I’ve always found train travel to be a delight.
Whether I’m rolling along the Costa Brava on a small cercanías (local suburban train) and gazing at the waves, or hurtling between the cosmopolitan heartthrobs Barcelona and Madrid on an AVE (high-speed train), I can’t get enough.
It’s much more comfortable than an airplane, and for Spanish learners there’s another bonus—something about being on the rails makes people more talkative, and so this is a great way to practice your language skills.
Spain’s national train company is Renfe, and it runs the previously mentioned snappy and modern AVE trains to many of Spain’s major cities as well as heading out to a few other countries. More cities are covered by traditional long-distance trains (including some overnight sleeper trains), and there are short-distance connections on the cercanías.
Even if you’re an advanced Spanish learner, you might still want to go over the vocabulary specific to trains—it’s likely that this situational vocabulary wasn’t covered in your textbooks. This article should have a bit of useful vocabulary for anyone looking to speak Spanish on the rails.
Spanish Train Travel Vocabulary for Navigating the Rails Like a Native Spaniard
Buying Tickets for Spanish Trains
Tickets can be bought in person at ventanillas (ticket windows) at train stations, at the official train site of Renfe or via private portals that are more functional but may have fewer options (like seat selection): Trainline.eu and Loco2.com.
Some complex route information can actually also be better found on the German train company’s website, Bahn.de (which also has better English).
If you’re not ready to try the full Spanish site, you can click on the “welcome” button at the top of the page for English, although you’ll still find a lot of the site isn’t translated or it’s translated poorly. The train-geek hero at Seat 61 has a guide to the quirks of Renfe and provides more info like seat comfort and options.
However you buy your tickets, here’s some of the essential vocabulary to know:
billete — ticket
localizador — reference number
todas (estaciones) — all (stations)
You’ll see the term “todas” after some city names, like “Madrid (todas).” This option is usually preferable. It allows you to see options for all trains going to Madrid, and not just to a specific station in Madrid.
City names on the Renfe site aren’t translated, so you have to enter Sevilla instead of Seville, for example.
salida — departure city
llegada — arrival city
The seat classes available on trains depend on the route, but are generally:
turista — 2nd class
turista plus — 2nd class with a more comfy seat
preferente — 1st class
There are various tarifas, or fare rates, for each class and route. These allow for different options with respect to exchanges, refunds and ticket selection.
Once selected on the website, they change the conditions of the ticket, and after years Renfe has still not translated this text. Important conditions to understand are:
elección de asiento — choice of seat
sin elección de asiento — without seat choice
cambios — changes
anulaciones — cancellations
indemnización por retraso — refund in case of delay
If you’re purchasing from a ticket window, forget the yo quisiera (I would like) that you may have learned from a textbook or phrasebook. The simplest way to buy something is to just say the name of the thing and tack on a por favor (please) at the end.
Spanish people are likely to communicate this way themselves (often leaving off the please, but if you’re a fumbling foreigner it never hurts to be extra polite).
Un billete para Madrid, por favor. — A ticket to Madrid, please.
ida — outbound journey
vuelta — return journey
ida y vuelta — ticket with return
el próximo tren — the next train
Voy a pagar en efectivo. — I’m going to pay with cash.
Voy a pagar con tarjeta de crédito. — I’m going to pay with a credit card.
Gracias. — Thank you.
Note that foreign credit cards and especially American cards may not work at Spanish train stations. However, you’ll be able to find a cash machine at many larger stations.
Spanish You Need for Finding Your Train and Your Seat
Got your ticket in hand and ready to board the train? Here is the signage vocabulary and some of the words and phrases you might need in order to get there.
estación — train station
salidas — departures
llegadas — arrivals
andén — platform
vía — track
coche — car
plaza — seat (followed on the ticket by your seat number/letter combination)
¿Dónde está …? — Where is…?
You may see the following warning printed on your ticket. Be there a bit ahead of time!
Cierre del acceso al tren dos minutos antes de la salida. — Access to the train closes two minutes before departure.
sala de espera — waiting room
¿Cuándo sale el tren a Sevilla? — When does the train to Seville leave?
In a crowded area like a train station, it’s vital to know what to vocalize in order to clear a path and let people know that you’d like to get through.
Permiso. — Excuse me / watch out / coming through.
Words and Phrases for a Smooth Ride
Plopped into your seat and ready to enjoy the ride? Don’t do it in silence! Spaniards are, to put it mildly, a talkative bunch, and this is all the better for your language skills. Feel free to chat up your neighbors.
Hola, ¿qué tal? — Hello, how is it going?
Bien, gracias. — Well, thanks.
¿De dónde vienes? — Where are you from?
¿Adónde vas? — Where are you headed?
Voy a Barcelona. — I’m going to Barcelona.
Soy de Francia. — I’m from France.
¡Qué guay! — Awesome! (As in English, you can and should employ this liberally, especially if you don’t understand a conversation but it seems vaguely enjoyable and you would like it to continue.)
If you don’t want to risk starting a rambling conversation that you’ll never be able to escape from, wander down to the café / bar car for a snack and try your Spanish out there. Here’s some useful vocabulary for that car.
cafetería — café / bar car
bar móvil — “mobile” bar, an employee who comes through the cars on some long distance trains with a more limited selection of food and drinks
la carta — the menu
el menú — a food / drink combo deal, often a packaged sandwich and a drink
un café solo — espresso
un vino — wine
un agua — water
una cerveza — beer
una tortilla — omelette with potatoes
un plato caliente — a hot dish
un plato frío — a cold dish
A couple of things to remember
In the countries / regions / whatever served by Renfe that speak other languages, you would do much better to recognize this than to assume that people want to chat in Spanish with you.
This applies to those Renfe trains that circulate in Galicia, the Basque country, France (obviously) and my lovely rebellious current home base Catalonia.
At the very least, learn “hello” and “please” in the local language when travelling in these areas, and don’t presume that people’s language or identity is Spanish.
Spanish may just be something that they weren’t particularly happy to learn in school. So don’t go apologizing for your poor Spanish—apologize for your poor Catalan / Galician / whatever! You’ll win a lot more respect.
Signage will also be primarily or secondarily in those languages, usually in addition to Spanish and English.
Feeling ready to hop onto a train, and better your language skills in the process? I hope that this post has given you a good jumping-off point.
I can’t possibly cover every single word you’ll ever need on the rails, but I do hope that this gets you rolling in the right direction.
Mose Hayward is often based in Barcelona and has written extensively on the best train ticket websites for Spain.
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