I love road trips, but train travel in Italy is usually the best choice for travelers to the country.
With extensive networks and generally inexpensive tickets, train travel in Italy is easy and convenient. Understanding all the options and booking tickets online, less so.
I realized just how daunting the task can be after trying to explain the rail networks and online booking process to family members coming to Italy. So I’ve decided to break it down.
Train Travel in Italy:
In Italy, you have three main types of trains:
- Regional (between small cities within a region)
- Intercity (between secondary cities such as Genoa)
- High-speed (between Italy’s major cities)
Regional trains are local trains that don’t run on the main lines. For example, Florence – Pisa – La Spezia. Or Sorrento – Amalfi. Think of these like commuter trains, running around work and school schedules. You’ll buy these once in Europe as they don’t offer reservations.
They are cheap and usually reliable, but seats can be hard to find on major route during work rush hours – you’ll just have to stand!
How nice or crappy these trains are depends entirely on the line. The workhorses of the Italian rail system, they’re not meant to be sophisticated but they get the job done and the price is right. For example, tickets cost just 2 euro to get from Milan to Monza.
Intercity trains run between medium-sized cities besides the big cities.
Most Intercity options have been replaced by the high-speed frecce trains by now, but keep an eye out when booking online to know just what you’re ordering. It will take longer and likely be slightly less comfortable than a high-speed train, but it will also cost significantly less.
Be careful when booking your ticket to not end up with a travel headache.
Above shows a trip from Milan to Florence with a high-speed frecciarossa takes just one hour and 39 minutes. The intercity on the other hand takes three and a half hours and it arrives in a different station!
Le Frecce: Italy’s State-Owned High-Speed Train
High speed trains are fast trains running between major cities. The main route is Salerno – Naples – Rome – Florence – Bologna – Milan – Turin. Red bullet trains, they are efficient, comfortable and offer first and second class. They can also be quite expensive. Among the freccia rossa family is the freccia argento and freccia bianca (red arrow, silver arrow and white arrow, respectively).
The frecciarossa trains run up to 190 miles per hour, whereas the frecciaargento trains run at 160 mph. For example, Bologna to Venice is a frecciaargento.
The frecciabianca trains aren’t technically high speed trains. They run on the traditional lines between medium and large-sized cities at a lower speed.
ItaloTreno: Italy’s Private High-Speed Train
For a long time the only high speed trains Italy offered were the government-owned frecciarossa. Now, travelers have another option: ItaloTreno.
Though not Italy’s only private train company (most notably many train lines in Umbria are covered by private lines), it’s Italy’s first private high speed trains. Though there are fewer trains running and they sometimes run out of secondary (though still important) stations, ItaloTreno has new, clean trains with wifi and onboard food service and are usually less expensive than the frecciarossa!
Italo’s train service connects Turin – Salerno; Venice – Salerno; and Brescia – Naples, all three with intermediate stops in major cities along the way.
Unlike regional trains, high-speed trains give a specific seat number for a specifically timed train. This means they require reservations. Though you may be able to book a train the day of your travel, you’re going to want to book these tickets in advance when possible to ensure that you can take the train you want at the time you want.
Getting your tickets
Any train travel with high speed trains should be booked in advance, as they frequently sell out. Intercity trains, however, can easily be bought the day of your travel and regional ones must be bought once in Italy, as they don’t take reservations online. These tickets don’t have specific seat numbers or even train times, so spontaneous travelers can buy them and use them whenever they wish (as long as you don’t validate them…more on that later).
You can also buy tickets at ticket booths or at the ticket machines found in the train station. I usually suggest to stop at the ticket machines when booking regional travel. You’ll avoid the ticket lines and there is an English option – not a sure thing with the train station workers.
Boarding the train
If you have a regional ticket (or any ticket without a specific train number, date, and time) you’ll have to “validate” it before boarding. This means inserting the ticket into one of the yellow boxes found around the train station (sometimes inconveniently located, I suggest not showing up late to the station) to stamp the date and time on it.
If you’ve forgotten to do this and have already boarded the train there is a trick: write the date and time on your ticket in pen and attempt to explain the situation to the conductor. The important thing is that you won’t be able to use that ticket again for another free lift.
Most train stations have a large board or small screen listing train arrivals and departures, the numbered code of the train, the track they use and at times the names of all the stops scrolling by. Look for your train (by time or, a safer bet, by train number) to find what track you need. In Italian the tracks are called binari. They’ll be listed under bin on the board.
Learn more about how to read the board with this online interactive Italian train departure board.
Find your train, find your track and enjoy the ride! Train travel in Italy can get you nearly anywhere and who knows what stories it will bring you? You might have an adventure running through the station, make friends along the way or find you like arriving at your destination fresh from a relaxing ride.