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 most trains don't require reservations, and the vast majority of trains usually have more than enough seating — so don't make the mistake of over-reserving. 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 online schedule — it's objective, complete, and easy to use.
Though relatively few train types require reservations, those that do are among the most popular. They include a few privately run international trains, such as the Eurostar (which connects London with Paris and Brussels), 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.) And you'll need to book ahead (or at least pay a little extra) for a spot on nearly all overnight trains in Europe.
In many cases, these required reservations aren't so much a matter of space constrictions, but a surcharge 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 are 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 seating 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.
How to Make Seat Reservations
For trains that don't need to be booked very far in advance, it's best to simply make all your reservations at one time at any staffed station in Europe.
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 of 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 Rail Europe's $400 free-shipping threshold.)
Seat reservations typically cost anywhere from $5 to $35 (except in Britain, where they're free), 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 (dates, times, and seat assignments are built in, just like with an airline ticket), but on trains for which reservations are optional, it's an extra fee.
For more information on passholder reservation fees for popular trains, check this site's country-specific rail pages (see sidebar) for any countries you're planning to visit.
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.
How far in advance to reserve any given train also depends on the inflexibility of your schedule (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?), and the likelihood of seats (or at least reservations) selling out — consider public holidays and events likely to draw a crowd.
Be aware that most trains with compulsory reservations limit the number of seats available to passholders (most notoriously France's TGV trains, which also don't let passholders book seat reservations less than three days before departure). Along some of the most popular routes, such as between Paris and Italy, direct trains run only a few times per day; these can sell out weeks ahead (and the overnight Paris–Italy trains don't accept rail passes at all).
No matter when you're going, I'd recommend booking as far ahead as possible for the following trains: