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I'm going to take the Zürich-Hamburg ICE train using my Interrail pass, and know that seat reservation is optional on this Train.

As I've never Interrailed before, I wonder: what would happen in case all places are sold out on a train where reservation is not compulsory?

Would I get kicked off the train, or simply have to stand? The second scenario is perfectly fine with me; the first one is not because I have a set itinerary

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    That happened to me once. You'll have to stand. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jul 1 '16 at 12:15
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First, it is very, very unlikely for German ICEs to have all seats reserved. Many Germans don’t reserve their seats because they either have season tickets or a non-fixed itinerary or don’t want to pay the reservation fee. (This may change once reservations are included in the ticket price, but that has recently been postponed to a later, unannounced date.)

However, it still happens that a train is full of people despite not being fully reserved. Often, this is because a double unit of one of the later ICE builds (not the first generation; they are a single train not designed for doubling or splitting) is reduced to a single unit (typically due to technical problems). In much rarer cases this is due to a demand higher than what can be accomodated (Hamburg–Copenhagen was one before they introduced compulsory reservation a few years ago). If this happens, there is a number of things that can happen:

  • The train still leaves because the staff decides it is safe.

    This will typically be the case if there are people standing in the corridors, but it is not fully packed and people can still walk back and forth.

    • Occasionally, the first class is opened to second class passangers (more likely on regional trains, though, where the price difference is less).
  • The train won’t leave because staff decides it is no longer considered safe.

    • People are then asked to leave nicely, then less nicely. (Contrary to the other answer, I have never heard of the offer of vouchers to voluntarily leaving.)

    • The police is called and forcefully removes random people from the train.

    • Once enough people have removed themselves/have been removed, the train leaves with often considerable delay.

To reduce your odds of falling victim to the second bullet point, it is helpful to be among the first to board a train, even if that involves an odd bit of pushing and shoving (seen as highly unfriendly, of course; don’t overdo it!). Typically, those closest to the exits will be removed if the police are called.

Also, when grabbing any empty seat, make note whether the little electronic sign above it notes two stations between which the seat is reserved. Occasionally, it says ggf. freigeben instead, because somebody booked the reservation only shortly before departure,[1] or it says bahn.comfort for a special contingent of seats offered to the frequent travellers who acquired comfort status. If your seat says neither, it is extremely unlikely that you are removed from the train. The police does not check tickets to remove any passanger preferentially.

Finally, the Zürich–Hamburg train is one that is not too likely to be full — however, the peak travel times are Friday afternoons and Sundays. During those days you may have a harder time finding a seat. I haven’t had a train of that particular relation being too full to leave yet, though; and it is typically served by the oldest ICE generation.


Notes:

[1]: I used to think that ggf. freigeben could also mean the train’s IT failed. Turns out that in that case the signs would read GGF. FREIGEBEN in capital letters, making it easy to distinguish the two. When I saw the all caps version (displayed on every seat, so obviously erroneous), I attributed it to a different ICE build than what I normally travel with.

  • With a fair bit of traveling in ICEs I have only once encountered that someone used their bahn.comfort status trying to get a seat (he failed). You can just take those seats safely if you find no un-reserved free seats. +1 – mts Jun 30 '16 at 16:50
  • @mts Aww, I always hope for them as my last resort. (But typically I reserve anyway so …) – Jan Jun 30 '16 at 17:00
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    I've seen that happen, but only in 2nd class. There are bahn.comfort seats in 1st class as well, but a) the reservation is included in the price there and b) pretty much everyone in 1st class has the comfort status (at least during business travel hours), as 2000 Euros of sales per year are easily reached for frequent travellers. And regarding "ggf. freigeben", this isn't just in case of a failed IT system but also for reservations made only a few hours before the departure (apparently the reservation data is still loaded onto the train via 3,5" floppy discs). – helm Jun 30 '16 at 19:55
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    Not everywhere. The newer ones have USB sticks or via WiFi or similar. However, there are also Express reservations, which can also be made when the train already started at its first terminus. For these Express reservations, "ggf. freigeben" is also shown at the seat. – dunni Jun 30 '16 at 20:01
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    "In much rarer cases this is due to a demand higher than what can be accomodated" - I'm not sure this is so rare; my impression is that it can happen quite frequently on very busy/popular routes, but usually the overcrowding quickly disappears within one or two stops, e.g. between Mannheim and Frankfurt Airport. I've traveled standing on such routes next to airports various times, tightly locked between suitcases of other standing passengers. – O. R. Mapper Jul 2 '16 at 19:24
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You would have to stand, unless there are too many people standing, so that escape ways would be blocked. In that case at first they would ask for volunteers to vacate the train (they might get some vouchers etc.). If that doesn't work out, then the police will come and remove some passengers (without getting vouchers). The last case happened some times in the last years, but it's not very regular. The first case happened to me once, and I got a 25 Euro voucher, and just took the next train, which left 30 minutes later.

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If you are travelling terminus to terminus on a ICE train it is unlikely that you will not be able to find a seat, especially if you are not travelling at peak business times. I have used ICE trains before without reserving and never struggled to find a seat. Just check the small display above the seat and be prepared to move if a seat is free now but not later; for example the seat my be free from Hamburg to Basel but booked there after.

I did take a look on one of the popular English language forums for Germany just to check though, and it looks like you are able to stand, should you find there are no seats available.

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Just book a seat reservation only, without a ticket, if you are worried. Pick a train, select book without registering to pay with paypal or credit card, and print your reservation

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  • 1
    Nope, not going to pay for something optional if I can travel regardless. The Hamburg-Copenhagen is a different Story, as on the day of my travel it will require Reservation (it's optional in the low season, but required in the high season) – Crazydre Jul 1 '16 at 13:32

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