Ok, so the word understanding might be a bit of a stretch. We’ve come to accept that we will never truly understand the Italian train system. However, after years of validation mishaps, sleeping through our stops, train strikes, and sitting on the floor of an over-sold train, we’ve learned our fair share of lessons. Through trial and error, we now consider ourselves proficient at getting by when it comes to train transportation. And trust us, getting by is a victory in itself!
The good news, is that you can benefit from our mistakes (someone has to benefit)! We can’t promise that you’ll be rail-hopping with perfect grace and ease after reading our train tips, but we can promise you’ll avoid some of the most common tourist mistakes.
Types of Trains
Before we can really do anything, it’s important to understand the types of trains in Italy and which is right for our trip. Feeling stressed already (been there)? Don’t. It really just comes down to only two types of trains:
Regional Trains. Regionale trains are typically less expensive, and slower. They stop at most, if not all, train stations on their routes. They can be oversold (but rarely) and are typically not air-conditioned. But they are not as terrifying as I just made them seem. When you buy a ticket for a regional train, you are essentially buying miles on the track rather than a specific ride. For example, if you are going to Pisa for the day, you can feel free to buy both your departure and return ticket at the same time. Even if you don’t know exactly what time you’ll want to return, that’s ok. Regional tickets are good for miles (well, ok, kilometers), not specific trains. So, if you tell the machine you want to come home on the 4 p.m. train from Pisa, but you get a bad bout of vertigo while climbing the Leaning Tower and don’t make it back to the station in time, you can use that same ticket on the 6 p.m. train to Florence. If you are not traveling to a major travel hub (Naples, Rome, Milan), you will likely be purchasing a Regionale ticket.
Fast Trains. Le Frecce trains are high speed trains that glide across the country from metropolis to metropolis, all the while treating passengers to their very own comfortable seat, leg room and air conditioning. Restrooms abound and luggage space is always available. No, it’s not quite the Polar Express, but almost! Can you tell we have a preference? Prices are reasonably higher for the frecce trains. However, when going somewhere like Rome from Florence, it is well worth the extra euros. A regional train to Rome, for example, can take up to 6 hours and a fast train is a comfortable hour and a half. We think you can afford to lose a few euros, but not your precious time in Italy. There are three types of frecce trains, denoting three different routes:
- Frecciarossa: Connects Turin-Milan-Bologna-Rome-Naples-Salerno. Hourly between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. trains depart from both Milan and Rome that connect through Florence.
- Frecciargento: Connects Rome to Venice, Verona, Bari/Lecce, Lamezia Terme/Reggio Calabria.
- Frecciabianca: Milan to Venice, Udine and Trieste; Genoa and Rome; down to Bari, Lecce on the traditional line. Frecciabianca may appear on your itinerary as it sometimes stops in Florence.
Sometimes the hardest part is deciding when to purchase your ticket. Perhaps it comes from a deep-seated fear of commitment (or train strikes) but I always prefer to book as close to departure as possible. For regional trains, that typically means just before departure, and for fast trains, the morning of or night before. Things to consider:
Regional or Fast Train. You can always buy a ticket for a regional train (Regionale), which means it makes no difference whether or not you purchase early. You may be guaranteed a ticket, but so is everyone else, so keep in mind it could result in an uncomfortable, crowded train ride. Fast trains (Frecce), while pricier, do sell out as you are purchasing an actual seat. If you have an early morning train ride, consider purchasing the evening before to ensure a spot.
Time of day. If your train happens to be scheduled around 7-8 a.m. or 4-5 p.m, there is a good chance you’ll be traveling with the commuters, plus possible throngs of tourists getting an early start on day trips. These trains are more likely to sell-out/be uncomfortably packed. (Another reason to purchase ahead of time if you plan on taking a fast train!)
Timetables. Studying timetables on Trenitalia will greatly assist in the planning process. It’s also a good way to note potential train changes in your journey.
Strikes. The Italian transportation industry throws strikes like U.S. college students throw toga parties. Luckily, train strikes are the most organized things about Italians. Therefore, you will always know when a strike is coming based on notifications at train stations, around the city and on the Trenitalia website.
And hey, so you get stranded in Florence. Life could be worse.
IN SHORT: Booking right before takeoff is fine for regional trains. Booking the night or morning before for fast trains is advised, especially if you are traveling during commuter hours.
Yes, we definitely encourage studying timetables when planning your trip, even if you are not booking online. But how do you read a timetable?! First step, visit Trenitalia.com. Change the language to English if necessary. Enter your dates of departure, the time of day you would like to leave, city of origin, and destination. A timetable, much like the one below, will populate with your options. Things to note:
Oh, and sometimes they can throw a bus leg in there too, so watch for that. Meg and I may or may not have had an unexpected 2 a.m. bus leg on our journey back from Carnevale in Viareggio one year. That’ll get ya!
Purchasing Your Ticket
Trenitalia.com is where to go for online purchases. Once you have made all of your route selections, you will be given the option to print your ticket. Make sure to bring this with you, as it is your permission to be on the train when the train police come by to check tickets. There is also a way to have your ticket sent to your smart phone. Explaining technical things is not my forte, however, so you can scoot on over to those instructions here.
I, myself, am a big fan of the Fast Ticket self-service machines in all Trenitalia stations. After choosing your language, you will be easily led through the process of purchasing your ticket. If you’re purchasing your tickets at busy times of day, lines may be long for the machines and people irritable. This is just another good reason to study your timetable online before arriving at the station. You will cut down on your time at the Fast Ticket machine, make less errors and avoid dirty looks.
Note: The machines accept major credit cards, debit cards, and cash.
Finding Your Train
Your ticket is purchased and you’re at the train station–now you wait. You wait anxiously near the board that will let you know the platform, or binario, of your train. With flipping numbers and scrolling station names, binario boards can be difficult to read, especially if you don’t know your train’s end destination. For example, you bought a ticket to Rome, but the train’s final destination is Naples, so the board will say Naples–but no one told you that! With this in mind, pay attention instead to departure times and train numbers. Making sure these match is the most important. Finally, find the column labeled binario. Once a number is assigned (usually about 10 minutes before departure, head to that numbered platform to find your train.
Validating Your Ticket
Don’t get so anxious to grab a seat once your train has arrived that you forget to validate your ticket. Machines like the one below (or the yellow boxes) can be found near the front ends of the platforms. Stick your ticket in and wait for the automated stamp noise. This time stamp is how those pesky train police know you are not using your regional ticket over and over again, since, as we noted, you bought miles and not a specific ride. Therefore, one can rightfully assume, for our frecce trains validating is not necessary, because you bought a specific seat on a specific ride. Nevertheless, if you are a paranoid mess like me, you’ll validate anyway and get laughed at by the train police.
Taking a Seat
Ok, you’re on the train. It should be all smooth cruising from here. If you are on a regional train, the only thing you need to make sure is that you are seated in the appropriate class (I am always and forever 2nd class). A large number (1 or 2) will be painted on the exterior and interior doors, indicating the class of that particular car. When in doubt, hop on the train and find the appropriate car from inside. Once there, seating is open. Getting on the train quickly when it arrives is important to ensure you find a seat. Luggage can be stored above the seats or at your feet.
On the fast trains your seat is assigned, and we trust your seat-finding abilities.
Keep Your Feet Off the Seat!
Scary, terrible things that will happen to you if you put your feet on the seat across from you, or even up on your own. It’s tempting. Believe me, I KNOW. As you doze off to sleep after a long day in the Tuscan sun, confident that you won’t miss your stop, that empty seat across from you will seem to magically pull your feet up to rest upon it. We’re here to warn you, you will get caught by the train police, and if you don’t have big eyelashes to bat (boys this one’s for you) you more than likely will get fined. So get creative with how you sleep and just don’t do it, ok?
Getting Off the Train
Speaking of sleeping, one thing you don’t want to do is miss your stop, for so many reasons I don’t even need to state. So, if you have to snooze (I always have to snooze) set an alarm for about 10 minutes before the ETA of your train at your stop. Pretty much all train stations in the countryside in Italy look identical, so you’ll have to look for the blue rectangle sign with the name of your stop. I like to be ready with my things so I can hop off before the train shuts its doors and takes off again.
Note: When planning your route, make sure that your train stop is actually a train stop. For example, the Montepulciano stop doesn’t actually take you to Montepulciano proper, it takes you to a boarded-up train station five miles downhill from where you’ll want to be. #megandhannahtrainfail
Tickets for Free!
By now everyone is questioning the credibility of our blog as I have neither discussed Florence or anything free thus far. BUT HOLD THAT THOUGHT. You know if there is a way for Meg and I to score free train rides we will do it, and we often do by taking advantage of Trenitalia’s favorite BOGO–2 tickets for the price of 1–on Saturdays. The deal seems to be arbitrarily available, so make sure to check the Trenitalia website when booking your Saturday tickets, in case you can snag this deal. Just remember to purchase by midnight the day before.
Also, if you’re staying in town for a considerable amount of time, consider signing up for a CartaFreccia. This loyalty card is in fact free, and it will get you in on all the good trip promotions and discounts as they’re announced.
So yes, we’ll say it again: following this list may still not make you a train-traveling pro. However, with these few tips we hope we can save you from the amateur mistakes that Italians are just waiting for i touristi ignoranti to make. As this is a lot to take in, we’ll leave you here with our Cliff Notes version:
- Study your timetables
- Be aware of strikes
- Avoid commuter trains
- Validate your ticket
- Be prepared for your stop
- DON’T PUT YOUR FEET ON THE SEATS!