Taking the Train in Italy: Railroads Simplify Your Vacation

Convenience & gentle ticket fares make Italian train travel the insider choice

Milano Central Station Trenitalia
••• Trenitalia train in Milano Centrale Station. ©Lorenzoclick/Flickr Creative Commons

Many Good Reasons to Travel on Italian Rairoads

Italy is a major luxury travel destination, but getting from place to place by car is far fromr elaxing.

Taking the train throughout Italy is the comfortable insider way to get around. Here's what travel on Italian railroads can provide:

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

City congestion, restricted parking (many smaller town centers are closed to cars), and somewhat (ahem) fluid traffic laws can make driving a challenge for non-locals.

Access
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.

Flexibillty
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.)

Ease of Day Trips
Italy's extensive and frequent rain routes make it easy to stay in one town and explore another town for the day. This may also be a vacation-saver during high seasons. 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 to explore Venice's canals.

Picture Windows, No Distractions

Train passengers enjoy Italy's stunning mountain, sea, and countryside vistas out their windows -- without the stress of traffic or the distraction of navigating with road maps or street signs.

Easy Packing

Italy has a way of loading visitors up with shopping bags and with bottles: of wine, olive oil, limoncello, grappa, or other Italian gourmet pleasures that you acquire during your trip. By taking the train instead of flying from city to city, you can skip the hassle of having to fit all your stuff into your luggage flights (that is, until your bubblewrap-intensive flight home).

Meeting the Locals

Italians make frequent use of the inter-city trains; it's not unusual for Italians to live in one city and commute 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 and some people watching.

On the flip side, trains along the popular tourist routes (Florence-Rome, Venice-Florence, etc.) are popular with North American travelers. So you if you're longing to speak English — or want to exchange travel tips — you may be in luck.

Italy's Rail System: The Basics

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. Train types:

Frecciarossa / Frecciargento
These new 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.

Getting Tickets

Italian train passengers can purchase tickets 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 US, so you'd have to plan ahead)

At a travel agent
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 not a bad idea to check.

Rail Europe

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.

Find out about Rail Europe, and if it will work for your vacation >>