Traveling by train in Italy really runs the gamut. It can relaxing or unpleasant, dirt cheap or expensive, fast or slow. There are some things you can do to make the experience more enjoyable. But on certain routes, there’s nothing to do but try not to touch anything.
Another wrinkle: on our recent trip, the trains were on strike from 9:30AM to 5:30PM. Some trains did run – if the conductor chose not to strike. But there was no way to find out in advance whether your train was operating or not. You just went to the station to see if it showed up.
As the Italian government institutes more austerity measures to shore up the economy, more strikes are likely in the future.
We were lucky in that we weren’t traveling that day, but we heard stories about people who had to take $500 taxi rides from Naples to Rome in order to make their flight home.
While driving in the Italian countryside is enjoyable, it’s pretty much a suicide mission in the cities. And if you want to cover some distance, trains can actually be quicker than flying. Taking the train between cities will also help you eliminate backtracking so you can see more places in Italy in less time.
Types of Italian trains.
The pride of the Trenitalia line are the new, high-speed Eurostar trains. Known as the Frecciarossa, or red arrow, these are sleek, modern, and comfortable, with service available in first and second class. Traveling as fast as 175 MPH, they link most major Italian cities. Snacks and beverages are served, and depending on the route, there may be a dining car with a set, three-course menu.
You’ll need to reserve your seats in advance, and on some routes, the most popular times sell out. But if seats aren’t available in second class, there may still be room in first. Power outlets for laptops are available at every seat.
Eurostar City trains, known as Frecciabianca trains, travel at speeds up to 125 and run pretty frequently. Refreshments are available, but there’s no dining car. Reservations are required for these too. Intercity trains that don’t bear the Eurostar designation are one step further down.
Regional trains are inexpensive and can be frequent or infrequent. As a rule, they are not real clean and only second class is available. The ticket you buy is not for a specific train – it is for transportation from A to B. So it’s important to validate your ticket before your board the train. Otherwise, you could face a 50 Euro fine.
The yellow validating machines aren’t always on the platform – sometimes they’re just inside the station. So stamp your ticket before you head for the platform. If you have a rail pass, you can just hop aboard.
At press time, overnight accommodations were not available because the company that maintains them is on strike. But in our experience, taking an overnight train in Italy always results in a sleepless night anyway.
Buying your tickets.
You can buy tickets in advance through Italiarail. If you know exactly when you want to travel, this can save you some time, although you’ll pay for the convenience. You’ll receive a voucher that you exchange for the actual ticket at the train station. You can do it in person or use one of the kiosks. Some advance purchase fares with some restrictions can save you as much as 60%.
If you don’t want to be locked into a schedule, you can buy tickets at the train station. In larger stations, you can also buy tickets for local routes at the newsstands. Usually, there’s no waiting there. Or use one of the machines — there’s an English-language option that walks you through the whole process.
Italian rail passes can save you quite a bit of money if you plan on doing lots of train travel. You can compare the options at raileurope. Just remember that you need reservations for most trains now — at a cost of 10 Euro per reservation. So factor that into the total cost of the pass.
Traveling by train in Italy.
When you arrive at the station, you’ll need to figure out which platform — binario — your train leaves from. Video monitors show arrivals and departures with the Bin. number. Just be sure to check a few minutes before your scheduled departure because sometimes the platform changes at the last minute.
If you have reserved seats, your ticket will tell you the carriage number and in larger stations, signage will tell you where to wait. When your train arrives, board as quickly as you can because they often leave quickly.
Depending on the train, there may be space at the front or back of the car to stow your luggage, otherwise, you’ll have to put it overhead. As a rule, there will be a map inside the car showing the stops. It’s a good idea to figure out which stop is before the one where you want to disembark.
Many larger cities have more than one train station, so know which one is most convenient before you board. For instance, in Pisa, the S. Rossore station is about a ten minute walk from the Leaning Tower while the central station is about half an hour on foot.
Italian train stations are pretty friendly for English speakers, so you shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out where to go and what to do.
Once you’re onboard, relax and enjoy the views of the passing countryside.
Read about traveling on French trains.