I last visited Spain about four years ago with my sister, using a US Airways mistake fare that was issued by Spanair. Today, Spanair no longer exists — they had a lot of mistake fares — and I’m finally making good on my promise to take my wife to Spain instead of my sister.
I did not enjoy my flight on US Airways in the economy class cabin, which was more cramped that many domestic flights. But it wasn’t the biggest transportation headache we faced. No, that would be booking train tickets on the website of Renfe, Spain’s national rail operator. I thought things would improve. They haven’t. At least I discovered an alternative.
What Is Renfe’s Problem?
I don’t know how people in Spain book tickets, but they probably don’t use Renfe. It’s the most dysfunctional website I’ve ever used. In the last few years it doesn’t appear to have changed at all.
While there is an option to switch between English and Spanish, it sometimes switches back or only changes half of the text.
Warning messages (“half of this journey will be by bus”) and definitions of fare classes are unclear. This may be because the translations — if any — are still poor.
Any automated field has a 50% chance of breaking. When selecting a date from the calendar, it’s frequently replaced with “NaN/NaN/NaN.”
You want to go to Seville? There are three train stations, and if you don’t type in the right one your search won’t work. Hopefully you remember how to spell the entire name if it doesn’t autocomplete.
Assuming all this doesn’t stop you, the payment page might appear. I remember multiple calls to my bank last time I tried to purchase tickets and the “Verify by Visa” service wasn’t quite working. This time I just got a blank error message and decided to try another service.
Two Alternatives to Renfe
This time I used another website suggested by Seat 61, a great source of information for train travel. Worth keeping in mind: Tickets for travel on Renfe’s high-speed AVE trains include three different classes (Turista, Turista Plus, and Preferente) with different ticket prices within each class that offer different discounts and benefits. Often the difference in fare between these options is just 5-10 euro, so I wouldn’t necessarily aim for the cheapest price.
Loco2: More Style than Function
Seat 61’s first suggestion is a website called Loco2 because they have no fees. However, they still price in GBP, and if I’m going to start dealing with third party train tickets then I’d prefer to bring it as close to home as possible. I also didn’t find it to be consistently cheaper than the second suggestion. Looking at one trip from Granada to Seville, the total price was £45 GBP, or about the same as the $70 charged by Petrabrax (see below). On another trip from Seville to Cordoba, it was about $5 less per person.
My main complaint is that the website is more flashy than functional. Despite the good looks, it didn’t have a lot of information on what ticket class I was purchasing. Sometimes I did see multiple fares available, matching the information on Petrabrax, but sometimes it didn’t match.
I was also annoyed that all prices quoted were for the entire party, not individual people like on other sites, so it was more difficult to compare prices.
Petrabrax: Simple, and It Works!
Petrabrax is a travel agency that sells many things besides train tickets, but I wasn’t harassed about this except near the very end with an easily dismissed pop-up box. The website does look a little older, but it’s simple and works flawlessly.
I was able to choose “Seville (any station)” from the station menu, which is always nice in cities that have multiple stations. And the search results are comprehensive, showing an option for each carriage class. Although it starts out with the cheapest fare in each class, a simple button displays the rest. A key at the bottom defines all of them, using the same icons as Renfe. The price differential for the first trip I looked at was just $2 per person — $35 on Petrabrax vs. the €30 (or $33) charged by Renfe. On more expensive trips it was a few dollars extra, but not egregious.
The Granada-Seville route only has one fare right now because it’s partly operated by bus, but looking at another trip from Seville to Cordoba, I could see all of the different fare classes available.
I had to create a user account with Petrabrax to book my tickets, but this was fine as I need three tickets on this trip. I guess it will save some time in the future. There was no “Verified by Visa” hell to deal with either. The transaction was processed almost instantly, and the email confirmation came within 10 minutes. My only disappointments were that I couldn’t select my seats, and I had to manually enter my itinerary into TripIt.