I have had the blessing of being able to travel the world. I have visited arguably more than 20 countries across Asia, Europe, SE Asia, and Latin America in nearly 20 years of international traveling. In all these travels I have traveled about every way you can imagine: bus, metro, mini-bus, boat, plane, car, animal, scooter, bike, walk.. did I miss something? That being said, the most common method of travel outside of the USA is train. I have taken short trains, overnight trains, every class of train and every quality from top of the line 1st class in Europe to almost off the rails in Latin America. I love train travel and know it well. So, to say I was shocked by the recent horrible train service experiences in Spain with Renfe would be an understatement.
1. They run it like an airline – it is as bloated and inefficient system as I have ever seen for a train system. Automated Kiosks rarely worked so you had to speak with a representative. This could only be achieved by standing in huge lines and getting one of those numbered tickets like at the local DMV or seen in the deli stores in the movies. 10 windows but understaffed like the USPS. Then you have to go through several layers of security, cue up and go through boarding, walk through a boarding gate, and board a train as though it is a plane. I have never seen this many layers in simple train travel. Normally you buy a ticket, champ it on the platform, get on the train and find your seats. Not with Renfe.
2. The costs are exorbitant. A 3.5 hour train in 3rd class for 2 people was a whopping $330 USA! I was stunned into silence when I was told the price. I think this comes down to a lack of competition and a horrible economy means they know if you want to travel, they have you by the balls and will charge you what they want as I can promise you that train trip was not in any way, shape or form worth the outrageous fare AND we flew back for nearly half the price of the train fare! I have traveled much longer (miles and hours), in 1st class for dramatically cheaper in other parts of the world. Not with Renfe.
3. Their people are rude and their policies are overly restrictive for no logical reason. This is where all the badness started. After flying and traveling roughly 20 hours, we had to catch a train to get to the town my race was in. This train trip was about 5 hours and I planned it and handled like I have a dozen times before when traveling for racing: I showed up, bought my ticket (after standing in a Godawful long line, which was so common for Renfe), waited for the train, went to the platform, went to board AND GOT TURNED AWAY! Why? Because of my bike case. Now, I have traveled on smaller and bigger trains all over the world and never, ever, ever been turned down due to my bike case. I have even traveled in between cars just to sit with my bike case. These Renfe trains are the size of any large Amtrack train and have PLENTY of space for a bike case and storage bins at the beginning and end of each cabin. So, I was shocked to be told a flat out, “no”. I almost went to jail over the issue as there were 5-6 other athletes expecting to do the same thing and I tried to argue on our behalf these points, they couldn’t have cared less. And what is worse, the employees that sold us the tickets KNEW we had bike cases and knew they were selling tickets that we could not use. So in the end, we lost time waiting for a train we could not take, had to bicker about getting our money back, had to bicker about the ridiculous policy of not allowing bike cases – but you could take a bike mind you (just not in a case) and people rolled right past us with luggage nearly as large as my bike case! It was a fiasco and I told them they should be ashamed and that they could see we were in need and they could bend the rules and help travelers in need, but they showed absolutely no concern or caring for our predicament. In the end, we had to team up with some other travelers and rent a car at the last minute just to get out of Madrid and move on to our destination.
Given this experience with Renfe, we used the only power we had to fight back and that was with the wallet. Every chance we could we opted for methods of travel other than Renfe to spend our money with. That included flying within Spain as it was cheaper than their trains!Like what you just read? Subscribe!