This guide to train travel in Italy will provide you with some guidance and tips to avoid confusion and mistakes when buying your next train ticket.
One of the things I love about my country is its extremely varied landscape, ranging from vast plains and rolling hills covered in vineyards to awesome stretches of coast and stunning mountain sceneries. Travelling by train is a fantastic way to fully enjoy all these beauties! I know you guys have lots of questions when it comes to dealing with train bookings in Italy, so I thought I’d put together this guide that will hopefully provide some useful answers and tips.
Train types in Italy
First thing first, there are three main types of trains in Italy:
- High-speed trains are the fastest trains that allow you to travel to Italy’s major cities quickly and comfortably. They include a series of services, such as assigned seats, ample luggage storage room and wifi.
- Intercity trains also connect major cities in Italy on long distance, but a bit slower and cheaply. Most trains have air conditioning and tickets include an assigned seat either in 1st or 2nd class.
- Regional trains are the trains you’ll need to use if you are planning to explore smaller towns and villages. They are very cheap compared to fast trains, but also much slower since they have many stops. Seating is on a first come, first served basis, meaning that there’s no guarantee of a seat, especially if you travel at peak times. Reservations are often not even available and the trains may not have air conditioning or first class coaches.
Which train company shall I choose?
They are pretty much the same in terms of comfort, the biggest difference is that Italo services are limited to fast trains connecting major cities (such as Milan, Rome, Venice, Turin, Florence and Naples), while Trenitalia offers both high-speed, intercity and regional trains. This means that if you need to reach small towns and villages, then you’ll have to use Trenitalia. Also, both Trenitalia and Italo trains have free wifi and power sockets in all fast trains, as well as options for 4 seats facing, which are great for families or groups of friends travelling together.
The Trenitalia high-speed fleet consists of Frecciarossa (the fastest trains), Frecciargento and Frecciabianca trains and you can choose among 4 types of tickets: Standard, Premium, Business and Executive (see the Trenitalia website for more details on these classes). There are 2 types of fares: Economy (changes allowed for a fee, refunds not available) and Base (unlimited changes allowed for free only if the ticket price is equal to or less than the one purchased; partial refunds allowed).
Italo has also 4 classes of services: Smart (the cheapest option) Comfort, Prima and Club Executive (see the Italo website for further info). There are 3 types of fares: Low Cost (no changes, nor refunds allowed), Economy (changes and refunds allowed for a feee) and Flex (changes are free, while refunds come with a fee). Italo recently introduced a new service called Italobus to connect Italy’s main train stations to beautiful tourist spots like Parma, Matera, Sorrento and Cortina, further information is available on the Italobus website.
Personally I’ve been using more and more Italo when visiting big cities lately, as it tends to be cheaper and more on time. More in general, I guess the choice will mostly depend on where you’re going and the time schedule available. The standard class is good and comfortable with both train companies and I usually opt for the cheapest ticket with some level of flexibility (for example the Standard Base with Trenitalia) – meaning extra money in the food fund!
Shall I purchase train tickets in advance?
This is perhaps the most frequently-asked question I get and my answer is always yes! If your itinerary is all set, then why wait? Booking train tickets in advance is a wise move especially if you are travelling to popular places or in high season. Not only buying your train tickets in advance will save you precious time during your trip, but it will also offer some great deals. Don’t forget that you can always opt for flex fares that allow you to make changes in case you change plans or are late for whatever reason.
I just would like to clarify that only high-speed trains to major cities (like Milan to Rome or Venice to Florence, etc.) should be bought in advance. Regional trains, on the contrary, tend to have fix prices, so there’s no need nor advantage to buy them before the trip. In fact, buying regional train tickets in advance can be a problem, because they are usually non-refundable and non-changeable.
Is it better to buy train tickets at the station or online?
Nowadays I buy all my train tickets online, it’s just so easy and handy. Both the Trenitalia and Italo websites have a section in English, the option to switch language is at the top of the homepage, on the right-hand side. You can also download the apps, they are very easy to use. Just remember that you must type the name of the city in Italian (eg Venezia, not Venice).
Booking tickets online is quite straightforward and you can also choose your seats easily. Also, when you purchase tickets online you don’t have to validate them, nor to print them out. All you have to do is show your phone to the conductor when you’re asked to do so. Tip: when buying online, make sure to buy without registering. Registration is available to Italians only and you don’t need to set up an account to buy a ticket, so don’t try to enter your details as you could end up being stuck on that registration page forever!
Alternatively, it’s very easy to purchase tickets directly at the train station. You can either go to the ticket counter or use the touch screen kiosks, where most of the times you’ll find uniformed representatives assisting with the purchase.
Getting the names of the train stations right.
Train stations in Italy have names, just like airports. Also, major cities like Rome, Milan and Venice have more than one station, so it’s important to know the exact name of the station you need when booking your train tickets.
Here are the names of the central stations of major Italian cities:
- Rome: Roma Termini
- Venice: Venezia Santa Lucia
- Milan: Milano Centrale
- Florence: Firenze Santa Maria Novella
- Turin: Torino Porta Nuova
- Naples: Napoli Centrale
- Cinque Terre: I suggest to use La Spezia Centrale, as it’s the main transport hub for the area
What shall I do when I am at the train station?
Once you arrive at the train station, look for the big electronic board displaying all the Partenze (Departures). For each train that is about to depart you’ll see the train number, its final destination and the binario (the platform number). So, say that you’re travelling from Milan to Florence on Italo train 9947: the board will show Napoli next to the train number as this is its final destination. Also, the platform number usually comes up only a few minutes before departure time, so if you arrive early and you don’t see it on the board don’t panic – it’s totally normal!
In bigger stations like Rome and Milan you’ll have to go through an airport-type security door in order to enter the platforms area – there are no scanners though, only controllers that will check your train ticket.
The importance of validating your train tickets
If you’re travelling on a regional train and you have a paper ticket, remember to validate it before boarding the train. Look for the small machines (usually green or yellow) on the way to the platforms and put the ticket in one of them so that it’s stamped with the date and time. There’s a fine if you don’t validate your ticket!
You don’t need to validate regional tickets that have been bought online and printed at home, nor the tickets for intercity and high-speed trains, as these are valid on that specific date and train only. Just save them on your phone and show them to the conductor on the train.
What do I do if I get on the train and someone is in my seat?
Let me first remind you that seats are allocated on high-speed and intercity trains only, while on regional trains seating is on a first come, first served basis. Having said that, boarding the train only to find that someone else is already sitting in your reserved seat can happen, but most of the times you just show your ticket to prove that that’s your seat and the person will apologize straight away and leave.
In the unfortunate event that they refuse to move, approach the conductor with your problem. Don’t forget that sometimes there’s a language barrier and what may seem as a rude behaviour is just the result of the lack of a common language.
Where do I find the conductor in case I need help?
When boarding the train, the conductor is usually on the platform. Once the train starts moving, you can go to the very first coach or wait for the conductor to come around to check tickets.
What do I do if I miss a train?
This depends on the type of train it is and the ticket you’ve purchased. If it’s a regional train, you have a 4-hour window from validation to use it. If it’s a high-speed train, you’ll have to purchase a new ticket unless you’ve booked a flexible fare that allows changes (it costs a little more, but it’s definitely worth it for piece of mind!)
How do I change a name on a train ticket?
You don’t need to add the names of all passengers when booking train tickets, just that of the person making the booking. And even if you are asked to add every passengers’ name, from my experience the conductor never checks them.
Do train stations in Italy have luggage storage facilities?
Yep, all major train stations in Italy have luggage storage facilities, here are the main ones:
- Rome: KiPoint Roma Termini
- Milan: KiPoint Milano Centrale
- Venice: KiPoint Venezia Santa Lucia
- Florence: KiPoint Firenze Santa Maria Novella
- Naples: KiPoint Napoli Centrale
- Turin: KiPoint Torino Porta Nuova
- La Spezia: Left Luggage La Spezia Centrale
How to avoid scams at train stations in Italy
Like in any major tourist place, you need to be on the lookout when wandering through a train station in Italy. Let’s face it, a foreign speaker loaded with luggage and looking a little disorientated is the primary target for a scam, right? There’s not much that we can do about it, so play it cool, try to look confident and learn some basic Italian – it will make a big difference!
One of the most common scams is the fake taxi driver. As soon as you exit the station, you’ll see people approaching you and asking if you need a taxi. Please stay away from them and join the official taxi line, even when it’s long and you are in a hurry… it will save you lots of headaches! And always make sure that your taxi is metered, don’t ask for a forfait price.
Playing the eager helper who’ll walk you to the right platform or support you at the ticket machine is also quite common. These people will help you, sure, but they will also want money for such “help”. Again, stay away from them and never show your tickets to anybody (you only need to show your tickets when accessing the platform and to the conductor on the train).
My tip is to try and pronounce a firm “No grazie!” or “Basta!” when you are approached by suspicious people. Having said that, there are also people out there who are genuinely willing to help. And please, please, please, don’t let scammers discourage you from using trains in Italy – as I said, this may happen anywhere.
How to deal with a train strike in Italy
No matter how much you prep for your trip, there’s always a good chance to run into a sciopero dei trasporti (transportation strike) in Italy. Luckily, though, strike plans are no secret and most of the times they are scheduled well in advance (I know, pretty nonsense…). There’s even a website listing all upcoming strikes, it’s available in Italian only but it’s not so complicated to read – just filter for “Trasporto Ferroviario” under the Settore column to see all the upcoming transport strikes.
A sciopero can last from a few hours to a full day and can involve trains only or the whole local transport system. However, minimum transportation services are usually guaranteed during peak hours (6-9am and 6-9pm).
Where do I put my suitcases when travelling by train in Italy?
First of all, there are no luggage fees nor weight limits and you can bring your own suitcases directly on the train with you. On regional trains you can put your suitcases on the racks above your seat or simply on the floor next to you. On high-speed trains you can place your carry-on and medium-sized suitcases on the shelving above your seat, while anything bigger than that should go on the luggage racks at the end of each coach. There may be also some spots between two sets of seats.
I’ve never had any problems with my suitcases on trains, but if you are worried about having to put your luggage out of view, then book a seat close to the entrance of the train coach or buy a wire lock to attach the bag to the rack – but honestly there’s absolutely no need for that!
I hope this guide will help you choose trains and buy tickets more confidently, but please let me know if you have any questions or further tips to share!