Trains have always been my preferred method of travelling around Italy. I’ve even had a few trips where I travelled the whole way from the UK to Italy by rail (like my visit to the Cinque Terre). But how easy is it to take the train in Italy? And what are the advantages? Here is my complete guide to Italian rail travel, including the number one thing that you need to know…
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Why Use The Trains In Italy?
If you have ever driven in Italy you will know that the roads can be a bit of a nightmare. Trains are a way of avoiding competitive drivers, car hire firms and busy town centres. For longer distances flying may be an option but, once you have factored in check-in times and security screening, a rail journey can be just as quick and certainly less hassle.
There are lots of positives to train travel in Italy. It is quick, easy and cheap. There is an extensive network around the country, meaning that you can get just about anywhere by train. And it is more comfortable than driving or flying. Once you are in your seat you have nothing more to do than watch the countryside passing by, or take advantage of the wifi to catch up with the news. Some trains are double-deckers, giving an even better view of the landscape. For longer journeys you can make the experience more enjoyable by taking an overnight sleeper train.
An added bonus is that trains take you right into the city centre, rather than to a peripheral airport or car park. The only downside is that, if you are visiting one of Italy’s hill towns, you will need to disembark at a nearby station and complete your journey by bus.
Buying Your Ticket
You can either buy your ticket online in advance, or at the station before you travel. However, if you are travelling on a long-distance train you will not be able to board unless you have a seat reservation. It is advisable to book these tickets in advance as some routes (such as those between the major cities) can, and do, sell out. Pre-booking also enables you to take advantage of any discounted tickets or special offers.
For the local and regional trains there is no particular advantage to booking in advance. Prices for these trains are fixed, and there are no seat reservations so there is no danger of seats selling out. At the station you can either buy at the ticket counter or avoid queues by using the self-service machines (they have instructions in English). You can pay by cash, debit or credit card, but note that cards require a PIN number.
You need to be aware that some small stations, such as Castel Gandolfo, either don’t have ticket offices or have limited opening times. You may wish to buy a return ticket beforehand, as you will have to pay more if you purchase your ticket on the train.
Buying Train Tickets With Italiarail
If you are buying tickets online you can use Trenitalia (the official website) or a private agency. My recommendation is Italiarail, because it is less confusing for English speakers, with clear translations and English-language place names. And, even if you are not buying tickets, Italiarail is a good place for checking train times and information, showing a whole day’s services at once, rather than a few trains at a time.
There is a small booking fee if you buy tickets via Italiarail. However other users have commented that it sometimes offers better discounts than the official site, especially for group travel.
Discounts And Concessions
Non residents are unlikely to qualify for age-related concessions, but there are discounts for families and groups. However, these can be confusing and subject to change. The concessions for children seem to depend on how far in advance you book your ticket, and groups may do better with the various discounts available online. In practice you may find it easier to supply the passenger information to the agency or ticket office and see what they offer.
Other Railway Operators
Within Italy a few trains are run by private operators. These include the Circumvesuviana Railway between Naples and Sorrento (tickets need to be purchased at the station). and the Italo high speed trains run by NTV (you can book Italo services via Raileurope). Raileurope is also useful for finding and booking international trains between Italy and other countries.
Validate Your Ticket!
This is the single most important thing to know about train travel in Italy. If you are travelling on a local or regional train you must validate your ticket before boarding. This means stamping it with the date and time so that it can’t be used again at a later date. Failure to do this will inevitably result in a fine of up to €200: Italian ticket inspectors are not lenient towards tourists who claim not to know the rules.
Look for the green validation machine on the station platform, and insert your ticket into the slot so that the time and date can be printed onto the edge. You then need to complete your journey within 4 hours. The only tickets that don’t need to be validated are those for long distance trains (which are for a specified train only), and online tickets that are only valid within a 4-hour window. (I usually validate all my tickets, rather than worrying about whether it is necessary or not…)
Boarding The Train
When you arrive at the station check the Partenze (“departures”) board for your platform and train number. Finding your train is normally straightforward and at the larger stations announcements are often made in English as well as Italian. All you need to do now is to check that you have validated your ticket and board the train. Then sit back, relax and enjoy the journey!