is no.

The fastest train from Barcelona to Córdoba will get you there in 4 hours 40 minutes and the fastest train from London to Aberdeen will get you there in 6 hours and 53 minutes.

However, for the prices mentioned above, the Barcelona to Córdoba took 6 hours and the London to Aberdeen train took 7 hours 10 minutes. 

This may have something to do with the fact that high-speed trains in Spain are a lot faster than those in the UK.

AVE trains can run up to 300 km/h (186 mph), while in the UK, the high-speed trains typically run at 201 Km/h (125 mph).

However, for short distances, the Barcelona to Sitges train takes around 38 to 40 mins depending on which train you take, while the Oxford to Reading train takes around 22-32 mins depending on the train you take. This time, the UK train is slightly faster.

RENFE station in Spain

Find out how to get a refund for delayed trains in Spain. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Delays and compensation

Trains in the UK are notorious for being late and delayed, while in Spain you’ll find that they’re generally on time. However, over the last few years, the punctuality of trains in Spain does seem to be getting slightly worse.

If your train is unfortunately delayed in Spain – can you claim any compensation? The answer is yes. RENFE has a very strict punctuality policy.

The amount you can claim will depend on the type of train you travelled on, the amount of time it was delayed and the reason for the delay.

On AVE and Avant trains, a delay of over 15 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund of your ticket price and a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 100 percent refund.

On AV City, Alvia and Euromed trains a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund and a delay of over one hour entitles you to a 100 percent refund of your ticket price.

On Media Distancia trains a delay of over 15 minutes entitles you to a 25 percent refund, a delay of over 30 minutes entitles you to a 50 percent refund and a delay of over one hour entitles you to a full refund.

The compensation excludes cases where a delay is caused by something outside of RENFE’s control, such as the weather, but if it’s due to a technical fault, then you are able to claim.

The process to claim your money back is incredibly easy. You simply go to the website link here and put in your ticket number, origin and destination. The system will then let you know if you’re entitled to a refund or not.

If you are, it will ask you if you want the money back as points (if you’re a member) or if you want the money put back on your card. If you choose the latter and you have a Spanish bank account, they will refund you straight away. It may take slightly longer for international bank accounts.

As the UK has many different train companies, the amount of refund you’re entitled to for a delayed train can be tricky to find out, but the UK Citizens Advice Bureau says: “You’re legally entitled to compensation of 50 percent of your ticket price if you get to your destination between 30 minutes and an hour late and a full refund if you arrive more than one hour late”.

The way you claim your money back is not as simple as in Spain though. According to MoneySavingExpert “If you want a refund for a delay, you’ll need to apply for one and it’ll take up to 28 days”.

This is comparable to Spain, however, Spain offers slightly better compensation for delays to long-distance trains.

Comfort and services

Comfort obviously varies from train to train, depending on the type you’re on and the distance you’re travelling. However, on long-distance journeys on Spanish trains generally provide more leg room.

AVE trains also offer you wet towels to clean your hands and movies to watch during the journey, which is different to the type of service you’ll find on UK trains.

So overall, it seems the Spanish trains are cheaper, faster for long distances and more comfortable than in the UK. 

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For members


Spain changes conditions for free train travel

Spain's state train operator Renfe has tweaked the terms and conditions for its free train travel offer in order to avoid 'ghost reservations'. Here's everything you need to know.

Spain changes conditions for free train travel

Renfe has changed the terms and conditions of reservations on its free travel offer for regional Media Distancia services, valid until the end of 2022, in order to avoid ‘ghost reservations.’ 

Announced by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez during the ‘State of the Nation’ debate in the Spanish Congress in August, the free multi-journey ticket scheme is an offer on some trains operated by the state-owned train network, Renfe, including Cercanías, Rodalies (Catalonia), and Media Distancia (local and medium-distance journeys).

READ MORE: All you need to know about Spain’s plan for free train tickets

READ MORE: GUIDE: How to get free train tickets in Spain

But some passengers have been abusing the offer, it seems, by block booking tickets and never using them. In response, Renfe have tweaked their terms for taking up the offer on Media Distancia journeys.

Unlike on the Cercanías and Rodalies routes, which are also included in the free travel offer, on Media Distancia routes it is possible to reserve a seat, and some travellers have been making more than one reservation on the same route for different times through the day or week in order to secure a place, and then choosing the most convenient departure.

As a result, many services were fully booked with ‘ghost reservations’ days before their departure and preventing passengers who needed to buy a ticket from being able to do so.

This loophole was particularly widespread on regional routes in Galicia and Castilla-La Mancha, and from now on, Media Distancia customers can only buy tickets for a maximum of four daily trips (two return journeys) on Media Distancia trains, and can only buy the return journey when the initial journey has been made.

READ MORE: TRAVEL: Tourists in Spain will also be eligible for free train tickets

“It is a question of guaranteeing the good use of the free passes for recurrent travelers and that as many people as possible can benefit,” Renfe sources said in the Spanish media.

READ ALSO: How much can you save on public transport in Spain with the new state discount?

Renfe’s free train travel offer came into force on September 1st and will end at the end of the year, on December 31st. In order to obtain the offer, travelers must pay a €20 deposit that is returned at the end of the year if at least 16 trips have been made during the offer period.

According to Spanish newspaper El País, as of Monday September 12th, Renfe had already issued over 1 million free passes for Cercanías and Media Distancia trains.