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How to Use a Rail Pass in Italy

First, let’s start out with some basic definitions, so you know what I’m talking about for the rest of this article.

  • Train Ticket – A ticket only gives you the ability to travel from Point A to Point B. You could buy an Italy train ticket for any journey on any day, to be used later on. Tickets are non-date/time specific. They merely indicate you’ve paid for transportation on a train between two specific points.
  • Reservation – A reservation gets you specific seat on a specific train, traveling on a specific date and at a specific time. Reservations cost much less than tickets, and indicate that you’ve paid for a particular place on a particular train.
  • Rail Pass – A Rail Pass is the equivalent of a train ticket. It means you’ve paid for transportation on a train, but there’s no specific seat or specific train tied to it – there isn’t even a specific route tied to it. Anytime you see the word “ticket” in this article, or in other train-related articles on this site, you can substitute the words “Rail Pass.”

And since this comes up regularly, here’s what you need to know about how tickets (or Rail Passes) and reservations relate to one another:

  • Some trains require both a ticket (or a Rail Pass) and a reservation
  • Some trains require only a ticket (or a Rail Pass) but allow for the purchase of a reservation
  • Some trains require only a ticket (or a Rail Pass) and don’t even have reservations available
  • No trains require only a reservation

>> Learn more about the difference between train tickets and reservations in Italy

How to Use an Italy Rail Pass

What to Do Before You Board the Train

  • Before your first train trip, you need to get the Rail Pass validated before you get on the train – even if you’re taking a trip for which you don’t need a reservation and have no specific seat. To validate an Italy Rail Pass:
    1. Open your Rail Pass and fill in your passport number.
    2. Take the Rail Pass and your passport to a ticket window at whatever train station you’re in.
    3. A ticket agent will “validate” the pass by writing in the start date and end date, and will stamp the pass with an official stamp (if there’s no room on the front of the pass they may put the stamp on the back).

    From this point forward, you don’t need to get the pass validated before you get on any other trains during your trip.

  • If you’re using a Flexi Pass (a pass that doesn’t require consecutive days of travel), before any train trip in Italy where you’re using your Rail Pass – including the first trip – you need to fill in the date of that particular train trip. You can do this before you get on the train or once you find a seat, just as long as it’s done before the conductor comes around. The conductor will need to see your Rail Pass and your reservation (if your train requires one), and he/she may ask to see your passport, so have it handy (but don’t be surprised if it’s not needed). The conductor will stamp or imprint your pass near the date you’ve written in, so you’ll collect a series of stamps/imprints for every day you travel. When you’re riding the same train through multiple stops, be prepared for a conductor – not always the same one – to come around and ask to see your pass and reservation again.
  • If the train you want requires a reservation you’ll have to get that before you board, too – you can book a train reservation online before you leave home, stand in line at the station and buy it from a ticket agent, or buy one from some ticket machines (not all of them have the reservation-only purchase option).

What to Do if the Train Requires a Reservation

  • Not all trains in Italy will require reservations – all of the “Freccia” trains in Italy do, as do overnight and long-haul trains, but the best course of action is to check the Italy train schedule in the station to see whether there’s an indication of whether your train requires a reservation. The Italian word for reservation is “prenotazione,” but it’s more likely you’ll see an abbreviation or some kind of icon listed by the train rather than the entire word. When in doubt, go to a ticket window and ask.
  • If you’re buying your reservation online or from a ticket window, have your Rail Pass ready so you can fill in the kind of pass it is or show it to the ticket agent as they’re making the reservation.
  • Your reservation will be in whatever class your Rail Pass is in – first class reservation for a first class Rail Pass, second class reservation for a second class Rail Pass. The class will be listed on both the reservation and the Rail Pass.
  • Your reservation will give you a car number (Italian for car is “carozza”) and a seat number. Car numbers are either printed on the side of the car near each door, or they’re printed on sheets of paper stuck in the windows near each door. You’ll see lots of cars that look like they’re numbered 1 and 2 – but don’t be confused when you see that repeatedly. Those numbers are referring to first class or second class, not the car number.
  • If you have enough time before the train leaves, you can walk down the train platform until you see your car number and then board the train right at your car. If you’re running late, you can hop on the train at the first open door you see and walk the length of the train until you reach your car – car numbers are also displayed on the internal doors between cars.

What to Do if the Train Doesn’t Require a Reservation

  • For trains that don’t require reservations, assuming you’ve already validated your Rail Pass, you can just get into any car (that’s within the same class of your Rail Pass) and find an empty seat.
  • If the train is making several stops between where you start and where you plan to get off, someone may get on the train later who has purchased a reservation (they’re not always required, but sometimes still available for purchase) for your seat, in which case you’d have to move (this doesn’t happen often, but it’s possible).
  • Note that if there aren’t any seats available, you might be stuck standing in the areas at the end of each train.

>> Got the Rail Pass thing all sorted? Excellent – now find those cheap tickets to Rome and get on your way!
all photographs by Jessica Spiegel and may not be used without permission