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How to Decide Whether to Buy a Rail Pass or Point-to-Point Train Tickets in Italy




Italian train ticket

Italian train ticket — creative commons photo by jayneandd

Once you’ve read about your Eurail Italy Pass options, then you can figure out whether a rail pass or point-to-point tickets are better for your Italy itinerary.

Sadly, there’s math involved. (I know. I’m sorry.)

Some travelers will save big sums of money by getting a rail pass. Others will save time and eliminate planning headaches, a benefit which can be worth its weight in gold. And some of you will be better off getting individual tickets (and reservations, when needed) for the train trips you’ll take in Italy.

In order to figure out whether to get a rail pass or buy point-to-point tickets, you’ll need to know two things:

  1. How many train travel days does your itinerary include? This includes day trips you’ll take by train, when you’re going there and back in one day. It’s not the number of train trips, it’s the number of days during which you’ll travel by train, that figures into rail passes. One day on your rail pass can be used by one train trip or seven – it’s still the same day.
  2. What’s the rough cost of a train ticket for each of those train trips? You can get an idea of the cost of tickets by searching each route on the Trenitalia site – just remember the schedule is only good a few months out, so don’t worry about getting the dates exactly right. Choose the same day of the week that you’ll take your train trip, about a month out from today. (Here’s a link to the English version of the Trenitalia site, and here’s my article about how to read an Italian train schedule.)

When you add up the train ticket costs (number two above), you can compare it against the cost of a Eurail Italy Pass for the number of train travel days you’d need (number one above), which instantly tells you which option saves you money overall.

Still with me?

Okay, for the math-challenged out there (I’m one of you, trust me), let’s throw some real numbers into these equations so they make more sense.

Important notes on these samples:

  • In all cases, I’m using the “base” fare listed on the Trenitalia site for a given route. There are often “economy” and sometimes “super economy” fares available, although these sell out faster than the “base” fares. If you’re doing your research well enough in advance, you could score one of these “economy” or “super economy” tickets and save quite a bit over the “base” ticket prices quoted here.
  • In all cases, I’m choosing the most efficient train option – a Frecce train if it’s available. There may be cheaper (and slower) trains covering the same route, which you may find better suit your itinerary when you’re doing your own research.
  • There are “Saver” rail passes if you’re traveling with a group that can make the pass a much cheaper per-person option, so if you’re not traveling solo be sure to look at the “Saver” option to compare that instead of the individual rail pass price.
  • I’m declaring one better than the other – either point-to-point tickets or a rail pass – for each itinerary below based on the prices I’m looking up right now. That does not mean, however, that the answer is always going to be the same. You’ll still need to look up the same things I did and get the current prices in order to make the right call for your trip budget.

Buy Italy Train Tickets

Get your tickets before you leave home from ItaliaRail, a US-based company that partners with Trenitalia to offer real-time connectivity to the Italian rail reservation system. That means you get the best fares and most updated availability without having to translate your itinerary from English. Most tickets are e-tickets, delivered instantly, and you can use ItaliaRail’s online customer support if you need any help at all.

Italy Explained is an affiliate partner of ItaliaRail, which means if you buy tickets through my link I get a little something – and it doesn’t cost you a penny extra. Thanks for your support.

Sample Italy Itinerary 1: Venice-Florence-(Pisa-Bologna)-Rome

With this itinerary, you’ll visit Venice, then Florence, take two day trips (to Pisa and Bologna), then end your trip in Rome.

How many train days is that? Venice-Florence is one day. Each day trip equals one day. And Florence-Rome is one day. That’s four total train days.

The next question is how much would the tickets cost for each trip?

Using the Trenitalia site, and dates roughly a month out from when I’m writing this guide, here are the prices I found:

  • Venice-Florence – 2nd Class = €45 one-way; 1st Class = €63 one-way
  • Florence-Pisa-Florence – 2nd Class – €15.80 round-trip (remember to double the one-way prices quoted on the site)
  • Florence-Bologna-Florence – 2nd Class = €48 round-trip; 1st Class = €72 round-trip (remember to double the one-way prices quoted on the site)
  • Florence-Rome – 2nd Class = €43 one-way; 1st Class = €63 one-way

That adds up to:

  • €151.8 in 2nd Class
  • €213.80 in 1st Class

Rail pass or tickets?

As I’m writing this, a four-day Eurail Italy Pass for an adult is €350 for 1st Class, or €284 for 2nd Class, so either way it would be cheaper to book point-to-point tickets instead of getting a rail pass.

Sample Italy Itinerary 2: Rome-Naples-Florence-(Pisa)-Venice-(Verona)-Milan

Perhaps the best flights for your itinerary required flying into Rome and out of Milan, so you’ve constructed a route that goes from Rome to Naples, then up to Florence (with a day trip to Pisa), then to Venice (with a day trip to Verona), and finally to Milan.

How many train days is that? Rome-Naples is one day. Naples-Florence is one day. The Pisa day trip takes one day. Florence-Venice is one day. The Verona day trip takes one day. And Venice-Milan is one day. That’s six total train days.

The next question is how much would the tickets cost for each trip?

Using the Trenitalia site, and dates roughly a month out from when I’m writing this guide, here are the prices I found:

  • Rome-Naples – 2nd Class – €43 one-way; 1st Class = €58 one-way
  • Naples-Florence – 2nd Class – €68 one-way; 1st Class = €103 one-way
  • Florence-Pisa-Florence – 2nd Class – €15.80 round-trip (remember to double the one-way prices quoted on the site)
  • Florence-Venice – 2nd Class – €45 one-way; 1st Class = €63 one-way
  • Venice-Verona-Venice – 2nd Class – €46 round-trip; 1st Class = €69 round-trip (remember to double the one-way prices quoted on the site)
  • Venice-Milan – 2nd Class – €37.50 one-way; 1st Class = €51.50 one-way

That adds up to:

  • €255.30 in 2nd Class
  • €360.30 in 1st Class

Rail pass or tickets?

As I’m writing this, a six-day Eurail Italy Pass for an adult is €424 for 1st Class, or €344 for 2nd Class, so either way it would be cheaper to book point-to-point tickets instead of getting a rail pass.

But what if I don’t have an itinerary completely laid out – and don’t want one?

You, my friend, are the consummate traveler, and I take my hat off to you. Wandering without a plan is often how we find the situations that make for the best travel memories. It can be extremely budget-friendly, too, as you can skip an expensive town for a cheaper one. But how will you know whether it’s better to go into an itinerary-less trip with or without a rail pass?

The truth is you won’t know – but you can make educated guesses. As mentioned earlier, those with more time to spend can take the slower trains to get around, and those are always cheaper. In that case, I’d go with buying tickets instead of a rail pass.

If you know where you’d like to go, just not in what order, and all the train trips you plan to take are big cities that aren’t very close together, you’re likely to be taking the high-speed trains more regularly, and those are always more expensive. In that case, I’d probably go with buying a rail pass instead of tickets.

Keep in mind that one of the perks of a rail pass is the convenience of already having your ticket (in the form of your rail pass) so that you don’t need to stand in line at the ticket window each time you want to go somewhere. That convenience factor is diminished if you’re taking high-speed trains or other trains that require reservations, since you’ll still need to buy those.

Is there a general rule I can go by if I really hate math?

I’m no fan of numbers, either, so here are my overall rules to help guide you in the right direction. Just remember that these are overall rules, not based on numbers – if you really want to figure out which is cheaper, you’ll have to do the math.

In general, you should consider getting a Eurail Italy Pass if:

  • You know how many train trips you’ll be taking AND
  • Most of your train trips will be on high-speed trains OR
  • You’ll be taking any overnight or long-distance trains during your trip (especially any trips that cross borders into other countries).

In general, a Eurail Italy Pass probably isn’t worth it if:

  • Your itinerary is primarily made up of short train trips OR
  • You’re planning to take mostly the slower trains OR
  • You have absolutely no set schedule or any idea of how many train trips you might take.

6 responses to “How to Decide Whether to Buy a Rail Pass or Point-to-Point Train Tickets in Italy”

  1. John says:

    I am going to Italy in June and doing a similar trip to Itinerary 1. Does using the train still make sense for a family of 4 versus renting a car?

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the question, John. It still mostly comes down to math. I’d follow the same steps I outlined here and compare it to whatever estimate you found for a car rental for the same period. Keep in mind that there’s a “Saver” pass available for groups of 2-5 traveling together, so that could save you some money over buying four separate passes.

  2. Gary Leung says:

    An excellent explanation of the two tactics ! Most properly the point-to-point booking would be superior to the railpass option in Italy.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks, Gary – it really does depend on an individual’s travel plans and budget, but for many the city-to-city tickets are the best option.

  3. Tomás says:

    Excellent comparison. I had done it myself but was wondering if I was missing any Eurail Italy Pass benefits. It´s not magical as I read!!! Point to point RULES!!! 🙂
    The only doubt I have is how to get from Salerno to Capo Vaticano. I am still doing my research and trying to avoid too many train changes!! (we are 4 adults and two kids WITH LUGAGGE)!
    Thanks for your time.

    • Jessica says:

      Eurail Passes can be great for wanderers with no plans who want to know they can just hop on any old train when they feel like it. I’m a planner, myself, so I’ve usually found point-to-point tickets the better deal.

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