Last Updated on August 16, 2022 by Jeremy
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For those who have tried to buy Spain train tickets on the 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 When Trying to Buy Train Tickets in Spain?
The notoriety of buying Renfe train tickets 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 websites 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 Spain with moderately good success!
Tip #1 – Buy Your Train Tickets in Spain 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.
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- click the previous link to read more!).
When it doubt on the exact time to purchase a ticket on Renfe, try out the following two activities:
- 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.
- 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.
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 train 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.
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, so the risk of being double charged for your Spain train tickets is minimal.
*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 train 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 like Rail Europe, Omio (we personally use this one), or Eurail (if you have a train pass, they can make reservations for you but do not offer individual bookings).
Many of these services will offer similar web fares that Renfe Spain offers, but will charge up to 10-15 Euro per ticket as a service fee.
After wasting several hours trying to purchase on the Renfe ticket 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 train tickets in Spain with either Renfe or another 3rd party service? If so, let us know by commenting below!
For the most common FAQ on purchasing RENFE tickets, read on.
What is RENFE?
RENFE is a state owned train line in Spain that is used for both commercial and public transit.
How do you book tickets with RENFE?
The RENFE booking system operates much like other ticketing agencies where you can select your date, route, and more; however, problems often arise in booking due to translation issues on the site and bank processing.
Does RENFE work with credit card?
In our experience, ordering via RENFE works best with direct bank transfers; however, you may have better odds.
Book a Train Ticket in Europe
Traveling around Europe by train? Book your ticket with Omio to get your trip locked in today!
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About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.
35 thoughts on “4 Tips for How to Buy Train Tickets in Spain on Renfe”
You made my day! I now know it is not ME!!!
First tried on the app, and it would not take my phone number. It kept telling me “incorrect format” but it never would tell me the correct format. I tried every combo possible with international code, area code, etc. Finally, I went to the website and it took my phone number no problem.
Then, it gave me trouble with the date calendar, but finally got my dates entered.
Then, it wasn’t clear if you could do multi city-trips (Madrid to Sevilla to Cadiz and back to Madrid) so I decided to book each leg separately.
It also wasn’t clear about the commuter trains…I need to go from Las Matas to Madrid and finally figured out with the help of our Air BnB host that with an AVE ticket, you can scan it at Las Matas and ride free to Atocha Cercanias and then catch the AVE at Madrid Puerta Atocha – which I finally figured out are right next to each other or one in the same? Also, it looks like you can buy the AVE tickets in advance but not the Cercanias (Commuter) tickets.
SO, I finally got to the payment part for the first trip of three, and entered everything and it wouldn’t take my credit card (which is approved for international travel) I tried again and then called my credit card company, and they said there is not any problem on the credit card company end. I then tried another credit card and had the same issue. (Side note: I had chosen English on the site but each time I clicked on the next step, it switched back to Spanish – luckily my high school Spanish kicked in a bit).
FINALLY, I noticed that it would accept PayPal, so I went and set up an account at Paypal with the original credit card I tried, and it WORKED using PayPal!
When I wen to book the next leg of the journey, it didn’t accept my PayPal on the first try, so I tried a second time, and it worked.
The third booking worked on the first time with PayPal! 3rd time must be a charm!
I saved all of my tickets in my Apple wallet but also printed all of my tickets – just to be safe! Whew! October, 2021.
We’re in Spain at the moment, having bought all our tickets (from the UK) via the Renfe website. We found the statement “tickets are available 62 days in advance” not to be true. That’s the theory. In the case of our tickets, none of the long-distance journeys was available until 39 days before, and one of the short distance ones only became available three weeks before. This is quite a common occurrence.
However, we didn’t have any other problems. We’ve been using the Renfe site since 2012, when it was poor, and it was quite common for bank cards to be declined. Though it hasn’t changed visually very much since then, the back end is a lot better. I booked nine journeys straight off without trouble.
When using third party sites, you will find that they don’t always manage to get all the information from Renfe, so they offer you a subset of available journeys. If you’re going to use one to book, check on the Renfe site first to see what’s possible, then see if the third party matches it. Some of our journeys were only bookable on Renfe as they involved connexions that did not appear on third parties’.
Some insights on buying RENFE Tickets May/June 2019
This year 2019, we decided to use RENFE extensively during our two week Spain vacation. In the past advance purchase of tickets has not been a difficult task, despite everything published on blog sites. We learned that RENFE AVE (high speed trains to some major cities, mostly to the southern areas) tickets were now available up to three months in advance, and other trains, thirty to sixty days. Unfortunately this turned out to be erroneous. Our Madrid Malaga AVE tickets became available two weeks before our June 6th travel date. How this came about was strange. We had been checking every day to see when they would come on line and nothing. Finally I called a friend in Madrid and asked for help. I wanted the Malaga tickets as well as tickets from Madrid to Puebla de Sanabria and then from Puebla to Santiago de Compostela. I also wanted to go from Santiago to Vigo and return the same day. Finally I wanted day returns to Toledo from Madrid. Two weeks before the first journey, nothing was on sale on line at the RENFE site. Then my luck changed! My friend called back and said he had spoken to RENFE and they would look into my complaint. Ten minutes later, everything opened up to all destinations. I got my AVE tickets to Malaga and my ride to Puebla de Sanabria. From Puebla to Santiago de Compostela was a little more complicated as it involved a change in Ourense to what seemed to be another train. It was clear on the tickets with the coach and seat numbers so no problem. The Vigo and Toledo trips were easily obtained, all in a couple of hours. There were some small problems. RENFE only let me buy one ticket at a time and I was obliged to use a different credit card for each of the journeys. Five different cards I used and finally got my tickets. Why I don’t know but once a card was used, I could not use it to buy another tickets and had to run through every resource the family had! But that’s not the end! Pueblo de Sanabria is a tiny (Pop. 1400) town and we spent a pleasant night there (have a taxi in advance). Next morning the train from Madrid was late and we arrived at Ourense 30 minutes after scheduled and we could see the ongoing train was to have left 15 minutes earlier. What to do? Well, we were directed to a coach outside the station and without more delays, off we went on a 75 minute bus ride to Santiago! All’s well that ends well. The trains are comfortable and clean and information is in English and Spanish. One last tip! Do not cut off the page below the actual ticket! RENFE does not like that and may send you to a ticket machine where you are obliged to put in the reference numbers and get tickets printed. No all machines have the cardboard rolls available and you may have to try several until a loaded one is encountered. Good luck!
Great article and thank you Michael Merry for sharing your current experience. We noticed trying to buy a round trip ticket on renfe versus a one way ticket is not a savings. For example: buying a ticket from barcelona to madrid was 72.15 per person for the promo+ fare which allows cancellations for a 30% charge and changes for 20% charge but Ida y Vuelta (Round trip) was 86.15 per person EACH WAY so the ticket price was higher AND offered no change options and 40% fee should we need to cancel. Did you find the same rates/information? We’re wondering if we not entering something or missing a step on the renfe website.
Thanks for sharing your experience Jeremy. I have been waiting for tickets to become available in late October, and found your article when looking up how far in advance they post on Renfe. I am happy that I read your article before I started the booking process. I now have a low expectation when using their site and won’t be ticked off when it ends up not working.
Nightmare experience! I have been trying to book tickets from Barcelona to Valencia on 3rd July 2018, but no progress made yet. Tickets on 30th June seem bookable, though.
Instead of train services, the search results always show bus services.
Any help would be appreciated.
I have tried for DAYS to book RENFE from Madrid to Valencia & back. The transaction did go through once – and I realized I was so fed up that I put in the wrong return date, so had to cancel the transaction! I cannot seem to get anywhere on ACP Rail, either – looks like they don’t offer tickets for the time I want from Madrid to Valencia?? Only a few of the scheduled times actually show a price; the others just say “DETAILS,” and “No product available for this itinerary.” QUESTION: Can I purchase my tickets at Madrid airport? When I spoke by phone the other day with Renfe, they told me that both of the trains I wanted had over 200 seats available. Travel dates are May 24 Madrid to Valencia, 10:40 a.m. or 11:10 train, and May 28 Valencia to Madrid, 6:10 or 7:10 p.m. I think are the two best options. HELP!! Please reply!! Thanks!!!
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.
I Just tried to buy ticket on Renfe site, provided all my credits card details and website posted error so I could not get any confirmation about ticket, I check my bank statement and money has gone to Renfe. I tried to ring them but they do not speak English. Sent them e-mail, no reply. Bank promised to help to invetigate this.
Did you manage to get the money back? same exact thing happened to me.
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…
Please i cant stand it any longer. Im in israel trying to book and every website has some kind of glitch either with calendars not opening up or error message cant find any ticket, that was from Renfe itself. I have 50 days till May 1st to get a ticket between Barcelona and Madrid. But I have given up. Spent 4 hours without result anywhere. If anyone can help.
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.
RENFE worst website ever
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.
acprail.com worked perfectly! Thanks!! Renfe’s website is the worst!!!
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!!
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
Hi there, do you have any recommended third party online American agents that you can reserve with?
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.