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Free train travel in Spain: How you book is changing so make sure you don't get caught out

Most train journeys in Spain will be free from September.
Most train journeys in Spain will be free from September.   -   Copyright  Milan Markovic/Getty Images
By Rosie Frost

Earlier this year, Spain introduced a free train travel scheme for journeys from 1 September to 31 December.

But Spanish rail operator Renfe has just changed some of the terms and conditions to avoid "ghost reservations."

After the scheme was introduced, passengers began taking advantage of the system by booking multiple reservations at different times. As the trains are now free, it meant that they didn't incur any financial penalties for not using the trips they had booked.  

These "ghost reservations" caused trains to look like they were completely full up to ten days in advance. Renfe has faced backlash from commuters who couldn't book a seat but were seeing their usual service leave half empty from the station. 

Now the Spanish rail operator has limited passengers to two outgoing and two return journeys in an attempt to prevent the problem. The Renfe app also won't allow travellers to book the return part of their trip until their outgoing train has set off. 

How can you get free train tickets in Spain this autumn?

The scheme, announced by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on 12 July, applies to short and medium distance trains run by the national rail operator Renfe. It is open to all nationalities, including international tourists.

Free tickets are available on all Renfe commuter trains (Cercanías and Rodalies) and mid-distance regional lines covering journeys of less than 300km (Media Distancia routes). 

The 100 per cent discount is only available on multi-trip tickets, not singles. Travel on other services, including long distance trains and those operated by other companies, will not come under the measures.

This could mean free train travel between cities like Barcelona and Seville or Madrid and Bilbao.

This could mean free train travel between cities like Barcelona and Seville or Madrid and Bilbao - if you are willing to commit to buying a season ticket.

Although the tickets are free, a deposit of €10 or €20 is required to take advantage of the offer. You must have made at least 16 journeys by the end of December for this to be refunded.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP
A woman buys train tickets at an automatic ticket machine for the Spanish state-owned rail company Renfe.GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

A 50 per cent discount on Renfe train tickets was already introduced in June in an effort to help out commuters. 

But, after reviewing the financial state of the country, Prime Minister Sánchez decided to make journeys completely free for a certain period.

Why is Spain making train travel free?

The free train tickets are aimed at reducing the impact of the cost of living crisis in the country.

Germany introduced a similar measure between June and August with a discounted nationwide public transport pass. It gave travellers unlimited use of local and regional services for just €9 a month.

But Spain has decided to go one step further by making train travel on its Renfe services free between September and December this year.

“I am fully aware of the daily difficulties that most people face. I know that your salary is getting less and less, that it is difficult to make ends meet, and that your shopping basket is becoming more and more expensive,” Sanchez said.

“I am going to work my skin to the bone to defend the working class of this country.”

Spain's windfall tax is funding the subsidised travel

The free rail tickets will be funded by a new windfall tax on banks and energy companies that have profited from rising interest rates and energy prices. 

The new levy is set to be introduced in 2023 and could generate up to €7 billion in two years.

It will also be used to build 12,000 new homes and fund youth scholarship programmes.