We've reviewed all of the options for purchasing train tickets for Spain — from the official Renfe site to a number of private portals.
While Spanish trains in general are a pleasure to ride and most travellers encounter few problems once actually on them, the national train company's own website is pretty awful, especially for foreign users. Foreign credit cards are declined on a random basis, and there are plenty of error messages and failures that may force you to restart your search. Even Spanish people can often find the site unusable.
And as we've found for France and Italy, there are better ways to book online, and our favorite is the same for Spain as for those countries. We'll discuss all of the options below, but our top pick stands well ahead of the pack and we think it's so good that even Spanish users should make the switch.
Those using foreign credit cards (especially American credit cards, with and without chips) report lots of problems with Renfe.com, and so Trainline is particularly good as a solution for bypassing all of that. Renfe's site incompletely translated (particularly the fare conditions and other fine print), hard to use, and prone to errors. Trainline has none of these problems and a snappy interface.
With Trainline you print your tickets at home (recommended) or else in the station itself at a ticket machine using your booking reference. In our tests, Trainline also has smarter routing software, so if you're changing trains and particularly if you're crossing a border, you're more likely to find a convenient and less costly route with Trainline than with Renfe or the other private portals we've tried.
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The Best Way to Buy Train Tickets for Spain
We've tested out all of the top ticketing portals and comparison shopping websites for train tickets for Spain and the rest of Europe, and unlike with many of the articles we write, this one was not a difficult choice. Trainline outperforms the private portals for routing (and unlike many, doesn't add fees) — and is better than the national train company's own website by quite a lot.
Trainline merged with CaptainTrain in 2016 and has since then been the leading portal for train tickets for Europe. This gives it more data and resources, so it's not so surprising that it tends to offer the better routing and makes pretty good order out of the mess of conflicting European national rail systems.
Trainline's Advantages for Spanish Train Tickets
Here's where Trainline did better than Renfe and competing portals:
- Trainline gives the same prices as when buying from Renfe (and is, on occasion, cheaper): Trainline gets its money from a commission from the train operator, so it can offer the same prices as you'd get on the official Renfe site, without booking fees or other sneaky markups, as generally happens with the other private options. The same is true if you're booking tickets on Trainline for France, Germany, Eurostar (Paris to London), Italy and more. Since Renfe's booking system isn't particularly smart, to say the least, it may actually charge you more for complex routes within Spain (or not even show you some of the options that Trainline comes up with). And for crossing borders, forget the Renfe site, it pretty much doesn't work much of the time, proffering errors (on its "English" version!) like "El tren consultado no se encuentra disponible para la venta en estos momentos" (The consulted train is not found to be available for sale at this time) — when Trainline will be happy to sell you a ticket for the route.
Trainline is in English: The Renfe site has an English version but the (frequent) error messages, city names, fine print, and random pages still appear partially or completely in Spanish.
- Trainline accepts foreign credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and PayPal all work fine. In contrast, travel forums are chock full of users complaining that their American and other foreign credit cards get rejected rather randomly by the Renfe site. Even Spanish users with Spanish bank cards and presumably flawless Spanish often can't get the "ridiculous" Renfe website to work.
- Smooth, functional website: Trainline offers a modern, functional, clean and streamlined website. Unlike you-know-who.
- Quality, fast customer support: Trainline emphasizes its advantage in this regard, as a hand to hold for navigating the complex European systems should something go wrong. Their service is not at the level of, say, a mom-and-pop travel agency that will talk to you about what to see in Madrid or Barcelona, but much better than the national train companies and private ticketing portals.
- Easy cancellations: If you purchase a ticket that has a refundable option, you can take care of this directly and easily through the Trainline website.
Indicate seat preferences and class: This is a key way that Trainline beats out private portals; it offers the choice of aisle, window, or solo seats when available, and to choose to face the direction of travel.
- No ads: Unlike other private portals, there are no pop-ups or other pitches for hotels, rental cars, and the like. You're there to buy tickets and Trainline makes it seamless, without trying to sell you extras.
The Disadvantages of Trainline
There are two downsides we note with Trainline.
- Trainline currently doesn't have a flexible dates option — though neither does Renfe or other other options for train tickets for Spain. It would be nice to be able to find the cheapest date for travel for those who are flexible on dates.
- Small fees added for these countries: While tickets for Spain, Portugal, France, etc. don't cost you any more than the national rail websites would charge you, you will pay a bit more for tickets for the Benelux countries, Austria, Denmark, and Czech: typically 2-4 euros.
Other Options for Booking Train Tickets for Spain Online
Voyages-SNCF doesn't tend to work so well for Spain, and we've previously discussed the problems with it for France itself. But it can be OK for booking Barcelona to Paris or Lyon, especially if you speak French and manage to get the site to not reroute you to RailEurope or its other sites for foreigners, which tack on large commissions and have annoying ads.
Loco2.com is nearly as great as our top pick pick, and generally has the same prices, but then it tacks on a 2.5% credit card fee. For some countries it doesn't offer as many seat choices, options, and discount routes but for Spain it gives pretty much the same options as Trainline. We're keeping our eye out for improvements; this is Trainline's main competitor and may well be able to beat it out in the future.
Rome2Rio has a useful search mechanism that compares anything you could dream of: driving, buses, planes and trains. It doesn't have complete train routes, however, and sends you to Loco2.com (above) to actually purchase tickets.
GoEuro.com: This site also has a cool comparison of planes, buses and trains for some Spanish routes. But its coverage is much less complete for trains compared to our main pick, especially for complex routes and crossing borders.
Petrabax.com: This is Renfe's partner for the USA, and a way to buy Renfe tickets in US dollars. It's not as convenient as Trainline, however, even if you're American. The website produces odd error messages and city names are not always in English. It also tacks on an extra fee that you can avoid with our main pick.
Conclusion: The Easiest, Cheapest Way to Book Spanish Train Tickets
Our tests found Trainline to be the overall best bet for convenience, routing options, and prices for train travel in Spain. Loco2 and GoEuro came in a distant second and third, and we hope to never have reason to go back to Renfe.com unless the site gets a major upgrade.