Taking trains around Europe is the best way to connect cities in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Inter-European flights can be super cheap these days, but the hassle of getting to the airport and navigating security can make a flight more trouble than it’s worth. I travel often on European trains, particularly Italian trains, and have learned the system well. It may seem intimidating, but getting around on Italian trains can be a snap once you know how it works.
Rail Passes Past and Present
Many moons ago, a young and sweet Adventures with Sarah drove all the way up to Edmonds, WA to buy a rail pass for Europe from Europe Through the Back Door. Back in the dark ages, a rail pass was the easiest way for a foreigner to navigate the strange and distant world of European trains, giving total freedom on the rails and the ability to avoid dealing with train stations. Pick a destination, write the date on the ticket and hop the next train. Easy-peasy.
These days, rail passes exist but are on the wane, partially because they are increasingly expensive. The typical rail pass costs a bit under $100 per day. That’s not a bad price if you plan to do lots of long trips to multiple countries. It’s hard to make them pay off in a single country or with short hops. As an example, I’m on one of the longest train rides you can take in Italy right now, Rome to Venice– a last-minute ticket cost me $80.
Another downside of rail passes is that most long haul rides are on high speed trains with pre-reserved seating. Rail passes are accepted, but you must present them at the station and pay to reserve a seat. That’s just as much hassle, if not more, than just buying a ticket.
The main company for Italian trains is Trenitalia, also known as Ferrovia della Stato. It’s the national rail service of Italy. Their service covers practically every village in mainland Italy and usually offers a bus service to places without rails.
I think you’ve heard about Italian trains, no? That they are dirty, scary, rarely run on time. You’ve probably heard the urban legend of trains in the south being gassed and everyone losing their possessions to bandits. That was a whopper that went through the hostel crowd some years ago. It’s all rubbish.
Trenitalia is very different from the days when it needed Mussolini to make it run on time. Trains are usually clean-ish, somewhat on time and can be surprisingly comfy and modern. Imagine a train system that could whisk you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 3 hours that is cheap, comfortable and serves great coffee. Americans can only marvel at Trenitalia.
Gone are the days of waiting in line for ages at a train station to buy tickets. These days, tickets can be purchased in a variety of ways.
At the Station
You can buy tickets from the ticket window, as in the past. At the bigger stations you’ll have to take a number and wait your turn…which can be an investment in time. I’d suggest buying a ticket in person from a human only if you have a complicated situation, such as connecting Italian trains to French trains. Confirm your plans several times with the staff member and look over your ticket carefully. And certain that they give you all of your change if you’re paying cash.
The easier option at the station is to buy from the ticket machines. Most major stations will have computerized ticket machines in the station lobby or on the platform. The green or red ones are for standard tickets. If you see a blue ticket machine, that is usually for local rail services only.
Before you pick a machine to use, be sure it accepts your payment method. Not all machines take cash. The machines that take credit cards require you to have a chip in your card with a pin number. If you don’t have that, you will have to get in line to buy the ticket from a person.
Be careful to avoid the people at major train stations that want to “help” you with the ticket machines. These are often scam artists looking to make a buck. You don’t need help, but if you do, speak only to official Trenitalia staff in uniforms.
It is still an option to buy rail tickets from a travel agency in Italy. Most towns will have an Agenzia di Viaggi that has English speaking staff. The ticket may have a small commission, but if you are buying a complicated ticket or are in a town with a congested train station, this is a no stress way to take care of business. For example, I’m a big fan of the travel agency in Levanto, near the Cinque Terre, because the train stations often have long lines.
The absolutely best way to buy tickets is on the Trenitalia.com website. It is fast, easy and can be done on a smartphone. I buy my tickets with my phone and save the ticket PDF to iBooks, then show the conductor. If you are traveling with a tablet or laptop, you can do the same thing- I saw a conductor scan a guy’s laptop screen on a train yesterday! Whatever works. If you don’t carry electronics, it is possible to print out a ticket bought online as well.
A couple of small caveats for online tickets– you will not be able to register if you are not an Italian citizen, which means you have to enter all of your info every time you buy a ticket. Also, some train tickets need to be bought at least a half hour ahead of time. If the train you want departs imminently and it looks sold out, there may be tickets available at the station.
Rail Europe also offers tickets online, but considering how easy it is to buy directly, I wouldn’t bother.
I’ve tried all of the classes on Italian trains. If you’re on a regional train or an Intercity train, the class won’t make any difference at all, except that your seat may be slightly wider. A typical regional train has no class. On the fast trains, the Frecce or “arrows”, the first or business class seats will be wider, with three across rather than four. They include a coffee and snack service, which amounts to Nescafe and crackers. Seats are often clustered around tables with outlets, which is nice if you’re a writer (like me) but not necessary and occasionally cramping for long legs.
The only reason I see for splurging for first class is the noise factor. Second class cars are LOUD. Italians love to talk–to each other, to their cell phones, to the conductor, to their coffee. The second class cars are always full of Italian families and the cacophony can be exhausting. First class is usually all business travelers and silent as the grave.
Validating Your Ticket
Trenitalia tickets must be validated before getting on the train. If you have a paper ticket, you need to find the green or yellow boxes at the platform and slip them in the slot to be stamped. If you can’t get it to work, slide the ticket to the left in the slot.
Online tickets do not need validation, even if they are printed. Those tickets already have the date and time of travel and are pre-validated.
Be aware that Trenitalia recently changed its policy on tickets. No matter what ticket you buy, it is valid only 4 hours after it is validated and must be used on the day it is issued for. What that means is that you cannot stockpile tickets and use them when you like. I used to buy a stack of tickets for traveling in between Cinque Terre towns and use them as I needed them, but now I have to buy my tickets for the specific day I intend to use them.
What is Italo?
Ferrovia dello Stato was the only game in town for many years. About 5 years ago, a new train service was introduced as a competitor, Italotreno. It is privatized, owned in part by Ferrari, and runs on a model similar to Ryanair. The earlier you book a ticket, the cheaper it is. There are multiple classes and features that you can pay for, like wifi and movie access. They operate mainly online and attract a younger crowd because of it, although they have recently opened offices and put ticket kiosks at major stations.
Italo does not cover the whole of Italy, it only connects major cities. If you’re going from, say, Orvieto to Perugia, they don’t have any service at all. It occasionally goes to secondary train stations, like Rome’s Tiburtina station, which can be confusing.
The point of Italo is that the trains are super high speed with few stops, meaning that you can connect major cities faster and cheaper than with Trenitalia. The train cars are plush, with leather seats and power outlets. I took my son Rome to Naples on Italo, which took less than an hour (shaving 20 minutes off of Trenitalia) and costing $40 roundtrip. Not bad.
Specials and Deals
Because of the new competition on the rails, scoring cheap tickets can be a breeze, but only if you buy in advance.
Here are a few of the specials being offered as of June, 2017:
Trenitalia– Offers available until midnight, two days before departure.
Bimbi Gratis: Kids 15 and under travel free on Frecce and Intercity routes. Kids must show ID to confirm their age on board.
3 for 2: Three tickets bought together for the price of two.
A/R specials: Roundtrip tickets used on the same day (day trip) at about half price.
Italo- Similar offers as Trenitalia, but better deals if you’re on their mailing list. I recently received a 30% discount code, as an example.
Overall, the best advice on Italian trains is to buy online and buy at least two days in advance. Compare the two companies for the best price and schedule. Arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before departure and show your ticket to get access to the platform. The high speed trains will show on platform monitors where your car will be, so you can wait in the right area. Once on board, sit back, relax, and marvel at how easy good public transportation can be.