Your Rail Pass allows you to get on any train that your pass covers. However, some trains require that you make a seat reservation. A reservation does just that, it reserves a seat on the train, as opposed to just hopping on and taking whatever seat is available as you would otherwise do.
Reservations require that you pay an additional fee; this is not included in the price of your Rail Pass and must be purchased separately. Trains that require a reservation are denoted by an R in your rail timetable as well as on the train schedule board.
Reservations are needed for high speed, long-distance, and overnight trains. They are usually not necessary on local trains unless it is during peak travel periods or if you absolutely have to get to a particular destination by a specific date and time.
Reservations are purchased at the train station ticket office. Most train stations have machines where you can purchase tickets and reservations as well. If you are purchasing the reservation from the ticket agent write down your destination city and the time it departs just in case they donâ€™t speak English so there is no confusion. Sometimes they will also write down information to clarify route options. Familiarize yourself with the 24 hour clock and note how Europeans write down their ones.
The cost for reservation supplements starts at about 3 Euros and goes up depending on the train. Reservations for overnight trains will cost significantly more depending on your sleeping options: sitting (cheap or free with rail pass), couchette (medium cost), or sleeper (highest cost). Before you board the train the reservation must be validated at an orange or yellow box on the train station platform, put it in the slot and it will imprint the date. Expect a lecture from the conductor if your reservation ticket is not validated at the platform.
If your destination is served by local or standard trains you can choose to ride those and avoid a reservation fee. The local trains are perfectly fine they just make more stops and thus it will take a little bit longer to get to your destination. The high speed trains require a supplement because they are high speed , newer, and make fewer stops. In my opinion they are a lot more comfortable and nicer than standard trains in addition to taking up less travel time. If I have the option, I generally choose the high speed train and pay the reservation fee.
When to Make Train Reservations
Reservations can be made at the train station before your train departs. They can also be made when you purchase your railpass (here in the states), this will cost extra and is not usually necessary. Short distance trains donâ€™t generally need advance purchase unless you are traveling during a peak travel time.
I do recommend advance purchase of reservations for overnight trains. You donâ€™t necessarily have to purchase these in the states because youâ€™ll get charged in addition to the reservation fee. You can purchase a reservation for any destination at any train station in Europe, so if you are in the train station in Dijon you can make your reservations for your trip from Madrid to Paris. I take advantage of this and usually try and make my overnight reservations at the nearest train station upon arrival in Europe. If you want to take an overnight train on a weekend bear in mind that these usually fill up quickly and you will either need to make the reservation online when your purchase your pass or make it shortly after arriving in Europe at the nearest train station.
I have arrived in Europe and been unable to book overnight trains on my preferred dates which of course changes itineraries. If you are on a tight and short travel schedule the extra cost for a guaranteed spot on an overnight train might be worth it. Reserving in advance is essential for instance if you need to take an overnight train back to the city you are going to fly out of.
Usually the first day I arrive in Europe Iâ€™m not quite ready for serious sightseeing and I try and take care of travel matters such as these. Some train stations even have offices for rail pass holders, the staff can sometimes be a little more helpful because they speak English. Either way write down your route that you want to reserve written down along with time and date to avoid confusion.
If you are in a group reserving on an overnigt train ask the agent if it is possible to reserve in the same couchette. It is not always possible to book the same couchette especially if you are reserving near the departure date because the train fills up. Ask the ticket agent if the reservations are together or separate, not that thereâ€™s anything you may be able to do about it, just so that you are not surprised (this has happened to me).