By Rick Steves
Nearly every European train has both first- and second-class cars, each going at precisely the same speed. Yet on most trains in most countries, tickets in second class cost about a third less than those in first class.
Many Americans, familiar with the huge difference between first- and coach-class seating on airplanes, are surprised to see just how small the difference is on European trains. Second class is plenty comfortable, with way more legroom than you'd get on any economy-class airplane seat; it's generally a no-brainer for anyone on a budget. It can also be more fun. Many first-class travelers are business people looking to get work done; you'll have an easier time striking up a conversation in second class. Most Europeans don't travel in first class unless someone else is paying for it.
The biggest advantage to riding first class is that it's less crowded, which can be a significant plus at peak times on popular routes, when it can be harder to find a seat in second class. First class also has wider seats and wider aisles, and is more likely to have amenities such as air-conditioning and power outlets (though outlets are still rare on Europe's trains, no matter which class). While first class is less conducive to conversation, it's more conducive to napping.
With some rail passes, anyone age 26 or older must buy a first-class pass (youth passes, however, always have a second-class option). Those with first-class passes may travel in second-class compartments, although the conductor may give you a puzzled look. Those with second-class passes can pay the difference in ticket price to upgrade to first (except in Britain).