Group Travel: Train, Bus, or Plane?

Travel in a group by train, bus or plane
Image of the Guggenheim Museum, a Key Attraction in Bilbao. Photo taken by Jorge Fernandez Salas

How will my group get around?

So, you've almost got everything organized: you've chosen the hotels, made a list of everything you're going to see, the attractions, and the visits to places you've never been before. You already know the restaurants where you'll eat. Now all that remains is to arrange transportation, and within your group, there are various preferences: "Let's go by car," "Traveling by train is much more enjoyable," "Why not consider renting a bus?" and "I prefer traveling by plane. “As you hear all these opinions, you already feel it's going to be difficult to please everyone. Luckily, you decide because in the end, you're the one who planned this trip. 

Here we will help you put everything in order to have an overview of all the pros and cons, so you can easily make good decisions.

Example of a trip from Madrid to Bilbao 

Para concretar, ponemos como ejemplo un viaje en grupo de Madrid a Bilbao.

You're probably wondering what the best mode of transportation is for this excursion in Spain, which has a complete network of railways and air connections between major cities. Additionally, in Madrid, you can rent a charter bus with a private driver. 

Which of these options is the most interesting for your group? Well, that's the crux of the matter, and we'll try to answer objectively. To do this, we'll take into account various factors, such as personal preferences, costs, environmental impact, and comfort in terms of options and privacy. 

Option 1: Flying your group 

Aerial photograph of a passenger plane
Picture taken by Ross Parmly

Sustainability and cost of flying 

It's not rocket science to understand that if you're traveling with a group of around 30 tourists for a 4–5-day trip - let's say departing on a Wednesday in March and returning on a Saturday or Sunday - airlines such as Iberia often extend group discounts , typically around 10-15%. Taking advantage of this discount, a round-trip ticket from Madrid to Bilbao, including a checked bag, would usually set you back about €200-230 per person. So, for flights alone, you're looking at a total cost of €6,000 to €7,000, sans transfers to and from the airports in Madrid and Bilbao. While there's always a chance for a better deal, it's unlikely to dip below €4,000 in total. Now, let's discuss the environmental impact. It's no secret that flying has its sustainability challenges. Given the short distance between Madrid and Bilbao, there's certainly room for exploring alternative modes of travel.

Velocity and environmental considerations

Environmental consciousness is increasingly at the forefront of our minds, and it's a consideration that warrants attention. Moving on to the need for speed - if your itinerary is bursting at the seams with sights to see across Spain, then the swift pace of air travel holds considerable appeal. Whisking you from Madrid to Bilbao in a mere 60 minutes, flying offers a substantial time-saving advantage. However, it's essential to remember that air travel encompasses more than just flight time. Factor in the additional time airlines require for early arrival, potential security queues, and transit from city to airport. By adding an extra 2 hours each way for these aspects, the total travel time for this journey amounts to approximately 5 hours. One wildcard in this equation is the frequent delays that plague airlines, particularly in Bilbao, where fickle weather conditions often play havoc with schedules. 



Option 2: travel by train 

Spain boasts Europe's largest high-speed train network. Much like many other European countries, we have numerous train connections, especially between major cities like Madrid and Bilbao. 

Almost high speed 

Between these two capitals, there isn't a dedicated high-speed train service, but you can opt for the Alvia service, which reaches a maximum speed of 250 km/h, operating on both high-speed and conventional tracks. The journey takes approximately 4 hours. IF you plan well ahead and make a group booking at RENFE then the average price for a round trip is €100, assuming tickets are purchased online well in advance. The total cost for your group would be around €3,000.

More comfortable than the plane

Unlike the plane, on the train, you'll enjoy more space and comfort in your seat, and you can enhance your journey with the convenience of an onboard restaurant car. Additionally, both some newer airplane models and high-speed trains like the Alvia feature charging outlets at every seat, a crucial amenity for staying connected with mobile devices or tablets. 

Perhaps the most romantic way to travel 

Enthusiasts of trains often find it to be a delightful way to traverse the country, with the gentle rocking motion aiding in relaxation and even allowing for a brief nap. However, this can sometimes prove challenging, as high-speed trains tend to be consistently crowded, and despite the presence of designated quiet carriages, few passengers respect the right to peaceful rest for others. At least, that's what many regular travellers have observed! 

Once you've reached your destination, you may find yourself in need of further transportation, as the station is conveniently located but hauling luggage for the approximately 20-minute journey to, for instance, the Guggenheim Museum, can feel quite lengthy. It's advisable to drop off your bags at the hotel first. Therefore, you'll need to factor in some additional transportation costs from the station.

Two trains parked next to each other at a train station
Picture taken by Yusuf Mansoor 

Option 3: Traveling by hired minibus or coach with driver 

The primary advantage of embarking on the journey to Bilbao and exploring the city and its surroundings via a rented bus or minibus is undoubtedly the flexibility it offers. Particularly beneficial for larger groups, this ability to customize the journey is incredibly convenient. You can make stops for rest and photo opportunities, grab a refreshment, or use the restroom as needed, for example. 

Selective focus photography of people on bus

Between Bilbao and Madrid

The distance between Bilbao and Madrid is approximately 320 kilometres, and by bus or minibus with a driver, it takes roughly four hours to cover. The journey primarily follows the highway, making it quite direct and not particularly hazardous or challenging to navigate. One factor to consider is the traffic, which can be dense during peak hours and may delay arrival in Bilbao 

Comfort and Savings 

Upon arrival, with the bus at your disposal, reaching the hotel becomes a hassle-free task, freeing you from the burden of lugging your luggage around. Your belongings will be more secure than anywhere else, under constant supervision. Furthermore, having the bus available allows for quick excursions to destinations further from your hotel. There's no longer an excuse to miss out on visiting places like Portugalete or Plentzia, both well worth the visit. Additionally, having hired a minibus with a driver in Madrid offers the opportunity to choose a more budget-friendly hotel, likely located outside the city center. With transportation readily available, your group can fully enjoy the tour without any inconvenience.

Bus rental costs 

And what about the cost? For a group of around 35-40 people, the rental cost of a bus for the 4 days is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 euros . This translates to roughly 115-140 euros per traveller. It's important to note that this cost includes all local transfers you'll need over the 4 days, making it perhaps the most economical option. Especially when your visits include sightseeing at museums like the Guggenheim or extensive city walks, the comfort of reclining seats on the bus will undoubtedly be a relief. 

Finally, to summarize 

Every trip is different, and the numbers will vary depending on the size of your group. Transportation options can also be combined. For example, taking the train for the outbound journey and renting a bus at the destination to transport your group could also be a viable option. It's essential to calculate and consider preferences to keep your group happy.

In this example of a group trip from Madrid to Bilbao, the differences in travel costs per person are not significant. Having only one mode of transportation without switches is probably better for the group. The fact that the group has a bus available throughout the journey also adds to the enjoyment of the trip.

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