You’ve successfully purchased the ticket and reservation you need for your train trip, and you’ve figured out which platform on which you need to stand to await your train. Just a couple more things to check off your list and you’re good to go.
As I said earlier, Italian train tickets by themselves don’t have specific dates or times associated with them. This means that in order to signify that you’re using a ticket on a specific date and time, you need to validate it by getting it date-stamped by a machine.
Validation machines aren’t always easy to spot – especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for – and Italy makes it more complicated than it needs to be by having several different kinds of machines and putting them in different places in each station.
What you’re looking for is usually a wall-mounted machine that’s painted a bright color – often orange or yellow – and has no buttons or lights, just one thin slot into which you can insert one end of a train ticket. Look for them in the stations near doorways before you walk onto the platform – it’s more rare that they’re actually on posts at the platforms, so you need to validate your ticket before you walk out of the station. Sometimes they’re marked with the words “Convalida Biglietti Ferroviari” (“Validate Train Tickets”), but most of the time there’s no writing on the box whatsoever.
Insert one end of your ticket into the machine (sometimes the ticket has an arrow indicating that’s the side to validate, but it doesn’t usually matter which side has the stamp) and you’re all set. If you bought a ticket and reservation together and they’re both on the same piece of paper, you don’t need to validate the ticket because it already has a date and time on it. AV train tickets, for instance, don’t need to be validated. But if you aren’t sure? Go ahead and validate the ticket anyway – it can’t hurt.
Once your train pulls into the station, your final task before you settle in for the journey is to find your train car and seat.
AV trains are typically so reliable that there are signs on the platforms indicating where each numbered train car will stop when the train arrives. These numbers, usually displayed overhead, let you know on which section of the platform you should stand to be near the right train car.
If you’re on a trip that does not require a reservation, then all you need to do is make sure you’re boarding a car in the correct class. You’ll be holding either a first class or second class ticket, so you need to find a seat on a car in that class. Each car has a “1” or a “2” marked on its doors, as well as on the doors between cars, so find a car that matches the class on your ticket and hop on board. On some regional trains all the cars will be second class, so it won’t matter where you get on.
When you choose a seat, keep in mind that it may be reserved by someone else who’ll be boarding at another station down the line. In some cases, reservations for a later point in a trip are displayed (this is especially true if there are train compartments rather than just aisles of seats), but often the only way you’ll know that someone has reserved the seat you’ve taken is when that person boards the train later on in the journey and shows you his or her ticket. At that point, you’ll need to find a different seat.
If you have both a ticket and a reservation, you’ll be assigned to a specific train car and a specific seat on that car. First, find the car number. These numbers, unlike the first class or second class numbers, are not permanently printed on train cars – instead, they’re often print-outs that get posted in the windows on or near the exterior doors of the train car.
Once you’re on the right car, find your seat number. Seats aren’t numbered consecutively across in rows, so pay particular attention to what seats go with what numbers. Also note that when you book two reservations together, chances are you’ll be placed across from your travel companion (groups of four seats often face one another) rather than beside him or her.
Now, if you’ve boarded a train that doesn’t require reservations but you’ve chosen to get a reservation anyway, you may find someone traveling without a reservation is already in your seat. Show him or her your ticket and reservation with that seat number so they’ll know they need to move – or, if it’s not a crowded train, you can just take another empty seat if you like.
Unfortunately for those of us who automatically picture old-fashioned compartments when we imagine European train travel, those are less common these days than they once were. Most of the time Italian trains are bench seats (slower, regional trains) or individual seats rather than compartments with doors. If you do get lucky with compartments, seat numbers are listed outside the door of the compartment, along with any notes about which ones are reserved.
Remember that if you’re running late for your train you can just jump on board any car so that you don’t miss it – you can always work your way down the train from car to car until you find yours once the train is moving.
Note that in some cases trains get split up partway through their journeys, meaning some cars will get removed when they reach a certain city and won’t go all the way to the end point. Pay special attention to this (you may see a print-out in the window near the exterior doors of the train that show pictures of train cars), especially if you’re traveling without a reservation.