A great way to traverse the Italian countryside is by train. It’s a pleasure to stare out the windows and watch medieval hilltop towns, olive groves, vineyards, and Roman ruins fly past (and fly they do—Italo trains operate at speeds up to 220 mph). In general, traveling by train is cheaper, more efficient, and more comfortable than intra-country air travel. As many Americans go their whole life without buying a U.S. train ticket, the foreign process may seem a bit overwhelming at first so here are some tips to help you have an enjoyable experience.
Don’t stand in line for a ticket. When you get to the train station you will notice long, slow-moving lines which you will smartly avoid by buying your ticket online (see guide below) in advance or by using the kiosks at the train station (see guide below). There are two train companies in Italy that I like: Italo (a private company) and Trenitalia (the state-run system).
Do check out Italo trains. These trains are super swanky and very fast. They have several different seating classes that they call “ambiences.” If you choose the top of the line one—club executive—you get a private area for luggage, spacious seating, a designated attendant for your car, beverage and snack service, and considerably fewer passengers than in the other classes. Also, at certain train stations you have access to the very nice Club Italo lounge. Although Italo only serves major hubs right now, for many travelers its trains go to the cities one wishes to visit.
Don’t turn up too early to train stations (unless they have good restaurants). Train travel is not like air, you don’t need to be there well in advance of departure if you already have purchased your tickets and reserved your seat. The train won’t be listed on the master departure board until about 20 minutes before it leaves. Check to make sure that there is no security screening, but even with it thirty minutes should be sufficient. If you’re early though, some stations are really upping their game in the food arena!
Do weigh the price/time savings between fast trains (Freccia) and slower trains. This is only for Trenitalia as all Italo trains are high-speed trains. Generally, the faster the train the more expensive it is. On a shorter distance where the faster train may get you there only 15 minutes earlier then the more costly expenditure for a fast train may not be worth it. It is true that time is money, but on vacation you may wish to spend a little more time and save more money.
Don’t assume that a rail pass in the best option. Rail passes are only used on Trenitalia trains. It may be more cost effective to do a combination of Trenitalia and Italo.
Do book in advance when possible. I find that by buying in advance that I can purchase first-class seats for just slightly more than lower class options.
Buying a train ticket online with Italo
- I generally price compare between Trenitalia and Italo before purchasing, but always end up buying from Italo. Buying from Italo when in the States is quite easy, but you should call your credit card company and let them know that purchases will be coming from Italy and not to decline them.
- Go to the “buy ticket” tab and insert the following information:
- From/to (note that “tutte” means all train stations for a city, i.e. Roma tutte)
- Roundtrip/one way
- Amount of passengers
- Pull down the arrow for the various times and you will see four classes (smart, comfort, prima, and club executive) and three fare possibilities (low cost, economy, fully flexible).
- Select the class and grade of ticket you want—note that low cost is generally the cheapest, but also has a fee for changing and no refund.
- Fill out your personal information and proceed to checkout.
- The computer will have selected a seat for you. You can change this by clicking on the “change assigned seats” box at lower middle of page.
- Check that all the information including the times and dates are correct and proceed to the payment page. Remember that Europeans use the following dating format: day, month, year.
- Enter your payment information and wait. The computer will provide you with a code that they will also email to you (but I always send one and print a confirmation page just to be safe, plus I print one to pdf so I can keep a copy on my phone). You will need this code at time of travel.
Buying a train ticket at a kiosk
- Select English (denoted by the United Kingdom flag).
- Select your destination. Make sure you’re looking under the Italian name (Firenze, Venezia, Napoli, Roma, etc.—those stand for Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome) and picking the station nearest where you want to go like Roma Termini for downtown instead of Roma Tiburtina. I use Google Maps to find the name of the stop I want.
- Select the date of your proposed trip. A list of options will pop up.
- Pick your trip and follow the directions from there. They will be slightly different depending on whether you are reserving a seat or not.
Pay for your ticket (the machine may not accept your credit card so be prepared with cash; if you buy online all major credit cards are accepted) and the kiosk will spit out your ticket. Note: if you need to validate your ticket, make sure you do this before you board. There are machines by the trains where you insert your ticket and get it stamped. You can just follow other passengers or ask a conductor. Conductors will also let you know if validation is needed and where your car (carrozza) and seat (posti) are located.
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