How to try Spain’s free train schedule as a tourist

IIn July, the Spanish government said many of its trains would be free from September 1 to December 31 – an initiative aimed at easing financial pressures on commuters.

Taking advantage of the offer as a tourist was a non-starter, due to having to pick a normal route and repeat it like, well, a commuter. Another aspect of the scheme, however, is a 50% discount on a ‘BonoAve Flexible’ pass on ‘Ave’ high-speed trains – from €735 to €367.50 – which includes 10 journeys plus free returns in various ‘metropolitan’ cities . The Cercanías networks (usually around €10 a pop depending on the length of the journey).

To test whether visitors could use this to our advantage, I decided to travel 572 miles down the spine of Spain – from Bilbao to Malaga – using my free access to the metro system to see the quieter corners every metropolis.


Gray skies appeared over Bilbao on the last day of August, bringing a light but steady drizzle – a rain locals refer to as chirimiri. From my terrace in the ultra-glossy NYX Hotel, I could see the great, curved roof of Abando Station, glinting invitingly in the low light. My first train ticket is booked, in the handy Renfe app, but the free ‘Cercanías’ aspect won’t be activated until my next stop via the QR code on my ticket. The app also told me how much CO2 I had saved by choosing train over plane. for example, the longest journey – from Madrid to Córdoba – produced 9.7 kg of CO2 per traveller, as opposed to 137 kg for the corresponding flight. It is not bad.

Stained Glass Art at Bilbao Abando Station

(Matt Charlton)

The next morning, I visited Bilbao’s Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, with its contemporary and modern art exhibitions, and explored the colorful streets of the old city with its street art, before walking to the station to discover that more creativity awaited : a giant, stained-glass arch in the central area, depicting the occupations of the Basque Country. Scanned the QR code, boarded the train. a free rail initiative educational video played on the screens.

Transferring to Miranda De Ebro, a 90-minute train ride south, I double-checked that the short trip to Vitoria-Gasteiz, the seat of the Basque government, was included in my ticket. My assistant said that although teams like Bilbao, Malaga and Madrid had Cercanías, they didn’t have the same system here – I would have to pay. On telling him the reason for my trip, he replied that they were still trying to understand the new rules themselves. (Speaking of rules: masks are still required on Spanish public transport, and most major stations have bag scanners.)

Valladolid is always buzzing at weekends – it’s a Madrid favorite for a short break, although not as well known internationally

Having just checked into my Vitoria-Gasteiz digs for the night, the NH Canciller Hotel (an eight-minute walk from the station), I was treated to stunning views of La Florida Park and the town square beyond. But it’s not long before I head straight to Artium, a museum of Basque contemporary art with works such as ‘A Piece of Crystallized Sky’ – a huge cluster of lamps that flap against each other in the breeze. A whistle stop tour? Sure, but the train waits for no one.

Then a journey of about two hours and 45 minutes southwest, changing again at Miranda De Ebro, to reach the lively city of Valladolid. It was the night of their patron saint’s feast day, adding to the festive atmosphere, but my guide Sergio assured me that Valladolid is always buzzing at weekends – it’s a Madrid favorite for a short break, though not as well known internationally. After trying some tapas at Los Zagales, where the dishes were more like a tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant, I decided that this needs to change – and the beautiful part is that it’s somewhere I’d only come across on the train.


I was pressing south to a more Mediterranean clime on the next leg of my journey, but, as I descended to Toledo via Madrid (about 2 hours 20m), the view from my carriage resembled the brown British summer countryside – only with donkeys instead of cows. Crossing rocks under blue skies, Bilbao’s dark weather was a distant memory.

Toledo was not covered by the pass but, for €20 return, it would be rude not to bother. Google told me it was only a 30 minute walk from my hotel, so I took a taxi. Some time later, having dragged my bag up the slopes and narrow cobbled streets, I finally arrived at Eugina de Montijo, where the staff politely ignored my sweaty forehead and made sure I was fed, watered and massaged .

Stellar view of Vitoria-Gasteiz

(Matt Charlton)

Toledo had the odd feel of a tourist-only city, where locals live outside the beautiful Roman walls and drift over the baroque bridge to work each day. It is not without charm: ancient buildings catch the light for spectacular views. Taverns abound. the local specialty is a macaroon pastry, still made by nuns.

Having only passed through Madrid on my previous train ride, it was time to head back for some proper exploring. The Spanish capital is a city of locals, simple and beautiful, with many personalities depending on when and where you go. Currently in a hipster phase, it has a hole-in-the-wall bar and a garage rock scene to match. The locals recommended that the best use of my Cercanías card would be a day trip from Madrid’s Atocha station to Guadalajara, an hour away on the C2 train service. The city felt like stepping back in time – it sits pretty on the Henares River, dominated by the Concatedral Santa María and the Palace del Infantado, now the Museum of Guadalajara.


Further down, the next 1 hour 45 meter leg took me from Madrid to Córdoba, a city in Andalusia that has perfected the art of merging tourist hub with local charm. Above the main attractions, such as its mosque – a building that succinctly tells the Andalusian story of the religious invasion – and the medieval castle Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, there are modern hangouts such as Jugo Vinos Vivos, a natural wine bar with a bohemian atmosphere and El Rincon De Carmen, a courtyard restaurant hidden behind ivy curtains.

(Matt Charlton)

The last hour long train ride took me to my southernmost stop, Malaga. It was once a neglected airport town, with 42 museums—including one dedicated to the work of Málaga native Picasso—and a thriving cultural scene that includes a theater run by fellow Malegueño Antonio Banderas in the reborn Soho district.

Despite researching Spain’s new train schedule before I went, I felt like I was learning as I went along

Taking advantage of the Cercanías free return one last time, I boarded the C1 service to Benalmadena, 50 minutes away. I could see why it’s a local favorite – avoiding the questionable developments of neighboring coastal towns, it has retained a charming marina and pristine beach. My last afternoon was spent wandering around Malaga’s old town, tasting the sweet wine at Antigua Casa del Guardia and skipping the pre-booked queue at El Pimpi tapas bar.

Despite researching Spain’s new rail program before I went, I felt like I was learning as I went: the difference between ‘Media Distancia’ and ‘Cercanías’. which cities had subway systems that my pass was eligible for. that Madrid has more than one major terminal (maybe that was just me). how I could have used my pass to better effect with a few extra days. But despite all that, I was able to experience a Spain rarely discovered by air travelers – one of local towns, endless fields, local escapes and hidden beaches, all on comfortable, air-conditioned trains. Overall, I found it great.

The essentials for the trip

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

Brittany Ferries operate regular services from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Bilbao.

Fine with flying?

Vueling, Iberia and British Airways fly direct from the UK to Bilbao.

Staying there

More information

Go to to find out more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *