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Italy Train Travel Tips

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In spite of the growing number of budget airlines in Europe, it seems that most people visiting Italy still travel by train more than by air, car, or bus.
The country’s high-speed rail system is getting faster in recent years, and the connections to cities other than the “big three” are getting better, too, so sticking to the trains in Italy isn’t usually difficult.
Still, it’s always good to learn a few things about Italian trains before you board one for the first time.
These are a few of my best tips for Italian train travel, gathered from years of riding the rails through Italy. I would love to hear your best train travel tips for Italy, too – please leave them in the comments and I’ll incorporate the best ones into this list later!

Train Travel Tips for Italy

  • Pack Light – The truth is this is a good habit to get into no matter what kind of traveling you’re doing, but the temptation to throw more stuff in the trunk when you’re traveling with a rental car is eliminated once you have to haul your bags on and off trains. Try to limit yourself to one suitcase or large backpack plus one shoulder bag or day-pack, so you’re more mobile. If you’ve got more bags to worry about, that can mean shuffling one bag on/off the train and going back for the second – which can mean your first bag is vulnerable to any thieves who might be waiting around, and it also just means more schlepping on your part. More schlepping usually equals more discomfort, and discomfort isn’t any fun on vacation.
  • Bring Snacks – Many Italian trains have dining cars these days (especially the high-speed trains), and others have roving vendors who have snacks and drinks for sale. With the former, you’d have to get up from your seat, leaving most of your stuff behind for the duration of your time in the dining car. With the latter, you never know if the train you’re on has one of those food carts on board. And with both options, the offerings are mediocre at best and always overpriced. Do yourself a favor and pick up a few things at a market before you get on the train – bottled water, some bread, some fruit, maybe even some sliced meats – and you’re ready for a picnic in your seat with higher-quality (not to mention cheaper) food.
  • Avoid Rush Hour – Trains in Italy aren’t just for tourists, although it’s easy to forget everyone around you isn’t on vacation when your head is in holiday-mode. In order to avoid the experience of cramming yourself and your bags onto an overly-crowded train, try to schedule your train trips so they’re not during rush hour at either end of the day. Even if you’re taking a longer trip – say, Venice to Rome – there are intermediate stops along that route which locals might be taking for work reasons. It’s easier to get reservations on the trains you want to take if they’re not rush hour departures, and tickets are sometimes cheaper then, too.
  • Pay Attention to the Stops – Most trains in Italy (even the high-speed trains) have multiple stops along their routes from one end point to the other. Not all of the stations are listed on the big reader-board in the train station, but they should all be listed on the Italian train schedule that’s printed and posted behind glass. In order to be prepared to disembark from the train at your station (since they can be quick stops of only a couple minutes at times), find out what the stop just before yours is. When you reach that station, you’ll know to begin getting your things together to get off the train at the next stop.
  • Know the Difference Between a Ticket & a Reservation – This is a very important distinction, and one that’s understandably confusing. I’ve written about this topic a couple of times (see links below), so I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that just because you have a ticket for a given train journey doesn’t mean you’ve got everything you need for that trip. It’s incredibly important to find out – before you get on the train, mind you – whether the train you’re taking requires only a ticket or if it requires both a ticket and a reservation. The fines are hefty for screwing this up, so don’t take it too lightly.
  • Validate Your Ticket – Another way to get fined on trains in Italy is to board a train without validating that ticket you just bought. Tickets don’t come pre-validated in Italy, because they’re not for specific dates or times, so before you get on a train you’ve got to make sure to insert your ticket into one of the yellow or orange validation machines in the station. It’ll stamp a date and time on the ticket so you can’t re-use it, and it’s this stamp (along with the ticket itself, of course) that the conductor will check.
  • Be Patient – If Italy teaches us nothing else, it is patience. Traveling by train in Italy is generally reliable, efficient, inexpensive, and fun – and sometimes it’s none of those things. Sometimes there are train strikes. Sometimes the trains are full and you can’t get a reservation on the one you want. You can do your best to prevent stress by making train plans well before the day you want to travel, but there’s only so much you can do before real life takes over. Do what you can to minimize problems, have a back-up plan in mind just in case, explore your options when something isn’t going your way, and above all – breathe.

Train Tips from WhyGo Italy Readers

Here are a few more tips for traveling by train in Italy, which I’ve elevated from the comments section below – if you’ve got a great tip that’s still not listed here, be sure to leave a comment.

  • Make sure you know which train is yours, and when it leaves–many sound alike, or have the same end destination. I ended up on a very slow train to Florence, when I had bought a ticket for the fast train. – Sharon
  • Also know the difference between the different types of trains. I always preferred the Regionale because I was never in a hurry. And the price difference compared to Freccia Rossa is HUGE. – Carla
  • Can’t stress enough the need to know your stop, especially on the regional train. You can’t depend on announcements or even on being able to be the station sign from the window. The arrival time on your ticket is probably the best bet for knowing when to pay extra attention. – Margaret
  • Another common mistake is to get stations confused, don’t book yourself for Firenze Campo Marte or Firenze Rifredo, instead of the main station Firenze Santa Maria Novella. Another thing I like to mention to people is that on the Freccia Rossa I feel like the difference between first and second class is quite small, so keep a few euros in your pocket and stick to second class. And yes, early morning trains are usually bound to get you commuters and Italian school children on field trips, never fun during a 6:45 am departure from Rome to Venice. – Jessica

Further Reading on Train Travel in Italy:

photo by Amsterdamize