CP-hauled Sleeper Train - Photo from a fantastic article by João Cunha for Trains for Europe - ‘The Future of Night Trains in Europe’ (13/06/2021), https://trainsforeurope.eu/the-future-of-night-trains-in-iberia)
Portugal's position on the far south-west of the European continent can make no-fly travel difficult. You have to cross the length of Spain and southern France before connecting to anywhere else in Europe. At the moment, no-fly travel in and out of Portugal is more difficult than it used to be - and more than it will be in a few years time!
There used to be a night train running from the French border (Irun/Hendaye) to Lisbon, the Sud Express . You can still see the 'suspended' route here , but Renfe has made it clear they don't want to run this train again. In future, there will be a high-speed train connecting Madrid to Lisbon, but unfortunately that's some years off. A large section - Plasencia-Badajoz - was inaugurated in July 2022 , but don't count on this for a few years yet.
Above: My own view of Ponte Luis I in Porto, 2017
Once you're in Portugal, you have plenty of trains and buses to get around the country. It's getting there that's the hard bit!
For now, there are 3 key ways to get into or out of Portugal as part of a no-fly journey.
1. Vigo to Porto - Train/Coach
Thankfully, Vigo is now very easy to reach by train from the rest of Spain. From 2021 , you can catch high-speed trains there directly from Madrid. Take a look at the dining car and seat views (July 2022).
Getting from the high-speed rail terminus - Ursaiz - to the coach station used to be a pain in Vigo. I have done this twice, in 2017 and 2022. While Ursaiz went from a building site to a spacious terminus with all kinds of facilities in that time, the coach station was worse than ever: waiting to be replaced, and in sore need of demolition.
Thankfully, they have finally shifted the coaches to the new and improved Ursaiz station in the last year. No more need to walk 1.6km (1 mile) to an ancient building with no facilities, supermarkets, bars etc.
The buses to Porto from here are comparatively frequent and cheap. Flixbus and ALSA both send 4 buses a day down this route, taking between 2:15 and 2:45 depending on the exact route. Expect to pay €7-14.
While Vigo Guixar is 10 minutes down the hill from Ursaiz, only two trains a day leave here for Porto: 0858-1020, and 1956-2118. The true journey time is 2:25, so very similar to most of the coaches. These trains are also cheap, and very scenic. This photo below was taken by me on the coast near Carreço on a September morning in 2017.
2. Badajoz/Entroncamento - Train
This is an option where timetable info from Seat61 is invaluable. The key to this is a local service run by Portuguese railways - CP - from Badajoz to Entroncamento. The former is a Spanish border town in Extremadura, the latter is a large railway junction - surely the station with more connections than any other in Portugal.
Anti-Gave, ‘A automotora 0354 repousa em Badajoz depois de efectuar o Regional vindo do Entroncamento’ (CC BY-SA 3.0), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badajoz_railway_station#/media/File:CP_Badajoz.jpg
There are two Badajoz-Entroncamento services per day. While Badajoz-Madrid trains aren’t all that common, there are enough to make this route work. Seat61 quotes total journeys from Madrid to Lisbon this way as 0850-1700 or 1055-2220… roughly 8 and 11.5 hours respectively!
If you insist on going purely by train, this option works, and should be fairly cheap. Really, this is only the best option for someone looking to see the area these trains pass through. Badajoz is pretty, but Entroncamento isn’t really, sorry!
3. Madrid-Lisbon - Coach
This option is the simplest but perhaps the least appealing for those who don't like buses! Going straight from Lisbon to Madrid by coach is the most time and cost effective way to get in/out of Portugal on a no-fly trip.
You have two main operators to choose from: Flixbus and ALSA. The trip should take around 8 hours, and both operators give you two departures per day: one during the day, and one overnight.
Buy in advance and expect a ticket for around €20 - closer to the day, that might go up to €30. Still pretty affordable! Flixbus departures are 1130-1835 and 2355-0710(+1): ALSA are 1515-2215 and 2330-0600(+1).
Which one is best?
Between these three options, the first consideration is time/speed.
If you take the Madrid-Vigo-Porto route, your actual travel time on buses/trains could be as low as 6:45 - but that doesn’t count the hours changing trains in Vigo, and it's only truly useful if you want to get to Porto instead of Lisbon.
While there are very good trains from Porto to Lisbon, they don’t leave late enough to make this a smooth connection for a single day’s travel; you’d have to stay overnight in Porto. This is also the most expensive option.
Both the direct coach and the rail route to Lisbon via Badajoz take roughly 8 hours in the middle of the day. The trains will be more comfortable if you’re willing to give up the day. In the future, improvements to this route with new track should make it unquestionably the best option, but sadly not yet!
However, the overnight coach option makes a long journey suddenly very time-efficient. No, you won’t get a good night’s sleep on the coach - but if efficient use of time is your key concern, this is the best option. You can spend the day getting from other parts of Portugal to Lisbon, take an overnight bus to Madrid, and then you have all the trains to choose from for onward journeys.
It all comes down to Porto vs Lisbon; Comfort vs time-efficiency. Happy travelling!