Getting Around Italy by Train

At home we covet the latest tech gadget and are frustrated by anything that seems arcane – but drop us in Italy for a vacation and suddenly we’re waxing poetic about how delightfully romantic and old-fashioned it is to chug around the country by train. Until, that is, something doesn’t go according to plan at the train station.

Getting around Italy by train can be just as delightful and romantic as you imagine it will be if you know what to expect and you’re willing to improvise. Here’s a brief overview of taking trains in Italy, including links to additional (more detailed) resources.

>> Update from March 2011: WhyGo Italy now offers customers the ability to book train tickets online in advance of your trip, getting the same discounts (sometimes as much as 30% off) available to Italians using the Trenitalia site.

Train Tickets vs. Rail Passes

Before you leave home you’ll have to decide whether you’ll get an Italy Rail Pass or buy point-to-point tickets as you travel through the country – you can’t buy a Rail Pass once you’re in Italy. There’s a bit of math that goes into determining which is the cheaper option, but it’s not complicated.

A general rule of thumb is that if your travel plans in Italy (and Europe) are dominated by high-speed trains, trains covering larger distances, or overnight trains then a Rail Pass is probably going to be the more economic option for you – but it’s worth sharpening a pencil and dusting off the calculator to make sure.

*When to Buy an Italy Rail Pass

*How to Use a Rail Pass in Italy

*Free Bonuses for Italy Rail Pass Holders

Tickets vs. Reservations

This is a common area of confusion among travelers in Italy, especially those who have purchased an Italy Rail Pass before leaving home. Put aside your contention that it shouldn’t be this way, because it just is this way and you’ve got to adapt – train tickets and train reservations are not the same thing.

A train ticket is what shows you paid for transportation on a train between two specific points. A train reservation is what shows you paid for a certain seat on that train. An Italy Rail Pass is the equivalent of a ticket, so if you have a Rail Pass you may still need to buy a reservation for certain trains. If you don’t have a Rail Pass, you’ll need to buy a ticket and a reservation for some trains. Not all trains require reservations, however, so ask before you buy.

*Additional information about what to do with your tickets before getting on the train (if you’re buying point-to-point tickets) is in this Italy train travel guide.

*Additional information about what to do with your tickets before getting on the train (if you’re buying point-to-point tickets) is in this Italy train travel guide.

First Class vs. Second Class Train Tickets

The gap between first class and everything else on an airplane is huge – so it stands to reason that a similar gulf would exist between first class and second class on trains in Italy, right? Well, actually the answer is no. Yes, there are some differences, but they’re typically small enough that it’s often not worth the extra expense.

First class cars on Italian trains have wider seats and wider aisles, whereas second class cars have narrower seats and narrower aisles. First class also tends to have more space for luggage storage, as well as free newspapers and snacks. Power outlets seem to be universal in both classes these days, however, so if you’re just looking for a place to charge your iPod either first or second class (on most trains) will allow that.

*Differences Between First Class and Second Class on Trains in Italy

Other Tips for Italy Train Travel

Train Schedules in Italy – Reading Italian train schedules can be confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Even knowing how to use the official Trenitalia site isn’t always easy. There are some tips for how to read Italian train schedules in this article, as well as some for searching the Trenitalia site.

Transportation Strikes – Train and other transport strikes are very common in Italy, and in fact are scheduled sometimes months in advance. This isn’t to say you should cancel your trip if you find out a rail strike is happening while you’re in Italy, but you should try to reschedule any travel plans you might have had on those days. This guide to transportation strikes in Italy for the traveler is a great resource to help you find out whether there’s a strike scheduled during your trip and how to deal with it if there is.

Luggage Storage in Italy Train Stations – You might look at a map of Italy and see a place between where your train journey starts and where you’d like it to end that you’d like to stop off and visit for 2-3 hours en route. But you don’t want to haul your luggage around with you, so you need to know whether that midway point train station has luggage storage. That’s when you need this article – because not all train stations in Italy have storage lockers or facilities.

About the Author:

Jessica Spiegel is the Italy travel expert at BootsnAll, the indie travel guide. Yes, she can help figure out how to get cheap flights to Italy and suggest a possible Italy itinerary for a first-time visitor, but get her started talking about gelato flavors or her favorite pizza in Naples and she may never stop sighing.

Relevant Links:

Ciao Bambino recommended Italy family hotels

Kid-friendly tour guides in Italy 

Italy travel tips, creating a family-friendly itinerary

Rome and Florence car rental tips

4 Comments

  1. What a useful resource. It’s very good to know about the difference between reservation and ticket, I’d hate to get stumped by that one!

  2. Wow this is absolute a great find for me… my good friend is traveling Italy this month and I just find the right material to share to her to prepare her on her travel to the place. For sure I will take not of this blog and forward it to her later. Thank you for sharing this wonderful and useful blog.

  3. I was hoping this might have a bit more on train travel with babies. I have a few Italy-specific questions. We are thinking about bringing a larger stroller with big wheels for all the cobblestones. Is there a place on Italian trains for storing that kind of thing? Is it likely to get stolen?

    Also, I’m worrying about how our little one will nap on the train. I’m guessing that since trains don’t generally have seatbelts, there’d be no way to secure our car seat and therefore no place for him to lie down except on our laps. What have other parents done? We’ll be doing at least on jaunt from Venice to Florence and another from Rome to Venice and I can’t imagine our little guy who will be 14 mos by then going without a nap for that long.

  4. I am researching how to travel by train from the Florence Airport to Pontassieve Train Station. When I typed Firenze in the departure box on the Trenitalia website, it gave me 2 stations: Firenze S.M Novella and Firenze Rovezzano. Does anyone know which station is the airport station?

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