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, Renfe’s own official 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 fares on routes 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
- The downside: There is sometimes a small booking fee tacked on at the end of the process, and it varies depending on where you are buying from. Usually it’s a few percent of the total price, and well worth it.
There other platform that we like for Spain is RailEurope (formerly known as Loco2). It’s as smooth and easy-to-use as Trainline, offers the same routes as Renfe, but the booking fee generally works out a bit higher at £4.95, €5.95 or $5.95 per shopping basket, depending on the currency you’ve chosen. It’s good, but Trainline tended to produce better results overall.
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. Trainline is much easier to use than Renfe’s official site.
Trainline’s Advantages for Spanish Train Tickets
Here’s where Trainline did better than Renfe and competing portals:
- Trainline gives the same prices on routes as when buying from Renfe (and is, on occasion, cheaper): 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 crossing outside of Spain than Trainline does.
- Trainline shows extensive bus options that can save you money or help you reach some small towns Spain 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 purchase that the Renfe website claimed to offer.
- Trainline comes up with time-saving options for international routes across Europe. This is a major advantage; Renfe itself generally has terrible prices on any parts of your trip that cross into France, so you end up with major savings on Trainline, which connects to the French train system without the huge markup.
- Trainline’s website is smooth and functional. It is in (real) English, accepts foreign credit cards, and is well-designed and streamlined.
- Quality, fast customer support: Trainline 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 Trainline website instead of having to deal with Renfe.
Indicate seat preferences: This is a key way that Trainline 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 Trainline makes it seamless, without trying to sell you extras.
A Few Disadvantages — But They’re Not Derailing Us
There are a few downsides we still note with Trainline.
- Trainline 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.
- Trainline doesn’t have the “mesa” option that is offered by Renfe to order for 3-4 people seated together at a table.
- Trainline’s booking fee structure is opaque and only shows up on the last screen. It appears to be based on your IP address. In any case, though, the fee is generally much smaller than other booking sites.
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.
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 the same prices for individual routes. 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, SNCF Connect (formerly known as “Voyages-SNCF” and “OUI.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 the SNCF site 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 SNCF Connect: 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 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.
RailEurope (formerly Loco2, and not to be confused with the above-mentioned overpriced site RailEurope) works just as smoothly as our top pick, and has the same prices, but tacks on a booking fee of £4.95, €5.95 or $5.95, which is generally a bit higher than Trainline’s. Its European coverage is also not quite as extensive in general
In our tests with complex routes involving various countries, Trainline performed better than RailEurope — 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.
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 our top pick, 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 expensive service fee.
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.