What To Expect on Spain’s Renfe AVE Trains—Tips from My Travels

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-10-14
PUBLISHED ON  2019-07-04
Yes, I wrote this article while riding AVE

I’ve enjoyed AVE and love high speed trains generally in Europe. They offer an excellent, comfortable, low-carbon alternative to flying. For example, the Barcelona-Madrid trip on AVE is just 2.5 hours, which makes it much faster than flying when you figure in the time for getting to the airport and waiting in lines. Plus, it’s fun to ride when you’re near a highway to see just how much faster you’re going than the cars you speed past.

There are some differences to be aware of however between AVE and flying or taking conventional-speed trains. And there are now some important competitors to Renfe’s AVE service to be aware of, particularly if you want to save some money and are travelling light with bare necessities (as we minimalists always encourage)—if you don’t have a large suitcase the budget high-speed trains discussed below may be a better choice.

What is Renfe’s AVE?

Spain’s national rail operator Renfe offers its premium high-speed train service, AVE, on routes between a few French cities, Barcelona, and Madrid and other major destinations throughout Spain. AVE trains reach speeds of 310 km/hr (193 mph), while still offering a very smooth ride.

AVE stands for Alta Velocidad Española (Spanish High Speed) and the acronym also means “bird” in Spanish.

Renfe also offers a high-speed Avant service, which is similar to AVE but runs slightly slower at 250 km/h (155 mph) and takes you on trips between in or between regions (“medium distance”).

At conventional speeds, Renfe offers local (“cercanias“), medium, and long-distance services.

How to Book Renfe AVE Tickets

Tickets can be booked directly with Renfe, but as we’ve reported before that official Renfe website doesn’t work very well for Spanish train ticket booking. There are a lot of errors and bad translations, though with patience you can certainly get it to work.

The website Trainline offers the same prices as the official Renfe site for AVE fast trains at any given time while avoiding such problems. It has full coverage of all AVE trains. If you’re taking a complex trips with several stops to change trains, it generally comes up with better routes than Renfe.

Perhaps even more importantly, Trainline allows you to compare AVE trains alongside the competing high-speed train companies that now run in Spain, each of which we have reviewed: the French budget train operator Ouigo, Renfe’s own budget Avlo, and the private Iryo. All of these options are fast and comfortable (though Ouigo and Avlo have much more limited baggage restrictions unless you pay a supplement). We tend to just go with the cheapest one on the day and route we’re seeking, which Trainline allows us to find in a single search.

RailEurope is another way to book AVE tickets, but RailEurope generally lost out to Trainline in our comparison and doesn’t show the competing Spanish high-speed options.

Boarding a Renfe AVE train in Barcelona’s Sants train station

Routes on Renfe AVE Trains

Here is the current route map from Renfe (click to enlarge) for its AVE service as of April 2023; the hot pink represents high speed AVE lines and the grey represents conventional long-distance trains. Renfe’s claim of the Lisbon-Salamanca connection is perhaps aspirational, as no such option currently exists.

The AVE network branches out from Madrid to cover most major cities, and connects to France through Barcelona/Figueres, where it can get you to Marseille, Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse.

Note that you can also get to plenty of other cities in Spain, Catalonia and France that are not served by AVE by combining these high-speed routes with medium-distance, high-speed Avant trains, with standard-speed trains, and with buses. The options are endlessly complex, and Trainline (mentioned previously) does a pretty good job of finding you the best ones. Trainline is also the only way to buy combination trips between various operators, like Renfe+Iryo+SNCF, which is especially useful for crossing borders or going to out-of-the-way places.

What Renfe AVE High Speed Trains Are Like

View of the French countryside in a photo I took on a Renfe AVE train going from Barcelona to Lyon

Aside from getting you quickly around some of the greatest cultural spots and most beautiful sites in this corner of Europe, Renfe AVE trains are a treat to ride in and of themselves.

Noise level: In spite of the high speed, AVE trains are quiet when you’re inside them; the Spanish countryside whizzes past at a low hum. The experience is much quieter than being inside a car, plane, or standard train. That said, Spaniards are not exactly the quietest bunch; conversations are sometimes held at nearly shouting levels. First class tends to be a bit quieter; there you can expect more people on business trips who are quietly pecking away at laptops.

Toilets: The toilets are chemical toilets and there are sinks for handwashing (no drinking water), soap, and a weak hand-dryer that doesn’t do much good. There is an outlet for an electric razor that offers both 110- and 220- volt options.

A toilet in a Renfe AVE train
The sink in the restroom of a Renfe AVE train
The luggage storage at the end of a train car on AVE

Luggage: While generally not measured nor weighed, you are in theory limited on AVE trains to three pieces of luggage which shouldn’t exceed 25 kg. / 55 lbs. and 290 cm. / 114 in. in total. Each piece shouldn’t measure more than 85 x 55 x 35 cm. / 33 x 22 x 14 in. That said, as long as you can handle your luggage yourself and not cause problems for others, you’re unlikely to raise an eyebrow.

You may take small hand baggage, strollers (folded) or baby seats, musical instruments in their cases measuring a maximum of 30 x 120 x 38 cm / 12 x 47 x 15 in., and bicycles and scooters that are folded and carried in their cases and not longer than 180 cm / 71 in.

Note that the luggage limits for Renfe’s Avlo service and for the competing Ouigo service are much more restrictive than AVE. If you’re travelling heavy in Spain (not recommended!) go with AVE or Iryo.

On AVE cars there are luggage racks at the ends of each car for large luggage pieces, and smaller hand luggage and backpacker packs like those we recommend easily fit in the overhead racks above the seating. Personally I like to use a small rolling backpack that I put up top and a daypack that stays with me and fits under the seat in front of me.

Wi-Fi: Most Renfe AVE tickets have Wi-Fi; see our article with complete information on the Wi-Fi on AVE trains.

In-seat power outlets: There is a European power outlet under the armrest; you should prepare with an all-purpose, any-country plug adapter if your device comes from elsewhere.

First Class vs. Second Class on AVE Trains

On AVE, second class is perfectly comfortable with seats four-to-a-row across the train car, and first class is a bit more luxurious, with seating three to a row (two seats together, one separate, aisle in the middle). You’re a bit more likely to encounter loud families and groups of people travelling together and chatting in second class, whereas first class tends to be more business people travelling solo and thus the noise level may be less.

The first class seating looks much nicer, the seats use a (presumably faux-) leather material. I personally think the orange/brown of the second-class seating is a pretty ugly color choice, but one spends one’s time looking out the window anyway.

AVE first class seats are three to a row
AVE first-class seat

AVE second class seats, four to a row
AVE second-class seats

Second class has a lower carbon footprint since more passengers fit into a standard second-class car.

Food and Drink Options at the AVE Bar Car

The train bar can be a pleasant place to stop for a drink or a coffee, and there are some basic food options to wipe out hunger — but nothing like a true dining car experience with seating and waiters. There is no seating but some nice places to stand, watch the landscapes race past, and chat with fellow travellers.

Renfe AVE bar car

The menu below gives an idea of the options but will vary according to the train and time period; not all options are always available.

The full menu in a Renfe AVE train bar car.
Discounts are available for combined drink and food combos (called “un menu” in Spanish; the menu in turn is called “la carta“).
My breakfast on AVE on a sunny morning train.

That’s the basics of the AVE experience! I love and recommend these trains and take them all the time. If you have questions, advice, or feel I’ve overlooked something here, drop a note in the comments and I’ll do my best to update this.

2 thoughts on “What To Expect on Spain’s Renfe AVE Trains—Tips from My Travels”

  1. I’m booked on a Renfe Ava train from Barcelona to Madrid in my upcoming trip in May 2024!
    Thank you for this very useful article.
    It’ll be my first solo trip and I appreciate all the resources available on the net!
    After all more is less as far as research goes!

  2. Carleton Hoffman

    thank you for the great article. i travel with a large suitcase and one thing i am concerned about whether there will be space to store it on the train. i have read contradictory information regarding this as well as how early i will have to arrive at the station in order to be sure i won’t miss the train. i looked at a Barcelona/Madrid schedule on the Renfe site and one train displayed 3 letters (which of course i don’t remember now) after AVE and i can’t find anywhere what that indicates, possibly a non-stop (“direct”) trip. i heard that the prices keep going up the longer i put off buying the tickets so i was thinking of trying to reserve all our trips before we get to Spain. of course it is impossible to contact Renfe directly and their FAQs don’t address these topics.

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