Portugal's train network, Comboios de Portugal (CP), covers most of the country, though it's thin in the Alentejo region. The cities of Lisbon, Coimbra, Aveiro, Porto, Braga, and Faro are linked by the fast, extremely comfortable Alfa Pendular services.
Most other major towns and cities are connected by Intercidade trains, which are reliable, though slower and less luxurious than the Alfa trains. The regional services that connect smaller towns and villages tend to be infrequent and slow, with stops at every station along the line. Ask the local tourist board about hotel and local transportation packages that include tickets to major museum exhibits or other special events.
There are three main classes of long-distance train travel: regional trains, which stop at every town and village; reasonably fast interregional trains; and express trains appropriately known as rápido. The Alfa Pendular is a deluxe, marginally faster train that runs between Lisbon and Porto as well as other major cities. There’s also a network of suburban (suburbano) train lines.
The standards of comfort vary from Alfa Pendular train luxury—with air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, food service, and airline-type seats at which you can plug in your laptop—to the often spartan conditions on regional lines.
Most Intercidade trains have bar and restaurant facilities, but the food is famously unappealing. Smoking is not allowed on any Portuguese trains.
A first-class ticket will cost you 40% more than second class and will buy you extra leg- and elbow room but not a great deal more on Alfa and Intercidade trains. The extra cost is definitely worth it on most regional services, however.
Advance booking is mandatory on long-distance trains and is recommended in the case of popular services like the Alfa. Reservations are also advisable for other trains if you want to avoid long lines in front of the ticket window on the day the train leaves. You can avoid a trip to the station to make the reservation by booking it online.
A direct, nightly train connects Spain and Portugal. The train departs from Madrid's Chamartín station at 9:27 pm and arrives at Lisbon's Santa Apolónia station at 8:10 the following morning; for the reverse trip, the train leaves Lisbon at 9:34 pm, arriving in Madrid at 8:40 am the next day. Passengers can also connect to the train to and from Porto by switching at the Coimbra station; trains depart Porto at 9:55 pm daily on their way to Madrid, while trains from Madrid arrive in Porto at 6:50 am each day.
Eurail passes provide unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a standard pass. These are available in units from three days to three months. In addition to a standard Eurail pass, ask about special rail-pass plans. Among these are the Eurail Youthpass (in second class for those under age 26), the Eurail Saverpass (which gives a discount for two to five people traveling together), a Eurail Flexipass (which allows 10 or 15 travel days within a two-month period), and the Eurail Select Pass ʼn Drive (which combine travel by train and rental car). It's best to purchase your pass before you leave for Europe.
Be aware that if you don't plan to cover many miles, you may come out ahead by buying individual tickets instead of rail passes.
Seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea on trains that may be crowded—particularly in summer on popular routes. You will definitely need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations.
CP. 707/210220; www.cp.pt.
Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; www.raileurope.com.