Traveling Italy by train is an experience any globetrotter should have. Not only are trains an efficient method of transportation, but they also give travelers plenty of time to drool out the window at the gorgeous Italian countryside.
While I typically view flying as a necessary evil, train travel is a throwback to old-fashioned travel glamor.
We took several trains while traveling in Italy last year. Though we had a generally good experience, Italian transit is not always intuitive, and there were a few moments of confusion, stress, and downright humiliation.
Here are a few things you should know before traveling Italy by train:
1. Become familiar with Trenitalia.com
Trenitalia is the primary train operator in Italy. You can purchase tickets—or find out more information about train schedules and pricing—on the Trenitalia website, which is (mercifully) easy to navigate in English.
2. Purchasing tickets in advance is cheaper
Tickets become available 120 days before departure on the Trenitalia website. And though you can buy tickets last minute at the station, you often get a better price by purchasing them online in advance.
If you need flexibility, be sure to buy a ticket that allows for changes.
3. A rail pass is not always the best deal
Though popular, Eurail passes can easily end up costing more than buying each ticket individually. Be sure to crunch some numbers before making your decision. We saved money by simply purchasing point-to-point tickets.
Rick Steves, the reigning European travel guru, offers a helpful guide to Italian rail passes here.
4. Some cities have multiple train stations
Pay close attention to your departure/arrival stations, as some cities have more than one. For example, Venezia-Mestre and Venezia-S. Lucia both serve the Venice area, but Venezia-Mestre is on the mainland and not a good option if you are headed to the island.
5. Validate your ticket before boarding (for open tickets)
Before boarding a regional train, be sure to validate your ticket at one of the validation boxes.
Important Note: Validation is only necessary for “open” tickets you buy at the station—not online—that do not have an assigned carriage or seat number.
Validate your ticket by inserting it into the slot and sliding it to the left. The machine should stamp it with the date and time. Once validated, your ticket must be used within a certain time frame, so don’t validate it until shortly before you board the train.
If you’re like us, the one time you forget to validate your ticket will be when you get caught and slapped with a massive fine. Don’t risk it!
6. No security line
Clearing security at airports is always my least favorite part of flying. It doesn’t help that I’m often singled out for “additional screening,” and by the end of it the TSA agent knows me better than Sam did when we got married.
You can avoid all this hassle on trains, since there are no security or baggage drop lines. If you already have a ticket, there is no reason to arrive more than 20-30 minutes before your departure.
7. Platform numbers are not posted until shortly before departure
Another reason not to arrive super early is that you won’t know where to go! As with European budget airlines, departure platforms are often not posted more than 20-30 minutes in advance.
I confess that as uptight North Americans, this system drove us crazy as we have been psychologically conditioned to rush to our departure area in a panic only to spend the next 45 minutes listlessly flipping through a magazine while we wait to board.
8. Seat assignments are often across from each other
Typically when you purchase two seats on an airplane, you are given seats beside each other. On trains, Sam and I were often assigned seats facing each other with strangers in the seats beside us. None of our seatmates turned out to be psychopathic killers or anything, but this configuration did surprise us.
Check your seat assignments carefully if you have a preference.
9. There is never a bathroom around when you need one
I’m going out on a limb to suggest that Italians have bladders the size of Lake Michigan. I could never find a bathroom when I needed one in Italian train stations. Given the amount of wine and espresso Italians consume, this deficit is a scientific marvel. At one point I ended up using the staff bathroom at a café.
My advice? If you see a bathroom, use it!
Do you have any tips for European train travel?
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