Train Travels in Spain: How to book Spain's Renfe trains?
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Once upon a time, Spanish trains were old and backward when the rest of the world started modernising. Now, the trains are one of the best in Western Europe. Even though the Spanish trains are awesome, booking the train tickets aren't, unfortunately. The Spanish carrier's website is notoriously prone to lots of errors and some may end up looking to book through other third-party websites. Honestly, I still love booking straight from the source for my air tickets and train tickets and I resolved to book the tickets no matter what!
Should I book Renfe tickets or use rail passes?
Rail passes are great if you are travelling a lot during that short period of time. However, they can be quite expensive since we rarely travel every single day. As such, getting Renfe tickets to travel from Point A to Point B would be a much cheaper way.
Alternatively, if you have to take multiple long-distance travels in Spain, you may also wish to consider Renfe's Spain pass. Unlike those unlimited train rides you get, Renfe's Spain pass allows you 4, 6, 8, or 10 journeys in a one-month period. This pass is only for tourists and can be more affordable than booking four AVE trains. The prices of the pass can be found here.
Renfe's Booking System
First up, you'll have to know about Renfe's booking system. The train tickets are priced somewhat like air tickets where the earlier you book, the better the prices. For instance, Barcelona to Valencia could be 99 euros if you book one day before, but around 70 euros if you book two weeks in advance, and 60 euros one month in advance for the exact same train timings!
Bookings should open 60 days ahead for most trains other than the AVE trains (90 days ahead), but most of the time Renfe loads the timings for these trains when they feel like it, argh!
Pre-booking your Spanish train tickets can save you money!
That being said, you really should still book the train tickets beforehand, especially for long-distance travels. Almost all trains in Spain require a seat reservation and you cannot just turn for the train and hop on. For shorter distances, you can get tickets on the day itself but during the peak travel timings such as in summer where hordes of tourists head to Spain or during festive seasons like Christmas and the Easter weekend, the trains can get full. We've also experienced this when we took a last minute trip from Seville to Cordoba, we could only get tickets back from Cordoba to Seville at around 9pm or had to pay much more for a better timing.
So apparently another perk and #travelhack to purchasing your tickets directly from Renfe is that you can get free tickets on the metro when you've purchased your AVE or long-distance tickets. This free travel is both for the start and end of your Renfe long-distance travel. All you have to do is to go to a ticket office or a ticket machine and use your Combinado Cercanias password to redeem that free ticket (find more instructions on the Renfe website here). Do note that you'll have to use them within three hours before and after your train travel!
Luggage on Spanish Trains
As for luggage, it is quite strange that Renfe has a weight limit of 25 kg, but we have yet to see them checking for the weight so if you really do have something heavier than that, you can try your luck?
Smaller luggage can be placed above you or at your seat while large luggage will have to go to the racks either at the start or the end of the carriage. For those who have precious items in your baggage, it would be wise to tag and lock your luggage. If you really can't bear to sit a long way away from your baggage, you may want to consider getting "seats" for your luggage such as the Mesa Fares or the Preferente tickets as explained below!
Also, most train travels also require you to go through a security check (yes, it means going through airport-like x-rays for both your bags and you!) So do arrive earlier as there would be a long queue for that!
Step-by-step guide on booking the Renfe tickets
Most of us who are booking the train tickets on Renfe are non-Spanish speakers. Even though the Renfe website does have an English version, not everything are translated. As such, I do suggest that you use the Google Chrome browser with the Google Translate plugin that will auto-translate everything to your desired language. Although there will still be some inconsistencies, it's better than nothing!
Now that you're on the Chrome browser, head over to Renfe.com
Select your Departure and your Destination. If you're wondering, TODAS basically mean ALL. When its Barcelona (Todas), it means that the system will search for trains going out of all stations from Barcelona.
Then you will have to take note of where the train station is to ensure you'll get to the correct train station!
Also, at your destination, check which station would you like to arrive at. Each city has multiple stations!
Select your departure and return dates. If you are purchasing a one-way ticket, leave the return date blank. Select the timing of travel you desire. You don't actually need to worry much about this just that it would help you narrow down your search so that you don't have to read through a long list of train timings.
Next, select your party size and press buy!
Now you'll come to this confusing page where there are just so many details! Let's go through them one by one.
Salida: Time of departure
Liegada: Arrival time
Duracion: Duration (The time taken differs depending on your train type)
Servicio: Train Type (AVE is the fastest and then followed by Euromed for regional travels)
Precio Desde: Price of tickets
Tarifa: Fare Classes
What do the different classes (Clase) mean?
There are two main classes in Spanish trains and they are the Turista (2nd class) and Preferente (1st class).
Turista (2nd class) is pretty comfortable and sufficient and it is the way most people travel. For long-distance travel, unlike air travel, the space you have allows you to laze and stretch your legs. Also, most renfe trains have a cafe carriage where you can walk to to have a cup of coffee or tea!
Should you want more legroom, there are some trains where there's the Turista Plus (an intermediate class). This gives you the legroom of the Preferente, first-class seating. The carriage is also arranged in a 2+1 configuration as compared to the 2+2 in Turista carriages.
The difference between Turista Plus tickets and Preferente differs then with the complimentary food and wine and also the access to the Sala Club lounge at stations.
What do the different fare classes (Tarifa) mean?
Next, you'll want to know the difference between the different fare classes like Promo, Promo+, and Flexible.
Promo tickets (shown as P in your booking) are cheap advanced purchased fares but you don't get any refunds when you change your bookings. You also do not get to choose your seats and are assigned one.
Promo+ tickets (shown as P+ in your booking) are also cheap advanced purchased fares but you'll get to make limited changes and refunds may be available for these tickets. Similar to promo tickets, you will also not get to choose your seats.
Flexible tickets (shown as an F in your booking) are the full priced refundable and changeable fare. These are the tickets you will get if you turn up at the station and purchase it for the day of travel should seats still be available. If you choose flexible tickets online, you can get to choose the exact seats you want.
Mesa Fares tickets (shown as M in your booking) are cheap advanced purchased fares for groups of 4 people. When purchasing these tickets, it means that you'll get four times the price shown whether or not you have two, three, or four people on your travel and you will get exclusive use of four seats facing one another around a table. This is great for those who are travelling in groups of 4. But should you really need the extra space for perhaps your luggage that you do not wish to place at the luggage hold, you can still book this and fill in 4 names and passport number by re-typing them.
Now, after you select all your desired classes and fares, you can also request for a quiet coach by checking the check box.
Thereafter, click next and enter all your personal details!
At this page, you can also select your seating preference, whether or not you want a window or aisle seat for those who are purchasing the Turista tickets. For Preferente ticket holders, you will then be able to select the exact seat you'll want.
Pay for your tickets! There are three main payment methods for booking your tickets on Renfe.
Credit / Debit Card
Other payment methods
Here's where it got annoying for me... I managed to book my Barcelona to Valencia tickets using my Visa Credit Card and was trying to book the other leg from Valencia to Seville. However, I kept trying and trying to no avail. I even used a variety of browsers, and tried using my phone vs laptop but it kept showing an error page or the prices kept jumping during the checkout.
When that happens, don't fret, Renfe tends to do that quite a lot it seems, after I researched a bunch of forums and they all said to be the case. So what I did was that I tried another credit card and it works magically?
This is still a mystery because I called up my credit card and there wasn't an issue of insufficient funds or a low limit but somehow Renfe just didn't allow me to book twice? So I hope you'll be able to do so with yours!
Now that you're done with that, the next important step is to PRINT your tickets! You won't have to head to the station to get an actual ticket as the e-ticket works perfectly well!
How early do I have to head to the station?
Unlike air travel, you do not have to check-in 2 hours before which grants you lots of time-savings. However, you still do not want to head to the station just minutes before the train as they do move off punctually! There is also a luggage check before you board your train so I would say 30-40 minutes before would be a good time to arrive at the station.