Taking the Train in Italy: Railroads Simplify Your Vacation

Stay sane and don't drive in Italy. Take the trains instead

Italian train with Cinque Terre view
••• Italian train passengers get an eyeful in Cinque Terra's Ligurian coast.

 ©Jenna Szerlag/GettyImages

Many Good Reasons to Travel on Italian Trains

Italy is an irresistible luxury travel destination, but getting from place to place by car tends to be stressful. The comfortable, insider way to get around The Boot is by Italian trains. Here's how travel on Italian railroads improve your Italian vacations.

Italian Trains Provide Convenience

With historic hilltop towns, seaside villages, and cosmopolitan cities, Italy is a wonderland for travelers—but is not so wonderful for drivers.

City congestion, highly restricted parking, and lax traffic laws can make driving in Italy a challenge for visitors.

Italian Trains Provide Vacation Flexibility

Luxury travelers like making their own schedules. Suppose you need more time to explore that medieval church…or linger over another espresso in the town square? Italian train travel lets you make your own schedule. Most cities offer frequent train service, making it a snap to change your plans. (Insider tip: Some trains may be fully booked (particularly during rush hours), so it is best to double-check before making any switches, especially if you have a reserved seat.)

Italian Trains Provide Access to Town Centers

Trains go everywhere in Italy. When you travel by train, you emerge right in the town centers, with easy connections to local buses and taxis. Italy's central stations are also often within walking distance of many attractions.

And you won't have any parking woes (many Italian towns simply prohibit cars in the city center.)

Italian Trains Simplify Day Trips from Cities

Italy's extensive and frequent rain routes make it easy to stay in one town and explore another one for the day. And you can decide when to go and when to return.

(Insider tip: Some trains may be fully booked, particularly during rush hours, so it's best to double-check before making any switches, especially if you have a reserved seat.)

Trains can also be a vacation-saver during high seasons, allowing you to stay in a town outside a major destination where you can't find a hotel room. For example, say Venice's hotels are booked up, or their rates are soaring. You can day-trip to Venice by staying in nearby Vicenza, Padua, or Verona and taking the train into Venice.

Italian Trains Let You Watch the Scenery and Leave the Driving to Someone Else

Train passengers get to look at Italy, not at a highway. They savor the beauty of Italy's mountains, seas, and countryside out their windows, without the stress of traffic or the distraction of navigating with road apps and street signs.

Italian Trains Help You Meet the Locals

Italians make frequent use of Trenitalia's inter-city trains, and it's not unusual for Italians to live in one city and commute by train to another for work or university. So visitors who take trains will always find a lively cross-section of locals riding the rails. Insider tip: If your train has a café car, head there to savor an espresso, some people-watching, and maybe a conversation with one of Italy's many English speakers.

On the flip side, trains along the popular tourist routes (Florence-Rome, Venice-Florence, etc.) are already popular with North American travelers. So you're homesick for Statesider company or the chance to exchange travel tips, you may be in luck.

Here are the Basics of Italy's Rail System

Italy's national rail network (Rete Ferroviaria Italiana) runs a total of about 15,000 miles up and down The Boot. Service is operated by Trenitalia. There are several types of trains.

Frecciarossa / Frecciargento: these high-speed trains provide fast service to both major city centers as well as smaller towns in some regions. This high-speed network is still growing, but one popular current route links Milan (in the north) to Salerno (on the Amalfi Coast), with stops in Bologna, Rome and Naples along the way.

Seat reservations are required in first class (for a nominal fee.) Insider tip: These trains typically feature free wifi access. First-class passengers are also entitled to one complimentary beverage and free newspapers.

Eurostar (ES or Treni Eurostar Italia): Premier train service between major cities. (Note that this is not related to the English Channel Eurostar.) Advance seat reservations are required on all Italian Eurostar trains

Intercity / Intercity Plus: linking both large and second-tier cities, these relatively fast trains run the length of The Boot. Reservations are required on Intercity Plus trains (the fee is included in the ticket price), while only some Intercity trains take reservations. Trains have both first and second-class cars. Insider tip: Because these routes are popular with commuters and tourists alike, second-class cars tend to fill up. So it may be worth going first class to ensure you get a seat.

Regionale: these less-expensive local trains tend to run around work and school schedules, so can fill up fast. Most regional routes only have second-class seating.

How to Get Italian TrainTickets

Italian train passengers can purchase tickets in a variety of ways:

At the train station: either at a ticket window or via an automated machine. Ticket window attendants are usually very helpful (and speak some English), so just ask if you have any questions.If your train requires a seat reservation (as on first-class Frecciarossa and all Italian Eurostar trains), be sure to purchase those supplements, as well.

Online: at the user-friendly Trenitalia site. There's an English version, and the site often features great deals on select routes. (Rail Europe also sells single point-to-point tickets through its website. These tickets must be purchased ahead in the U.S., so you'd have to plan ahead.)

At a travel agency: look for the Viaggi sign. There's no commission charged. Once you have your hard-copy ticket, you must validate it at one of the yellow boxes located along the tracks before boarding the train. Conductors will ask to see tickets, and penalties for not validating can be stiff. (Passes bought via Rail Europe trains have a different validation procedure.)

Strikes: scioperi are announced in advance. They're listed online, and it's a good idea to check.

Taking a Lot of Trains or Crossing Borders? Consider a Eurail Pass

If you will be traveling on multiple trains while in Italy, or anticipate traveling to bordering countries as well, purchasing a Rail Europe pass, also called a Eurail Pass, may be an ideal option.