Spain Train Tickets – 4 Tips for Buying Train Tickets on Renfe

Posted By Jeremy in Europe | 25 comments



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For those who have purchased tickets on the Spanish train booking website Renfe, you are probably cringing in recollection of your experiences.  For those who are heading to Spain in the future but have yet to purchase tickets, you probably have heard the rumors about how bad the service is. 

For those who do not know what I am talking about, you’re about to have an eye opening experience.  Buying tickets on Renfe is quite possibly one of the worst travel experiences one can have, and after several frustrating purchase attempts for our vacation in Spain we figured out 4 great tips to help make your purchasing experience a breeze! 

Why the Headache Buying Renfe Train Tickets?

The notoriety of Renfe comes from many sources throughout the years.  The network is the main site to purchase all train travel in Spain and also offers some of the best deals you can find.   But as the attractive ticket prices lure you in, the poor website design and seemingly impossible network results in many headaches as purchase attempt after purchase attempt get denied and timeout. 

This process repeats itself several times over such that many people often just give up on trying to get the deal and spend more money at a 3rd party website (like Rail Europe) to get past the time required to get Renfe to work altogether.  But for those who wish to try their luck, follow these four tips we put together after purchasing our own tickets on Renfe with moderately good success!

Tip #1 – Buy Early and at the Right Time

The online booking deals through Renfe are one of the most popular anywhere in the world.  For every ticket that is available, early booking promotions exist that can allow a few select people to get up to 60% off the price of a ticket.  

For us, that meant buying an overnight private room for two from Granada to Barcelona for less than the cost of a more open room for four, and even comparable to some of the basic seated fares.  

When looking at the larger picture, these fares are even cheaper than flying a budget airline carrier and having one more night of an expensive hotel stay in your destination city.  But as these deals are almost too good to be true, you must get them early.

Tickets from the Renfe system become available 62 days in advance at midnight Spain time and recently started selling tickets between Madrid and Barcelona 120 days in advance.*  Nearly all tickets will have published web fares at significantly discounted prices, but only in such a low quantity that the tickets are often sold out a day or two after going on sale. 

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It is sad to say, but a few short hours could be the difference between an incredibly discounted ticket or another for the same seat that is 50% more expensive as happened to us when buying tickets from Madrid to Sevilla (although shorter Madrid day trips are less of an issue).

When it doubt on the exact time to purchase a ticket on Renfe, try out the following two activities:

  1. Look at dates closer to today’s date to see when the ticket sales cease.  Renfe typically adds ticket sales one day at a time, so it is easy to find where the current sales date is.
  2. Watch ticket sales around midnight Spain time to confirm they go on sale at this time.  Two sets of our tickets went on sale a few hours before midnight Spain time on the day they were to go on sale.

As getting a good deal on Renfe is part being in the right place at the right time, it is worth looking in advance to know without a shadow of a doubt when tickets will become available.

*Note – These dates were accurate as of May 2012. Please check to see if these have changed when researching in the future.

Tip #2 – Prepare for Website Crashes and Oddities

Booking on the site often feels like performing an activity on the internet from the mid-1990s. Some computer in their system, located in some part of Spain, has likely not been updated since then. 

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Add in a few hundred tourists wanting to buy tickets as soon as they go on sale and the computer overloads.  Don’t be surprised if this overload on the computer results in many minutes passing by with nothing happening, and several crashes of their server with only the prompt to return later.  But in order to get the web fare deal, especially in the busy summer months, you must keep working through it.

The second oddity to watch out for when buying Renfe tickets is that the site will often switch back and forth from English to Spanish text. 

While some writers swear that starting the prompt entirely in Spanish will yield better results in completing the transaction, we believe this is not the case.  But what you do need to consider is the Spanish translations of some of the common transaction terms you’ll see on the Renfe system:

  • Email – Correo Electronico
  • First Name – Nombre
  • Last Name – Apellidos
  • Type of Document: Tipo de Documento  (Choose Pasaporte)
  • Passport # – Numero de Documento
  • Address – Direccion
  • Post Code – Codigo Postal
  • City – Poblacion
  • State/Province – Provincia
  • Country – Pais

Even though we are only moderately proficient in Spanish, seeing these prompts dozens of times made us be able to recall these phrases from memory with ease.

A working Renfe system will get to a check out screen, allow you to enter a credit card, and most likely prompt you to complete a Verified by Visa or Mastercard log-in.   Any interruption between these pages will result in you having to start over, and a failure to purchase after the Verified by Visa prompt is likely due to your bank denying charges.  Any interruption before these pages will likely be well before any information is sent to your bank for approval.

*Note – I do not work for Renfe or any transportation department in Spain, my statement of old computers is a tongue-in-cheek joke.  To anyone in Spain or workers of Renfe, I mean no disrespect, but it is incredibly difficult to buy tickets on the website.  I’d be happy to provide a consultation to improve your services if needed.

Tip #3 – Use a Bank Card and Call in Advance

One of the biggest published headaches on the whole Renfe purchasing system is that it is incredibly difficult for those who use credit cards issued outside of Spain and many other European countries.  Those that are hit especially hard with this issue are Americans, and hundreds of published stories exist online where many American and foreign travelers alike are simply unable to purchase Renfe tickets due to their credit card being denied.

There are two reasons for a credit card being denied on an international purchase.  The first is that your bank is assuming your card is being used fraudulently and the charged is stopped to avoid future issues. 

The second is that the software is having issues sending approval to your specific banking institution.  Renfe’s notoriety with the latter of these two issues is so well known that a great majority of the time you cannot even make it to the final confirmation screen, and when you do, your card may get denied for fraud issues anyway.  After putting in several hours of tries to get to the final checkout screen, only to be denied, you can imagine the frustration comes up.

Our successful attempts came about when we used our bank debit card to purchase these tickets, but only after several days went by from our first call to the bank to notify an international transaction was about to take place to when we actually purchased the tickets.  All attempts with our trusty credit cards failed, and even though we were assured we could make instant purchases on our bank card, we did not have success until more than 48 hours after giving notice.  

Once that occurred, we made two unique orders over a period of several days without a single issue.

For full disclosure, we tried both Visa and Mastercards issued from several major banking institutions.  Our banking institution that worked was PNC Bank.

Tip #4 – When All Else Fails, Use a 3rd Party for Spain Train Tickets

If the above three tips do not work, then fall back on our fourth tip – use a 3rd party service.   Many of these services will offer the similar web fares that Renfe is famous for, but will charge up to 10-15 Euro per ticket as a service fee.  After wasting several hours trying to purchase tickets on the Renfe system and no visible signs of progress due to site outages, not reaching the final checkout screen, or any other number of factors, keep in mind that your time is valuable. 

Figure out what your limit is, when you reach it stop, pay the premium, and move on.  The headaches are not worth it.

Do you have any tips for buying Spain tickets online with either Renfe or another 3rd party service like Rail Europe? If so, let us know by commenting below!

Thinking of visiting Spain soon? Check airfare prices on Airfarewatchdog or Skyscanner, search for the best room prices on HotelsCombined or HostelWorld, read more hotel and attraction reviews on TripAdvisor, or book a day tour on Viator!

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Jeremy

Jeremy founded Living the Dream in 2008 to chronicle his long-term trip around Asia. Since then he has been on two long-term trips, visited 69 countries, and is just getting started. He is now on a Lifestyle Design quest to build businesses to pursue a life of travel.

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25 Comments

  1. My advice is to avoid both Renfe and Loco2 online. I too had problems to use the Renfe website to book tickets from Tarraonga to Madrid as it would change to Spanish half way through and session time out. After two days I gave up and booked via Loco2 travel site and paid more for a flexible fare so that I could be sure that I could arrive early or later and not have travel problems. I printed the tickets as Loco2 advised but found you can print for free at the station ticket desk with the booking number.

    Unfortunately i arrived 5 hours early and found that the flexible tickets i paid extra for are not flexible according to Renfe even though it says it on the Renfe ticket.

    So logged into Loco2 website and they dont have an online way to update the tickets. Its email only. I find out they are a small travel agency that you can only be contacted to change the tickets via ema. Only open mon to friday 9 to 5 with no contact number. Not open on weekends.

    Loco2 are very weasely on their T&C which is not clear about support for flexible tickets that they charge extra for. There is a disconnect between flexible and rebookable. In the Uk, France and German rail you can travel at different times with flexible tickets but not with Renfe in Spain on Loco2 tickets.

    So with Loco2 you can only change tickets 24 hours before depture and in their office hours via email if they get back to you. That is rebookable but not flexible.

    According to Renfe customer service mangers at the station Renfe are restricted to change tickets issued by them but can be flexible for other Internet agencies as this is their agreement with Loco2. I spoke to 4 managers at a renfe and they tried to change the ticket but it’s impossible as it’s blocked on their ticket desk computer at the station even though it says flexible on the ticket.

    So Renfe can’t help me even if they wanted to so they told me to ask for a refund from Loco2 and buy another ticket from them. Problem is you cant cancel the Loco2 ticket unless 24 hours before departure.

    Though Loco2 have a nice easy to buy from website their T&C prohibit cancelling so I can see this would not be possible. The T&C even mention that you can’t change tickets at the station.

    So now I have to wait at the train station for 5 hours until17.30.

    Ironies are If i was late i would have to buy another ticket as only Loco2 can issue it.

    And finally you can use the ticket machines at the station in English and there are plenty of seats available whilst being cheaper than Loco2 online.

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  2. So last summer was Germany, and I got so spoiled using Deutsche Bahn’s fantastic website and even better mobile app.

    This summer is Spain. I had no trouble booking Barcelona to Madrid well in advance (and used PayPal to avoid having my credit card declined). However, trying to book tickets to and between smaller cities was impossible. Over and over the Renfe website would tell me there were no trains between those cities – even though I was staring at a freaking map of the Spanish rail network!

    I checked on Loco2.com and found a train, no problem…and realized something. The tickets I was trying to book required a train change. Unlike Deutsche Bahn and SNCF and even freaking Amtrak, RENFE DOESN’T AUTOMATICALLY FIND CONNECTIONS FOR YOU.

    So I booked a ticket from, say, Algeciras to Bobadillo and then a second ticket from Bobadillo to Malaga using the time information gleaned from Loco2.com. Boom. Tickets booked.

    Too bad I figured it out less than a month before the trip and paid a premium for my “tardy” booking…

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  3. Well yeah I too agree with the fact that buying a train ticket is a herculean task now a days and it is very hard to get a reservation. The four tips that you have mention are quite good.

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  4. RENFE worst website ever

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  5. As far as the 3rd party services are concerned, I booked my tickets via the http://www.thetrainline-europe.com website, which redirected me to http://www.acprail.com. No problem using a credit card. I think the prices were the same to those from the renfe website. They sent me an email containing links to my tickets in pdf format.

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    • acprail.com worked perfectly! Thanks!! Renfe’s website is the worst!!!

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    • Thanks a lot, acprail.com worked!!! I tried renfe, rumbo, called my cc company, tried paypal, your recommended website worked immediately and with the same prices!!

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  6. hello there, can anybody help me: “tipo documento” when I filled in “otros” my ID number is not accpeted…any idea why? how should i procced? thanks

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  7. Hi there, do you have any recommended third party online American agents that you can reserve with?

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  8. I cannot relate to this post and I glad to not be able to relate to it 🙂 if you know what i mean. I think the trick is to book well, well in advance and at a time when not many people are likely to be on the website. I am in Asia so I was booking mine while it was 4am in Spain. Also, I used an american express card which completely went through hassle free. I booked several tickets and touchwood, all of them went through like a breeze, though I am slightly bummed that I wanted to change one ticket from 6am to 11am and since I’d bought the promo price, i could not change it. Also, probably worth mentioning that i booked 70 days in advance. I do want to know based on your experience though if I can buy the tickets for short day trips, like madrid to Chinchon, or from barcelona to Montserrat, can I buy them off the counter? I am not sure I will be taking these trips so don’t want to book them in advance. Or would buying bus tickets on the spot make more sense? Thanks!

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    • That is good to hear you didn’t have issues! I always felt like the booking time was quite important, but the system was so horrible for us that it took quite a bit of time! Very much appreciate giving your experience to help out with our tips.

      For short trips we never had any issues buying at the stations. Angie did have to speak Spanish with some of the workers though, but with her moderate skillset we did just fine. I do not recall ever having issues booking these on the day of!

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    • Hi Jeremy, do you have a recommended third party online sites that I can reserve with, American or at least ‘American friendly’, thank you for your insight!

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  9. Hi everyone-
    Has any had an experience where you never get to the confirmation screen or get a confirmation email, but your bank HAS authorized the purchase and it’s being “processed”?? This is a problem I haven’t seen in any of my internet research so far, but as you might guess, it happened to me. Now I don’t know if I have a ticket or not.

    The bank said the charge is pending and could go away if Renfe doesn’t finalize it. How dreadful. I just want to book my transportation!

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  10. Hi Anonymous – That is probably the case. I’ve seen a lot of places in Europe do debit transactions only, so perhaps doing a credit card from the US (or other account) may be an issue too. Our debit card worked like a champ, but maybe we were just lucky.

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  11. Tried 3 different cards with no luck. Worked perfectly and fast with the fourth one. My speculative guess – because it’s with euro account.
    Good luck everyone!

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  12. Hi Anonymous – that sounds very similar to us. Did you try it with your bank account and bypass credit cards altogether? That is the only way we got it to work and even then we had to wait a few days to make sure the authorization was ready even though our bank swore it was immediate.

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  13. Bought a ticket first try with MC from Canada. Went to buy the next leg of the journey and failed. And failed. And failed. Perhaps the worst internet experience I have had in a decade. And after the initial success – we knew it was possible, which made it very difficult to give up.

    But I am now at the point where I would give my first born to anyone who can get me a tiacket. Truly a horrible experience.

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  14. Spent several hours trying to guy tickets. AMEX didn’t work. Tried 2 different Visa cards. No luck. Finally bought a pass through an agent. Paid a little more, but worth it for the ease.

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  15. The RENFE website is a real pain! Its not only a USA thing. I currently live in UK but also cannot complete the ticket-buying after two days of frustration. Will try it again. Thanks for your tips. At least now I am feeling not alone…

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  16. Trying to cancel a ticket is absolutely impossible. I am a travel agent acting for a client and I can’t bring the record locator or the the ticket numbers up to cancel and the call center numbers don’t work either – numbers not in use. Frustrating and time consuming.

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  17. That Renfe website can be a real pain. I found the best way to do it is to use the Spanish version and use Google translate to change the page to English. I also found a good forum on Trip Advisor that explained how to book tickets.

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  18. Excellent tips! Also, when traveling in Spain, I have found that the printed brochure you pick up in the train station is not always the reality.

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  19. So glad to read about your tips on how to buy a train ticket when in Spain.
    I never realised how challenging it would be (online) when its all in Spanish!
    Love the idea of buying a ticket at a cheaper rate.
    If we ever get to Spain (not sure how we would get our bus there!) will have to remember your handy hints.
    Cheers
    Lisa

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  20. I’m glad to hear you didn’t have any issues! It must be a USA thing then. I was horrified when I read all of the forum posts about it. Somehow once we got our bank to authorize our cards and waited a few days it was all good from there on.

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  21. Great tips! I’m from Canada, and didn’t have any problems with the site or my credit card. I was almost disappointed that I didn’t have a horrible RENFE site story. I got tons of great advice in advance, kept the site in Spanish, and maybe said a prayer – or two.

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