Don’t let the title of this section scare you. You won’t need a special map or a compass to figure out your way around an Italian train station – you’ll just need a few tips to point the way.
To begin with, let’s talk about what to expect when you walk into a train station. There are basically two layouts to train stations in Italy.
In one, trains enter the station head on, so that they all line up beside each other. These trains leave the station the same way they came in – they just move in the opposite direction (this is why you’ll see engines at both ends of most Italian trains). These tend to be bigger stations in bigger cities. To get to your train, you’ll walk along the row until you find your track.
In the other layout, trains pass through stations where the buildings are off to one side of the tracks. They stop to let passengers on and off, and they continue on in the same direction. Really small stations will have only one track, but if there’s more than one track at one of these pass-through stations you may wonder how to get to the platforms that aren’t connected to the station itself, right? These stations usually have an underground passageway – called a “SOTTOPASSAGGIO” – that allows access to other platforms. (In most cases, it’s very dangerous – and therefore forbidden – to walk across the tracks themselves!) In the “SOTTOPASSAGGIO,” stairways are marked with the platform numbers so you know when to go back up.
With either of these station layouts, any platform that sits between two train tracks can serve two trains and will therefore have two track numbers – so pay attention to signage to make sure you’re getting on the right train.
As mentioned earlier, the word for track in Italian is “BINARIO.” You may see it abbreviated as “BIN” once you’re in the station; “BIN 4” or “BINARIO 4” both mean “TRACK 4.” Find your train on the schedule and its corresponding “BINARIO,” then proceed to your track.
Some stations may have configurations – such as Bologna Centrale, with its EST/OVEST (east/west) sides – that may present additional challenges. You may not know in advance whether a station will be confusing enough to warrant extra time, so do your best to decipher which way you need to go – and when in doubt, ask.
Depending on the size of the train station, you’ll find some combination of the following services available to passengers during open hours.
* Train stations used to have luggage lockers, but in many places those were removed for security reasons many years ago. Instead, stations sometimes have “left luggage” offices now. These operate like coat check at a museum or other venue, where you hand over your bag in exchange for a numbered ticket. You’ll pay based on how many bags you’re storing and how long the bags are kept. Not all stations have luggage storage facilities, but the larger ones and the ones often used as transfer points typically do.
My Rome-based friend Erica provided this information about traveling with Italo:
“The Italo website is pretty much the same as Trenitalia, but the entire customer experience is far more user-friendly. Each train station that is serviced by Italo has “Casa Italo” service centers (sort of like airline lounges at an airport) with multi-lingual staff who seem like all they want to do is help. They are well-staffed, which means there are not the crazy lines like you’ll sometimes find with Trenitalia, and they all smile. Casa Italo also has automated ticket machines and free WiFi.
“Italo tickets can be changed up to three minutes before a train departs, and depending on the fare purchased (i.e. anything but super economy), the change is free and easy. Trenitalia tends to make changes and refunds a horrific battle, and from what I understand, Trenitalia tickets purchased through the US provider are non-refundable and don’t allow for changes.
“For me, the kicker is the telephone customer service. Italo is a local number (you can call from your hotel with no added minute charges) – staff speaks English fluently (as well as French, Spanish). They will often call you back immediately if they cannot make the change within the second. Ridiculously helpful.”