Nick Taylor and Barbara Nevins Taylor
We made assumptions when we booked online tickets for trains in Spain, and that’s always the bugaboo. It turned out we limited our flexibility and narrowed our options to change the tickets for an earlier train. That’s why we recommend you read the fine print and take extra care when you buy train tickets for travel abroad.
Before we left New York, we plotted our trip and decided to take the Renfe high-speed AVE train from Madrid to Córdoba and then from Córdoba to Seville. We learned that you get a better deal on the tickets if you buy them in advance.
Nick did a Google search and chose Rail Europe because it came up high in the search and it sounded like an official site for a rail line.
We paid about $173 apiece for the first leg of the trip and we sped to Córdoba without a hitch. We boarded the AVE in Madrid’s spacious Atchoca Station where the signage spells everything out. We discovered, to our delight, that Renfe takes the anxiety out of boarding because signage on the platform floor tells you where each coach door will open and the stewards stand waiting to help. On board, we stowed our luggage and tucked into designated seats, and then took advantage of the magazines, newspapers, drinks and snacks offered by the stewards. It all came with the price of the tickets.
The AVE barreled on at about 193 miles an hour through olive groves and the plains of La Mancha and we smiled all the way. Two cavas, 250 miles and a little less than two hours later, we gathered our three bags and hopped off in Córdoba. The problem arose the next afternoon when we tried to catch an earlier train to Seville.
The ticket agent at the Córdoba station said, “You cannot change the tickets.” She directed us to the Renfe office deeper in the station. The man behind the ticket window wearing Renfe’s signature light green shirt and darker green tie shook his head. “No. You can’t change these tickets. You bought them through a travel agent.” We looked at each other in disbelief.
Nick said, “I paid trip insurance so that I could change the tickets.” The ticket agent shook his head sorrowfully. We found a manager and continued to press. “No,” he repeated. “Did you buy the tickets from a travel agent?” I asked Nick. “I don’t think so,” he said. But when we did a search we discovered that Rail Europe is a travel agency of sorts located in White Plains, New York.
The website says the French and Swiss national railroads own majority shares in the privately held company, which represents 35 European railroads. If we wanted to change tickets through them, we’d have to call or email. We tried to call and had no luck since it was 7 a.m. in White Plains.
Nick emailed and received a response three days later that suggested we call. Turns out that although we paid for trip insurance, we needed to give three days notice if we wanted to change anything through Rail Europe.
Had we purchased the tickets directly through Renfe, according to its site, we could have exchanged unrestricted tickets the same day. So we should have paid more attention at the time we bought tickets.
Instead, we spent three hours in the Córdoba train station, and moved on. We enjoyed our trip and chalk the time in the train station up to a learning experience.