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.
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?” ).
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
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.