When I create a custom Italy itinerary for a new client, one of the most important parts of the initial discussion revolves around logistics, and the conversation quickly moves to Italy train travel. Clients want to know:
what’s the best way to travel from A to B within Italy, how long will it take, and how much will it cost?
I’ve got lots of advice on driving in Italy and whether to rent a car, but for Italy itineraries that do not require a car, the Italian train system is incredibly efficient, relatively inexpensive, and much less hassle than driving. Here are the most frequently asked questions I get about Italy train travel, in no particular order.
Does the train work with my Italy itinerary?
This is usually the first question people ask and it’s the most complicated question to answer, especially for a beyond-the-obvious Italy itinerary. Italy’s train system is very extensive, so between fast trains and slow trains, travelers can get around most of the country by train. If you’re only traveling between major cities, then the answer is yes, you can do it all by train. If you’re traveling to smaller towns, then the answer is most likely yes, you can travel completely by train, but you will have to check train timetables on Trenitalia.com. The only way to get a definitive answer to this question is to plug your cities into the Trenitalia website and see whether a solution for train travel comes up.
What’s the difference between first class and second class on an Italian train?
Second class on Italian fast trains is actually quite nice, as you can see from this photo.
But, as you can see, this photo is of an empty train (and the older slow trains are not as nice but they often don’t have first class). The big difference between first and second class on Italian trains is the level of chaos. Second class is where the majority of Italians travel, so it’s louder and more crowded, with more people yakking on cell phones and getting on and off at each station. If you enjoy immersing yourself in the hustle and bustle of Italian culture, then you’ll enjoy the atmosphere of second class. But, first class tickets are not much more expensive so if you prefer a quieter train experience, then buying first class tickets is probably worth it. And if you really value a quiet train, buy the Business Class silenzio tickets, if offered. It’s worth noting that the seats in first class are a little bit — but not a lot — nicer. The difference between first and second class on Italian trains is nowhere near as large as the difference between first and second class on the airlines.
Can I store my bags near my seat?
As you can see from the photo above, there are overhead storage areas above the seats for bags. And while there are several different configurations for trains, overhead storage space is rarely big enough for suitcases, so you’ll be able to count on storing your briefcase or laptop or jacket or backpack up there, but not your luggage. On many trains there’s luggage storage between the backs of the seats.
If you’ve booked a compartment, then you’ll be able to store your luggage inside. The only other alternative is to put them in the luggage storage area near the doors, which looks like this:
Is my luggage safe in the luggage storage area on an Italian train?
Yes. At least, you don’t need to travel with a padlock and chain it down. Since the luggage storage is close to the train door, in theory I suppose somebody could grab your bag as they were getting off the train, but I’ve never heard of that happening. That said, if I were traveling with a large Prada suitcase that cost a few thousand dollars empty, I probably wouldn’t put it in that area, or at the very minimum I’d book a seat very nearby to keep an eye on it.
Can I buy food on the train?
Yes, there is a guy with a cart that comes around on some routes, selling sandwiches, snacks, and drinks, but I don’t recommend it. Unless you buy a bag of potato chips, it’s probably the worst food you’ll eat in Italy. If you are traveling during a meal time, I recommend buying sandwiches in the train station before you get on the train — those are wonderful! And, if your train has a restaurant car, the food there is pretty good.
Are the bathrooms on Italian trains horrible?
The restrooms on the older slow trains should only be used in case of emergency, but the restrooms on the fast trains are modern and have running water, soap, and paper towels. That said, it doesn’t mean they’re clean. I generally try to avoid bathrooms in train stations and on trains if possible.
Do I need to buy Italian train tickets in advance?
I recommend buying train tickets for fast trains in advance for a few reasons. First, the prices are lower compared to buying them at the last minute. Second, every now and then, Italian trains sell out. But, when I travel to Italy, even in high season, unless I’m traveling with my kids I do not buy my train tickets in advance, in order to allow more flexibility in my schedule, and (touch wood / tocca ferro!) I’ve never had a problem. Even if you show up at the train station and the train you planned to take is sold out, trains in Italy run so frequently that there will likely be another train departing within a few hours. To buy train tickets in advance, I recommend using the Trenitalia website. Scroll down to see a video for how to buy tickets on this site. Note that this advice is for fast trains, which are the Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca or Frecciargento. For slower trains like Intercity or Regionale, it’s often not possible to buy tickets online in advance. You’ll have to buy them at the train station — but so will everyone else.
How do I buy Italian train tickets online?
[I buy train tickets for Gold and Platinum trip planning clients, but here’s the advice I give my coaching clients.] Use the Trenitalia website and you’ll get a train ticket sent to you in your email which you can print out and bring with you. But really all you need is the PNR number (see example ticket below). I use the Italian version of the website because it’s very straightforward (and last I checked, the English version of the site was not very easy to use). Note that you cannot buy train tickets online earlier than 90 days before the date of travel. So if you do a search for your route and it says your “solution is not available”, don’t assume tickets are sold out. More likely, it’s more than 90 days in advance or you’re trying to book a slow train. About five minutes after you’ve completed your purchase, you’ll get an email from Trenitalia with an attachment which is your train ticket. It looks like this:
This ticket is for the fast Frecciarossa train 9572 from Rome’s Termini train station to Florence’s S. M. Novella train station on April 4th, 2015. This train departs at 10.05 am and arrives in Florence at 11.36 am. My clients are booked in carriage #1, seats 12D and 13D. When the conductor comes to check their ticket, all he cares about is that PNR number (which I have blanked out since this trip is in the future). Since I booked the tickets well in advance, they got a great price for a Business class itinerary.
What’s the best way to buy tickets in the train station?
The best way to buy tickets in any Italian train station, hands down, is at an automated machine. Large train stations like Roma Termini have dozens of these machines, and they offer the option of choosing a language so it’s incredibly easy to buy tickets. The main thing to remember when using automated machines in Italian train stations is that Italians have switched to credit cards with smart chips and PIN numbers, so if your card does not have a PIN, you should use your debit card in these machines. Otherwise, you’ll get to the screen that says “enter your PIN”, and you won’t have a PIN, and you’ll have to cancel the transaction and go stand in line to buy tickets from a teller.
Should I buy a rail pass for Italian train travel?
No. I used to do the math for clients and I finally stopped doing it when I never once recommended to anyone to buy a rail pass, so I’ve stopped spending time on it.
But, if you’d like a longer, more thorough answer with examples, head over to Italy Explained and read my friend Jessica’s excellent and detailed article on how to decide whether to buy a rail pass.
Is taking the train cheaper than renting a car in Italy?
Usually train tickets are cheaper than car rental, but not if you rent from dirt cheap auto dot com (I just made that up but you get the point), and of course it depends on the number of people traveling. The cars I book for my clients are quality cars from reputable car rental companies who offer excellent service and are not dirt cheap, because you get what you pay for. I usually tell people to budget about 80 euros per day for a car that holds 4 people plus luggage, and that price includes the car rental, gas, and tolls. It would be more expensive than 80 euros to buy four one-way tickets from Rome to Florence at the last minute. But, if you buy train tickets in advance (and if you have kids and travel on a Saturday when kids travel free) then it would cost less to buy four train tickets compared to renting a car. Cost should not be the only factor, though. It can be a huge hassle to have a car in Italy.
How do I figure out whether an Italian train station has luggage storage facilities?
If you’re getting off the train to do some sightseeing and then catching another train later in the day, you’ll definitely want to store your luggage at the station. In Italian, luggage storage is called deposito bagagli, and the Trenitalia website lists all services offered in each train station, by region, including whether the station has a deposito bagagli. As an example, here’s the information on all facilities in all train stations in the Veneto region.
I’ve heard about the new Italo trains – should I book with them or with Trenitalia?
Italo is a private train service that launched in 2003 for fast trains only, so that Trenitalia would not have a monopoly on train travel. Italo’s routes are not nearly as comprehensive as Trenitalia’s but its trains are newer. Italo trains use different stations, but those stations are still centrally located in major cities. The ticket prices are in the same ballpark, so if you are doing a lot of train travel on your Italy trip it might be fun to do some Italo and some Trenitalia just to try them both out. Here’s a good overview comparing Italo and Trenitalia high speed trains.
How far in advance do I need to show up at the train station?
If you already have a train ticket, you don’t need to be at the train station more than about 20 minutes before your train departs. You need to allow time to walk from the front entrance to the departures board and check to see from which platform your train is leaving. Then you just need to have enough time to walk to that platform, and find the car and your seat. You might need time to buy a panino or have a coffee or use the restroom, and of course, you need leeway because it’s Italy. But that’s it. If you don’t already have a ticket, add 20 minutes to buy a train ticket.
Italian train strikes? What are those?
I’m counting this as one question. Italian trains do go on strike but the good news is that strikes are announced well in advance so if one coincides with your trip, you’ll have time to figure out an alternative method of transport. I’ve written everything you need to know about Italian train strikes here.
Those are the most frequently asked questions I get from clients about Italy train travel, but if you have a question I haven’t covered feel free to leave it in the comments. These are quick questions with relatively short answers, but there’s a lot more to say about Italian train travel. If you are interested in reading more details with examples and lots of additional information about Italy train travel that is not covered here, Jessica from Italy Explained has written an ebook on Italian trains.
Top photo by Mariano Mantel on Flickr; Italo photo by Thierry Ilansades on Flickr. All other photos by Madeline Jhawar
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