During my #CrossBorderRail project in the summer of 2022 I needed to take regional trains Badajoz-Merida and Merida-Madrid in Spain, and these trains require compulsory seat reservations. Buying a combined ticket and reservation online for these trains is no problem, but Interrail pass holders need just a seat reservation. At the time of writing these reservations cannot be bought online for Spanish trains.

So what is the solution?

Sadly there are no good ones.

Some specialist travel agencies have ways around this – for a fee, and if you order long enough in advance – but that wasn’t an option for me here as timetables for these trains were not known even a month ahead.

Railway collection at Zaragoza - the staff were kind enough to go to a ticket office to get my reservations!
Historical railway collection at Zaragoza – the staff were kind enough to go to a ticket office to get my reservations for me!

I could have risked it and gone to a ticket office in Spain – but as I was only arriving in the country 48 hours ahead of needing these services there was the danger that the trains would be full, and I would be left stranded – because from that part of Extremadura there are comparatively few trains to anywhere on any given day, and all of them are compulsory reservation.

I could, I suppose, have simply jumped on the train in Badajoz (there is a tight connection from Entroncamento in Portugal there – that was my way into Spain) and tried my luck with the train manager, and feigned ignorance – but that is strictly against the rules, and I would never advocate trying that unless you absolutely must.

In the end my solution was to ask a friendly volunteer at the historical railway collection in Zaragoza (who I was anyway to going to meet before going to Badajoz) if he could go to the ticket office for me, pay the 4 Euro for the reservation for me, and I could then collect it from him and pay. It worked, but it is hardly optimal!

The crux here is that an absence of solid digital reservation systems and the prevalence of compulsory reservation trains in Spain make journeys like this on Interrail much more complicated than they ought to be. But then, you might logically ask, why can Interrail not put problems like this right?

Because Eurail B.V. – the company that operates Interrail – is owned by 33 national railway companies in Europe, and one of those is Renfe who are the ones causing the headaches I outline here. In other words there is no way that the administrators of the pass can (publicly at least) be critical of the barriers to the use of the pass on one of its member country’s trains.

When it comes to the absence of digital systems for Interrail reservations, Spain is not alone in its dysfunction – there are compulsory reservation trains in Portugal, Romania and Greece that likewise require you to go to a ticket office and reserve a place, but in those cases at least trains are more numerous and have more free places so as to mean trying it at the last minute is not such a risk. And online seat reservation systems have generally improved little by little over the years, so there is hope that some of these countries might eventually digitise fully.

Regarding compulsory reservation trains, this poses at least as fundamental a problem to Interrail pass holders in France than it does in Spain. While reservations for TGVs can be made digitally (although more easily via the Belgian railways site than from SNCF), there are only a limited number of Interrail seats per train at the lower €10 price point for online reservations, although more reservations are available at ticket machines for 20 Euro a seat*. But in France (or Spain) – in contrast to say Sweden or Italy where high speed trains are also compulsory reservation – there is often no other viable way to get to your destination other than on a compulsory reservation train, and if that train is full you’re stuck. There is often no Intercity or Regional train you can take instead.

So even if Spain were to solve the absence of digitisation problem, it is not going to solve the compulsory reservation (and lack of alternatives) problem. And if Eurail B.V. cannot manage to persuade its member railways to sell Interrail seat reservations online, is it going to be able to change railways’ policies on compulsory reservation? No way.

So ultimately these issues are of a scale and complexity that is well beyond something that is simply a headache for Interrailers. The issues of compulsory reservation or not, and whether there are alternatives to compulsory reservation trains, impact all rail users, not just pass holders. And while Eurail B.V. might be able to do a little regarding digital reservations, it cannot begin to change railways’ policy decisions on how it allocates seats.

This means that if you’re going to make an Interrail trip, plan ahead – especially if you are going to France and Spain. Or skip those countries altogether, and go Interailing somewhere like Germany or Austria where you can simply hop on the next train without restriction.

* – there is some confusion as to what can and cannot be bought where, and for what price – see this discussion on Mastodon. The text above has been changed accordingly.

3 Comments

  1. Rian van der Borgt

    Booking Spanish reservations used to be possible via the Interrail website until (I believe) 3 years ago. I first though RENFE had closed the interface that was used to book these reservations but it looks more like it was RENFE’s decision not to allow booking pass reservations for their trains abroad or online. Also see what Entur writes about that:
    https://om.entur.no/tog-i-europa/interrail
    SBB, DB (and DB agents) can still sell domestic RENFE reservations (I have no clue why they still can and not others), but AFAIK only on paper.
    Also the reply above from the Spanish Ministry of Transport (undoubtedly written by RENFE) implies that it was RENFE themselves who shut down the online possibilities, with the excuse of fraud prevention. And it also explains why RENFE ticket offices now insist on seeing an active travel day in a mobile pass before they book a reservation. I hope they don’t do that for paper passes, since it is a very bad idea to fill out the travel dates in advance on a paper flexipass (which I would refuse to do). On a mobile pass you can at least cancel activation before validity starts.

  2. Luis Sánchez García

    Hi,

    Regarding Spain, there might be some hope that the seat reservation is sold digital. I was so pissed off about this that I made a claim at the Ministry of Transport, which sent it to Renfe and I have got the answer below (I have just copied the automatic translation). Most of it is bullshit, and the answer does not address my original question about the seat reservation, so I think I will write them back. I thought though that it would be of your interest.

    Best regards,

    Luis Sánchez García

    “We reply to your suggestion on the 11th, sent through the Electronic Registry of the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, in relation to the sale of reservations with the Interrail pass.
    With respect to it, we can inform you of the following:
    • Eurail and Interrail passes are a product managed by Eurail B.V. of which Renfe is a part.
    • Renfe requires seat reservation for all Eurail and Interrail pass holders traveling on AVE-Larga Distancia, Avant and some Conventional Media Distancia trains.
    • It is the power of each railway company participating in the offer of Eurail and Interrail passes to establish the criteria for access to trains, among others, in terms of fraud prevention; For this reason and for the CIT 2012 paper passes, Renfe requests proof of the validity of the pass at the time of purchase of the reservation by presenting it at a Renfe ticket office with an AV-LD ticket (pre-reservation by phone is optional) or from any participating European railway company.
    • Technological evolution has allowed the recent commercialization of Eurail and Interrail passes in mobile pass format (m-Pass) that prevents the risk of fraud. Renfe is going to join this new format and Eurail B.V. is carrying out the computer developments for its implementation.
    • Along the same lines, Renfe has agreed with Eurail B.V. the issuance of passes in m-Pass format through the renfe.com website; This solution will be active as soon as the legal review and IT development of the agreement is passed internally.
    • As an alternative to the Eurail and Interrail passes, Renfe has been offering foreign visitors or Spanish residents abroad a similar product managed by Renfe for more than 10 years, such as the Renfe Spain Pass whose main features are: electronic format of the pass; electronic format of reservations; availability to buy the pass at Renfe stations, the renfe.com website and national or foreign travel agencies; Availability to make reservations free of charge and manage them at Renfe stations, the Renfe website, Renfe.com and national or foreign travel agencies.

    Receive a kind greeting,”

    • I have heard that it might indeed be solved before the summer season as well. And good work trying to get them to address this! Fingers crossed for a little progress on this point, although Interrail in Spain is going to remain quite a pain due to compulsory reservation though.

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