How to Figure Out if Trains Are Your Best Option for Getting Around in Italy

Network of train tracks

Network of train tracks — creative commons photo by ghedo

Most travelers in Italy will be best-served by taking the train to get around the country – but that’s not going to be true for everyone. To figure out if trains are the best option for your itinerary, you’ll need to think about the following things.

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Italy may look like a small country when compared to the rest of the planet, but getting around can still be a challenge if you aren’t prepared to deal with the vagaries of the Italian rail system. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to make your Italian train adventure a smooth experience – from questions you already have to questions you don’t even know you should be asking – including:

  • The difference between train tickets and reservations, and when you’ll need both
  • How to decide whether to buy a Rail Pass or point-to-point tickets
  • How to read an Italian train schedule
  • How to buy train tickets and reservations, either before you leave home or once you’re in Italy
  • How to deal with Italian train strikes

And much more!

What cities/towns do I want to visit?

If you’re sticking primarily to bigger cities and medium-sized towns, and your trip is mostly in the northern part of the country, then it’s likely there will be train stations in all the places you wish to go.

Most travelers in Italy – particularly first-time visitors – go to Venice, Florence, and Rome (sometimes with a few stops in between). If that sounds like the backbone of your trip, then rest assured the train is the best option for that itinerary.

You can double-check whether there’s a train station in a town pretty easily by checking the “transportation” section of that town’s Wikipedia page, which should at least mention the existence of a train station if there is one.

The rail network in the south is much less intricate, so for most of the south you would be better off renting a car in Italy. The same goes for smaller towns throughout the country – some have bus service from neighboring cities, but others are only reachable if you’ve got your own set of wheels.

And keep in mind that if you’ve got some meandering in mind – perhaps a few days spent tootling around the Tuscan countryside on your way from Florence to Rome? – you can still take the train for most of your trip and plan to rent a car in Florence for a few days. Transportation isn’t something where you have to choose all one or the other.

How many people are in my travel group?

Solo travelers, couples, or small groups are likely to find traveling by train is the most hassle-free way to get around. Even big groups (with a capable ringleader) will probably be best-served by taking the train.

If your group contains at least one willing driver – and your itinerary isn’t strictly limited to big cities – you may want to do a cost comparison between taking the train and renting a car. You may save money by pitching in together and renting a car, and that certainly gives you more flexibility, but driving in Italy’s historic city centers (not to mention trying to find parking) is a headache many travelers would just as soon avoid altogether.

It’s worth noting that there’s a rail pass – called a “Saver Pass” – for groups who will always be traveling together, so that’s something to keep in mind when doing your cost comparison.

Which do I have more of – money or time?

It’s the big question, isn’t it? We never seem to have copious amounts of both at once, especially on vacation.

Assuming the trains go where you want to go, they’re an efficient way to get around the country. The fast trains, however, aren’t cheap. Those on an extreme budget may wish to do some cost comparisons with buses in Italy or, at the very least, look for the cheaper (and slower) trains from city to city. Keep in mind buses that run from one region of Italy to another are not extremely common, so in some cases a cross-country adventure would involve navigating lots of bus transfers.

Is flying ever a better idea than taking the train?

The multitude of super-budget air carriers in Europe has made flying within Italy (and the rest of the continent) much more affordable than it used to be, so it’s always worth looking at flights to see whether you can find a seriously discounted fare from, say, Milan to Palermo.

Just remember that the big cities in the north are connected by high-speed trains that make the journey from Milan-Rome in under two hours – and since train stations are in the city center (a claim airports cannot make) your transit time is basically just the time on the train. No checking in, no going through airport security, no collecting luggage, etc. A trip would need to be pretty far (or the fare extremely low) before I’d consider flying over taking the train in Italy.

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