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Spain Trains - a new user's report - positive!

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I know there are some seasoned train travelers out there that might find this naive and pretty simple. But given the number and type of questions on this board about Spain train travel, I thought I’d offer up our recent experience and hope some one benefits. Our experience was very positive, and now I can be a lot more relaxed when planning train travel in Spain. A full trip report will follow.

As I planned our trip to Spain, trains quickly became a desired mode of travel for part of the trip. I was a bit intimidated by that prospect, having not travelled much by train in Europe. Reading all the posts on this forum only made me more anxious. I am the type that would like to have most reservations in hand before I go, so all the info here about the difficulty of booking ahead on line with Renfe was a cause of concern to me.

When I tried to book on line, I ran into the same difficulties that many have reported. Then reading through the Renfe web site, I discovered Tarjeta Dorada (Gold Card), or as I call it, the Old Folks’ Card. In other words, a senior discount card. For those over 60, of which that’s us. For 5 €, you get really good discounts. One catch. You can only get the card in person at a Renfe office, and you must present it at the time you buy your tickets for the discounts.

After fretting about this whole situation for a few weeks, I decided what the heck. Wait ‘til I get there, get the Old Folks’ Card, get the train tickets then, and “chance” availability.
As some have advised, I shouldn’t have worried about it. It was a totally positive experience. Here’s what happened to some newby train travelers.

We got into Madrid on a Saturday about 9 am. I immediately went to the Renfe ticket office there at the airport, and it was closed, even though the sign said open. (Well, really, Abierto, which means open. But you probably know that.)

Ok, so I figure when we get settled in our hotel, we’ll go to the train station in Madrid and take care of business. After settling in to our hotel adjacent to Plaza Santa Ana, not far from the station, we walked down there. What a beautiful building.

I looked around a bit bewildered, and there was a Renfe Customer Service Center, and in we go. I sat down at the counter with as friendly an “Hola!” I could muster, and the clerk spoke very good English, and greeted us warmly. I relaxed quite a bit.

I told him we wanted to go to Toledo as a day trip on Monday, leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening, and that we also wanted to go one way to Cordoba on Wednesday, spend the afternoon in Cordoba, then continue on to Sevilla in the evening.
I also asked about the Tarjeta Dorada.

He showed us the time schedules, which I had copied from the website and had with me so we had a general idea of the times we wanted. We selected the times we wanted. He wrote down our selections. He then directed us to the ticket office.

At the large ticket office, there are several windows. Some have signs over them indicating they are for today’s trains only, and there are lines of people at those windows. The young lady that greeted us (I guess we looked like we needed help, which was true.) asked if we wanted tickets for today, we said no, for Monday. She had us draw a number out of a little dispenser, like at the local bakery back home.

On a screen overhead numbers come up directing you to a certain numbered window. Soon our number came up, and we went to our indicated window. Again I trotted out my friendliest “Hola!” The clerk smiled at us and spoke pretty good English, and along with my tiny bit of Spanish, we got along great. I told him what we wanted, and showed him the list from the Customer Service clerk. He began to ring things up.

Interesting, each item is charged separately. So the two Tarjeta Doradas were charged separately, as were each ticket. But their system only allows two charges per credit card per day. Had I known that, I would have paid cash for the two 5 € Tarjeta Doradas, and charged the most expensive tickets. Instead, I had one other credit card, but had to pay a little more cash than I wanted. I could have just waited and bought the Cordoba/Sevilla tickets on Wednesday, but my jet-lagged brain couldn’t come up with that solution.

I thought of the problems I had in booking on line. In fact one guidebook I read said you can try to buy tickets on line from home, but after trying a couple of times, give up and buy your tickets when you get there. (I think their credit card system needs some help.)

With the Tarjeta Dorada, we saved a total of 72 € from the fares posted for 2nd class, “Tourista.” I was feeling pretty smug.

These trains were the AVE, the high speed trains. The tickets show what car number and what seat number, along with the train number and time of departure. We walked into the terminal part of the building up to the security scanner. We were greeted by two uniformed young ladies who looked at our tickets. We were just scouting out where we would go on Monday, and apparently we still looked like we needed help.

One explained that about ten minutes before the scheduled departure, an overhead screen announces which track number your train will be leaving from. Satisfied that we had our tickets, and kind of knew the drill for Monday, we left the terminal and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon of our first day in Madrid.

On Monday we go through the cursory scanning, and stand under the computer screen with dozens of others. Our train, among several others, is listed, departing at 10:20. We are all waiting for the track number for our respective trains to be announced. Sure enough, 10 minutes before departure time, ours comes up and several of us start walking quickly to our train/track number, find our car, board,and find our seats. Each car has a little sign on the outside, indicating which train and car number.

I noted that luggage, which we didn’t have this day, is placed on large racks as you board, with carryons, like backpacks, etc., on racks above the seats. Seats are very comfortable. Announcements are made in Spanish and English. A few cars away was a club car with beverages and snacks. DW was very pleased with the comfort, cleanliness and general condition of the train for our 30 minute ride. The Toledo train station was small, and there was no customer service office that I recall. We went outside to the bus station and caught a bus to the Plaza Zocodover, spent the afternoon, and took a bus back down to the station, catching the 17:30 train back to Madrid.

On Wednesday, we showed up at the train station with luggage for our trip to Cordoba/Sevilla. We felt like pros now, and after sending our suitcases through the scanner, stood dutifully below the screen waiting for our assigned track number. Nobody asked us if we needed help. Our 10:00 departure was on time, and we found our seats without a problem. Suitcases in the rack by the door, backpack and carryon in the rack overhead. Our fast AVE train was the same type as the Monday trip. Newish looking, shiny and clean. Large comfortable seats and a club car not too far away. Announcements in Spanish and English.

A movie played, with English and Spanish channels to plug into, which DW got into. However, upon arrival in Cordoba 1 hour 42 minutes later, the movie had not ended, and DW was bummed a little bit. It was nearing the dramatic ending.

We took our luggage across the street to the bus depot and found some lockers. A uniformed guy came over to help us, cause he said it looked like we needed help (I’m beginning to feel a little self conscious - I mean, what do we look like). Took a cab up to the Mezquita area, did our site-seeing, ate and people watched, returned by cab to the bus terminal, got our luggage and got on the 17:44 train to Sevilla.

DW was thrilled when the movie came on, as it was exactly the place she had been cut off earlier. So she got to see the end of the movie on our 45 minute ride to Sevilla. In both cases, Monday and Wednesday, the train turned out to be a marvelous way to travel to those destinations. It was peaceful and restful and comfortable.

The next time we needed a train was two weeks later, in Barcelona. Arriving there on a Friday, it had rained hard on us in Granada that morning, and the forecast was for rain on Saturday in Barcelona. So we decided that since it would be raining, might as well spend the day on a train up to Figueres and back to see the Dali museum. Our hotel clerk told us to take the Metro L3 line from Placa Catalunya (very close by) to Estancio Sant, which is also the train station. Trains leave almost hourly to Figueres, about a 2 hour trip.

The next morning we took L3 to Estancio Sant, and found the Customer Service Office. This station was a little more active, and the clerks, while friendly enough, a bit more matter of fact, strictly business. I told her we wanted to go to Figueres and return, she told us to get a ticket for Figueres, track 13. There was one at 10:46, about 40 minutes wait. We made a list of the return times. She said this is a “Regional” train.

We went to the ticket windows, found the “Trens Ahoy” (todays trains) line. I told the guy 2 for Figueres, and then realized that we had both left our Tarjeta Dorada cards in the room. Shucks! Ok, full price. 9 € going, 12 € coming back(?). I only bought one way, cause I thought I needed to tell the guy what time I wanted to come back, which I was unsure of at that time. There were several return times available. But, what we didn’t realize was that these tickets are open seating, not assigned, on any of the Figueres trains, as would be the return ticket.

Estancio Sant is a large place, very active. It is a combined train and metro, so it was a little confusing. We finally found the right turnstyles, with the help of a uniformed Renfe guy who must have thought we needed help (we did), and found our way to track 13 about 30 minutes early. Now, the ticket, the receipt, and the board on the wall showing the route all had different train numbers, but on the wall, was “Reg”, which I assumed meant Regional, and the route which included Figueres and the end of the line in our direction, was Cerbere. Our train, which came at 10:46 on the nose, had Cerbere on it. The number of the train was different still. I figured, it’s the right time, the right direction, so we got on, and had a nice peaceful unexciting 2 hour trip to Figueres. The train going had no announcements. You had to look out the window at the station names. It was older and a bit worn, but still large seats and comfortable and clean.

We got the return tickets at the very small Figueres station when we were done site seeing, planning our tour time there with the departure times on our list. There was no customer service office in Figueres, but now a seasoned train traveller, we didn’t need one :) ! Boldly I stepped up to the counter with my oh so friendly “Hola!”

“Dos para Madrid, por favor.” (Boy, I’m a pro now.) The guy didn’t smile, and mumbled something in Catalan, or French or something, that I didn’t get, and my sharade was trashed as I fumbled with some cash to pay him. Then he smiled, more like a leer. No one asked if we needed help. I felt better. My ego dented, but no one helped. The train back to Madrid was newer, and announcements were made in Spanish and English. Back at Estancio Sant, we caught the L3 Metro back to Placa Catalunya. Nice day.

So that’s some detail, maybe too much for some, of our very positive experience on Spain Trains (in the rain, on the plain). It helps a lot to always have a smile on your face, know a little Spanish, and maybe, admittedly, look a little like you need help. Here are some Spanish words that might come in handy at train stations, though most signs have English along side, or just below the Spanish.

Know the 24 hour clock, practice at home. I was in the military, so it’s familiar to me. I started working with DW a couple weeks before we departed.

Here are some Spanish words.
Tren = train (of course)
Renfe = The Spain rail system
Salidas = Departures, also exit from terminals, buildings, etc.
Llegadas = Arrivals
Via # = Track or Platform number
Coche # = Car number
Sentana # = Seat number
Ida = one way
Ida y Vuelta = Round trip

Hope this helps some one. Bon Voyage on your Renfe train travel.

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