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International overnight trains to Barcelona arrive from many European cities, including Paris, Grenoble, Geneva, Zurich, and Milan; the four-a-day high-speed trains to and from Paris take about 5½ hours, and advance-purchase tickets online start at €59 (€118 round-trip), making the downtown-to-downtown journey by train competitive with a flight. 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. 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 local train routes) are the province of 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. (Spain has more high-speed track in service than any other country in Europe.) The fast TALGO and ALTARIA trains are efficient, though local trains remain slow and tedious. The Catalan government’s FGC (Ferrocarril de la Generalitat de Catalunya) also provide train service, notably to Barcelona’s commuter suburbs of Sant Cugat, Terrassa, and Sabadell.

Smoking is forbidden on all RENFE trains.

Information on the local/commuter lines (rodalies in Catalan, cercanias in Castilian) 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 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 railroad excursions.The day train from Barcelona to Madrid runs through bougainvillea-choked towns before leaping out across Spain’s central meseta via Zaragoza, most trains arriving at Atocha Station in Madrid in about 2½ 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. The TALGO or the AVE trains, however, are much faster than second-class carriers like the slowpoke Estrella overnight from Barcelona to Madrid. Legroom and general comforts are about the same (that is, mediocre). The AVE is the exception: between Barcelona and Madrid or between Madrid and Sevilla, these sleek bullets with their tinted windows are superlative moving observation platforms. Some 30 AVE trains a day connect Barcelona and Madrid, with departures from 5:50 am to 9:15 pm. Ticket prices in tourist class start at €84.30 (purchased online) and vary depending on peak hours. Trips take from 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 10 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 $163 for four journeys in second-class coach within a one-month period and $229 for first class. Other passes cover more days and longer periods. The 12-journey pass costs $392 in second class, $550 in first class. (Beware when you order online; broker’s quotations can vary considerably.)

Spain is one of 17 European countries in which you can use Eurail Global Passes, which buy you unlimited first- or second-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 ($673), 21 days ($866), one month ($1,064), two months ($1,498), and three months ($1,847). 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—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 get 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 takes five and a half hours more. Allow at least two hours in Paris for changing trains.

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

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 line at the station taquilla (ticket office).

Lines at Sants can be long. 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 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 often shorter.

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 around, 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. 902/432343; 902/320320; www.renfe.es.

Estació de Passeig de Gràcia. Passeig de Gràcia/Carrer Aragó, Eixample, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08008. 902/432343; 902/320320; www.adif.es.

Estació de Sants. Pl. dels Països Catalans s/n, Les Corts, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08014. 902/157507; 902/320320; www.renfe.com.

Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC). Carrer Vergos 44, Sarrià, Barcelona, Catalonia, 08017. 93/366--3000; fgc.cat/eng/index.asp.

RENFE. 902/240202; 902/320320; www.renfe.es.

Information and Passes

Eurail. www.eurail.com.

Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; www.raileurope.com.

Rail Europe. 800/361–7245; www.raileurope.ca.

From the U.K.

Eurostar. 01233/617575; www.eurostar.co.uk.

Voyages-sncf. 193 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EU. 0844/848--5484; uk.voyages-sncf.com/en.

Channel Tunnel Car Transport

Eurotunnel. 8443/353535; 902/307315; 810/630304; www.eurotunnel.com.

Channel Tunnel Passenger Service

Eurostar. 03432/186186; 1233/617575; www.eurostar.co.uk.

Rail Europe. 800/622--8600; 08448/484064; www.raileurope.com.