Now that you’ve gotten to Italy, your next transportation challenge is to get yourself around the country in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. I am a big fan of Italy’s train network, and will almost always default to taking the train if there’s no compelling reason to do otherwise, but there are some journeys for which the train just isn’t the right option. I’ll present you with the information you need about the transportation options in Italy, so you can make the best choice for your trip.
As mentioned, I am a big fan of Italy’s rail network. I love train travel wherever I go, and much of Italy is densely criss-crossed with rail lines – it’s simply the best way to get around the vast majority of the country. This is particularly true if your itinerary includes tourist centers and major cities, and even sometimes when it includes smaller towns.
I’ve covered all aspects of Italian train travel on this site, so settle in with a nice cup of something refreshing and browse all the articles on getting around Italy by train – including whether you should buy a rail pass or individual tickets, how to buy train tickets before you leave home, and how to deal with Italian train strikes.
Italy doesn’t have a national bus network the way the United States does with Greyhound – bus companies are regional in Italy. This means that if you’re staying within one region and looking for a cheap way to get around, buses can be excellent. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to travel from one region to another, connecting bus routes when the companies are completely separate can be a huge pain.
Even if buses aren’t going to be your primary mode of transportation, however, you may find that they make up a part of a journey here and there. That adorable remote town where you’re spending a few restful days may not have a train station. You may need to take a train to the nearest hub and then take a bus from there. Or you may find that even if two towns both have train stations, the bus trip between them is actually faster (not to mention cheaper). Yes, I’m a train advocate – and if both points on a trip are within one region, it still makes sense to see whether taking the bus is the better choice.
There are also bus companies that operate bus tours throughout Europe, sort of a Eurail experience on buses. These companies (such as Eurolines and Busabout) do cross regional boundaries in Italy, but they’re technically not Italian buses. So, yes – if you’re on one of those package trips, you’ll cross boundaries. Get all the details in my article about bus travel in Italy.
Most foreign visitors to Italy will fly to reach the country, but far fewer will consider flying to get around from place to place. Usually, that’s fine – but if your entry point is (for instance) Milan, but the bulk of your holiday is to be spent in (say) Sicily, you can see how ground transportation isn’t exactly going to be the most efficient means of getting there.
There are airports in cities all over Italy of varying sizes. Some of them are only served by small- to midsize airlines that fly within Europe, so you may not even have heard of them, but they can be downright bargains for one-way flights within the country. You may also find that there’s a smaller airport close enough to where you ultimately want to spend your vacation that you’ll be able to figure out a flight from whatever European city is your layover point directly to the place you want to be.
(This absolutely gives you the right to feel smug about your successful travel-hacking, by the way. You have my permission.)
Believe it or not, a good reference for airports in Italy is Wikipedia – so long as you know the names of the larger cities near to your final destination. Those entries will at least give you a list of the airlines that serve that airport, so you can do a more targeted search for flights.
As extensive as Italy’s rail network is, it doesn’t blanket the country entirely. If your itinerary includes points well off every tourist map or beyond the pages of most guidebooks, then you’re probably going to need to rent a car. Renting a car in Italy can also be cost-effective if you’re traveling with a few other people, when buying train or bus tickets for everyone in your party would add up.
If you’re not used to driving in foreign countries and you don’t speak Italian, driving in Italy can be frustrating and not a little bit stressful, at least in the beginning until you get used to what road signs look like and what traffic rules are. Once you’re comfortable, driving through the Italian countryside can be exciting and relaxing. Driving in the cities, however, will make even the most calm individuals tense – and parking in the crowded historic centers of Italian cities can be maddening.
If your trip includes time in both cities and countryside, consider renting a car for only the parts of the trip when you won’t need to worry about driving or parking in the city. Pick up your car outside the historic center at the end of your stay there, enjoy your time in the countryside, and drop it off before you settle into the next city-based portion of your vacation. This combination of driving outside the cities and relying on public transportation in the cities can be the ideal way to avoid stress but still have the freedom to explore beyond the rail lines.
Italy is surrounded almost entirely by water. This means that getting from place to place by boat is possible – if you’re sticking to the coast or islands. Keep in mind that some passenger boats only run during the high season, shutting down in the winter when the weather kicks up waves that make it impossible for smaller boats to cross safely. There are major crossing points that are open year-round, of course, so that no place is cut off during the winter – it just might be a different route that’s required to get there.
Also note that if you’re driving around Italy for the rest of the time that you’re not traveling by boat, not all ferries will take cars on board. Some are simply too small, and some destinations are basically car-free. So be sure to find out whether you’ll be taking your car on the boat or whether you’ll need to leave it behind before you arrive, ready to board.