Travel by train

International overnight trains to Barcelona arrive from many European cities, including Paris, Grenoble, Geneva, Zurich and Milan; 4-day high-speed trains to and from Paris take about 5 1⁄2 hours, and online tickets start at €59 (€118 round-trip), making the downtown-to-downtown train journey competitive with a flight. Almost all long-distance trains arrive and depart from the Estació de Sants, although many stop at Gràcia Barcelona">Passeig de Gràcia, which is convenient for hotels in the Eixample or in the Ciutat Vella. The Estació de França, near the port, operates only a few regional trains within Catalonia. The train service connects Barcelona with most other major cities in Spain; in addition, the Euromed high-speed route connects Barcelona to Tarragona and Valencia.

Spain’s intercity services (along with some of Barcelona’s local rail routes) are the province of the government-run rail system — RENFE (Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles). The high-speed AVE train connects Barcelona and Madrid (via Lleida and Zaragoza) in less than three hours. (Spain has more high-speed rail service than any other country in Europe.) Fast TALGO and ALTARIA trains are efficient, although local trains remain slow and time-consuming. FGC (Ferrocarril de la Generalitat de Catalunya) also provides train services, in particular to the suburbs of Sant Cugat, Terrassa and Sabadell in Barcelona.

Smoking is forbidden on all RENFE trains.

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

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country offer scenic rail excursions. The day train from Barcelona to Madrid passes through bougainvillea-stricken towns before leaping across Spain ‘s central meseta (plateau) via Zaragoza, with most trains arriving at Madrid’s Atocha station in about 2 and a half hours. The train from Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya to Sant Pol de Mar and Blanes runs along the edge of the beach.

The first-class train service in Spain, with the exception of the overnight coche-cama (Pullman) service, hardly differs from the second-class or turista service. However, the TALGO or AVE trains are much faster than second-class carriers like the slowpoke Estrella overnight from Barcelona to Madrid, both with limited legroom and general comfort. The AVE is the exception: these sleek, comfortable bullet trains run between Barcelona and Madrid or between Madrid and Sevilla. Some 30 AVE trains a day connect Barcelona and Madrid, leaving from 5:50 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Ticket prices in the tourist class start at €66.75 (purchased online) and rise during peak hours. Trips can take from 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 10 minutes.

After busses, trains are the most economical way to travel. Within the RENFE pricing system, there are 20 per cent discounts on long-distance tickets when you purchase a round-trip ticket, and there are 20 per cent 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).

Rail passes

If you’re planning a major train journey, look at the rail passes. If Spain is your only destination, consider the Spanish Flexipass. Prices start at $234 for four second-class coach rides within one month and $324 for the first class. Other passes cover more days and longer periods of time. The 10-day pass costs $492 in the second class, $672 in the first class.

Beware when ordering online; quotes from brokers may vary considerably.

Eurail Global Pass

Spain is one of 17 European countries in which you can use Eurail Global Passes to purchase unlimited first-or second-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the Pass. If you plan to rack up miles and go between countries, get a standard pass; it is available for 5 days ($496) and 7 days ($632) to be used within one month; 10 days ($777) and 15 days ($1020) to be used within two months; 15 days ($595), 22 days ($852), one month ($1046), two months ($1,474) and three months ($1,817) to be used continuously.

Regional Pass

If your needs are more limited, take a look at the Regional Pass, which costs less than the Eurail Pass, and purchases a limited number of travel days in a limited number of countries (for example, France, Italy and Spain) over a specified period of time.

Other passes

In addition to the standard Eurail Passes, Rail Europe sells the Eurail Youthpass (for those under the age of 26), the Eurail Saverpass (which provides a discount for two or more people traveling together), the Eurail Flexipass (which allows a certain number of days of travel within a certain period of time), the Euraildrive Pass (four days of train travel and two days of Avis or Hertz car rental) and the Europass Drive (which allows a certain number of days of travel within a certain period of time). No matter which pass you choose, remember that you have to buy your pass before you leave for Europe.

Even if you use the rail pass, you will still need to reserve seats in advance. Seat reservations are required on some European trains, especially high-speed trains, and are wise on any train that might be crowded. You ‘re also going to need a reservation if you want a sleeping accommodation. All reservations are subject to an extra fee.

Call RENFE for schedules and fares. The easiest way for non-Spanish speakers to get information about the schedule is to go to the RENFE website (www.renfe.es).

Train services from the United Kingdom to Barcelona are not as frequent, fast, or affordable as flights, and you need to change trains (and stations) to Paris. It is worth paying extra for the TALGO express from Paris to avoid having to change trains again at the Spanish border. The journey time to Paris (from London via Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel) is about 3 hours; from Paris to Barcelona is 5 1⁄2 hours extra. Allow at least 2 hours to change trains in Paris.

Although overnight trains have comfortable sleeper cars for two or four in a coche-cama, first-class fares that include a sleeping compartment are comparable to air fares. For shorter, regional train journeys, you can often buy your tickets directly from the 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, or ida y vuelta in Spanish.

Most travel agencies can sell you train tickets (though not for the same-day trip), saving you standing in line at the station taquilla (ticket office).

There may be a long line at Sants. Look for the counters marked salida inmediata (next departure), where you can buy same-day tickets more quickly. Visa and MasterCard are universally accepted at ticket counters.

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

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