Riding Trains In Europe
Practical Tips and Useful Suggestions
The thought of traveling by train in Europe is full of mystery and intrigue; everyone likes to picture themselves ensconced in one of those plush velvet compartments, nose glued to the glass as images of tiny stone farmhouses and ornate church belltowers, brilliant green vineyards and solitary ancient ruins glide past in an endless succession of imagined lives. "Who owns that flock of pure white sheep?" we wonder. "Who hung all those pajamas and underclothes out to dry on that balcony?" The European train trip is a grand excuse to daydream and fantasize, leading to the inevitable question of all questions: "Who hasn't dreamed of taking a train ride in Italy?"
Of course, like everything else Italian, there are endless horror stories about the flip side of train travel. It can seem too complicated, too overwhelming… so downright foreign! But have no fear: if you were clever enough to get yourself to Italy in the first place, you can master train travel and come home with your own memories. We are happy to pass along some tips contributed by our readers and gleaned from our own experiences. If you have a story of your own, by all means, email it to us!
For starters, we'd like to answer the age-old question: "Should I take the train or drive?" Here, in our opinion, is when it makes sense to hop on a train:
- If you are traveling from point to point in one fell swoop. For instance, you've spent three days in Rome and now you're heading off for three days in Venice
- If you are transferring from one country to another. In this case, choose a daytime train to see the view, or a nighttime train to save valuable vacation time as well as hotel costs
- If you'll be there during off-season (in Italy, that means November 1-December 20 and January 8-Easter), and you have a lot of time and no fixed "wish list" of things to do. In this case, there is nothing more fun than hopping on a train and getting off wherever the mood takes you. For you lucky explorers, a train pass is the way to go.
- If, on the other hand, you want to explore the countryside, visit those famous hill towns and castles, enjoy a wine tasting or a country feast, then a car is the only way to go. Are you able to drive at home? Then, worry no longer, you will be able to drive in Italy too!
Now, to help you plan the railway part of your vacation, here are some approximate travel times for point-to-point trains in Italy:
- Rome to Florence = 1 hour, 30 minutes
- Rome to Milan = 3 hours, 30 minutes
- Florence to Milan = 2 hours
- Milan to Bologna = 1 hour
- Rome to Venice = 4 hours, 30 minutes
- Milan to Venice = 2 hours, 30 minutes
- Florence to Venice = 2 hours, 30 minutes
- Rome to Naples = 1 hour, 20 minutes
- Rome to Bari = 7 hours
So, now that you know how to plan the various legs of your trip, you have come to another extremely vexing question about Italian rail travel: "How far in advance can I buy my ticket?"
Tickets can be purchased 60 days in advance, or as little as two days prior to your departure from the USA, Caribbean, Central America, Mexico or Canada. All passes and tickets can be purchased directly from Rail Europe. For the best deals, purchase your tickets as early as you can. Especially during peak season, advance purchase will ensure you get a seat on the train(s).
A couple of practical notes:
- It is possible to get assistance for the disabled and sight-impaired. To make arrangements once you have your reservations, call (+39) 06 4881726
- There is no charge to take luggage on trains, and there is no limit to the amount of luggage you can take on the train
- Almost all the major stations have luggage depots. These function like the wardrobe room at a museum. You pay a small fee and your luggage is safe. This is a great idea if you want to hop off a train, take a quick tour around the town, and hop back on. Two especially great places to do this are Pisa and Verona
We are thankful to our friend Edwin for this report:
We went for a 10-day trip in Italy, mostly by train. We went to Rome, Florence, Pisa, Greve (Tuscany), Venice, Bolzano, Milan, Como, Torino, Mont Blanc, Pompeii in 10 days so it was a pretty compact, hectic schedule. There are many nuances (rules) we discovered in the train travel we wished we knew beforehand. I thought it would be good to take this chance to share them with you.
The official Italian train site is not always clear about what the nomenclature stands for.
R - Regional
IR - InterRegional
D - Diretto
E - Espresso (shorter than D but longer than ES)
The above trains generally make lots of stops but the tickets are cheaper. More often than not, you'll be seated in a compartment holding up to 6 people. Be sure to validate your ticket by sticking it in the little yellow box attached to a column at the front of the track (if you don't you will be fined by the on-board conductor).
ES AV or ES* trains are the fastest and spiffiest. They are also the most expensive, they stop only at major stations, and they almost always require mandatory reservations. You do not need to buy first-class seats unless you really want to be pampered: second-class is just fine. These trains almost always have airplane-style seating (as opposed to compartments) and all seats in both classes have laptop/cellphone sockets. You do not have to validate tickets for these trains. ES or IC trains are modernized and air-conditioned. They are a bit slower than the super-fast trains, but they're still a good bet. They require mandatory reservations and do not require validation.
Kilometric passes are a great choice IF you are planning to take a lot of short-haul, local trains. Otherwise, they are not worth the hassle, and you end up paying the difference in fare anyway, in the end. What is likely to happen is despite your best effort in calculating, maximizing for the usage of KM, you'll have KM leftover from the ticket and you'll pay the same or more on the fare of non R & IR trains. This kind of ticket is good for local short-distance travel on local trains and particularly for regular commuters.
Even for us traveling 10 days on lots of Italian trains, it ended up being cheaper to buy the tickets separately than buying their passes (either type, we are not even considering Eurorail pass). We reserved the most critical routes when we couldn't afford to miss the train. However, most travel books recommend you make reservations during peak season. For shorter trips, we just bought the ticket a few hours before travel.
If you are traveling in a group of 3 or more, ask for a mini-group discount (20%) but that requires reservations. So, the reservation itself can cost more if you are on a short ride (or the fare is cheap). Whenever in doubt, ask them which way is cheaper. There is a deadline and quota for reservation on each train.
Finding the track number turns out to be a challenge. Make a note of your train's final destination, because that is the way they are listed in the station. The track is never printed on your ticket. Some track platforms take longer to reach than others in some of the bigger stations. We missed a train because the platform was not in the normal area. Sometimes, the track number disappears a few minutes before the train departs. If that happens, it means your train is leaving without you. Yep, that happened to us too.
If you want to take an overnight train, be sure to make advance reservations. Once on the train, prepare to surrender your passport and ticket to the train conductor for keeping overnight. They will be handed back to you in the morning. Our night train was very crowded and three of us were in a C6 (compartment that sleeps six people). The top and the middle bunks are better than the bottom if you can pick. Also, you can try the new C4. We almost bought the whole compartment by mistake when we didn't know the agent thought we wanted the whole thing. We had a print-out on all the ticket costs of our trip for reference so we knew there was something wrong with the price right away.
Get to the train station early if your ride is on an R or IR (Interregional) or if it is leaving around local peak traffic hours.
Local and regional trains have a limited amount of non-smoking, second-class carriages/seats. And some carriages have half smoking and half non-smoking compartments separated by a plastic shelf and door. If you think that works, you are probably a smoker. We ended up standing between carriages one time. All IC and ES trains are non-smoking.
Some trains have seats labeled non-reserved but some don't. So, you may be asked to leave if you haven't reserved your seat.
Italian trains are pretty much on time, unlike what my friends suggested. If you don't speak Italian, be on the lookout for people around you suddenly moving to a different platform. Happened twice to us.
If you are going to Pompeii, take the Circumvesuviano train from Naples or Sorrento. They are more frequent and closer to the entrance than the regular trains.
We don't speak Italian and were surprised not many train agents in big cities like Rome speak good English either. Many Italians know the English words but not necessary the way words string together. Speaking slowly in words instead of full sentence got us much further in many cases. (In Italy Online adds: At most stations, signs are posted in English as well as Italian, or show easy-to-understand pictograms. On high-speed trains, announcements are usually repeated in English. The ticket machines at every main station have a touch-screen with an English language facility).
If you fly out of Rome, remember to reserve enough cash (8 Euros) for the train to the airport or you can buy it at one of the many ticket booths before you walk 5-7 mins to the platform (it is way off to one side of the station). We used up our cash on the last day but the platform counter didn't have a machine that takes credit cards. They do have machines selling tickets quickly on the airport side. I ended up running back to the station ticket lobby lines for the tickets. Don't expect to pay credit card using the ticket machines situated everywhere throughout the station. Often they don't work, and if you haven't left yourself enough time for the ticket line, you may miss the train.
Click here if you wish to see schedules and purchase tickets.
This trip took place during off season for Italy travel. Situations may change during the peak season, especially regarding reservations. It is a lovely country. The train system is pretty good despite the little nuisances we experienced.
A LESSON IN TRAIN TRAVEL IN ITALY - We were on the local train from Florence to a small station to change trains to go to Sestri Levanti. We only had one station to pass and then we were to get off. The conductor who was really pleasant came to remind us that we had one more station to go. We got up, got our luggage ready to throw down the train steps (yes by then, after train travel for two weeks we were into throwing it off and jumping). As the train stopped I grabbed the door handle and twisted it. The door wouldn't open. We tried again and again but the door wouldn't open. The train started up again. The conductor came through and smiled and shrugged. We explained what happened. He held in his laugh, and at the next stop we were prepared to get off and take the next train back. He took us out the other side of the station door, walked us across tracks and hailed another train going back. The conductor of the returning train yelled "Where are they going?" Our conductor told him, they both laughed, helped me with the luggage and boosted me up to the first step and off we went. No ticket asked for and a very emphatic reminder that we were to get off when the train stopped. We explained that the door wouldn't open. The new conductor proceeded to show us that there is more than one way to open a train door. You have to look on the diagram. From then on, we took the time to look at the diagram and make sure we could open the door. The thoughtfulness of the conductors turned what could have been a real inconvenience and time waster into a funny and memorable experience.
One thing I am always thankful for when I travel by train in Italy is the fact that the schedules are always in full view and there are lots of them. More than that, though, I love the fact that the one listing "departures" (partenze) is always yellow, while the one listing "arrivals" (arrivi) is always white. Something else I find useful is the chart showing the composition of trains, i.e. where the first-class carriages are located when the trains comes in. This means you can go to the appropriate point on the platform while waiting for your train to come in. I first found this chart in Florence station, where it is on the left hand side of the big glass doors that lead from the ticket hall. I have been unable to find it in other stations, but it must be there. Or it should be, anyway.
By Roberta Kedzierski, Milan