By Rick Steves
Whether you're traveling with a rail pass or not, it's worth taking the time to figure out whether you need seat reservations on European trains — depending on the route and type of train, reservations can be critical...or a pointless hassle and expense.
To Reserve or Not to Reserve?
Some kinds of trains require all passengers to have reservations (which guarantee you a specific seat), and sometimes it's smart to reserve even when it's not compulsory. But since most trains don't require reservations, and since the vast majority of Europe's trains usually have more than enough seating, it's also smart not to over-reserve. Many American travelers waste money and surrender their flexibility after being swayed by US-based agents who profit from exaggerating the need for reservations.
Your best resource for identifying trains that truly require a reservation is the Deutsche Bahn's online schedule — it's objective, complete, and easy to use.
Though relatively few trains require reservations, those that do are among some of the most popular. They include a few privately run international trains, such as the Eurostar (which connects London with Paris and Brussels) and the Brussels-based Thalys, and a handful of special just-for-tourists trains (such as the Norway in a Nutshell route, and several of Switzerland's specially designated scenic trains).
Aside from these one-offs, many countries have at least one category of high-speed train that always requires reservations — most notably France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. (And some countries have a few long-distance — not necessarily super-high-speed — must-reserve routes, such as Finland, Norway, and Poland.) All around Europe, you need to book ahead (or at least pay a little extra) for a spot on nearly all overnight trains.
In many cases, these required reservations aren't so much a matter of space constrictions, but more a means of charging riders extra for the privilege of riding the fastest (or fanciest) train. But on certain routes, seats can sell out quickly (see "How Far Ahead?" below).
Reservations can still be a good idea on trains that don't require them. For example, it's wise to reserve at least several days ahead if you're traveling during a peak time (summer, weekends, holidays); on a route with infrequent service; if you need several seats together (a family with children); or for a train you simply cannot afford to miss.
Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend reserving a seat if you don't have to (most slower regional trains don't even give you the option). Most of the time, trains have plenty of seats for everyone, and even if you wind up on a crowded train, the worst-case scenario is that you'll stand a while before a seat frees up.
With a (valid) rail pass, you can just hop on any covered train that doesn't require reservations. Even unreserved point-to-point tickets have some flexibility, since you can still make any number of stops and connections along the most direct route between the starting and ending stations printed on your ticket (within a single country your trip usually just has to be completed within the same calendar day; for many international point-to-point tickets you have two weeks to complete the journey).
Making Seat Reservations
Outside Britain, where seat reservations are free, reservations typically cost anywhere from $5 to $35 (with a few more-expensive exceptions), depending on the kind of train they're for, from whom you buy them, and whether you're traveling with a rail pass (and sometimes even on which rail pass you have).
This cost is included in the price of a point-to-point ticket for any train that requires reservations (where dates, times, and seat assignments are built in, just like with an airline ticket), but it's extra for trains where reservations are optional.
For more information on passholder reservation fees for popular trains, check this site's country-specific rail pages for any countries you're planning to visit.
How Far Ahead?
Whether you're traveling with a rail pass or just buying tickets as you go, you can purchase seat (or overnight berth) reservations anywhere from an hour to several months in advance (except in France, where stations stop selling seat reservations three days before departure).
It's important to be aware that most trains with compulsory reservations limit the number of seats available to passholders (most notoriously France's TGV trains), saving the remaining places for full-fare ticket buyers. One of the most popular train routes for my readers is between Paris and Italy, where direct trains run only a few times per day; these can sell out weeks ahead (and generally don't accept rail passes).
Your decision of how soon to reserve any given train depends on how firm your itinerary is (do you have hotel reservations or a flight to catch?), how many departures in a day could get you there on time (2 or 20?), the likelihood of seats (or at least reservations) selling out, and other factors mentioned above.
No matter when you're going, I'd recommend booking as far ahead as possible for the following trains:
- Eurostar (London–Paris/Brussels)
- TGV (France's high-speed trains)
- Any direct train between Paris and Italy
- Thalys (high-speed Brussels-based trains)
- City Night Line (fancy night trains based mostly in Germany)
If you need to lock in your reservations well in advance of your train trip, book them ahead of time from home. It's easiest to get them through ricksteves.com (after all, you're already here!). While reservations may cost a little less when booked in Europe, virtually all US-based websites and travel agents sell European train reservations for the exact same prices you'll find here.
If you need to book quite a few seat reservations in advance, you may save money by going through Euraide, which books reservations for the same price that you'd get them in Europe. They charge about $30 for the advice (reliably generous) and another $30 for two-week delivery, but for orders of at least six reservations, Euraide's a great value. (If you only have a handful or reservations to make, booking through my site is your cheaper pre-trip option, especially if you're including your reservations in a rail-pass order that gets you above the $400 free-shipping threshold.)
For trains that don't need to be booked terribly far in advance, it's best to simply make your reservations right at the station in Europe. You can even do that as soon as you get there, since you can make all your reservations at one stop at any staffed station in Europe.