Know before you go
Traveling by train in Italy can be an adventure and a pleasure, especially for those who are properly prepared. From a train you can see the Italian countryside pass by, and visit cities both large and small. This post is intended for those who would like to travel independently by train in Italy for the first time.
But first a disclaimer. This post is based mostly on my now fairly extensive experience of traveling in central Italy. My observations may not apply to other regions of Italy. The reader is directed to an excellent and comprehensive source of information on train travel in Europe developed by Mark Smith for his site The Man in Seat 61. Click here for the section of the site that deals with Italy.
(1) Better to buy your tickets in Italy. Why? Because there is no shortage of seats on most trains in Italy and you may be able to benefit from last-minute deals — or change you mind once you’ve reached Italy — if you wait to buy your tickets here.
If you have never traveled by train in Italy before, I urge you to make use of the services of a local travel agency soon after your arrival. Rather than wait in line at the train station, find an authorized re-seller of tickets issued by Trenitalia (Ferrovie dello Stato or “FS”, the near-monopoly train service operated by the Italian government). This is what Italians do.
Example: a Roman need to travel to Florence for a one- or two-day business trip. She goes to a neighborhood travel agency displaying the “FS” logo a day or two before she plans to travel. The travel agent prints out her ticket there on the spot, and she pays a 5% commission for the service.
Why this approach? Italians like the personal touch. They are aware that most everything in Italy is in a constant state of flux, and so seek an expert who can provide up-to-date information such as whether there is a train strike pending. Italian clients hope, too, to save a little money, and may want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets on the internet (more on that below).
How do you find an appropriate travel agency? Let’s use Rome as an example. There are hundreds of agencies to choose from, many near the Rome’s primary train station, Stazione Termini, which delights some tourists and bewilders others. I suggest looking for a small agency (single room with two or three desks) that caters primarily to Italians (evident from the travel packages being featured in the window). Agencies near Termini tend to focus on foreigners. They may be interested in selling you things other than train tickets, and may not give you adequate attention if there are other foreigners waiting in line for tickets to the Vatican Museums, rides on double-decker buses and so on.
Consider looking for agencies in other parts of Rome as you begin to explore the Eternal City. Your goal: find a friendly, knowledgeable agent who will dedicate 20 to 30 minutes of time helping you plan your trip in detail. If you buy 400 Euros worth of train tickets, the agent will have been handsomely compensated for her time via the 5% commission. So don’t hesitate to ask detailed questions.
(2) Validate your ticket. If you buy a rectangular-shaped paper ticket, you must validate it. Insert one end of the ticket into a little machine that stamps the name of the station and the date/time. Why? Paper tickets purchased in Italy can be used for up to two months. The validation procedure prevents multiple uses of the same ticket. If you cannot find a working machine (fuori servizio means “out of order”) write the name of the station and your date and time of departure in pen at one end of the ticket. Then you’ll be good to go.
(3) Some trains make frequent stops. Fast trains (sometimes designated “ES” for Eurostar) connect a few major cities in Italy. Inter-city trains (“IC” on the big boards) stop less often than do Regional trains (“REG” or “RV” for Regionale Veloce), which travel within the borders of a region (e.g., Umbria or Toscana). Regional trains are sometimes crowded because they haul students to high school in neighboring towns and commuters to work.
(4) Fast trains are convenient, but expensive. Fast trains cost roughly twice as much as regular trains (now being called “slow trains” by Trenitalia even though their speed hasn’t changed). As an example, consider a trip from the Statione Termini in Rome to the S.M. Novella station in Florence. A ticket on the Frecciargento (freccia “arrow” + argento “silver”), one of the fast trains, costs 63 Euro. A few second-class tickets on this train are offered for 43 Euros, but such tickets are usually sold out. In contrast, a Rome-to-Florence ticket on a regional train costs 20.45 Euro (second class) or 31.30 Euro (first class).
Is the extra cost worth it? You decide. The fast train arrives in Florence in 1 hour 32 minutes compared to 3 hours 36 minutes for the Regional train because it stops far less often (1 versus 15 stops). The seats are a bit larger, and more comfortable. Also, you can dine on board. The food is good and not outrageously overpriced.
(5) You can buy tickets for Regional trains from automated touch screen ticket machines (kiosks) in Italian train stations. Ticket offices in Italian train stations (biglietteria) are being closed or reduced in hours of operation to cut costs. To avoid long waits in line, consider using a ticket vending machine.
The ticket machines take some getting used to. First, determine if the machine you plan to use accepts cash only, credit cards only, or both. Be aware of the Italian name of your destination (e.g., Firenze, not Florence) and the particular station you want to reach (in Florence, probably S.M. Novella, not Campo di Marte). Select your destination, indicate how many child and adult tickets you want, and whether you wish to travel in first or second class. You will be given a price, and asked if you wish to proceed. Only then do you make a payment. (Most American credit cards are accepted, by the way.) A printed ticket will then be issued, along with any change due if you paid in cash. And yes, these machine vended tickets, although smaller in size than regular tickets, must be validated as described earlier.
Here is a video made by an traveler named Jerrold who, having discovered long lines at the ticket windows at the S.M. Novella train station in Florence, decided to use an automated ticket machine for first time. If Jerrod can do it, so can you!
(6) Know where your destination station is located. Many Italian train stations (e.g., the one in Pescara on the Adriatic coast) are located right in the center of town, making it easy to reach nearby hotels on foot or, if needed, to hail a taxi. Pescara, however, is an anomaly: a modern city laid out in a grid pattern on a flat coastal plane during the Fascist era.
Stations found in the kind of Italian cities you probably want to visit, on the other hand, were likely founded in ancient times and evolved slowly over the centuries. Their train stations are not always located conveniently. Many are located outside the Centro Storico (Historic Center), others lack good public transportation links.
I recommend that you take a look at all of your intended destinations in using the Use Google Earth to get the lay of the land for each town you plan to visit, then zoom into street view to see what things look like on the ground. It is not enough to simply know the linear distance of the train station from your hotel on a two-dimensional map. Elevation matters too.
The Centro Storico of many towns were constructed on top of a steep hill for defensive purposes. When train lines were laid in the 1800s, they tended to follow river valleys. Train stations constructed in that era were necessarily build adjacent to the tracks. Orvieto, a wonderful Umbrian town founded by the Etruscans and later conquered by Rome, is a good example of this phenomenon. If you arrive in Orvieto by train, you will need to reach the Centro Storico up above either by using the funicolare (cable car that climbs the hill) or else taking a city bus or taxi.
In a few (mercifully rare) instances public transportation from the station to the Centro Storico is unavailable. Consider, for example, Tarquinia, a delightful town on the Mediterranean north of Rome. Like Orvieto, it is built on top of a steep hill and is surrounded by thick Medieval walls.
The Tarquinia train station is located about 1.2 miles from the walled Centro Storico of Tarquinia. The road leading up to the town is all uphill and, given that there are still sections that lack sidewalks, walking there is not advisable.
You will have no problem reaching Tarquinia’s Centro Storico if you arrive during the day. City buses connecting the station to the Centro Storico arrive on a fairly regular basis. You will need to make special plans, however, if you arrive after the buses have stopped running. Being so small (pop. 16,700) Tarquinia lacks a taxi company. Under these circumstances, consider booking a reservation in one of the local hotels or B&Bs that offers a pick-up service at the train station (for example, Tarquinia Resorts).
(7) Arrive early. You’d never presume to arrive 10 minutes before your flight at an airport, so don’t presume that it is possible to do so when traveling by train. I recommend arriving 30 minutes prior to departure especially if you don’t know the station well.
First, identify the binario (platform) from which your train will depart (partenze on the big board). Check to see if your train has been delayed or even cancelled (annulato, sopresso). Locate your departure platform. At Rome’s Stazione Termini, the second largest station in Europe, you could potentially need to walk as much as 0.42 miles. Once you have found your platform and validated your ticket, use the time remaining to buy a cup of coffee, a bottle of water (if your train won’t have a dining car), and reading material.
(8) Go to the bathroom. If you have time, go the bathroom before your train departs. In Stazione Termini there is a large public bathroom costing 1 Euro that is clean and well maintained. It’s location — one level below the main level — is not especially well marked, but with time and patience you can find it.
On regular Regional (REG, RV) trains, bathrooms have a way of being “temporarily” out of order. If that’s what you encounter, pass from car to car until you find one that is working. Doing so can be awkward if you are traveling alone because it is cumbersome to pass between cars with baggage in tow. If this happens, identify a fellow traveler to mind your bags while you explore the train. (Hint: look for a middle-aged person reading a serious book.)
(9) Consider going first class. First class tickets cost only slightly more than second-class tickets on Regional trains (example: 25 vs. 19 Euro for a Rome-Naples ticket). The small price differential reflects the fact that there is relatively little difference between first- and second-class seating. Importantly, however, first class cars are generally less crowded than are second-class cars. Moreover, in some instances you can reserve a seat in first class for a small extra charge (a separate ticket, by the way).
(10) Consider reserving a seat. Having a reserved seat is a good idea during Italian national holidays or for regional trains that are heavily used in certain time periods by commuters and students. Be aware that a train ticket confers the right to travel on a train, not to sit on one. Some trains (“R” on the big boards) require a reserved seat: overnight trains and trains that will cross an international border require a reserved seat. Given that Trenitalia overbooks its trains in periods of high demand, you could end up standing for hours. So reserve a seat on Regional trains longer than an hour whenever possible.
(11) Buy train tickets over the internet only if you must. You can buy tickets for fast trains on the internet, both before or after your arrival in Italy. Both the Trenitalia site and the site of Italo, a private competitor of Trenitalia in the high speed sector, work fairly well.
It can be quite challenging, on the other hand, to buy tickets for Regional trains on the Trenitalia site. The Italian version of the site defaults to fast trains. If you want a Regional train, you need to click tutti i treni (all trains). The English version searches both fast trains and regional trains.
Be aware that dates are specified in the DD MM YYYY format (“02 01 2014″ means January 2, 2014). You need to decide if you want a one-way ticket (andata) or round-trip ticket (andata ritorno). Crucially, you need to know the name of the specific station you want to reach. Hints: Most large cities have multiple stations. C.le is the abbreviation for Centrale, which indicates a station in the center of a town.
If you choose the English version of the Trenitalia site, things work a bit differently. You are given a choice between “tickets” (one-way or round-trip) and “passes”. Here things get a bit complicated. Let’s say you want to travel from a station in Rome (Roma) and Florence (Firenze). The website doesn’t accept the English names for these cities even when you select the English version of the site. When I selected “Rome” as my departure station I was asked to choose between three stations I have never heard of! When I typed just the first three letters (R-O-M) I was able to choose a specific train station in Rome. The same trick worked when I typed F-I-R to indicate Florence).
If you want to avoid such subterfuges, consider using the site of Italiarail. It is far less confusing than the Trenitalia site even though, apparently, it belongs to Trenitalia. On the Italiarail site you can specify the price of tickets in dollars, pounds or euros. You can search on the names of cities in English without specifying the exact name of the train station (e.g., Florence rather than “Firenze S.M. Novella” or “Rome” rather than “Roma Tiburtina”).
As a test, I specified a ticket from “Rome” to “Florence” on a particular date and was offered a wide range of possibilities on fast trains (Frecciarossa, Frecciargento). By checking “Slow Trains Only” (ha!) I was able to chose tickets on Regional and Inter-City trains.
The only hitch here was the train station. The Italiarail site “remembered” the destination I had specified earlier. Given that fast train arrive in Florence only at the Firenze S.M. Novella station, I now saw just the trains arriving there. And, although I had specified a morning departure (9:00 a.m.) I was offered trains leaving between 1:03 pm 7:58 p.m.
Here some creativity was needed. I entered “Roma” and “Firenze” as the points of departure and arrival, and entered a new time of departure (8:00 a.m.) This search gave me what I was hoping for, namely a list of regular (non-fast) trains in the morning. I was able to select a first class ticket for $46.00 USD or a second class ticket for $30.00 USD, both arriving at Firenze Santa Maria Novella.
La vita è bella (life is good).