Skip to main content

Rail website charges double if you search in English

Last week, I was trying to book tickets for travel between Barcelona and Madrid on the relatively-new AVE high-speed rail line. I soon realized that the price quoted on the website of RENFE, Spain’s national railway, depended on the language in which you chose to conduct your searches.

When I searched the site earlier that day from my office, I searched in Spanish. A one-way ticket from Barcelona to Madrid could be had for around 44 euros on a “tarifa Web,” their Internet special fare with 30 day advance purchase.

When I was at home, ready to finalize my purchase, I opted to search with the site language set to English. The price was nearly 110 euros.

(On the positive side, RENFE’s full-fare ticket is still less than the $253 per person that Rail Europe is charging… Where on earth is that fare coming from?…) Rail website charges double if you search in English

A little digging revealed that the Spanish-language RENFE site offered three tiers of ticket, including the deep-discounted 15-day advance purchase “Tarifa Web” and the discounted 7-day advance purchase “Tarifa Estrella.” 

The English-language site only offered the full-price fare, with an indication of how much that fare would cost if you bought it in the station vs. on the web. Web and Estrella fares were missing.

My one year of high school Spanish, limited travel experience in the Spanish-speaking world, and Google Translate were enough to figure out what I was buying on the Spanish-language site. And I was able to get the lower fare, using a US billing address and an American Visa card, with two tickets costing less than one ticket on the English site. But why is this necessary?

A quick search shows that other English speakers have had similar experiences, and that some users have been unable to complete a purchase at all.

The bothersome part is that RENFE has actively constructed a site that looks and acts differently for different users, based solely on their language. It’s not based on your IP address, or your billing address. It affects Americans, Britons, and anyone who opts for English in the same way.

I just did another search, for different dates, and it’s not just a fluke. It’s systematic. Here’s a screenshot of Spanish-language search results (note that fares in the search images below are different from what I booked):

And here’s the site in English:

(The two-price system reminds me of a trip through eastern Europe in 1992. At the Vilnius train station, where I was trying to buy a ticket to Warsaw, the rail station cashiers had a simple standard for outsiders: The fare was 200. 200 rubles, dollars, Deutschmarks, whatever. Your nationality determined your currency. It always cost 200.)

Segmenting your customers, and pitching different products to them accordingly, is one thing. Discriminating against them wholesale is quite another.


An unnamed RENFE representative writes in:

Subject: Renfe website doesn’t charge double
The information found in the Upgrade Travel Better blog, stating that the price for tickets purchased in the English language option on Renfe’s website is much more expensive than in the Spanish version, is incorrect. The prices referred to in the above-mentioned information relate exclusively to the Timetables Search section; legally, Renfe is obliged to publish the prices to which the various discounts are applied. However, when tickets are actually acquired (by pressing the shopping trolley icon) the purchaser is taken directly to the ticket purchase application, which shows all special offer prices, identically in all languages. The area designed for purchasing tickets also has an English version.

As I indicated in my comment, it is indeed possible to find the discounted web fares. But this misses the point: The initial English quoted price is still double the initial Spanish quoted price.Why would anyone who searches in English assume that the price would go down from there? There’s no indication on the initial English search page that web or estrella fares even exist.

Renfe’s English site is the equivalent of going to a supermarket and seeing a pack of gum labeled for sale for $5. If you see the $5 price, you’ll probably just leave it there. Or, you could ask the cashier about the price, and when he doesn’t know why it’s so expensive, he could call over the manager, who would politely explain that you could buy the pack of gum for $1. So, yes, after much time and negotiation, the gum actually costs $1, but why would you go through that trouble?

Renfe’s response shows that they’re content to sell their services with mislabeled prices. Why is this an acceptable business practice, exactly?

The folks from Renfe just won’t give up on denying that their site misrepresents their prices! But they admit their site needs work, and they indicate that a relaunch of the site is coming. If the response to this post is any indicator, that relaunch can’t come soon enough.

This post is already incredibly long, so I share their latest e-mail to me, and my response to it, after the jump.

Subject: The prices quote are the same, definetively

Dear Mark,

Your update of the post regarding Renfe’s website maintains the same mistake there was in the main post, as it’s to say “The initial English quoted price is still double the initial Spanish quoted price”. That’s no true, so let’s hope we could break the misunderstanding. Spanish Renfe’s home have two different sections: Tickets Sale (Venta de Billetes) and Timetable Search (Buscador de Horarios). If you enter into the second section you’ll find, of course, only timetables with general fares. But if you want actually purchase the tickets, then –and only then- you have to enter into the first section. There you can choose your train, the web “question” the system about the availability of tickets and shows the places, the offers, etc.

Since a simple timetable can’t say anything about availability, it’s as well not possible for it say anything about discount or special fares, that are subjected to a availability and, furthermore, they’re changing (the discount are NOT 40 or 60%, but UP TO 40 or 60).

The misunderstanding begins when you select a language (any language, not only English) and you’re droved directly to “Timetable Search”. If you want to know how are the prices and availability you’re addressed to the proper section. Maybe all these steps are not so clear for everyone, so from now on we’ll put a note explaining that if you want to check’em you have to go to Ticket Sales.

In short, when you say “the initial Spanish quoted price” probably you mean the banner with a list of fares: Estrella, up to 40%, etc. But, Mark, this is not a quoted price, neither a price! It’s only an advertisement…

Moreover, it’s not a double price of any other, since you don’t even know if there’s a discount available for your train!

On the other hand, this “English website”, like the other languages websites, is only a provisional solution, because we’re currently building a brand new website, clearer for the purchaser and with proper translations.

Renfe Operadora
Press Office

My response, in an attempt to be as detailed as possible, to avoid any further misunderstandings, and hopefully guide their efforts to improve the customer experience…:

First, thank you for your note. I appreciate the fact that RENFE is answering these concerns, though I disagree strongly with your assessment. The problems are not simply a “misunderstanding.” They are a failure of RENFE to build a sensible website, and your defensiveness shows a lack of comprehension of the consumer experience.

So, dear RENFE, let me try to help you. I think you need to understand how visitors actually enter your site, rather than the abstract notion of what information is out there on your site.

Let’s compare the user experience of the Spanish-speaker and the English-speaker.

Here’s the Spanish-language flow through the site:
1) I go to On the left sidebar, I choose cities, dates, etc., in Spanish. I click “buscar.”

2) A new window opens (annoying, I might add). The fares are all there, including web and estrella fares. Fares are as low as 43.80 euros for a one-way AVE ticket between Barcelona and Madrid. (THIS is what I refer to as the “initial Spanish quoted price” in the post above. Not the advertised “fares as low as 60% off” banner, which you seem to think I’m referring to.) I choose a specific train/fare option, scroll to the bottom, enter the CAPTCHA number, and click “continuar.”

3) Next screen: I enter my billing information, check the terms/conditions box, and click “comprar.”

The Spanish version is relatively simple. (Of course, when booking two tickets, and choosing web fare, your site sometimes hiccups when only one seat is available at that price… that’s another problem but let’s stay on topic…)

In contrast, here’s the English-language experience. If you haven’t done this yourself, try it sometime, and imagine that you don’t understand the Spanish words that appear on the screen…:

1) I go to I look for something that suggests an option to view in another language, which most sites indicate with, say, the word “English,” or a small icon of a UK flag. Alas, there isn’t anything obvious for those who can’t read Spanish. Instead, at the bottom left, there is a pulldown labeled “Seleccione su idioma” with a stylized European Union flag adjacent. Somehow, despite the lack of clarity, I don’t give up, and I click on the pulldown and choose “English.” Next page automatically loads…

2) I arrive at a page entitled “Timetables and Prices.” There is no indication that this page is just information, vs. a way to purchase. The English-speaking visitor is unaware, at this point, that there is a separate process for buying tickets, and that there might conceivably be any discounts available. There is no mention of web or estrella fares. I choose my cities, my date of travel, etc., and I click “search.”

3) A new window opens (annoying, again). Fares are listed in the English-language format as pictured in the original post above. Despite this being the English site, fares are labeled in Spanish: “precio Internet,” for example. No discounts are shown. Again, no information about the EXISTENCE or POSSIBILITY of discounted web or estrella fares is shown. Prices here are full-fare, with the lowest fare at 109.50 euros; I refer to this as the “initial English quoted price” above. I click the shopping cart icon in the column labeled “compra,” rather than “buy.”

4) Another new window opens (have I mentioned that all these new windows are annoying?). I’m brought to a page that’s entirely in Spanish. Irritated, I start looking for a way to change the language to English. At the bottom left, I see some text in Spanish, and a pulldown with the word “espanol” on it. I click it, and see English as an option. I choose English…

5) The page refreshes, with the left sidebar and tabs at the top in partial English. The main frame of the screen is in Spanish. I now need to re-enter all the information I entered earlier (annoying, again) to perform a new search. I enter my cities, dates, etc., and click “buscar” — again, in Spanish, not in English, despite this being the “English” version.

6) FINALLY, I get a screen with bookable fares, with web and estrella discounts. I choose a fare, enter the CAPTCHA, and click “continue.”

7) Billing information, terms/conditions, etc., with a “purchase” option at the bottom.

Why are there all these unnecessary steps in the English version? Why not simply bring an English user to the search page that features bookable fares, as you do for Spanish customers? Instead, you route English-language visitors to timetables which look like booking pages. Note also that a reasonable person should expect the quoted price to be the price available for purchase. If you’re listing the highest prices, with no indication of alternative fares, you’re doing yourselves and your customers a grave disservice.

You’re costing yourselves sales, and good will.

I look forward to seeing the promised improvements to the website. But above all, I look forward to my travel between Barcelona and Madrid.

Mark Ashley