Traveling by train in Italy can be an adventure and a pleasure, especially for properly prepared people. You can see the Italian countryside on a train, pass by, and visit large and small cities. This post isperfect for you if you want to travel independently by train in Italy for the first time.
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But first, a disclaimer. This post is based mainly on my extensive experience traveling in central Italy. My observations may not apply to other regions of Italy. The reader is directed to an excellent and comprehensive source of information on train travel in Europe developed by Mark Smith for his site, The Man in Seat 61. Click here for the section of the site that deals with Italy.
Logo of the Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), which operates most trains in Italy under the name “Trenitalia.”
Better to buy your tickets in Italy.
Why? Because there is no shortage of seats on most trains in Italy, and you may be able to benefit from last-minute deals — or change your mind once you’ve reached Italy — if you wait to buy your tickets here.
If you have never traveled by train in Italy before, I urge you to use the services of a local travel agency soon after your arrival. Rather than wait in line at the train station, find an authorized re-seller of tickets issued by Trenitalia (Ferrovie dello Stato or “FS,” the near-monopoly train service operated by the Italian government). This is what Italians do.
Example: a Roman must travel to Florence for a one- or two-day business trip. She goes to a neighborhood travel agency displaying the “FS” logo a day or two before she plans to travel. The travel agent prints out her ticket there on the spot, and she pays a 5% commission for the service.
Validate your ticket.
If you buy a rectangular-shaped paper ticket, you must validate it. Insert one end of the ticket into a little machine that stamps the name of the station and the date/time. Why? Paper tickets purchased for a train in Italy can be used for up to two months. The validation procedure prevents multiple uses of the same ticket. If you cannot find a working machine (fuori servizio means “out of order”), write the station’s name and date and time of departure in a pen at one end of the ticket. Then you’ll be good to go.
Some trains make frequent stops.
Fast trains (sometimes designated “ES” for Eurostar) connect a few major cities in Italy. Inter-city trains (“IC” on the big boards) stop less often than do Regional trains (“REG” or “RV” for Regionale Veloce), which travel within the borders of a region (e.g., Umbria or Toscana). Nevertheless, regional trains are sometimes crowded because they haul students to high schools in neighboring towns and commuters to work.
Fast trains are convenient but expensive.
Fast trains cost roughly twice as much as regular trains (now called “slow trains” by Trenitalia, even though their speed hasn’t changed). For example, consider a trip from the Statione Termini in Rome to the S.M. Novella station in Florence. A ticket on the Frecciargento (freccia “arrow” + Argento “silver”), one of the fast trains, costs 63 euros. A few second-class tickets on this train are offered for 43 Euros, but such tickets are usually sold out. In contrast, a Rome-to-Florence ticket on a regional train costs 20.45 Euro (second class) or 31.30 Euro (first class).
You can buy tickets for Regional trains from automated touchscreen ticket machines (kiosks) in Italian train stations.
Ticket offices in Italian train stations (biglietteria) are being closed or reduced in hours of operation to cut costs. To avoid long waits in line, consider using a ticket vending machine.
Know where your destination station is located.
Many Italian train stations (e.g., the one in Pescara on the Adriatic coast) are located right in the center of town, making it easy to reach nearby hotels on foot or, if needed, to hail a taxi. Pescara, however, is an anomaly: a modern city laid out in a grid pattern on a flat coastal plane during the Fascist era.
The funicolare connecting the train station of Orvieto with its Historic Center (Centro Storico)
Stations found in the Italian cities you may want to visit, on the other hand, were likely founded in ancient times and evolved slowly over the centuries. Moreover, their train stations are only sometimes located conveniently. Many are located outside the Centro Storico (Historical Center), while others lack good public transportation links.
You’d never presume to arrive 10 minutes before your flight at an airport, so don’t presume that it is possible to do so when traveling by train. Instead, I recommend arriving 30 minutes before departure, especially if you don’t know the station well.
First, identify the binario (platform) from which your train will depart (partenze on the big board). Next, check if your train has been delayed or canceled (annulate, espresso). Locate your departure platform. At Rome’s Stazione Termini, the second largest station in Europe, you could potentially need to walk as much as 0.42 miles. Once you have found your platform and validated your ticket, use the time remaining to buy a cup of coffee, a bottle of water (if your train won’t have a dining car), and reading material.
Go to the bathroom.
If you have time, go to the bathroom before your train departs. Stazione Termini has a sizeable public bathroom costing 1 Euro that is clean and well maintained. Unfortunately, its location — one level below the main level — is not incredibly well marked, but with time and patience, you can find it.
On regular Regional (REG, RV) trains, bathrooms have a way of being “temporarily” out of order. If that’s what you encounter, pass from car to car until you find one working. However, doing so can be awkward if you travel alone because passing between vehicles with baggage in tow is cumbersome. If this happens, identify a fellow traveler to mind your bags while you explore the train in Italy. (Hint: look for a middle-aged person reading a serious book.)
Consider going, first class.
First-class tickets cost slightly more than second-class tickets on Regional trains (for example, 25 vs. 19 Euro for a Rome-Naples ticket). The small price differential reflects the fact that there is relatively little difference between first- and second-class seating. Importantly, however, first-class cars are generally less crowded than second-class cars. Moreover, in some instances, you can reserve a seat in first class for a small extra charge (a separate ticket, by the way).
Consider reserving a seat.
Having a reserved seat is a good idea during Italian national holidays or for regional trains that commuters and students use during specific periods. Be aware that a train ticket confers the right to travel on a train, not to sit on one. Some trains (“R” on the big boards) require a reserved seat: overnight trains and trains crossing an international border require a reserved seat. Given that Trenitalia overbooks its trains in periods of high demand, you could end up standing for hours. So reserve a seat on Regional trains longer than an hour whenever possible.
Buy train tickets over the Internet only if you must.
You can buy tickets for a fast train in Italy online before and after your arrival in Italy. Both the Trenitalia site and the site of Italo, a private competitor of Trenitalia in the high-speed sector, work well.
If you are traveling in the country and are on a budget, these tips for using a train in Italy as your primary transportation will help a lot!