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My Experience: Purchasing Spain Train Tickets Online (using RENFE vs Petrabax)

I wanted to use the Spanish RENFE website to get the deep-discount PROMO fares. The RENFE website can be frustrating, inconsistent, and has a bad reputation out there on blogs, BUT you can be successful. Trust me. There are great tutorials on Seat 61, TripAdvisor, Rick's websites/books/forums, among others, which tell you exactly the step-by-step process, what the Spanish terms mean, etc...

After reading everything out there, and spending a frustrating hour trying and trying myself, my conclusions are in order to use the RENFE website to get the deep-discounted Promo fares (if booking early enough), you need to use a credit or debit card that has a Verified by Visa (VBV) password associated with it. My regular airline-branded Chase card does not use VBV (Chase does not use VBV), and THAT is why it would not work and I kept getting error messages popping up at the end of the transaction. Once I switched to trying my bank-branded Visa Debit card I was automatically prompted to subscribe to VBV during the purchase process. Once I established the password, I logged back out (to reset the website), and tried the purchase again. The website then asked for my VBV password and the transaction went through perfectly the first time.

As far as the difference between the RENFE Spanish website, and the American portal to it, Petrabax, I could not find any direct cost comparisons or anywhere that indicated the % markup that Petrabax adds onto the standard RENFE prices. So I did the comparison myself.

My wife and I are taking three train trips while in Spain. All three trips were purchased almost three months in advance of the travel dates. All prices shown are discounted Promo fares in Turista Class (Second Class), which were available when I booked.

For Barcelona - Madrid (AVE 2 hrs 45 min)
Purchase via Renfe: €57.60 ea x 2 = €115.20 or about $154.72 USD
Purchase via Petrabax: $98.00 ea x 2 = $196.00 USD

For Madrid - Granada (Altaria 4 hrs 30 min)
Purchase via Renfe: €41.05 ea x 2 = €82.10 or about $110.27 USD
Purchase via Petrabax: $70.00 ea x 2 = $140.00 USD

For Sevilla - Barcelona (AVE 5 hrs 30 min)
Purchase via Renfe: €69.95 ea x 2 = €$139.90 or about $187.90 USD
Purchase via Petrabax: $119.00 ea x 2 = $238.00 USD

Total via Renfe: $452.89 USD
Total via Petrabax: $574.00 USD

Total Savings using Renfe for the three trips vs using Petrabax = $121.11 USD
So, to me, it was worth using the RENFE Spanish website to save the $.

Posted by
1178 posts

I have made several purchases over RENFE from here in the states. It can be frustrating, but after a try or two I have been successful on each purchase...Madrid to Seville, Madrid to Toledo, and Madrid to Barcelona....and the savings each time have been along the lines of those indicated in your posting....about 60 days or so in advance...sometimes a day or two either way.

Posted by
4535 posts

The Paypal option is new so I haven't tried that yet.

My experience is that sometimes your card works, and sometimes it doesn't. I'm not sure just how much the Verified by Visa program helps or is essential, and I've had cards that are VBV rejected. My understanding is that much depends on the verification protocols that your bank uses; if it's not compatible with RENFE, it won't work.

The savings are most definitely significant, especially for multiple journeys. But for some people, the hassle to understand the various promo codes and then try and get your card to work may be more effort than it's worth.

Posted by
15114 posts

My experience has been that once Renfe accepts a particular card, it will continue to do so. I had no problems at all with successive purchases, and yes, my card is registered with Verified by Visa.

Posted by
4535 posts

My experience has been that once Renfe accepts a particular card, it will continue to do so. I had no problems at all with successive purchases, and yes, my card is registered with Verified by Visa.

Just to show you how messed up the renfe site can be, I had the opposite experience. Go figure...

Posted by
9363 posts

My experience with Renfe was painless. I signed up for Verified by Visa during the purchase process and it worked fine the first time. My AVE ticket Barcelona-Madrid in Turista class was 39 Euro, bought about 50 days out.

Posted by
2679 posts

I have had both "painful" and "painless" experiences with Renfe and I swear I think it depends on the stages of the moon or something.

Last year I was easily able to buy two tickets. Yesterday using the same card I had a lots of problems buying one ticket. So I started over and tried the PayPal option. Worked great! When you get to the PayPal screen be sure to click where you are at the top of the page.

Posted by
6 posts

I had a very frustrating experience with RENFE, but not necessarily because of the Spanish train service. Rather the problem was with Visa. I finally used Paypal quite painlessly.

Here's a rather thorough set of instructions on how best to use RENFE's website, including translations or explanations of all the RENFE jargon. Tripadvisor help for RENFE.

Some details regarding Visa and Paypal...

  1. I've an active Verified by Visa. I got to the VBV page, but then the transaction was declined. It wasn't until the next morning that I got a phone call from my credit union's Visa service company. The transaction had been declined as possibly "fraudulent." Interesting since I had informed my credit union that I would be making advance travel purchased including ticketing for trains and reservations for hotels in Spain. It didn't matter. The service company and Visa only pay attention to the days of actual travel!

  2. After several conversations with the credit union and Visa -- I finally got them on the phone together, I got my account cleared and learned a few things about that works (not much) and what doesn't (more than you'd like to know). I also learned that for the duration of the planned travel, Visa completely removes any security protections. During that time, any transaction will go through, even for countries not involved in the travel!

  3. However, after the fraud hold was removed, Visa ceased to work at all with RENFE. Tried several times. My credit union and Visa never received any requests. It just stopped working.

  4. So I reactivated my Paypal account and used it. Worked. One warning: Keep Google Translated open in another browser window. When RENFE transfers control to Paypal, they request a Spanish transaction page, and you can't change it to English. Although most of the Paypal dialog is simple to follow in Spanish, some of the prompts and messages are helpful to have translated.

In the end, I purchased 3 segments of travel some at good discounts: Barcelona to Madrid to Sevilla to Granada.

Posted by
701 posts

Great information - thanks so much for sharing! Very understandable and thorough. I've copied this post to my "Spain" folder so I will know how to use the RENFE site better in the future.

Posted by
61 posts

Glad the info I posted is helpful to some.

I have also been looking into the differences between Verified by Visa and Visa Checkout. At this time it appears these are two independent third party verification programs. Banks or credit card issuers can elect to use one of these different programs for their credit or debit cards, according to the person I spoke with. My direct inquires to Visa Checkout advised that I needed to contact Verified by Visa directly for information or questions about that program:

"Thank you for contacting Visa Checkout customer support. Your email has been misrouted to Visa Checkout, and we are not able to respond to your request regarding Verified by Visa. Visa Checkout is a payment service from Visa launched in 2012. With a Visa Checkout account, you can easily make online payments with Visa and other major card brands through one service...
We suggest you contact your financial institution and ask to speak with a Verified by Visa customer service agent to further assist you on your inquiry."