Just recently I booked train tickets for a trip between European cities online. I have traveled by train in Europe before but had never bought tickets online.

After doing a search for trains between stations and selecting a specific train and departure, there was an on-screen confirmation of booking a train from city A to B on train IC xxxxx with departure at HH:MM and arrival at HH:MM. I did this for several trains as I am managing a tight schedule.

After adding all the tickets to cart, checking out and making a payment, I got an email confirming that I bought the intended passages on the chosen train with all the times listed exactly as on the website. So far, this is just what I expected.

The next day I received printed tickets by mail, one for each of the trains that I would be taking except that the paper tickets have no time specified, only the departure and arrival city plus a range of validity dates. This makes me doubt that I have a confirmed reservation and that a seat on the trains will be reserved for me:

  1. Is it just that the tickets were printed in a generic way?
  2. Are there any further steps needed to reserve a seat on a particular train departure?
  3. Can the above be completed online or must I do it from a train station in Europe?

Addendum:

Based on answers so far, it seems there is much differences between train systems. It is unclear what information is needed to disambiguate but taking the first or my tickets: It is an IC train from Brusels to Luxembourg City. There is a a SNCF logo on the upper corner of the ticket, that could indicate the carrier but it is unclear. The printed ticket seems overly generic which is why I worried enough to ask this question.

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    When you booked the tickets was a seat number specified for any or all of them? – DJClayworth Nov 19 at 3:42
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    The answer may depend on the specific country, train company, and type of service. Some services do require a separate seat reservation, on others it's optional, and other services may not have reservations at all. So I think you need to add details to your question. – Nate Eldredge Nov 19 at 3:48
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    If you can identify the specific trains, someone should be able to tell you how seat reservations work for that operator, assuming the service does have reserved seats available. You can often book a seat reservation only on the train operator's website, usually for a couple euro. – Zach Lipton Nov 19 at 6:07
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    @Itai IC means Intercity, typically used for a long-distance service that is neither a suburban/regional service nor a newer high-speed train. The name is used in several countries and the rules will vary. – Relaxed Nov 19 at 7:12
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    Without providing country details it's almost impossible to answer the question. Sometimes even specific destinations might differ. To give you an example in Poland if you book an IC ticket for any trip except between Lodz and Warsaw you'll get your seat assigned unless there are none available. But between Lodz and Warsaw majority of trains give you no seat guarantee and no seat assignment. – Ister Nov 19 at 9:18
up vote 12 down vote accepted

As already pointed out in multiple comments this is very country specific and based on your description I cannot tell to which country do you travel. I can only rule out few.

Yet since you have received your (printed) tickets it means you are eligible to take a trip as long as you go according to the validity dates and destinations on the ticket. Since your tickets do not have specific time schedule, just validity dates and destinations most probably you are eligible to take any train in that range and most probably there is no seat reservation available for the trains you have selected. It might be that there is a seat reservation but it is optional and paid additionally.

While very unlikely, sometimes the rules for tickets sold abroad are different than tickets sold locally and your situation might be that you do not get a specific seat reservation despite regular country tickets have them. In such case you get trip flexibility at the cost that there might be no seat available for you. Usually it will mean you'll have to stand part of entire trip if no free seats are available. There are some trains (like EIP in Poland and possibly some other high speed trains across Europe) where you will not be allowed without seat reservation, but I expect for those trains you would get ticket with seat assignment included.

So in general, as long as you have tickets and their validity meets your needs, you're good to go with trains of your choice, possibly with some additional flexibility.

You mentioned your schedule is quite tight so your other concern might be delays. Here the situation is a bit trickier. There is an EU law that gives a passenger a number of rights (all listed here). Some of them include:

  • be transported to your final destination at the earliest opportunity (or a later date of your choosing). This includes alternative transport when the train is blocked and the service is suspended.
  • meals and refreshments (proportionate to the waiting time)
  • accommodation – if you have to stay overnight.

Specific local implementation vary in EU member countries, for example in Poland law enforces train operators to ensure that in case of a delay you can continue your travel on the same day. So if your next connection is the last day to the destination on that day this next connection has to wait regardless how long the delay is. If the next connection isn't the last train to the destination on that day it's on railroad company discretion to decide what to do (in some countries it might vary and rules might be more strict for the railroad enforcing it to delay next connection anyway). It might be different in other countries and, as pointed out by Willeke sometimes you just get money for a taxi to your destination.

Anyway in such case it is good to check with the train crew if the next train can also be delayed allowing you to change.

I don't know about other countries but for instance in Poland you are entitled to rebook your ticket for a different schedule (within some timeframe, but it's something like 30 days if I recall correctly) at no cost.

Also since you bought all your tickets from a single travel agent (webpage) and as I understand in one transaction these rights for package travel also apply to you (unless all tickets are on the same day):

The organiser is responsible for the proper performance of all travel services included in your package.

If a travel service can't be provided as agreed, for example if a provider can't carry out an agreed service or can't do so in the agreed form (such as providing transport to or from your destination, providing the agreed type of accommodation, or carrying out a guided tour that you booked), the organiser has to resolve the problem at no extra cost to you.

If it is impossible to make alternative arrangements or you reject the arrangements offered to you on valid grounds, and the package includes your transport (such as air travel), the organiser must offer to repatriate you. If the travel services do not reach the agreed standards and this cannot be resolved on the spot, you may also be entitled to compensation.

You are also protected if for whatever reasons you cannot perform your trip due to the incorrectly issued tickets (on the same page):

When you book a holiday, the responsible trader (the travel agent or online travel agency) is liable if any of the following occurs during the booking process:

  • errors made by the retailer if they are responsible for arranging the booking of a package or of travel services which are part of linked travel arrangements

The page does not state details about the liability.

Note that those last two excerpts state the liability of the ticket retailer, so the webpage where you booked your tickets. As you can see you're double-protected, at least that someone will either have to take you to your final destination (either train company or ticket retailer). Note that the liability (especially in case of tight schedule) is limited to reaching destination only (so it might be you'll be rerouted and miss some of the intermediary targets) and there might be rules limiting the liability if you left yourself inadequate time for a change.

Please note - all those rules apply in EU. Not all European countries are members of EU! Yet majority is and you can easily check that. Also country might decide not to apply those rules for local connections but since you're referring to IC tickets that's probably also not the case.


Edit based on the specific trip leg provided by OP and some extra research

I couldn't find details about operator that operates the Brussels - Luxembourg trip but I've checked conditions on various sites (SNCF, SNCB, RailEurope). Each of those pages gives you specific details about fare for each train. For this specific train the fare is open, meaning you can choose any train within the given range of dates. Also on this route there is no seat reservation offered, which means in general you're free to choose any seat available (within your class of course) and once seated you cannot be requested to leave your seat by someone claiming to have seat reservation (unless you pick a special seat that in general is reserved for pregnant women, mother with children or people with some disabilities - check the stickers over the seats that informs about that and I suggest - avoid those seats). Moreover Rail Europe claims the ticket is valid for 15 days, giving you a huuuge flexibility:

From BRUXELLES NORD BR To LUXEMBOURG LUX

Eurocities 2106 - Reservation not included

1 x Ind. Open Ticket Adult

European open ticket must be used within the 15 days validity period. Journey might be effected on any date within the period of validity. Open Tickets do not guarantee a seat, thus reservations are highly recommended. Important: Reservations are mandatory on most of high speed, scenic trains and all night trains.

The scripted highlight is mine.

Also the same train checked on SNCB page (that is IMO most accurate for this particular leg - I believe this is the actual operator of this specific train, but it's just a best guess based on my knowledge of regional transport) shows those conditions (to obtain it simply use the trip planner and follow with the ticket purchase up until you have a specific train selected):

Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid - Luxembourg € 43.60

Adult (26-59): 1 € 43.60 per person

Flex Fare Adult 2nd Class

Special information: Ticket valid for any conventional train on the requested route during the whole validity period of the ticket (for homeprinted tickets, the validity period is limited to the requested travel date). Not valid on high-speed trains, except for ICE trains.

Refund Conditions: Refund possible for tickets presented up to the first day of validity. After the first day of validity, non refundable.

Exchange Conditions: No exchange possible

Travel Conditions: no specific travel conditions. ATTENTION: homeprint tickets have a validity of 1 day!

Again, scripted highlight is mine.

On this SNCB page about passenger rights you can read more about carrier specific implementation of those rights described earlier. I'll not quote it here, as this will lead you to the most up-to-date terms and in case of any changes in the future the quote might become misleading.

Finally this nice SNCB page about terms and conditions provides links to many carriers T&C details that should provide final, definite information if you're still in doubt. I just need to warn you, that it's sometimes not so obvious to find out which specific fare conditions apply and some of the pages are available in the carrier language only.

One last remark - it is often possible to buy a ticked without seat reservation for a train with either optional or mandatory seat reservation. In most cases (from my experience all trains other than high-speed and some express class, definitely all the standard ones that will be marked just with IC in the train number) such ticket is enough to have a trip and usually it gives you a possibility to obtain a seat reservation (for free if it is compulsory for a one-trip tickets bought directly at the carrier, paid if the reservation is optional or mandatory but paid additionally - not sure if this option is still used anywhere but yes, there was something like that in the past). The channel to obtain such seat reservation depends on your ticket and a carrier, in general you should be good to get it any any counter selling the tickets of that carrier, and for sure in the country of the operator.

If the seat reservation is not possible with a regular fare for that route you'll not be able to get it in any way for other than standard tickets as well.

If for some specific leg you're still unsure or can't find the details as I show here, try calling the carrier in the country of train departure. They will for sure be able to give you most accurate details given you provide the train number you plan to go with.

  • I have never heard that 'rule' that the last train on the day has to wait for late passengers. Most train companies I know read it as having to transport the passengers to the needed destination if the last train of the day misses the connection, they often do that by paying for a taxi. For trains earlier in the day, they just point out the alternative travel options, (which may make you miss a connection farther on but that is not their problem.) – Willeke Nov 19 at 9:44
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    OK, in Poland the rule says specifically that the last train waits if there are changing passengers on delayed trains that will miss the train due to the delay.. The country specific implementations may vary though and the general rule indeed is to ensure transport - it might be by other means, like giving money for taxi or some other means if it still exists. If the transport is overnight, an accommodation is also required. I'll change the answer accordingly. – Ister Nov 19 at 10:03
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    "...and probably all high speed trains across Europe) where you will not be allowed without seat reservation" - the German ICE high speed trains do not require seat reservation at all if you buy a regular DB ticket. So "probably all" is certainly wrong :-) – Martin Ba Nov 19 at 13:38
  • @Willeke thanks for pointing out. Fixed. I do use the edit reason field, just thought not everyone checks that. – Ister Nov 19 at 14:49
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    (+1) I believe there are older, UIC rules about this. And I have seen train companies help travellers with connections on entirely separate tickets (i.e. not covered by EU rights), pay taxis or hotels long before the EU got involved so it always pays to ask and the guarantees are often wider than suspected. – Relaxed Nov 19 at 18:19

It really depends on the country/train, IC is a code used in different countries for long-distance non-high-speed trains with slightly different rules. Generally speaking, those trains have either no seat reservations or optional seat reservations (but no mandatory seat reservations).

Therefore I would assume you do have a ticket that's valid on your chosen trains. In some cases, seat reservations are available but not mandatory and open tickets do not mention the train for that reason. For the one specific route you mentioned, seat reservations are simply not available on IC trains at all. If you're really concerned about finding a seat, you could book a first class ticket. It doesn't guarantee anything either but there is usually more space in first class.

Where available, it is certainly possible to book a seat reservation separately but that's usually not possible online (the German railways do sell them online).

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    For what it's worth, in Finland (regarding IC-trains) the convention seems to be/(seems to be shifting towards) that you sit wherever you want (with or without seat reservation) and give your seat back in case someone with reservation asks for it. (This is especially true in non-full trains, and this seems to be a fairly new phenomenon) – Christian W. Nov 19 at 8:13
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    @Mołot Possible in The Netherlands? Are you sure? Dutch trains don't have seat reservations. What train was this? – gerrit Nov 19 at 10:20
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    @DavidRicherby "Usually not" is probably about right for being able to reserve a seat online without simultaneously buying a ticket. I don't know about French, but British trains won't normally let you reserve seats online separately from buying a ticket - you can, however, get one from a ticket office (or online at the same time as buying the ticket). – meta Nov 19 at 10:43
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    @Fattie Why do you think so? It’s the norm in most of Europe (definitely everywhere I’ve travelled by train). Sometimes reserved seats are marked but even then people are free to sit in them on free stretches, and will vacate them in case the reservation holder arrives. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 19 at 11:40
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    I will speak for Belgium: there is NO reservation possible for a specific train in domestic service. Actually, being seated is considered a bonus by the belgian rail company, you pay for the transport. So there's no way to even complain if you had to stand for the whole journey. Don't want to scare anybody though this situation is far from usual outside of rush hours or special events... – Laurent S. Nov 19 at 15:04

From what you said, you can expect that you do not have a reservation.

On TGV/Thalys you are (usually) required to have a seat reservation, so whenever you buy a ticket, you kinda automatically have one (otherwise you can't get a ticket). The seat number is printed on the ticket.

On ICE (note the "E") which is the better, faster "express" version of IC with approx. 1/3 as many stops and running at approx. 2x cruise speed, you (usually) get reservation for free and automatically in first class, but in second class you do not get it automatically. You have to book it explicitly, and it will cost you some 4-5€ extra, but I would absolutely recommend it because some ICEs are full to the last seat, and nothing sucks more than having to stand, or stay in the restaurant wagon (if there's one) for 4 hours.
I wouldn't know for sure about seat reservations for first class in IC (without "E"), the tree or four times I've travelled IC in my life, it was 2nd class, and seat reservation was (of course) extra.

In any case, the wagon and seat number is printed on the ticket if you have a reservation (if there's none, you don't have one).

Further steps to take would be to reserve a seat, which can be done online. Note that depending on what country you do it in, and depending on what alternative carriers are involved, it can be adventurous (for example, two years ago I learned that booking with Bahn and going to Italy would much to my surprise work just fine with the Italians, but the Austrians would give me trouble for the short segment in between. Same physical train, different carrier. Hey, if anything, you'd think it wouldn't work on the Italian end, but that was actually no issue at all.).

It is generally possible to buy tickets without seat, and funnily enough to reserve seats without a ticket. This seems nonsensical, but since there are tickets that are valid on several days (virtually unlimited, even) and subscriptions that allow 100% free of charge travel in at least some countries, this actually makes sense. Those people having e.g. one of the 100% reduced fare subscriptions would just book a seat when they wish to travel.

About "tight schedule", I'd like to warn you. This is not the best possible approach in combination with "train", in particular IC. There's countries which are arguably somewhat better, and some which are definitively not among the better ones, and it's not always obvious. IC per se is on the more unreliable side due to having many stops and being a lower-priority train. If you have a tight schedule, ICE/TGV may be a better choice (although I've had a 2 hours delay on a 3 hour trip on German ICE already, too).
You mentioned Belgium-Luxemburg being the first segment. My personal experience with Belgium is that you stand at the station and no train is to be seen. As you get more and more nervous and ask staff about it, they'll say "Yeah sure, that train leaves in 2 minutes. But not today.". When you ask when the next train will leave, they'll tell you: "Tomorrow morning at 6:14". Yup, Brussels, capital of Europe.

So... tight schedule may work, but it may not be the best plan.

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    One positive about the tickets without compulsory seat reservation is that they are usually valid for all trains on that day or even for a longer period of time. So you can catch any train on that route on the day or within the range of dates given on the ticket. And sometimes also alternative routes are accepted. – Willeke Nov 19 at 9:15
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    ICE is the German equivalent of TGV, not just a "better IC". – jwenting Nov 19 at 9:19
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    This is country specific so referring to specific countries would be a good idea. In Poland majority of IC trains have compulsory seat reservation. – Ister Nov 19 at 9:21
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    @jwenting: Well, no, not really. Although the ICE does look fancier and more stream-liney, TGV is a wholly different class of train. TGV is more like 350km/h whereas ICE is 200km/h if you are lucky (often rather like 150km/h). TGV is like Paris-Nantes in 2 hours whereas ICE is Frankfurt-Munich, which is 30-40km less distance, in 3 1/2 hours. IC differs from ICE mostly in being less fancy trains, and having more stops (and also, being slightly slower, but not that much really). – Damon Nov 19 at 10:01
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    @Damon Not true: E.g. Mannheim Hbf - Paris Est TGV and ICE are used interchangeably, both clocking in at 3 h 10. – Marianne013 Nov 19 at 10:33

Specifically for the IC from Brussels to Luxembourg City. This is the IC 21xx (with xx a sequence number for the nth train of the day starting at 04 for that train line). You can look up the exact schedule on the Belgian railway website (select the train radiobutton and enter your train line, f.e. IC2110). Date is optional, but recommended as some trains have different schedules in weekends and on holidays.

This is a standard Belgian IC train and does not have seat reservation or specific time requirements. Your ticket is very likely counted as a standard ticket (not 100% because booked through SNCF and not SNCB). The general conditions for this type of ticket are: valid on the date (you can get on any train that day) printed on the ticket and you are allowed to get off at any stop on that line and get on a later train on the same line (this is a recent change in conditions). So you can visit any cities in between, should you want to. You can find the conditions at the bottom of the page I linked to for standard ticket, but they are only available in french and dutch.

Optional information: For future reference, when travelling through Belgium, it can be more interesting financially to use several tickets with linked destinations to reduce your travel costs. In this case, I would have suggested to take a ticket from Brussels to Arlon (Arlon being the last stop in Belgium) and a ticket from Arlon to Luxembourg. This comes out slightly cheaper in general (few euros usually). However, if you are under 26 or travel frequently in Belgium, you can take advantages of significantly cheaper rides using GoPass 1 or GoPass 10 (under 26) or RailPass (over 26, at least 10 trips). Return trips are also cheaper in the weekend (if the return happens in the same weekend).

I know Dutch and British trains (with some exceptions, like ICE, TGV, and some other international trains) have no reserved seats anywhere. I think it's the same in Belgium, Germany, and probably elsewhere from what I've seen of their train services (which isn't all that much, thank god, I hate trains in general).

Certainly on Dutch trains (again, ICE and TGV excepted, as well as international trains BUT only for the international segment of the trip) you don't buy a ticket for a specific train either, but for a specific day (or even a ticket without a date). Again, in my experience elsewhere it's pretty much the same there. E.g. I've traveled by train in the UK and just as in the Netherlands the ticket just states the city pairs and the date(s) on which the ticket is valid.

In this way European trains are much more like a bus service than an airline service, and the service level available to passengers reflects this with usually no catering, very limited if any toilets, and regular overcrowding.

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    Most medium-to-long-distance British trains do offer seat reservations. They are typically free, but optional, and apply to a particular train even if the accompanying ticket is valid on several services. For this reason, the seat reservation is generally printed on a separate slip from the ticket itself. Local lines, including metro services and commuter trains run by, for example, Northern Rail, however, tend not to offer this. – georgewatson Nov 19 at 9:48
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    By your own admission, you haven't seen much of train services. Your limited experience is causing you to overgeneralize. – Martin Bonner Nov 19 at 10:15
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    @georgewatson For some tickets (e.g. "Advanced" tickets), which are only valid for specific trains at specific times, reservations are essential (but are also an integral part of booking the ticket). Although, as you say, they are generally printed on a separate ticket. – TripeHound Nov 19 at 10:55
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    That seems to be based entirely on your experience in the Benelux. It isn't true of many places in the world and specifically isn't generally true in Germany or the UK, you need to edit or delete this answer. – Relaxed Nov 19 at 18:35

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