Is a Spain/Portugal rail pass worth it for Canadians?

See update 16th March 2010 at the end….

This is a question, I get a lot on forums or even from friends who are thinking about Europe, so I thought I would answer it. This is the 5th time that I am using a Eurail pass. My present pass is a first class (preferente) Spain/Portugal pass that costs $589CDN but with the last minute nature of this trip, I had to pay an extra 20$ for shipping, making the total investment $619CDN. I have always questioned the cost/benefit ratio of first class rail passes, because there are always fee supplements with using the first class pass. In Italy, I paid an extra 175$ in supplements for the  pass, Conversely, the extra space, lack of students and crowds make for a better experience that is worth the additional premium. Additionally, there are always extra power sockets to charge your cameras/laptop and other gadgets.

First class rail travel is a relaxing time out from the struggle of backpacking. My cost/benefit analysis for first class rail travel vs tourist class includes:

  • There’s always a lounge with free drinks and liquor and snacks. I save money on things I would normally buy anyway.
  • Free Wi-Fi in the lounge. Huge plus ++
  • Enhanced customer service experience, where they are willing to go the extra mile for you. This makes a difference when you’re struggling with the language, have no idea where to make a reservation, have no idea how much the reservation will cost or just makes you feel better after a long day of lugging a backpack around.
  • No crowds around you and no noise. First class cabins are usually filled business travellers – not many backpackers are in first class, so I always getamusement from the looks or asking the porters why they only checked my ticket, but ignored everyone.
    • My favorite question is, “It’s because I’m Trinidadian, isn’t it????” … then they look confused, since they don’t even know where Trinidad is.
    • My second favorite question is, “It’s because I’m fat, isn’t it?” … that then puts a horrified look on the porter’s face, apologies start flowing out, and then I can’t stop my laughter (yes my sense of humor is a bit twisted at times).
  • Dinner and unlimited booze on the train. Decent scotch can make anything better – Chivas Regal 12 seems to be “de rigeur” on trains, European or North American.

The fee comparison of a one way Madrid – Barcelona segment (17-02-2010) is
Turista:            €134,50
Preferente:     €201,70
Club:                 €242,00

The fee comparison of a one way Barcelona – Seville segment (20-02-2010) is
Turista:            €158,50
Preferente:     €247,70
Club:                 €284,00

The train ride from Madrid to Barcelona on AVE can range from  2:38 to 3:19 in duration, depending on the time of day that one takes the train.

My entire Eurail pass cost €359, so basically for the price of a Madrid to Barcelona and Barcelona to Seville first class segment, the pass becomes very cost effective. If I were to travel 3.5 segments in tourist class, the pass would also become very cost effective. Making reservations on any european train is a little tougher with the pass. The very nature of the pass means that there is no assigned seat for you, since the ticket is an open unlimited ticket, so it becomes very important to understand the conditions around the ticket and the reservation process. Each pass is different, so the first time “activating” the pass can become tedious.

Update 16th March, 2010:

Even though the pass paid for itself after 3 segments, other benefits

  • 1st class reservation fee from Lisbon to Porto  is €4 instead of the €40.50, you would normally pay. I did this trip 3 times, hence I saved €120.
    Turista         €28.50    
    Preferente  € 40,50
  • 1st class reservation fee from Sevilla to Cordoba was €6. The fee comparison of a one way Sevilla Santa Justa to Cordoba Central segment (16-03-2010) is
    Turista         €32.10    
    Preferente  €47.50     
    Club               €57.00
  • Reservation fee from Sevilla to Granada was €8 – there are no AVE trains, just regular regionale service. The fee comparison of a one way Sevilla Santa Justa to Granada segment (16-03-2010) is
    Turista         €23.85    

One key point is that there is even cheaper rail service and bus services between these cities, so one could always cut down the transportation expense dramatically, by taking regional services (R) and intercity (IC) instead of the AVE or ALFA services in Spain and Portugal respectively. You do get what you pay for, and I don’t happen to enjoy being cooped up like a chicken in a bus.

About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on "Ah Trini Travelogue" with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at "Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn't like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn't like cheese and kittens ... and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at

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