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Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

The trains in Spain are mostly a pain

I’m in San Sebastián, the second stop of a late-Summer Interrail adventure across the Iberian peninsula.

I say Interrail, but this is merely an implementation detail. As my former colleague Roos informed me, if you’re going to travel across Europe by train, it often works out cheaper to buy an Interrail pass. For little more than the price of the return ticket on Eurostar, you can get hefty discounts on most high-speed routes and free travel on slower commuter lines.

I used an Interrail pass for the first time on my trip around Scandinavia. The flexibility afforded by Interrail meant it was easy to change my plans at the last minute and spend an extra day in Oslo.

However, it turns out Interrailing in Spain is a bit more involved. Not only do you always need to reserve a seat, but you can only do so at mainline stations in Spain. With fewer routes to choose from, and summer being peak season, trains can reach capacity before you arrive.

This trip has been very last-minute, based only on a vague notion of thinking it’d be nice to spend some time in Porto. What once was a straight-forward trip is now much more involved thanks to the indefinite suspension of the Sud Express, the overnight sleeper between Hendaye on the French/Spanish border and Lisbon. Such a journey now requires stopovers over several days. Which is why I find myself in San Sebastián.

Having started this trip with much of it still to be confirmed, I spent Monday evening in a Paris hotel room wondering if I’d be able to reach Vigo, let alone Porto. The timetables on Renfe’s website confirmed my worst suspicions: there were no seats left. The same was true when I searched on the RailEurope website. There was one ticket remaining on the Trainline, so in a fit of panic, I spent £149 to secure it. Given the hotel in Porto I’d booked was non-refundable, the only other options would have been to bus it, get a hire car or board a plane – all costly and fraught with their own complexities, and in the case of flying, guilt.

Once in Spain I headed to the local train station. I tried booking using a ticket machine but again every route was shown as unavailable. With nothing to lose except my dignity, I crept up to the ticket office, apologetically muttered ¿Hablas inglés? and crossed my fingers.

Computers like to say no, but people generally try to be helpful. While some routes were indeed full, most weren’t and thankfully the discounted seats for Interrail passengers were still available too. As for the ticket I had already purchased, this was also available, and only €10.55. The tickets I bought were non-refundable and now I’m kicking myself.

Moral of the story? If you want to travel across Spain using an Interrail pass, don’t lose faith. Instead, find a friendly Renfe ticket officer and let them work out the details. Oh, and perhaps lean into the spontaneous nature of Interrailing and don’t book anything that can’t be refunded.

Anyway, it’s not all bad. Here’s the view from my bedroom window. Hopefully, the remainder of my trip will be as idyllic.

Looking across over a beach and enclosed bay, bathed in bright sunlight.
La Concha beach and bay, San Sebastián.