In our search for the cheapest tickets and easiest booking, we’ve reviewed all of the options for buying train tickets for Spain. We looked at the official Renfe site and compared it to a number of private portals.
While Spanish trains in general are a pleasure to ride, the national train company’s own website is full of problems (error messages, declined credit cards, odd translations…).
And as we’ve found for France, Italy, Switzerland, and especially when crossing mainland Europe by train, there are better ways to book than the national train companies. And while all of those countries’ official rail websites were pretty bad, Spain’s is arguably the worst. We’ll discuss all of ways that you can book Renfe tickets below, and begin with a summary of our advice.
The Best Way to Book Train Tickets for Spain
- The exact same prices as the official Renfe site
- None of the error messages and bad translations of Renfe
- Convenient ticketing: print out your tickets or show a code on your phone
- Smarter, cheaper routing for complex trips
- Bus options options that can sometimes offer significant savings over pure train trips
There is also another platform that we think is quite worthwhile for Spain: Trainline. It has the same prices but charges a booking fee of 3% if you’re outside of Europe. In some cases for complex international trips to France and beyond its routing was smarter than Loco2’s (both platforms well outperform the official SNCF and Renfe sites in this regard).
Update History of This Article
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. Loco2 is much easier to use than Renfe’s official site and charges exactly the same with no booking fees — whereas many private portals do have booking fees.
Loco2’s Advantages for Spanish Train Tickets
Here’s where Loco2 did better than Renfe and competing portals:
- Loco2 gives the same prices as when buying from Renfe (and is, on occasion, cheaper): Loco2 gets its money from a commission from each 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 happens on some other private platforms. 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 can actually charge you more for complex routes within and especially outside of Spain than Loco2 does.
- Loco2 shows bus options that can save you money and help you reach some places not accessible by train.
- Especially if you’re crossing borders, the Renfe site has too many errors to be useful. In many cases we were unable to actually select the tickets for purchased that the Renfe website claimed to offer.
- Loco2 comes up with time-saving options for international routes across Europe — although competing platform Trainline (see below) was actually slightly better in some cases.
- Loco2’s website is smooth and functional. It is in (real) English, accepts foreign credit cards, and is well-designed and streamlined. There is a great little map in the search results that helps you better understand your trip, especially if you’re not familiar with Spanish geography.
- Quality, fast customer support: Loco2 is 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 it is 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 Loco2 website instead of having to deal with Renfe.
Indicate seat preferences: This is a key way that Loco2 beats out many of the private portals; it offers the choice of aisle, window, or solo seats where available, and to choose to face the direction of travel. You can also choose first or second class (first class is in a arrow dropdown next to ticket prices; you automatically see the cheapest option first).
- No ads: Unlike some other portals, there are no pop-ups or other pitches for hotels, rental cars, and the like. You’re there to buy tickets and Loco2 makes it seamless, without trying to sell you extras.
A Few Disadvantages — But They’re Not Derailing Us
There are three downsides we still note with Loco2.
- Loco2 currently doesn’t have a flexible dates option to show you prices on various days— though neither does the official Renfe site or other other options for train tickets for domestic travel in Spain.
- Loco2 doesn’t have the “mesa” option that is offered by Renfe to order for 3-4 people seated together at a table.
Other Options for Booking Train Tickets for Spain Online
We’ve discussed above why the Spanish train company Renfe is such a pain for booking train tickets. It doesn’t hurt to double-check their site, but Trainline connects directly into Renfe’s system and in all of our tests was able to offer exactly the same prices. It is important to note that there are some tickets for smaller regional trains in Spain that are not sold online at all, and Renfe’s site can be useful for seeing those routes and times even though it can’t sell you those tickets; you have to buy them at a train station.
The French national train company’s website, OUI.sncf (formerly “Voyages-SNCF”) tries to sell Spanish tickets but doesn’t tend to work so well for Spain, and we’ve previously discussed the problems foreigners have with using it even for tickets in France itself. But OUI-sncf can be OK for booking from Barcelona to Paris or Lyon, especially if you speak French and manage to not get rerouted to the sister site RailEurope, which has much higher prices and annoying ads. To ensure you stay on OUI.sncf: Do not accept changing to your “local” site if prompted, and don’t choose your own country or even “Rest of the world” as your language option. Choose “Europe (other countries)” if you want to attempt to use the site in English without additional fees and ticket markups.
If you are going from Spain to France on a single simple trip, the “flexible dates” feature on OUI-sncf can sometimes be useful to show you which date to travel on. However, we generally got fatal error messages in our most recent tests when we tried to continue through the SNCF’s booking process for trips starting or ending in Spain. Ultimately we went back to our top choice portal to actually book.
Trainline works just as smoothly as our top pick, and has the same prices, but tacks on a booking fee for users in some countries. The company doesn’t release the exact details of how this works, but in our tests it seems to be a (relatively reasonable) fee of about 3% for those booking from IP addresses outside of Europe.
In our tests with complex routes involving various countries, Trainline performed better than Loco2 — the routes it proposed were cheaper, shorter, and with fewer changes. This makes it definitely worth considering if you’re planning a trip across borders and with changes, say from a smaller city in Spain to a smaller city in France.
Trainline merged with CaptainTrain in 2016 and is the leading portal for train tickets for Europe. This gives it the most data and resources of any platform, 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.
If you’re in Spain or mainland Europe already at the time of your booking, Trainline would be a fine choice as there is no fee for you. However, since many of our readers are outside of Spain when planning their trips, we have Loco2 as our top pick in order to avoid the 3%-or-so fee.
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 tacks on a booking fee. You could give it a try if you’re undecided between flying, buses, trains, etc.
Omio: 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. Plus, it tacks on a small service fee for train tickets.
Petrabax: This is Renfe’s partner for the USA. It’s not as convenient as Loco2, however, even if you’re American. The website produces odd error messages and city names are not always in English. In our tests, its tickets cost much more. It also tacks on an extra service fee that you can avoid with our main pick.
Conclusion: The Easiest, Cheapest Way to Book Spanish Train Tickets
Our tests found Loco2 to be the overall best bet for convenience, routing options, and prices for train travel in Spain.