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 are our best tips and advice when traveling Italy by train.
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. 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. It’s another perk of booking travel through a travel agency like Ciao Bambino. Our travel advisors are knowledgeable on the most economic ways of getting around Italy and can advise you accordingly as part of our full trip planning services.
You’ll also want to research other forms of public transportation and whether renting a car makes more financial sense. Some bus or ferry routes are a more efficient way of getting from point A to point B, like on the Amalfi Coast, for example. Or car rental can make more sense if you want to make a lot of stops to sightsee along the way. That said, be sure you’re well versed on the ins and outs of renting a car in Italy. Generally, trains in Italy work well when you’re just trying to connect between major cities, like Florence and Venice.
This is a common area of confusion among travelers in Italy as they navigate the train system, 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.
Train stations will all have ticketing machines readily accessible for last minute journeys. But we always advise making train reservations and seat assignments in advance whenever possible.
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? Not necessarily. But for journeys that are over an hour, our general rule of thumb is to invest in first class seats, especially if you have luggage.
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. For longer journeys, a meal may be served in first class cars.
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. Our advisors can help you discern these schedules. And we always advise clients to time their train journey between check out time of the hotel they’re departing from and the check in time at the hotel of arrival.
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. Some strikes will involve the entire country via the national train network. Others may be regional and only affect one city or area of the country.
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. Not all train stations in Italy have storage lockers or facilities, so be sure to research in advance.
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.
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