many people have reported problems buying train tickets from Spanish rail operator Renfe and i experienced them firsthand trying to book some tickets earlier this week. the problems were compounded by the fact that i was trying to do it over a very unreliable wifi connection on a United flight, but that’s another post for another day. in the end, though, i was able to get the tickets i wanted. here’s how.
navigating the renfe website
the website has a lovely English home page, but once you start the reservation process, everything else is in Spanish.
some things i discovered:
when you get the list of trains to choose from, there are multiple prices available. from left to right you go from lower class to higher class (e.g., 2nd class cars to 1st class cars). there are various levels of ticket you can get within each class.
- the 4M, for instance, is a 4-seat combo ticket for a group of people; that price is per person but must be bought for the full price (=quadruple what’s listed) no matter the number of passengers (from 1 to 4).
- P is a promo price which comes with restrictions, like random seat assignment and forfeiture of the full ticket amount for any changes.
- P+ lets you choose a seat and is less strict about changes (though you will be hit with a penalty)
- F is a flexible ticket which gets you free changes (small penalty for cancellation).
within each level of ticket, there are varying prices. in general, the earlier you book, the cheaper it will be.
when you get to the passenger information page, i had to look a couple things up in the dictionary. here’s how i filled it out:
you may notice that the first name is capitalized — when you start typing your name, a list of suggestions appear. i was quite surprised Jonathan was on it — not only that but quite a number of Jonathan-ish names. i’m sure if you have a not-common name it’ll be fine, but it’s interesting to see the suggestions in the list.
and finally, the troublesome payment page, where for the first two credit cards i tried, i got this error, no matter how many times i went through the purchase process, thinking it was just a fluke.
a credit card that worked
i tried a Chase Visa (the MileagePlus Explorer card) and an American Express charge card (the Platinum), each multiple times; neither went through. finally i tried my debit card, a Schwab Visa, and it was successful!
i even tried a different web browser as some people suggested, but no luck with Internet Explorer when Chrome also failed.
so yay! i found a card that worked. too bad it was my debit card so i wouldn’t earn any points, but at least thanks to Schwab there are no foreign transaction fees.
i thought i was all set to get the second ticket i needed. BUT NO. it failed on the card that just worked! (this is something that, my research shows, many people have experienced as well — just working once.)
i should note that i kept checking my credit cards online to see if any of these errors resulted in a pending transaction, but they didn’t. also, they didn’t seem to cause a card lockout.
a true solution(!)
digging around some more i found a mention of an online European rail travel agency that gets better prices than Rail Europe: Loco2.
the website was such a pleasure to use (especially compared to Renfe’s) and i got just about the same price as the promo price. the few dollars more were well worth it. (maybe the price changed in the meantime between my Renfe attempts and when i booked it on Loco2; the prices should be the same from what i understand.) note that they currently charge in British pounds so be warned if you are using a card that has a foreign transaction fee.
disclaimer nothing to disclaim! i am in love with this site, that’s all. i’m not getting anything from them (except a train ticket, holla!)
Loco2 sent a print-at-home PDF ticket just like Renfe did.
moral of the story? just start with Loco2 when booking rail journeys in the UK, Germany, Spain, or France, and save yourself the headaches and cursing. you may want to just check with Renfe, Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, etc. directly in case there are deals to be had there that don’t show up on Loco2, but if you run into trouble trying to process a payment, here’s an alternative that works!