I am an unabashed fan of Italian train travel. I will almost always opt for the train between two places, all things being relatively equal, but in some cases the bus is really the better choice. This is especially true if you’re staying in one region, and buses often provide a cheaper alternative if you’re on a really tight budget. There are some challenges with taking the bus to get around Italy, however, so don’t assume you’ll be taking all buses (or all trains, for that matter) until you do a little bit of research.
Which starts right here.
Generally speaking, if your Italy itinerary consists mainly of big cities, or is limited to the northern half of the country, chances are good you’ll be taking trains most of the time. There are plenty of towns in the countryside between the big metropolitan centers, though, that either don’t have train service at all or are simply better served by buses. The main thing to understand when you’re learning about getting around Italy by bus is that there’s no national bus network. Trenitalia operates on the same network no matter what region it’s in, but the vast majority of Italian buses are only regional. This is fine if you’re limiting your trip to one region, but can make things extraordinarily complicated if you’re crossing regional borders.
This? This is the sweet spot when it comes to bus travel in Italy. This is when buses come into their own, getting you outside the main tourist centers and into smaller towns where the trains don’t go. (Yes, cars will do this, too, but if you don’t want to drive in Italy then at least the bus driver will handle that part for you.) There are sometimes multiple companies serving one region, and bus terminals are often near the train station in major cities, but sometimes they’re harder to find. Ask around to find the local bus station, and then you can find out your bus options from that city to the one you want to visit.
I would tell you to do some of this research online before you go, but many of the Italian bus companies don’t even have websites (or they’re rarely updated, or they’re only in Italian). This site (only in Italian) is dreadfully designed, but it does seem to have some good information on bus schedules for every region in Italy (click on “Orari Autobus” to get a list of regions), plus bus schedules for the buses that only go back and forth between cities and their airports. The Bus Station site (English) covers way more than just Italy, but it’s got a pretty extensive list of bus and coach services in cities and regions throughout the country.
On the whole, if you’re planning to take buses whenever possible, I would recommend making time to find the bus station and do your route research well before you’re actually planning to get on the next bus. This gives you time to figure out your options and plan your next move without the stress of doing it all in five minutes while the bus idles outside the station.
As mentioned, there’s no over-arching bus network that connects all twenty regions of Italy, where you can book travel through one system. There are some methods of travel-hacking you can employ if you’ve got the time and the adventurous inclination, where you’ll cobble together a cross-country route – it involves figuring out where you’ll do a DIY transfer at each regional border – but on the whole, traveling from one region to another in Italy is still more easily accomplished by train.
Having said that, there are some bus companies in Italy that serve more than one region, and a few that have a very limited number of what could even be called national routes:
You’ve probably heard of Eurail passes, right? Those train ticket substitutes that backpack-wielding teenagers and twenty-somethings have been toting around Europe for decades? Well, there are bus companies that act sort of like European trains in that regard, ferrying backpackers around the continent in an oversized hop-on/hop-off tour. Companies like Eurolines and Busabout offer organized tours or simply long-haul coach (bus) transit from one major European city to another. These options may include multiple stops in Italy, so if you’re on a trip through several countries in Europe this is one option that could get you from one Italian region to another by bus. It isn’t, however, an Italian bus network.
Many Italian cities have city buses that are excellent options for getting around. Some of the city bus networks are listed on the Bus Station website (discussed earlier), but you may also need to stop in at the tourist information office when you arrive to find out the best way to get around. Tickets for city buses are often sold at tabacco shops (they’re indicated by a big T hanging outside the door) and newsstands, but not usually on the buses themselves. And don’t forget to validate your ticket when you first get on the bus – in some places, not doing so can result in hefty fines.