Is it still advisable to buy train tickets while still in the US? And if so, why?
Only reason is the opportunity to get deep discount tickets for long haul routes. The closer you get, time wise, these discounts start to disappear. Remember, the trains are competing with low cost airlines that operate on the same pricing model.
It doesn't matter where you are, what matters is when you buy the tickets.
Each railway company has a different set of rules, but, in most cases, the following generalisations apply:
- For local trains (commonly called "regional" or something similar). It doesn't matter when you buy, it is always the same price. You can't reserve, you just buy a ticket at the station on the day, get on the next train and try and find a free seat.
- Express trains, high speed trains, TGV, ICE, Eurostar and lots of other brand names. These have airline pricing. The earlier you buy, the cheaper the fare. When you buy, you have to decide which train on which day, and you are assigned a coach and seat number. If you want flexibility, you can buy on the day, but then you pay a higher price.
We travel so much, we always order our Eurail passes (directly from Eurail) since Eurail gives us the lowest prices plus extra goodies. We got 5 free travel days from Eurail recently when we ordered our Eurail passes. You can't buy the Eurail passes in Europe. We also book our sleeping car reservations in advance. It is the most efficient way and you can avoid lines and disappointments when you get there.
Eurail pass prices are basically the same through any online retailer and that also applies to the current extra-day special on the Global pass. A travel agency giving you personal service might add a handling fee.
A Spain pass is not a popular choice for most people, after doing the comparison with point-to-point tickets. With the pass, you pay extra seat reservation fees for nearly every train in Spain, and they can limit the number of places for pass holders.
Point-to-point tickets are also sold for specific dates and times, so don't select an advance-discount rate until you are committed to that travel. Tickets and seat reservations go on sale about 90 days in advance. It's easier to complete a booking at www.renfe.com using PayPal than using most US credit cards.
You can get significant discounts on Spanish trains buy buying in advance. Use the RENFE website and as Laura noted, you pretty much have to pay with Paypal as the site is notorious for not working with US credit cards. It helps to register with RENFE too.
The discounts apply mostly to the longer trips (doesn't matter if it's the high-speed AVE or a slower train, you can still get the discounts if available). The sooner you buy, the more likely to get a discount. Also note that there are non-refundable tickets (cheapest) and changeable tickets (not as cheap but worthwhile if something changes and you need to get a different train).
Short runs, like from Madrid to Toledo, won't have a discount. It can save you some time standing in long lines to buy them online, but most people buy them at the station as there are so many daily trains and schedules can change for daytrips.
RailEurope is NOT the place to buy individual tickets as they usually do not show all schedules and do not have the discounts. Rail passes almost never make sense financially anymore (and you'll still need to buy seat reservations for most Spanish trains).
If you are over 62 you can get a good discount from Renfe at their ticket offices for travel in Spain. In 2011 we bought the Dorado Card which only cost 5 euros each. We saved 40% on the trip from Seville to Madrid on the fast train. One thing about discounts., the agent never seems to mention them,YOU FLAT OUT HAVE TO ASK FOR THEM. Senior discount is something like el tercer edado ( the third faze of life). Senior discounts in other countries are more expensive and only save you money if you are making several trips. Hope you have a great trip! Hank, Novato, CA
Expanding hank's info: http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/tarifas/tarjeta_dorada.html Btw it's Tarjeta Dorada (literally "Golden Card").
And in case you want to use this card in Catalonia, you should now that commuting trains, called Cercanías in Spanish elsewhere in Spain, it's called Rodalíes in Catalan here in Catalonia. I'm mentioning this because these two names are also brand names and, despite being the similar "products" so to speak (not exactly the same though) if you look for Cercanías in Catalonia you might not find many references to it. You should search Rodalíes instead.
Thanks for all the info.