I love riding the rails…in Italy! I never thought I would be the person who got excited by a train whistle (or robotic-sounding voice), but I do. I enjoy riding along in comfort while watching the Italian countryside fly by. And fly by does…those trains are fast! Jon and I always reserve window seats facing one another with a table in between so we can play cards, drink some bubbly, and relax in style. The journey becomes part of the experience and not just a means to an end.
Since first-class is often only a few Euro more than second class—especially when I book ahead—I travel like a VIP throughout the bel paese with luxurious big seats, conductors and attendants in smart uniforms (can we talk about how fashionable Italians are?!), tasty snacks, delicious drinks, and classy lounges at the station.
For many Americans, train travel is a rarity. Our infrastructure doesn’t emphasize this type of transit. And our trains aren’t as speedy as those in many other countries, so we tend not to see it as a viable type of transit for our fast-paced lifestyles (even on vacation). To ignore it in Italy though would be a mistake. On our first trip there we explored Rome first before going on a cruise that left out of Civitavecchia. Our travel agent wanted to arrange for a car to take us from the Eternal City to the port. I choked when she told us it was going to cost several hundred dollars for the transfer. I thanked her for her advice and walked out of the agency determined to find a lower-cost alternative. After researching, I found that we could catch a train, which would get us there in a little under 50 minutes for around 10 Euros each. It was a huge savings and left us with money to spend on fun things…riding in a car to a port is not something I consider enjoyable.
It is important to plan ahead though. That first train trip, we didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know how to buy tickets online before we got there. I knew I didn’t want to pay the extortionate rate that the travel planner was offering us, but I wished I had had some guidance. I didn’t want to start out our vacation with a nerve-wracking experience.
At the station, we encountered language barriers and unfamiliarity with the train system, which resulted in a some squabbling and a lot of worry. Part of the reason for me writing another article on trains in Italy is that I don’t want others to have the negative experience that we did. The other day, I watched a YouTube video where two travelers had tried to navigate the Trenitalia train system from Civitavecchia to Rome. They had great difficulty. The woman said she had been near tears and both of them looked distraught in the clip. No one wants to feel stressed out on a vacation! The couple figured it out, but they ended up taking a regional train instead of an express one, which threw off their plans and caused them to miss a booked tour.
I think many people just pay gobs more and reserve private car transfers rather than take the train, but then they are missing out on a great experience. Plus, the saved money can definitely be spent elsewhere in Italy…need I mention the food and fashion?
Italian train travel is:
- Seamless ticketing system/experience with real-time connectivity to the main Italian rail system—Trenitalia.
- Ability to see a whole day worth of trains in the search results and not just a couple hours block.
- Clearly-stated duration of trip (very helpful when trying to make it somewhere on the quickest train).
- Online support through their help desk with extensive rail knowledge, guidance, and expertise.
- An all-English website with 24-hour customer service by English-speaking representatives. If for any reason you can’t get a hold of their customer service, you can take your e-ticket to any Trenitalia counter.
- Competitive prices with minimal booking fees. One ItaliaRail benefit for pricing is that they pass any discounts that the train system is offering on to customers. And they combine promotions if possible, so if there is only one seat left at a lower price (and you need two or more), ItaliaRail will book that lower price and then buy the next ticket(s) at the higher price. Trenitalia only shows you higher prices if there isn’t the full number of tickets at lower prices. ItaliaRail also allows you to fairly easily see the cheapest trains and where 1st class is a good value.
- A competitive foreign exchange rate and customers can pay in USD, Australian dollar, Canadian dollar, British pound, or Euro so they aren’t charged foreign transaction fees.
- Ability to buy “Rail Aid” protection policy for decent rates which includes: trip changes and cancellation, trip interruption, access to the VIP ItaliaRail lounge, and a dedicated toll-free line.
- Most of the time, passengers get e-tickets so they don’t have to worry about losing paper copies or having them delivered.
- Group discounts and the ability to book up to 20 people at a time.
- Travel deals in Italy through their ItaliaPass, which offers special benefits and discounts on tours, transfers, car rentals, and more.
Here are some other tips to help make your Italian train travel experience as enjoyable as possible:
- Do book in advance when possible. I find that by buying Italy train tickets in advance makes first-class quite affordable.
- Do evaluate the price v. time savings between fast trains (freccia) and slower trains. Generally, the faster the train the more expensive it is. On a shorter distance, a faster train may get you there only 15 minutes earlier, which might not be worth the extra cost for a “freccia” train. For other distances, the saving of time might be more important than the saving of money.
- Don’t assume that a rail pass in the best option. Price out how expensive it would be to get point-to-point tickets versus a rail pass. ItaliaRail’s website provides good information on the subject.
- Don’t stand in line for a ticket. Either book online in advance (best bet) or use a kiosk at the train station. There are two main train companies in Italy: Italo (a private company with fewer routes) and Trenitalia (the state-run system that has trains reaching all over Italy).
- Don’t turn up too early to train stations (unless you have lounge access). 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 departure board until about 20 minutes before it leaves (sometimes much less). Even with security screening, you shouldn’t need to be there too far in advance. If you have lounge access though, then it’s a whole other story—enjoy the luxury.
I highly endorse train travel in Italy…and much of Europe for that matter. If you want to try to navigate the rail systems on your own, then I suggest looking at my blog on the subject. If you would like an easier time of it, I recommend purchasing your tickets through ItaliaRail. Happy travels!
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