Flight free vacations to Spain

When the British go on vacation, they go to Spain. That was upwards of 18 million of us in 2019, drawn by the beaches, weather, food, and the ease of getting there in a couple of hours by plane.
With the proliferation of budget airlines – there are around 5,000 flights between the UK and Spain every week – we have forgotten how quick, easy and enjoyable it is to get there by land. Driving non-stop, you can get from London to Barcelona in just 15 hours. Madrid and Seville are not much further. However, why risk traffic jams or tire yourself out when you can go by train instead?

How to get to Spain by rail

The journey from London to Barcelona by rail takes a while, but it’s sublime. After crossing the Channel on an early Eurostar, you nip over from the Gare du Nord in Paris to the Gare de Lyon (25 minutes in a taxi or less than 10 on the RER train), grabbing a coffee and a bag of fresh croissants on the way. Next you board a high-speed direct train to Barcelona that will whisk you to the Catalan capital in just seven hours. Settle into your seat and soak up views of the Rhône Valley, Pyrenees, Provence and Mediterranean coast drifting past.
Should you wish to go further once you’re in Barcelona, you can easily connect with local trains going to the wider Catalonia region, Madrid, the Costas or Andalucia – you can even take the ferry over to the Balearic Islands.
Bronagh Carroll, from our Camino walking partner Magic Hills, believes more travelers from the UK and Ireland should consider this flight free option for Northern Spain too: “Train services in Spain on the main rail network are fast; I would say almost on a par with Japan. We also have a network of short rural routes which are very good quality, and very inexpensive. From Ireland, it’s very easy for us to get to Spain without flying, with the new boat route to Northern Spain. Or you can go from London to Paris then on to San Sebastian by train, and from there you’ve got lots of options.”
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Flight free pilgrimage walking

“The great appeal of Camino walking,” says Bronagh Carroll, “and what sets them apart from other long-distance walks, is in the history and the culture. People have walked these routes for hundreds of years to see the relics. Nowadays they come for their health, for nature, to practise the language, to reflect on their lives, and for the social side. You meet people from all over the world – some really interesting characters, as these are not your typical vacations. But other long-distance routes just don’t offer the same history; that’s what makes Caminos special.”

You could get the Eurostar to Paris, continue by rail to Hendaye on the Spanish border, then change and be in San Sebastian by late afternoon. Spend a night exploring the wonderful pinxto cuisine and if you can drag yourself away from it next day, you can then be at your Pamplona start point by mid-morning.
Then there is the Lebaniego Way, which begins in Santander, a relaxed 24-hour ferry crossing from Portsmouth. Bronagh Carroll says: “The Lebaniego Way is a more challenging Camino not especially suited to first-timers, as it doesn’t have the infrastructure of the main routes – you have to carry your own food and water, and there are no cafés. Also, the topography is quite demanding; there are some steep climbs every day. It runs south inland to Potes, where there’s a monastery with a piece of the cross. We recommend it to people who have done the French or Northern Way and want a fresh challenge. Scenery-wise, it’s incredible: coast and rural hamlets, then the Picos de Europa.”
For all of these flight free routes, you need to allow more time. But for many aficionados of long-distance walking, the great appeal of such vacations is slowing things right down to fully appreciate the landscapes and cultures you’re walking through. If you are interested in walking the Camino de Santiago, or getting elsewhere in Spain, without going by air then it’s easily done. And when you break up the journey to your final destination with a night or two in other places such as Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian or Bilbao, it will give your vacation an extra dash of Spanish culture.

Other flight free vacations in Spain

Our responsible tour operators in Spain can help you get to yoga and walking retreats in Valencia, just three hours from Barcelona by train. Should you wish a longer trip, you can take the ferry over to Ibiza in around four hours.

You can lace up your boots for self guided walking vacations in rural Andalucia and Catalonia – both eminently reachable by train from the UK with guidance from our responsible vacation partners. And you can quite easily combine a section of the Northern Way Camino with walking in the rugged Picos de Europa National Park.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Amos from Stockphotos.com] [Topbox: Jorge Fernandez Salas] [How to get there: Marina Vitale] [Pilgrimage walking: Oula Lehtinen]