For as much as we might know about the sleek and sexy Italian automobiles, most of us look forward to hopping on trains when we travel through Italy. As long as your Italy itinerary is covering cities with train stations, train travel means you don’t have to compete for road space with Italian drivers (a breed of their own, if ever there was one), and you’ll have the luxury of sitting back and watching the country drift by outside your window.
Now, you may have heard the old adage, sometimes still repeated by older Italians, that for all his faults “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.” Nevermind that the statement isn’t even true – trains in Italy run on time now. There’s no bygone era to lament in that regard. Still, although the trains are timely and pretty easy to get used to, there are some idiosyncracies about Italian train travel that it’s helpful to know before you get there. I’ve covered each of the topics listed below in greater detail in another article on the site, so click through on each link to find out more.
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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:
And much more!
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.
Train tickets are not the same thing as train reservations in Italy, and when reservations are required you’ll need to buy them separately. Oh, and your Rail Pass doesn’t come with reservations, either. Confused? Well, as strange as that may sound, there are some good reasons for separating the two (and you’re not getting charged for the same thing twice, don’t worry).
You can choose to buy everything you need before you leave home, if you know your travel plans, or wait until you get to Italy and buy as you go – or some combination of the two. Buying in advance can save you time at the station, but it also may mean you’re stuck with a particularly itinerary. Travelers who prefer to go where the wind takes them don’t usually like that kind of restriction. Keep in mind that if you’re getting a Rail Pass, you must do that before you leave home.
Learn more: How to Buy Italian Train Tickets & Reservations
Italian trains vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the country – and how much you’re willing to pay for a ticket. The names they bear don’t always seem to correspond with how fast they move, either, so look over this list of train types to find out which ones you’re taking.
Learn more: Different Types of Trains You Can Take in Italy
Since you’ll need to get a Rail Pass before you leave home, you’ll need to figure out whether that or plain old train tickets is best for your trip. Sometimes, you’ll save money with a Rail Pass. Sometimes, you’ll save money with train tickets. And sometimes it’s not about the money – there are hassle savings to consider, too. I’ll walk you through how to determine which option makes the most sense for you.
You can do some preliminary research on schedules on the Trenitalia website, particularly if you know what routes you’re planning to travel, but things sometimes change in real-time. Understanding both how to read the online train schedule and how to read the ones you’ll find in Italian train stations, then, is a very good thing.
You’re probably used to pining for first class on flights when you’re stuck in coach, but don’t let that color your opinions about first and second class on Italin trains. There are differences, sure, but they’re not nearly as stark. Personally, I opt for second class (more money for gelato!), but there’s more room in first class – both for people and luggage – so that may be more appealing to you (especially on tourist route trains during peak season).
I hear you asking, “How hard can it be to board a train, ferpetesake?” It’s not hard. It’s just that there are a few things you need to do between the front door of the station and your seat on the train, and failing to complete some of them (such as validating your ticket) can be costly. It’s easy to miss things like the ticket validation machines if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Okay, so even though Mussolini didn’t make trains run on time, and the trains today are an extremely reliable way to get around Italy, there are still sometimes issues – like train strikes. You never know if one will happen while you’re in Italy, throwing a wrench in your travel plans. But here’s the good news – Italian train strikes are announced ahead of time, so you’ll be able to see a list of most of them well before you leave home (and change plans accordingly if need be).
Learn more: How to Deal with Italian Train Strikes