Italian Train Tickets vs. Train Reservations (and How to Tell What You Need)

Train tickets in Italy - by Alessandra Cimatti (creative commons)

Train tickets in Italy – by Alessandra Cimatti (creative commons)

Logic might try to convince you that a “train ticket” and a “train reservation” are the same thing. In Italy, however, where you might as well throw “logic” out the window half the time, they are two different things. Sometimes you need one, sometimes you need both, and by the end of this section you’ll understand how to figure that out – and, I hope, you’ll also see that there is a sort of logic in keeping tickets and reservations separate.

First things first – some definitions:

    • Train Ticket – (biglietto) When you buy a train ticket in Italy, you have bought the right to travel between the two cities marked on the ticket within the period of time for which the ticket is valid. There are not specific dates, times, trains, or even seats attached to train tickets by themselves. You have, essentially, paid for the transport on a particular route, but nothing more.
  • Train Reservation – (prenotazione) When you buy a train reservation in Italy, you have bought the right to travel on a specific date, time, and train, as well as in a specific seat in a specific train car. You have not, however, bought the right to travel between the start and end point – that is paid for with your ticket.

You will need to buy a train ticket for every train trip you take in Italy. You will not necessarily need to buy a train reservation for every trip. Some trains require them, some trains have them available if you want to buy them, and in some cases they aren’t even an option.

The short version:

    • Some trains require only a train ticket.
    • Some trains require both a ticket and a reservation.
  • No train requires only a reservation.

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.

Wait, what? What’s the point of selling tickets that don’t come with reservations?

It’s a valid question, and there are a couple of answers.

As mentioned, not all trains require reservations, so that’s one good reason for keeping them separate. Reservations cost extra, so travelers on a budget (including plenty of Italians traveling by train in their own country) can buy a ticket without a reservation to save a few euros. Of course, not doing this means you run the risk of the train being full, which would mean you’d be stuck with no option but to stand for the entire trip – but if it’s a short journey or you’ve got a suitcase to lean on, that may not be so terrible.

Train tickets can be purchased in “bulk,” so to speak, and they’re valid for a couple of months. This is why tickets must be validated (time-and-date-stamped) in a machine before you board a train. Being able to buy several tickets for a specific journey means that if you make a trip between two cities regularly, you don’t have to wait in line at the ticket counter every single time. It’s true that this point benefits Italians more than visitors, but hey – it is their train system.

Okay, fine – tickets and reservations are different things. I think it’s silly, but – fine. Now, how do I know what I need to buy?

You can always ask a ticket agent at a train station ticket window what you need for the train you want to take, but I’m going to assume you’re doing your homework before you leave home and possibly even buying some tickets before you get to Italy. In that case, there’s something you can look for on train schedules that indicates whether reservations are required – and a few times when, even if they aren’t required, you’d be smart to consider them anyway.

When you’re looking at an Italian train schedule, either online or in the station, you’ll see an “R” symbol next to trains that require reservations. (Never mind that the Italian word for “reservation” begins with a “P.”)

Close-up of a printed Italian train timetable

Close-up of a printed Italian train timetable (the blue R in a box on the ES train is the one that tells you need reservations) – by rjp (creative commons)

In general, it’s safe to assume that the following trains require reservations most (if not all) of the time:

    • High-speed trains, including the Alta Velocità, Eurostar, and Italo
    • Overnight trains, including sleeping berths
    • Trains going from Italy to another country, or vice versa
  • Long-distance trains within Italy

There are other train trips in Italy for which it’s a good policy to buy reservations ahead of time, even if the train doesn’t require it. Those include:

    • Popular tourist routes during the high travel season (roughly May-September) – such as trips between Rome, Florence, or Venice; trips to and from the Cinque Terre; trips to and from Milan
  • Popular “locals” routes on Italian holiday weekends, although some of these may not even permit reservations – such as trips from major cities to the closest beach or lake towns

In the case of the former, booking your reservations ahead of time means you won’t be among the overheated and frustrated tourists waiting in line at the station hours before your train leaves (or, even worse, miss the train you wanted altogether because it was full by the time you got to the ticket window).

As far as the latter goes, you may not be celebrating the same holidays that the Italians do, but it pays to be aware of any Italian holidays going on during your trip – the train you planned to take may be crammed with locals headed to the countryside or coast for a long weekend getaway. Making a reservation in advance means that at least you’ll have a seat.

What if I have a rail pass? Doesn’t that make me immune to problems on the trains?

Not exactly – although it can make train travel a little easier for some.

A rail pass takes the place of a train ticket, so if you’re traveling on trains that don’t require reservations, you do not need to buy anything in addition to the rail pass you already have.

If you want to take a train that requires reservations (or just want to buy them to make sure you get a seat), you’ll only need to buy reservations to use with your rail pass. You can do that at home before you leave or at the train stations in Italy, and I’ll talk more about rail passes in another article.

For now, just be aware that the rail pass equals your tickets, but not your reservations.

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