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Italian Train Stations: What You Need to Know

I’ve written quite a bit already about train travel in Italy – it’s my favorite way to get around the country, and it’s often the best choice for visitors – but one thing I haven’t really touched on before is how to understand Italian train stations.
Not every train station in Italy is exactly alike, but there are a few things you can learn before you set foot in any of them that may help you avoid looking like a lost sheep.
Quick links to resources below:

How to Read a Train Schedule

There are a few places you’ll find information about the train schedule in most Italian train stations. There’s usually some kind of electronic version – either a big reader-board or on a TV screen – showing just the trains that are leaving and arriving imminently (or within the next few hours) and a paper version showing the general schedule throughout an entire week. With the paper versions, the yellow sheet shows departures while the white sheet shows arrivals.
The paper schedules that are posted show what time trains leave, what the train number is, what type of trains make each journey, which classes are available on that trip, whether reservations are required, and what all the stops are on a given route (among other things). What they don’t show is what track that train is departing from – for that you need to match up the train number and final stop with the schedules showing on the TV screens or reader-boards.
The main things to pay attention to on a paper Italian train schedule are:

  • Time – The first column lists the time each train is scheduled to depart.
  • Train Number – In the second column, there’s a train number (usually 3-4 digits) and a letter or symbol indicating the type of train it is (R for Regionale, ES for EuroStar, AV for Alta Velocita, IC for InterCity, etc.).
  • Classes Available – The third column includes information about the classes available in that train – it’ll either show a 1-2 or a 2, meaning trains have both 1st and 2nd class or only 2nd class. This column also will include an “R” in a box if reservations are required on that train.
  • Intermediate Stops – While a train’s final stop is shown in big letters to the right, intermediate stops are shown in small type in a list to the left of the final station. If your stop isn’t the final one, make note of where your stop is in relation to other intermediate stops so you’re ready to get off the train when you need to.

Note that all destinations are listed using their Italian names (naturally), so instead of Venice you need to look for Venezia, etc. Make sure you know the Italian name for your stop.
Also pay attention to any symbols by a given train listing’s time – this may indicate the train only runs on holidays/weekends, or runs every day except holidays/weekends. Double check with the video screens that show the next few trains departing, as they’re always the most updated schedules.
Italian Words to Know:

  • arrivi – ah|REE|vee – arrivals
  • partenze – par|TEN|zeh – departures

>> More information on how to read Italy train schedules

How to Get a Train Ticket

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If you haven’t purchased your train tickets or reservations before arriving in Italy (which is recommended if possible, as you can save up to 30% off the regular ticket prices and avoid the long lines at the stations to boot), you have a couple options for getting tickets and reservations at Italian train stations.
>> You can search for Italy rail tickets that are up to 30% off the regular ticket prices using the search box to the right.
The most straight-forward method and the one most travelers use is the good old-fashioned ticket window, staffed by a real person who can answer your questions. This is a good option if you have lots of questions, but it’s also the one that can take the longest (depending on the number of people in line and the number of open ticket windows).
Assuming you don’t have questions and you know precisely what ticket you need, you can use the automated ticket machines that are now prevalent at most train stations in Italy. At busy times and in busy stations these are generally well-used by traveling Italians, but if there’s a line you can rest assured it generally moves very quickly. There are several different types of machines, but most of them have a language option at the start where you can choose between (at least) Italian and English (some have more languages available, too).
While there are some differences between the self-service ticket machines, they’re relatively self-explanatory (enough so that you shouldn’t have much trouble navigating your way through the touch-screens). Note that if asked what type of ticket you’re purchasing, chances are it’s the “Base” fare (meaning you don’t have a promotional discount code). You also aren’t likely to have a Trenitalia membership card, so when asked if you have one choose the “Nessuna Carta” (no card) option. Some machines will allow you to purchase reservations if you already have tickets or a Eurail Pass, but some won’t – in that case, you’ll need to wait in line for an available ticket window.
It’s a good idea to allot extra time to wait in line at the train station if need be, so you don’t stress out about missing a train. You can always visit the station in the days before your train trip to buy whatever you need, thereby avoiding the last-minute ticket-purchasing stress.
Italian Words to Know:

  • andata – ahn|DAH|tah – [in this case] one-way
  • biglietto – beel|YEH|toh – ticket
  • finestra – feen|EHS|trah – window
  • prenotazione – preh|noh|tah|tzee|OH|neh – reservation
  • ritorno – ree|tor|noh – [in this case] round-trip

>> More information on discounted Italy train tickets, when it’s cheaper to use an Italy Rail Pass, the difference between 1st and 2nd class on Italian trains, and the difference between train tickets and train reservations in Italy

How to Validate a Train Ticket

Because tickets by themselves aren’t always date-specific, there’s a critical thing you must do before you board your train – validating your ticket. There are validation machines in different places in most train stations, from the doorway leading out of the station to the tracks to right at the trackside, but they don’t all look alike so you’ve got to keep your eyes out for them.
It’s important to note that if you’ve got a ticket with a specific reservation, you don’t need to validate your ticket – the reservation acts as your validation, since you couldn’t use the ticket later on (the reservation would be in the past). But when in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to validate the ticket anyway – all the validation machine does is stamp the date and time on your paper ticket, so it doesn’t invalidate the reservation or anything if the validation isn’t necessary.
Validation machines in Italian train stations are typically yellow or orange, and they’re easy to miss. Sometimes they’re helpfully marked with the words “Convalida Biglietti Ferroviari” (Validate Train Tickets), but other times they’re not. What they’ll all have, however, is a slot that’s roughly the width of the short end of your train ticket. Insert one end of the ticket into that slot until the machine stamps it, then pull the ticket back out. You’ll see either an ink stamp or something more like a punch-card with the date and time, and then you’re ready to get on your train.
Italian Words to Know:

  • convalidare – kohn|vah|lee|DAH|reh – to validate
  • Dove posso convalidare questo? – DOH|veh POH|ssoh kohn|vah|lee|DAH|reh KWES|toh – Where can I validate this? [holding up your ticket to indicate what you want to validate]

How to Get to Your Train Track

Not all train stations in Italy are laid out in the same way, but you’ll usually be presented with one of two options for getting to your track.
One station style is where all the trains enter the station head-on, so when you walk toward the tracks they’re all in front of you and you can simply walk to the platform number you need to get to your train. In this case, of course, all the trains need to back out again to move on to the next station.
The other station style is more of a pass-through, where the station building is off to the side of one of the tracks. That track is almost always platform one, and to reach any of the other tracks you’ll need to use the underground passage (some stations have bridges over the tracks instead of underground passages, but they’re more rare). When you’re in the underground passageway – called a “sottopassaggio” – you then look for the platform number for your train and go up that staircase.
With both styles, each platform typically serves two trains, and so is likely to have two numbers. They’re very clearly labeled in most cases, so you just need to make sure you’re on the correct side of the platform when you emerge from the sottopassaggio by checking the platform numbers posted overhead.
Italian Words to Know:

  • binario – bee|NAH|ree|oh – track/platform (often abbreviated as BIN on schedule boards)
  • sottopassaggio – soht|toh|pahs|SAHJ|yoh – underground passage

How to Find Your Train Car & Seat

For those whose trip doesn’t require a reservation, there are two things you need to be aware of when you’re getting on your train: what class each car is, and whether that car is going where you want to go.
Each car is marked with a “1” or a “2” on its outer doors, as well as the inner doors, so you’ll know which ones are 1st or 2nd class and can pick a seat accordingly in a car that’s the same class as your ticket. What’s less obvious is when trains making longer journeys sometimes split in two, sending part of the train to one destination and the rest to another. These splits are also posted on the train doors, so be sure the car you’re in is going to the place you plan to end up.
For those traveling with a reservation, you’ll be looking for a specific car number first, and then – once you’re in that car – your seat numbers. Be aware that seats aren’t numbered consecutively the way they are on planes, and if you’re traveling with another person the seats you’ll get are almost always going to be sitting opposite one another rather than beside one another. (If you’re buying two tickets in one transaction, it’s generally assumed you want to sit with the other person.)
Also note that if you’re running late for a train and feel like it might start to chug away before you can run to your car which is at the other end of the train, you can always jump on any train car and walk down the middle aisle from car to car until you reach yours (cars are numbered on internal doors, too).
The trains with individual compartments are mostly found on the slower trains these days, but if your train has compartments you’ll find seat numbers listed on the outside of the compartment (sometimes along with which seats have reservations, so you can pick the un-reserved ones if you’re traveling without a reservation yourself).
Italian Words to Know:

  • carozza – kah|ROTZ|ah – train car/carriage
  • libero – LEE|beh|roh – free (as in, “is this seat free?”)
  • occupato – oh|koo|PAH|toh – occupied (as in, “is this seat taken?”)
  • sedia – SEH|dee|ah – seat

photos, top to bottom, by: zimpenfish, Jessica Spiegel (and may not be used without permission), Jessica Spiegel (and may not be used without permission), Matthew Black