TL;DR: The Estrella is cheap but it isn’t particularly comfortable or quiet in preferente and looked unbearable in tourista. Next time, we’ll be flying or taking the ave.
When you think of transport between two of Spain’s major cities, Barcelona and Madrid, there are really three options: plane, train or bus. When we visited Spain recently, Alice and I elected to take the train – and instead of taking the ave (high speed), we thought we’d try the overnight Estrella train from Barcelona to Madrid.
We booked our tickets not long after Christmas, securing two preferente seats for just shy of €32 each. This is significantly cheaper than the cheapest tickets on the ave, so we thought we’d gotten a good deal. We also knew already that preferente meant no beds – just reclining chairs, though the renfe website (and any online information about the Estrella train) made this about as clear as mud. We also saw (post-booking) some horrendous reviews – they said the service was old, noisy, smelly and uncomfortable. Expectations were not high.
We arrived at the train station about an hour and a half ahead of our departure – and unfortunately the Barcelona Preferente lounge was closed for refurbishment – so we found a spot and sat on the floor. There is a McDonald’s in the station, which means free (though not fast) WiFi is available, and it doesn’t have any time restrictions on it – a good way to pass the time.
And so to the train: we were pleasantly surprised (for a little while, at least). The train is definitely old and dated – it was almost certainly used for a day service and to save it from retirement, it looks like Renfe repurposed it for the Estrella. With that said, the preferente class seating (seen below in various grainy photos) was not at all bad – it was comfortable and the chairs reclined to about 30 degrees. There was also more than enough legroom, and when we travelled there were only 8 people in a 76-seat preferente carriage – making for several seats each.
With that said, I had a brief look in a standard tourista class carriage while we were travelling, and that looked awful. The seats in that class don’t recline and have significantly less than the cost legroom we enjoyed – the best I can liken it to is Ryanair / easyJet seating – it looks like it was designed with short trips in mind, and I would not want to sleep in it (or even try to).
The carriage also smelled pretty bad – perhaps the combination of an entire carriage of travellers removing their shoes – perhaps this is where all of the terrible reviews came from. The preferente class is a reasonable alternative, and with advance booking prices being pretty reasonable – and even if you rock up on the day, it is still only about €60 a seat.
After we pulled away and everyone settled down to try and get some sleep, we noticed two things. One: the seats, while reclining, are damn near impossible to get comfortable on. It may have been because I’m relatively tall, but I got very little sleep that night. The second is that it isn’t quiet – various fixtures (mostly the tables built into the seats) rattle and shake with the train, making an infuriating amount of noise. In the end, we both got minimal sleep, and checked into our hotel at 8am the following morning (8 hours ahead of schedule – the Puerta America Madrid is awesome) to get some much needed shuteye before we explored Madrid.
So, the Estrella was a functional way of travelling between cities and saving a night in a hotel, but it wasn’t in any way luxurious or even especially comfortable. Next time, I think we’ll fly or take the ave.