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We decided to go with the Britrail pass for our journey (thanks for the recommendation there). I understand it's like a German train ticket (my only European experience) in that you can get on whatever train you want (for most trains, not the Caledonian Sleeper). However, my experience in Germany with 'unreserved' seats was mixed, particularly as we have two small children (and prefer four-together). We did buy a First Class pass, as it wasn't that much more.

Should we generally reserve seats in advance for medium-distance trips (2-3 hours), or is it usually possible at least in first class to get four seats together (I assume four seats around a table exists on most larger trains, at least seems to when I look around)? We did reserve a sleeper compartment on the Sleeper, as that was indicated to be mandatory. If we're careful not to leave on a commuting-type train during rush hour, can we get away with simply getting on the train and have a fairly high chance to get a seat together? We're mostly going to travel to the Birmingham area and Sussex (from a base in London, once we return from Scotland).

  • Some British trains have electronic displays above the seat which tell you if/when the seat is reserved. The rest have paper tickets stuck into the top of the seat. I'd suggest you separate that part out into a new question, then we can answer that part properly with photos etc – Gagravarr Sep 18 '15 at 15:27
  • @Gagravarr Done. travel.stackexchange.com/questions/56234/… – Joe Sep 18 '15 at 15:46
  • A sidenote regarding your experiences in Germany: In first class, reservations are nowadays included whenever you buy a route-bound ticket. This leads to lots of seats being reserved, making it harder for people with day passes to find free seats. In second class, reservations always cost extra, so it is sometimes easier to find unreserved seats there. – DCTLib Sep 18 '15 at 16:18
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    If you don't already know it, you may find the man in seat 61 very helpful seat61.com – CMaster Sep 18 '15 at 16:40
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    Definitely reserve seats in advance, not just to get 4 together but to be sure of getting seats at all. Having to sit on the floor from London to Brum is not unknown. – A E Sep 18 '15 at 16:55
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If you want to have a good chance of getting four seats together, never mind a table seat, you'd be well advised to reserve where possible. Reservations do not commit you, so if you missed the train with your reserved seats, then no big deal (although your reservation will not carry over). If you are travelling in first class, then on most long distance journeyes, all seats have tables.

Note that despite you reserving seats, people may sit in the seats you have reserved anyway - this is because as mentioned above, reservations are rarely commitments. If rail passengers avoid reserved seats, then you'd have trouble on busier trains. If this has happened, simply politley ask the people in your seats to move, and they almost certainly will.

As for reserving specific seats, I'm not sure how it works with Britrail. I do know that if you buy your tickets directly from Crosscountry or Virign trains, and are travelling on a service of that operator, the website sometimes show you a train layout, much like airline seat selection. If you're reserving by phone, you can always tell the operator your preferences.

I should mention I have little direct experience of 1st class - I've had a ticket for it some 3 or 4 times. Behaviour and etiquette may be a little different to the (usually comfortable on long distance routes) standard class.

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