I've heard all kinds of problems about making train reservations online. We're going to be in Seville for 6 days so we have plenty of time to go to the train station before we catch the train to Madrid. The problem is we will be taking the train on Jan. 1 -- New Years Day! Does it make sense to just show up at the station a few days early and make the reservation in person? I'm sure it's more expensive but is it enough difference to be concerned about? We don't speak any Spanish but I'm assuming most of the agents speak some English.
bherrington47 - My opinion is for that time of year especially January 1st, it's best to book early.
Prepurchasing Sevilla to Madrid yields quite a savings, I believe it was 20-30 euros per ticket. But, in general, you'd have to purchase at least month in advance for significant savings. I did find Spain's site, REFRE, a little surly. I would look at using trainline if you have difficulty. I did purchase some of my tickets at the train stations and in several locations (Cordoba for one) the train agents were pretty unfriendly. Also, in several of our locations, the agents spoke little English. Perhaps outside Andalusia you'd find more agents spoke English, well.
The vending machines at railway stations usually have an English language option, just look for the British flag logo. However, I don't know if they work with foreign cards. At the main Sevilla stations a few staff probably speak good English, but I wouldn't count on it at most stations or that the booking clerk you happen to speak to does. Not unreasonably, you are expected to speak at least basic Spanish. On the other hand, buying tickets doesn't need a long conversation if you know what you want. So probably best to just write down your requirements in advance in case of a language barrier, then you just need to say "hola", "por favor" and "gracias"!
However, as you know you want to travel on 1/1, I'm not sure why you don't buy in advance. As well as possibly getting a discount, you'll no longer need to fret that the service you want will be sold out (which is definitely a possibility on that day). If you can't get Renfe 's own website to work, then use one of the agencies such as Trainline.
I know some Spanish beyond the "friendly" words, but it doesn't seem to always be enough. I did use google translate at a train station and showed the agent the screen. The agent smiled (not in an unfriendly way) and I wasn't sure if it was because I resorted to google translate or if the translations were awkward.
Beyond the train tickets/agents, I want you to know that the people we met in Andalusia were particularly friendly and kind. While many are not fluent in English (and I wouldn't expect them to be) they will take the time and offer assistance in spite of any language barriers.
Have you tried using Trainline? Reputable agency, great interface, small markup, foreign card-friendly.
Trains do sell out in Spain on popular days for holiday travel. Since the faster trains on this route require reservations/seat assignments, they don't let extra people board and stand in the aisles. Of January 1 departures for travel in 2nd class, 8 have some Promo fares left, 6 are already bookable only at full fare, and 1 is sold out.
Thanks for the suggestions. I just reserved 2 tickets on Trainline. Totally easy. We also plan on a day trip to Cordoba but don't know the day yet. Not sure if we should handle it the same way. It would be nice to be able to do it while we're there for the flexibility but maybe we should plan ahead for it too.
One more question: As I remember, trains in Europe do not have checked baggage. You either put them in the storage space at the front of the car or in the rack above your head by your seat. Is that correct? I'd prefer not to lift heavy suitcases in a small space above our heads if possible.
Yes, your trains will probably have both of those options for luggage storage, though the overhead rack is the most common. Of course, we recommend packing as light as possible, since you will be handling your own bags in a variety of situations.
Although there are lots of trains to/from Cordoba, you're still talking about holiday time and the possibility of certain departures selling out, especially in 2nd class. Bus alternatives take twice as long, and may also be well used by Spanish residents.