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TRAIN TRAVEL

Iryo: Spain’s new low-cost train operator launches on Friday

Spain's third train operator will kickstart its new Madrid-Barcelona route on Friday, with Valencia, Málaga and numerous other cities to be added to its network and average ticket prices selling for €18.

Iryo: Spain's new low-cost train operator launches on Friday
Low-cost train's Iryo is pictured on the day of its inaugural trip at the Chamartín train station in Madrid on November 21, 2022. - Private high-speed train operator Iryo, which is 45 percent owned by Italy's Trenitalia, makes on November 21 a symbolic inaugural trip in Spain, four days before it starts its passenger service between Madrid and Barcelona. (Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP)

Competition in Spain’s high-speed rail market is heating up with a new operator starting passenger services on Friday, making it Europe’s first nation with three players in the sector.

The new firms have pushed down prices and increased passenger traffic on the high-speed network, which at 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) is the second longest in the world after China’s.

Private operator Iryo, which is 45 percent owned by Italy’s Trenitalia, made an inaugural symbolic trip on Monday from Madrid to Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

It will begin passenger services on Friday November 25th with 16 daily return trips between Madrid and Barcelona, via Zaragoza.

Ticket prices will vary depending on the different packages offered, but according to Iryio the average cost per one-way ticket is €18.  

READ ALSO: What to know about Iryo, Spain’s newest high-speed low-cost trains

Iryo will compete with French railway company SNCF’s firm in the country, Ouigo, which has been operating since May 2021 and Spanish state-owned rail operator Renfe, which opened its first high-speed service in 1992.

The arrival of a third operator is a “historical step” which is “novel” in Europe, said Carlos Lerida, a rail transport expert at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

“Until now no high-speed rail network has operated with three competitors. Spain could serve as a model,” he told AFP.

GUIDE: How to get free train tickets in Spain

Iryo, which is kicking off its operations in Spain with 20 trains, will in mid-December expand its services to include a Madrid-Valencia route (via Cuenca).

In March 2023 it will start running trains from Madrid to Seville, Málaga, Córdoba and Antequera in the southwestern region of Andalusia. In June, it intends to launch its route to the eastern coastal city of Alicante (via Albacete). 

Ouigo already operates trains along the Madrid-Barcelona and Madrid-Valencia routes and plans to start services to the Mediterranean port of Alicante as well as Andalusia next year.

Low-cost train Iryo’s staff members stand at the trains’ door on the day of its inaugural trip at Chamartín train station in Madrid. (Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP)

‘Democratise high-speed’

Spain’s state rail infrastructure operator Adif in 2019 granted contracts allowing the firms to operate on these routes for 10 years.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government is keen to lower ticket prices for bullet train tickets to make greater use of the high-speed rail network.

Greater competition will “democratise high-speed” rail travel, Transport Minister Raquel Sanchez said last month, calling Spain’s model for the sector “revolutionary”.

Renfe responded to the arrival of Ouigo in May 2021 with the launch of a low-cost bullet train service called Avlo.

The company has also renewed its fleet of trains and improved the service it offers passengers on their journeys.

Renfe has a seat sale underway with prices of a 500-kilometre (300-mile) trip between Madrid and Barcelona for as little as seven euros.

“We see the arrival of competition as an opportunity not as a problem,” a Renfe spokesman said.

Average prices for tickets on high-speed trains between Madrid and Barcelona have dropped by 25 percent since Ouigo started operating last year, according to Spain’s competition watchdog CNMC.

‘Underused’ network

Passenger traffic on the route has jumped by 47 percent, and is up by 14 percent along Spain’s entire rail network since May 2021, according to Adif.

“The network was underused,” the director general of Ouigo’s Spanish branch, Helene Valenzuela, told AFP, adding this meant there was a “limited risk” in entering the market.

The company spent €630 million ($644 million) to launch its operations in Spain.

“Our main rivals are planes and cars, not other trains,” said Valenzuela.

“On a technical level, it is a challenge, because we have to organise the flow (of trains) in the stations. But on an economic level, it is an opportunity,” she added.

Competition in the high-speed rail sector has its limits.

It works on “very busy lines” but it is “much more complicated” on other routes where it is harder for companies to cover their costs and make a profit,” said rail transport expert Lerida.

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TRAVEL NEWS

What you should know if you’re travelling to Spain in December

The rules, the least busy travel times, the strikes, the free travel deals, what you can’t check in - here’s what you need to know if you’re travelling to Spain in December or at Christmas.

What you should know if you're travelling to Spain in December

December is a busy travel period with many foreigners leaving Spain to celebrate Christmas with their families back in their home countries and many others travelling to Spain for a holiday or to spend time with their loved ones here.

Airline strikes and an increase in passengers could make travelling this winter a little more challenging, but here’s everything to need to know, so you can be prepared. 

According to Spain’s airport operator Aena, the number of airline tickets sold for travel to Spain over the winter season is set to exceed the number in 2019-2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also, last winter saw the rise of the Omicron variant and some countries introduced new restrictions, so many foreign residents decided not to go back to see their families over the holidays. This means that this year could see more people wanting to return after several years of not having celebrated together with their families. 

Therefore, airports could be particularly busy this December, so make sure you leave plenty of time for getting through security and passport control.

There is still one important Covid travel rule in Spain

Although the majority of Spain’s domestic and travel Covid-19 restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022, one of the only rules that still remains in place is the obligation of wearing a face mask on public transport.

This includes aeroplanes, buses, trains, taxis and some ferries, but mask wearing isn’t compulsory at airports, ports or bus and train stations.

As things stand, the general rule is that cabin crew from all airlines have to tell passengers on planes bound to Spain that they have to wear masks.

If on the other hand the aircraft is flying out of Spain, the mask rules of the country which the plane is flying to apply, which in almost all cases means face coverings aren’t required.

Spain’s flagship airline Iberia has criticised the Spanish government’s ongoing mask requirement for passengers on planes bound to the country, stressing that it “doesn’t make any sense” and “it affects tourism”.

Although it is no longer compulsory to present a negative Covid-19 test to fly, Spanish health and airport authorities ask that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms avoid travel.

It is no longer necessary either for travellers to fill in health control forms before flying to Spain as was previously the case, and there are no bans or restrictions on non-EU or other specific countries.

Which are the least busy days for travelling to Spain in December?

According to flight search engine Skyscanner, which has analysed nine million searches for people looking to travel to Spain over the festive period, some of the quietest days to travel to Spain are from the 18th to the 23rd, with the 23rd being the least popular before Christmas.

If you’re wanting to fly to Spain after Christmas, however, you’ll find it even quieter on December 28th, as well as January 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th. You may find Spanish cities to be fairly busy however as December 6th and 8th are public holidays.

Conversely, the most popular days to travel are between December 12th and the 17th, so avoid those days if you want to avoid the crowds. 

Who is travelling to Spain this December? 

According to new data released by Spain’s Tourism Ministry, during the last month of the year, 7,066,101 people have booked seats, which implies a recovery of 97.4 percent compared to the same month of 2019. 

Forecasts for the early December holidays reveal that Italians, Germans and French are the main tourists who will be visiting Spain. During the puentes and public holidays on December 6th and 8th, Italians will make up the majority of tourists travelling to Spain (23 percent), followed by Germans (17 percent), French (16 percent), British (10 percent) and finally the Portuguese (6 percent).

Airline strikes

Several airline strikes have also been called for this winter, mainly involving low-cost airlines Vueling and Ryanair.

The Vueling strikes are due to take place on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. They began on November 1st 2022 and will run right through the Christmas period to January 31st 2023.

Specifically, this means that those travelling on December 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th,10th and 11th may be affected by cancellations. 

Additional days that will be affected include December 24th, 31st and January 5th 2023, affecting those passengers who plan on travelling for Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and Three Kings’ Day.

The workers are demanding a wage increase in line with the rise in prices due to inflation, as well as protesting over the precarious work conditions that have been experienced within the sector since even before the pandemic.  

Many passengers are currently being offered alternative flights, refunds or other compensation if their flights are cancelled. 

Ryanair baggage handlers and on-the-ground staff have also been striking and will continue to do so until January 7th, 2023.

It’s likely these airports will include Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Seville, however, it’s worth noting that Ryanair has said that it doesn’t expect this strike to cause that much disruption.

Bringing food and goods in from the UK and other non-EU countries

One of the advantages of going back to your home country for Christmas is not only to see your friends and family but also to stock up on treats and ingredients you’ve missed while living in Spain. Think mince pies, custard powder and Marmite for those going back to the UK.

But as this is the second Christmas since Brexit came into force, many may still not be totally aware of what they’re now allowed to bring to Spain from non-EU countries.

The EU’s strict rules mean that all imports of animal-derived products are not allowed. This means no Christmas puddings with suet, no British bacon and blocks and Wensleydale or Cheddar cheese to bring back with you.

If you want to know exactly what you can and can’t bring in this Christmas, read our detailed guide here

Bringing food from Spain into the UK, is a little easier as you’re still allowed to bring in EU products, so packets of jamón and Manchego cheese are ok to take.

Travel within Spain

Those who are planning on travelling within Spain this Christmas, either to visit friends and family or simply for the fun of travel should know that there are currently lots of travel discounts, particularly on trains.

Multi-journey tickets are currently free on Cercanías, Rodalies and Media Distancia trains and are worth paying the €10 or €20 deposit for if you’re going to be making the same journey several times during your trip.

READ ALSO:

For example, if you’re planning on spending the holiday in the small Catalan town of Sitges, but know that you’ll be making several trips to Barcelona during that time for sightseeing, shopping or eating out, then it could be worth it.

Unfortunately, the free tickets are not available on long-distance trains, but you can still get a bargain on these this winter as Spain’s new low-cost train operator Iryo recently launched.

This means that you can get tickets from Madrid to Barcelona as well as Valencia and Málaga for an average of €18 each. 

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