Spain is the latest European country to launch a scheme designed to entice people to its railways whilst reducing costs for existing travellers. You may have heard about it. Since its launch on September 1st, many international media outlets have run stories promoting free travel thanks to Spain’s free trains between now and the end of the year. It all sounds like a wonderful opportunity for travellers and digital nomads to explore the Iberian country this autumn without spending a cent.
The reality is a little different though for those dreaming of seeing Spain by train for free. Once you dig a little deeper into the smallprint, you will soon realise you cannot simply jump on any train in Spain and travel where you want without spending any money. In fact, most long distance and all high-speed services are excluded from the “free” bit of the scheme, but there are still ways you can use it to your benefit if you are just visiting the country.
Spain launches Free Trains throughout Autumn – The Basics
Spain’s free rail initiative is designed to reduce the cost of travel for commuters during these challenging economic times. Therefore it is centred around reducing and in some cases entirely wiping out the cost of passes or season tickets as opposed to one-way or return tickets for individual journeys. Therefore you need to register for a pass (abono) to benefit from the scheme. You cannot just get a free ticket for a single journey.
Essentially there are two ways in which visitors to the country can benefit from the scheme, assuming they aren’t here for specific work or study purposes which requires repetitive travel to the same destination.
The first, is by getting a pass for regional Cercanías/Rodalies services. Essentially the metropolitan rail networks in and around major cities such as Madrid and Barcelona.
The second, is by getting a pass for a specific route on some “medium distance” trains which cover larger areas and mostly connect neighbouring regions, although there are some Media Distancia services which do actually cover really large portions of Spain. More on that below.
The other aspects of the scheme won’t really benefit casual visitors who are not making repetitive journeys as they only feature 50% discounts on season passes for the faster medium and long distance trains. You’d have to make A LOT of the same journeys to make it cost effective so for travellers and nomads looking to benefit, the only relevant parts are the Cercanías/Rodalies and Media Distancia passes.
Free Cercanías & Rodalies Regional Passes
The most viable way for travellers and digital nomads in Spain to actually get free train travel through this scheme is to go and base yourself in a city for a week or more and do lots of trips in and around that city using a pass for the Cercanias (commuter) trains – known as Rodalies in Catalunya. You need to pay a €10 deposit to get the pass but that will be refunded as long as you make 16 individual journeys between now and December 31st 2022.
In which Regions can you get Passes?
These passes can be obtained for travel within any of the following metropolitan regions:
- San Sebastian
These networks vary considerably in size. You’d have a hard time getting much out of your Zaragoza Cercanías abono for example given there are only six stations. However there are over 100 stations to choose from with the Barcelona Rodalies pass while Madrid and Valencia also have extensive regional networks with plenty of travel opportunities and interesting places to visit.
Note that these passes can be used on the railways only. They cannot be used on a city’s bus or metro network, although there are some reduced fares available on those services too.
How to get your regional pass
You can buy most train tickets in Spain online and the same is true for these passes. The easiest way is to download the Renfe Cercanias app on your phone (make sure you get the right one as there are various Renfe apps) and complete the brief registration process.
You can then select the region (from those listed above) that you want to get a pass for. Click on the menu button in the top left corner and select BUY TICKETS – BUY.
You are then directed to a screen where you must select an origin station and a destination station. It doesn’t really matter which ones you choose as the passes are valid for the whole network but you need to select two. Click on “Seleccione tarifa” and choose “Ab. Recurrente”.
The price should come up as €10 which is your deposit. Click on “BUY” and you will then reach a screen where you need to enter your passport or identity number. Once you’ve done that, you can complete your purchase with a debit/credit card and your €10 will be returned to you via the same method after your 16th journey. You may also be asked to create a 4-digit security code at some stage in the process for reasons that aren’t entirely clear!
You should be able to see your pass by going back to the menu and selecting BUY TICKETS – MY TICKETS. Your QR code will be there which will enable you to access the trains. If you have any problems, the abonos can also be purchased in stations by using ticket machines or at ticket kiosks.
Medium Distance Trains
The other way anyone visiting Spain during the latter months of 2022 may be able to get some benefit from this scheme is with the medium distance passes. These are only available on media distancia trains which are the slowest of the rail services which connect different cities and regions in Spain. In some cases, the journey time on media distancia services are two or three times as long as the high-speed AVE trains which are excellent but unfortunately aren’t included in the free passes.
Therefore this is not going to be the fastest way for you to get around Spain but if you’re someone who is looking to save as much money as possible whilst visiting the country, you can still potentially make some savings on the regular fares.
The main difference between the media distancia and cercanias passes is that in this case the passes are only valid for travel between two specific stations. You must enter and exit the train at one of the two and you can’t just jump off at intermediary stations either. Again you must make 16 journeys to get your deposit back, which in this case is €20.
That’s not going to be a realistic scenario for most casual visitors to Spain so to all intents and purposes, these passes are better viewed as a single or return ticket that can be purchased for €20. There is no limit to the amount of passes you can buy, so you could potentially purchase ones for several different routes.
Examples of Medium Distance Routes
You can view Spain’s media distancia rail map here. In theory, you can purchase the free abono (€20 unless you make 16 trips) for any direct link between two stations. In other words, you can’t just pick two points on the map and buy a pass unless there is a direct media distancia train that links to the two. Here are some examples of medium distance passes you could purchase:
- Madrid to San Sebastian
- Madrid to Seville
- Seville to Malaga
- Seville to Cadiz
- Valencia to Alicante
- Almeria to Granada
- Vigo to A Coruña
- Barcelona to Girona
How to get your Media Distancia Abono
To get your media distancia abono, you need to go to a station and find a Renfe ticket machine (make sure it is not a Cercanias/Rodalies machine) or ticket office. The process is then similar to the regional passes where you have to nominate an origin and destination (be sure to name the correct station as some cities have more than one), enter your passport/identity details and pay your deposit which in this case is €20.
However with this pass, you must also “formalise” any journey you wish to make. In other words, you have to select the specific train you want to travel on. It is wise to do this as far in advance as possible as many media distancia services are only once or twice daily and may well get fully booked during this promotional period. You can do this via the Renfe app (a different app to the Renfe Cercanias one), the Renfe website, self-service ticket machines and ticket offices at the station.
Spain’s “Free Train” Scheme – Frequently Asked Questions
Is it really free?
For most nomads and travellers visiting the country, which is one of the most popular digital nomad destinations, the only realistic way to use the scheme without spending a cent would be to buy the Cercanias/Rodalies pass and make 16 journeys within that region. That would see your €10 deposit refunded.
For anyone here wondering how to get free train tickets in Spain, you may be a little disappointed as the inter-regional medium-distance passes are only really going to end up being free for commuters or anyone with a specific reason for going back/forth between two different places.
Do you need a passport to ride the train in Spain?
You need a passport or Spanish identity number to purchase tickets. In practice, it’s very rare that you are asked to show this when ticket inspectors come by and they normally just scan your barcode or QR code. However you’d be wise to carry it if you’re using the media distancia or other long distance services as they may be more vigilant at this time to prevent multiple people using the same pass. You won’t need it on Cercanias/Rodalies trains which can be entered by just scanning your QR code at the entry/exit barriers.
Do you need to be a Spanish resident?
No. Although designed to be used by commuters in Spain, anyone can buy these passes.
How long are the passes valid?
Passes are valid from September 1st to December 31st 2022. There is no limit on how many times you can use them within that period.
Are these passes better value than the usual train prices in Spain?
A typical single journey on a Cercanias service is between 2 and 4 Euros depending on how far you are travelling. Therefore the €10 deposit Cercanias passes will pretty quickly pay for themselves even if you don’t quite make it to the 16 journey point where you get the deposit back.
As for the media distancia services, these are already the cheapest train tickets in Spain for intercity travel. In many cases, you will be able to find single tickets on some routes for less than €20, in which case it makes no sense to purchase the pass if you are not in need of a return ticket. However many of the longer media distancia trains do cost more than €20, in which case you’re obviously better off with the pass, even if you only use it once. You can easily check the cost of individual tickets via the usual methods (Renfe app/website/ticket machines).
Does a round trip count as two trips or as one?
It counts as two. Therefore to get your deposit back, you would need to make 16 individual trips or 8 round trips.
Can I travel on Avant and AVE trains?
The Cercanias and Media Distancia passes are only valid on those specific services. You can’t use them on Avant or AVE trains which instead have season passes available at 50% the usual rate.