Public transport in Spain: trains, trams, and buses | Expatica
Home Living in Spain Transport Public transport in Spain: trains, buses, and trams
Last update on January 26, 2021
Adam Nowek Written by Adam Nowek

Spain’s public transport companies have every kind of service imaginable, from high-speed trains racing between cities at over 300km/h to century-old suburban trams traipsing through medieval streets.

Spain is full of big cities with big-city public transport systems, so there’s plenty of reasons to leave your car at home. With metro networks, buses, and an impressive amount of trains, getting around the city or even across the country is simple. Learn everything you need to know to take the train like a local; here are some important topics to get you started:

Public transport in Spain

Who needs a car, anyway? Spain’s public transport options have made plenty of headway in recent decades, from building Europe’s longest high-speed rail network to light rail running through dozens of cities. The amount of people commuting by car in Spain is comparable to the EU average, but cities like Madrid are approaching a majority when it comes to public transport use.

Barcelona Metro
The Barcelona Metro has 12 lines serving hundreds of millions of passengers annually

Taking public transport is a great alternative to driving in Spain generally quite safe for most passengers. Crime levels aboard trains are quite low, especially at stations where security checks are in place. There is, however, one exception to this: pickpocketing. As a major tourist destination, major public transport hubs in Spain tend to have quite a few pickpockets targeting hapless tourists. Be especially mindful of your surroundings and belongings in areas with a lot of tourists, such as busy train stations and buses in Barcelona and Madrid.

Public transport infrastructure in Spain (especially when it comes to trains) tends to be quite modern, though there is a clear divide between the wealthier regions and the rest. Spain actually lacks a national financing mechanism for public transport, which means that shiny new developments are probably in Catalonia rather than Castilla–La Mancha. It also explains why national travel cards, which are widespread in many countries such as Japan and the Netherlands, haven’t caught on just yet.

Public transport apps in Spain

Journey-planning apps abound for travelers in Spain. A few of the more popular options include:

  • Citymapper is available in two Spanish cities: Barcelona and Madrid. The app is available for Android, iOS, and in your browser.
  • Google Maps covers almost every country on the planet and Spain is no different. Most public transport networks in Spain sync their route information to Google Maps, so it’s ideal for planning a trip on the fly. Google Maps is available for Android, iOS, and also in your browser.

Spain’s national railway company, Renfe, has a wide collection of apps for travelers. The most useful ones are:

  • Renfe Ticket: The core app for traveling with Renfe, Renfe Ticket lets users search for itineraries, book trips, and use their tickets from their phone. Renfe Ticket is available for Android and iOS.
  • Cercanías: An app specifically for regional train travelers in Asturias, Barcelona, Bilbao, Cádiz, Madrid, Málaga, Murcia, Santander, San Sebastián, Sevilla, Valencia, and Zaragoza. Cercanías has network maps, timetables, and ticket purchases. The app is available for Android and iOS.

If you’re taking a long-distance bus instead, some companies have an app of their own, including:

Trains in Spain

Spain’s railway network is one of the busiest in Europe. According to the International Union of Railways annual report, 624 million passengers traveled over 28 billion kilometers on 15,718 kilometers of tracks in 2019, making Spain one of the most well-used rail networks. Considering Spain’s poor cross-border connections, that’s an astonishing level of domestic travel.

Renfe high-speed trains
Renfe’s high-speed trains often travel at over 300km/h

Renfe is Spain’s national rail company, carrying over 510 million passengers annually. In fact, Spain is home to one of the world’s largest high-speed rail networks, second only to China. Trains on the high-speed rail network travel at speeds up to 310km/h; only Spain’s northernmost autonomous communities (such as Cantabria and the Basque Country) as well as Extremadura and Murcia lack high-speed connections. Ambitious expansions will connect every autonomous community in Peninsular Spain by 2023.

Spain also has regional train companies, including:

Some French trains also enter Spain, such as SNCF’s high-speed trains (TGV) and regional trains (TER).

Distinguishing between the different trains in Spain is confusing for newcomers, as Renfe often brands regional networks and individual routes. In general, there are three types of train services in Spain:

  • Larga Distancia (long-distance): These services include high-speed services like AVE or intercity services that partially use high-speed routes (e.g., Alvia, Altaria, Intercity).
  • Media Distancia (medium-distance): Services at this level travel between urban areas but are the second-fastest option.
  • Local services: These services include Regional Express trains. Local services often stop at every station.

Train tickets in Spain

Ticketing for Spanish trains was once comically complex, but Renfe has at least simplified the fares on offer. Seat reservations are mandatory for the majority of trains in Spain with some exceptions for local routes. Fare classes with Renfe are as follows:

  • Flexible: Full-price tickets that allow you to select your own seats. Exchanges are possible at no extra cost. Cancellations are possible for a fee (5% of the fare).
  • Promo+: Promo+ tickets offer discounts of up to 65%. Renfe assigns your seats for you. Changes are possible for a fee (20% of the fare), as are cancellations (30% of the fare).
  • Ida y vuelta (round trip): Return tickets are 20% less than buying two single tickets. Seat selection and changes are possible. Cancellations are also possible for either half of the journey (40% of the fare) or the entire journey (15% of the fare).
  • Múltiple: Discounts of 20% are also possible for buying multiple tickets simultaneously.

Spanish trains usually have two classes: Turista (second-class) and Preferente (first-class). On high-speed lines, Preferente passengers receive a hot meal and access to Sala Club lounges at the departure station. Some high-speed trains also have Turista Plus seats, which essentially amounts to a premium second-class seat that is more comfortable but without a complimentary meal.

Renfe usually opens ticket reservations either 90 days (for AVE trains) or 60 days (for all others) before departure. This isn’t always the case, however; some trains are only available with as little as a month to spare.

Tickets are available directly on the Renfe website. It’s possible to book tickets in English, French, and a variety of Spain’s regional languages.

Train timetables and maps in Spain

Renfe doesn’t offer a fully downloadable timetable for its network, but there is a searchable online timetable. There are also national network maps for long-distance high-speed services as well as medium-distance routes.

Timetables and network maps are also available from Catalonia’s FGC and Mallorca’s FS. Euskotren provides downloadable timetables and maps, too.

Spanish train stations

Similar to other European countries, railway infrastructure in Spain is separate from the train services themselves. While Renfe operates most of the trains, ADIF (Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviarias) looks after the tracks and over 2,000 train stations.

ADIF provides extensive information about Spanish train stations on their website, including live departures, in-station services, shops, dining, and onward public transportation connections. Larger train stations tend to have paid toilets, luggage storage, and ticketing desks. Spanish train stations tend to have cafés and restaurants as opposed to a wealth of takeaway options; think of it as a chance to soak in the brilliant design of Madrid Atocha’s botanical garden.

Madrid Atocha station
Few train stations are as serene as Madrid Atocha

Keep in mind that security checkpoints are common in the busier Spanish train stations. Err on the side of caution and don’t assume that getting to the station three minutes before departure will have a good end result.

Urban and regional trains in Spain

With dozens of cities having more than 200,000 residents, Spain has a great need for big public transport networks. To that end, there are dozens of rapid transit operators across the country.

Spain has 12 commuter rail networks:

Renfe Cercanías trains
Renfe’s Cercanías services connect commuters in a dozen cities across Spain

Three Spanish cities also have their own metro systems: Barcelona, Bilbao, and Madrid. Another 13 have trams, mostly running at street level:

Ticket prices vary, as each metro and tram network is run by a local transportation authority. In most cities, a single fare over a shorter distance on the tram is around €1.20 to €1.50; single tickets on a metro network tend to be more, however, ranging between €1.50 and €2.50. Cities with larger networks may have additional costs based on distance or the amount of zones you travel.

International trains in Spain

Due to the difference in gauge on Spanish train tracks, connections with neighboring countries has historically been limited. Renfe has been working to change that, however, with many high-speed services to France now in service.

Renfe collaborates with SNCF, France’s national railway company, to provide high-speed trains between France and Spain from Madrid and Barcelona to French cities such as Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Paris, and Toulouse. A high-speed train from Barcelona to Paris takes about 6.5 hours.

Rail connections between Spain and Portugal are few and far between, however. There are overnight trains to Lisbon from Madrid (aboard the Trenhotel Lusitania) and San Sebastián (aboard the Sud Express), as well as a daytime connection between the Galician city of Vigo and Porto.

Neighboring Andorra and Gibraltar have no railway networks of their own, so you’ll have to take the bus or drive to get there from Spain. Morocco, which borders the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, has a rail network of its own, but there are no train services connecting the two.

Buses in Spain

Spain doesn’t have a national bus company; rather, each municipality or urban area has its’ own local public transport authority with bus routes in the area. Networks can sometimes be difficult to decipher if you’re unfamiliar with the network. Some Spanish cities only have one bus company with a simple fare system; others have overarching agglomerations that oversee multiple companies on a network with fare zones. Larger urban areas in Spain tend to have a separate company offering interurban services that connect city centers with the most outlying of areas.

Bus in A Coruña
Most cities in Spain, including A Coruña, provide extensive public transport by bus

In general, it’s pretty clear who operates the bus you’re riding on. The main bus companies in some of Spain’s largest cities include:

For intercity bus routes, look for an estación de autobuses (literally, bus station); larger urban areas tend to have a single station where all long-distance public buses depart from, making connections a lot easier.

Bus tickets in Spain

In Spain, public transport by bus is operated locally, which means that bus fares vary from city to city. In general, a single ticket costs around €1.40 to €1.60, though some cities (such as Barcelona) charge over €2 for a ticket.

Some public transport companies in Spain offer special tickets for a certain number of trips (e.g., a 10-trip ticket) or time period (e.g., a 24-hour ticket). Many operators also offer contactless travel cards instead of paper tickets, which you can load a subscription or special ticket onto.

There is no national travel card in Spain, unfortunately; check with your local operator to see what’s available for your city or region.

Taxis and ride-sharing services in Spain

Public transport in Spain is quite affordable and reasonably efficient in most cities. For journeys that need it, Spanish cities are swarming with taxicabs. Each city in Spain has its’ own companies, so you might notice that taxis look completely different in Madrid (where the front door has a diagonal red stripe) and Madrid (where the taxi livery is a bold combination of black and yellow).

Taxi in Madrid
Finding a taxi in a major city like Madrid is rarely difficult

Taxis are widely available in all Spanish cities. Taxi ranks are available at major transportation hubs; elsewhere, it’s fairly easy to flag a taxi down from the street. Payment by cash is easiest, though some cities like Madrid ensure that all taxis also accept credit cards. Fares vary by city and taxi company; in general, expect a base fare (inicio de servicio) of around €2–3 and per kilometer charges (precio por kilómetro) around €1–2 per kilometer.

Hailing a taxi with an app is also possible in most Spanish cities. A few of the more prevalent taxi apps in Spain include:

Ride-hailing apps like Uber have been embroiled in heated debates, with massive taxi driver strikes sometimes bringing the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to a standstill. Still, Uber is available in Spain and operates in some fashion in many Spanish cities. Taxi rides are also available through Uber in select cities.

Long-distance coaches in Spain

Despite Spain’s extensive railway network, many cities don’t actually have a train station of their own. As a result, long-distance intercity bus services are quite popular in Spain, especially for those in search of better prices.

Bus operators in Spain need to acquire a license to drive specific routes. For the traveler, that means there are often only a couple of options to choose from, far less in other countries where the competition is more fierce. However, the benefit here is that Spanish authorities can guarantee bus service on a route and that a company can’t just abandon it if they’re not profitable.

Barcelona bus terminal
Most Spanish cities have a large bus terminal, such as this one in Barcelona

The two largest long-distance bus companies in Spain are Alsa and Avanza (in Spanish). These two companies have route networks that cover all of Peninsular Spain as well as some routes extending into neighboring countries. Other more prominent bus companies with routes in Spain include Comes, Hife, Daibus, Damas (in Spanish), and InterBus.

Tickets are available either at the bus station, on the bus itself, or through the operator’s website. If you’re not sure which company to book through, you can try looking up the route with a route-planning website like Rome2Rio, Omio, or Movelia.

On-board, expect cleanliness and comfort. Long-distance buses are modern coaches with toilets, Wi-Fi, and even beverages for purchase. Services depend on the company, though; smaller operators may not have the same on-board facilities as the larger ones.

Other methods of public transport in Spain

Spain isn’t tiny; it’s the second-largest country in the European Union, in fact. As a result, there are plenty of ways to get around, including by air. While Spain’s robust high-speed rail network is making inroads, flying remains a popular option for domestic travel.

Madrid-Barajas Airport
Madrid-Barajas is Spain’s biggest and busiest airport

The busiest airports in Spain are:

  • Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airpot
  • Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport
  • Palma de Mallorca Airport
  • Málaga-Costa del Sol Airport
  • Alicante-Elche Airport

The largest airlines flying domestic routes within Spain are Iberia (Spain’s flag carrier), Air Europa, Volotea, and Vueling.

Public transport discounts in Spain

Renfe offers reduced ticket prices for certain groups, including the following:

  • Infants under 4: All infants travel for free if they don’t occupy their own seat. However, passengers must still reserve a (free) ticket for their baby.
  • Children under 14: Children sitting in their own seat receive a 40% discount on the normal ticket price.
  • Youth between 14 and 25: Young people can buy a +Renfe Joven 50 Card for €50, which offers discounts ranging between 30–50% on long-distance and high-speed services and 25% on mid-distance trips. Higher discount levels are possible the further in advance you reserve. The +Renfe Joven 50 Card is valid for one year.
  • Seniors over 60 and disabled travelers: Renfe doesn’t offer discounts for individual tickets for the elderly and the disabled. Rather, seniors can buy a Tarjeta Dorada (Gold Card) for €6. The Tarjeta Dorada is valid for one year and offers discounts of either 25% or 40%, depending on the service and the day of travel.
  • Large families: Discounts are also possible on fares if you are part of a large family. Discount rates range between 20% and 50%.

Urban public transport companies in Spain also have plenty of discount tickets or subscriptions for certain groups. These often include discounts for young children, young adults, senior citizens, large families, and those with a disability. Regulations and discounts vary from city to city in Spain, however, so check with your local public transport authority.

How disability-accessible is public transportation in Spain?

Spain is hardly a world leader when it comes to accessibility in public transport, unfortunately. Spanish law actually began paying attention to how inaccessibility to public spaces is a form of discrimination back in the 1980s, not long after Spain’s transition to democracy. However, accessibility improvements to things such as public transport vary across the country.

Most metro systems and tram networks in Spain mostly date back to the 1990s at the earliest; vehicle interiors are accommodating to wheelchair users and platforms are generally accessible by elevator. One key exception to this is the Madrid Metro, which is the oldest metro network in Spain. Here, three of the older lines (Lines 1, 2, and 4) are particularly poor when it comes to accessibility at the station; more recent parts of the network are fully accessible.

Renfe Atendo
Renfe Atendo is a mobility service available for disabled passengers at Spanish train stations

Accessibility at Spanish train stations varies depending on the size of the station. Some train stations have undergone major renovations in recent years and, as a result, are fully accessible at all platforms. Older stations in less central areas may have outdated facilities for disabled travelers; some platforms may actually be inaccessible. Renfe’s Atendo service also in-station guidance and assistance for those with limited mobility.

If you plan on taking a taxi, call the taxi company directly and ask for a Eutotaxi, which is the Spanish name for a taxi adapted for wheelchairs.

Some tourism boards also provide ample information about accessible mobility in English, including Barcelona and Madrid; even if you live in Spain, many of the tips for getting around apply just the same.

How environmentally friendly is public transportation in Spain?

Authorities in Spain are struggling to boost the green credentials of local public transport in the country. There is evidence that new developments tend to focus on the needs of Spain’s massive tourism sector rather than local mobility needs. Indeed, the Spanish approach often opts for marginal improvements to bus routes while neglecting the need to get cars off the streets or improving infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Madrid’s ambitious plan to restrict vehicles in the city center was struck down by Spanish courts in July 2020 despite being lauded across Europe for its’ efficacy in reducing car emissions.

Electric bus in Barcelona
Electric buses, such as this one in Barcelona, are increasingly common

Nonetheless, progress continues in some Spanish cities. Barcelona rolled out its’ own low-emission zone in 2020, while cities like Bilbao and Madrid are gradually integrating electric buses into their local fleets. One of the more

Making a public transport complaint in Spain

As with many countries, there is no central authority for filing a complaint relating to an incident. Any public transport issues in Spain worthy of filing a complaint should go directly to the company itself.

Renfe has a lengthy list of customer service numbers covering the more common issues relating to train travel. There are also some conditions where train delays are eligible for compensation from Renfe.

Useful resources