Top Tips for Italian Train Travel

Top Tips for Italian Train Travel

Here are the most frequently asked questions I get about Italy train travel, in no particular order.

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What’s the difference between first class and second class on Italian trains?


 Italian train travel, second class

Second class on Italian fast trains is actually quite nice, as you can see from this photo.
But, as you can see, this photo is of an empty train (and the older slow trains are not as nice but they often don’t have first class).  The big difference between first and second class on Italian trains is the level of chaos. Second class is where the majority of Italians travel, so it’s louder and more crowded, with more people yakking on cell phones and getting on and off at each station. If you enjoy immersing yourself in the hustle and bustle of Italian culture, then you’ll enjoy the atmosphere of second class. But, first class tickets are not much more expensive so if you prefer a quieter train experience, then buying first class tickets is probably worth it. And if you really value a quiet train, buy the Business Class silenzio tickets, if offered. It’s worth noting that the seats in first class are a little bit — but not a lot — nicer. The difference between first and second class on Italian trains is nowhere near as large as the difference between first and second class on the airlines.

Can I store my bags near my seat?

As you can see from the photo above, there are overhead storage areas above the seats for bags. And while there are several different configurations for trains, overhead storage space is not big enough for suitcases, so you’ll be able to store your briefcase or laptop or jacket or backpack up there, but not your luggage. When I travel with smaller suitcases I put them in the gap in between the seat backs, if they fit. If you’ve booked a compartment, then you’ll be able to store your luggage inside. The only other alternative is to put them in the luggage storage area near the doors, which looks like this:with smaller suitcases I put them in the gap in between the seat backs, if : with smaller suitcases I put them in the gap in between the seat backs, if they fit. If you’ve booked a compartment, then you’ll be able to store your luggage inside. The only other alternative is to put them in the luggage storage area near the doors, which looks like this:

Italy train travel, train luggage storage

Is my luggage safe in the luggage storage area on an Italian train?

Yes. At least, you don’t need to travel with a padlock and chain it down. Since the luggage storage is close to the train door, in theory I suppose somebody could grab your bag as they were getting off the train, but I’ve never heard of that happening. That said, if I were traveling with a large Prada suitcase that cost a few thousand dollars empty, I probably wouldn’t put it in that area, or at the very minimum I’d book a seat very nearby to keep an eye on it.

Related: ECO Glamping in Italy

Can I buy food on the train?

Yes, there is a guy with a cart that comes around on some routes, selling sandwiches, snacks, and drinks, but I don’t recommend it.  Unless you buy a bag of potato chips, it’s probably the worst food you’ll eat in Italy. If you are traveling during a meal time, I recommend buying sandwiches in the train station before you get on the train — those are wonderful! And, if your train has a restaurant car, the food there is pretty good.

Italian train travel, panini at Roma Termini train station
Picking a sandwich from a cafe in Roma Termini Train station…. so many options!

Do I need to buy Italian train tickets in advance?

I recommend buying train tickets for fast trains in advance for a few reasons. First, the prices are lower compared to buying them at the last minute. Second, every now and then, Italian trains sell out. But, when I travel to Italy, even in high season, unless I’m traveling with my kids I do not buy my train tickets in advance, in order to allow more flexibility in my schedule, and (touch wood / tocca ferro!) I’ve never had a problem. Even if you show up at the train station and the train you planned to take is sold out, trains in Italy run so frequently that there will likely be another train departing within a few hours. To buy train tickets in advance, I recommend using the Trenitalia website. Note that this advice is for fast trains, which are the Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca or Frecciargento. For slower trains like Intercity or Regionale, it’s often not possible to buy tickets online in advance. You’ll have to buy them at the train station — but so will everyone else.

How do I buy Italian train tickets online?

[I buy train tickets for Gold and Platinum trip planning clients, but here’s the advice I give my coaching clients.] Use the Trenitalia website and you’ll get a train ticket sent to you in your email which you can print out and bring with you. But really all you need is the PNR number (see example ticket below). I use the Italian version of the website because it’s very straightforward (and last I checked, the English version of the site was not very easy to use). Note that you cannot buy train tickets online earlier than 90 days before the date of travel. So if you do a search for your route and it says your “solution is not available”, don’t assume tickets are sold out. More likely, it’s more than 90 days in advance or you’re trying to book a slow train.

Train travel Italy, Trenitalia email ticket

This ticket is for the fast Frecciarossa train 9572 from Rome’s Termini train station to Florence’s S. M. Novella train station on April 4th, 2015. This train departs at 10.05 am and arrives in Florence at 11.36 am. My clients are booked in carriage #1, seats 12D and 13D. When the conductor comes to check their ticket, all he cares about is that PNR number (which I have blanked out since this trip is in the future). Since I booked the tickets well in advance, they got a great price for a Business class itinerary.

What is the best way to buy tickets in the train station?

The best way to buy tickets in any Italian train station, hands down, is at an automated machine. Large train stations like Roma Termini have dozens of these machines, and they offer the option of choosing a language so it’s incredibly easy to buy tickets. The main thing to remember when using automated machines in Italian train stations is that Italians have switched to credit cards with smart chips and PIN numbers, so if your card does not have a PIN, you should use your debit card in these machines. Otherwise, you’ll get to the screen that says “enter your PIN”, and you won’t have a PIN, and you’ll have to cancel the transaction and go stand in line to buy tickets from a teller.

Italy train travel, Roma Termini ticket machines
One of the many banks of ticket machines at Roma Termini train station

Should I buy a rail pass for Italian train travel?

No. I used to do the math for clients and I finally stopped doing it when I never once recommended to anyone to buy a rail pass, so I’ve stopped spending time on it.

Is taking the train cheaper than renting a car?

Usually train tickets are cheaper than car rental, but not if you rent from dirt cheap auto dot com (I just made that up but you get the point), and of course it depends on the number of people traveling. The cars I book for my clients are quality cars from reputable car rental companies who offer excellent service and are not dirt cheap, because you get what you pay for. I usually tell people to budget about 80 euros per day for a car that holds 4 people plus luggage, and that price includes the car rental, gas, and tolls. It would be more expensive than 80 euros to buy four one-way tickets from Rome to Florence at the last minute. But, if you buy train tickets in advance (and if you have kids and travel on a Saturday when kids travel free) then it would cost less to buy four train tickets compared to renting a car. Cost should not be the only factor, though. 

How do I work out whether an Italian train station has luggage storage facilities?

If you’re getting off the train to do some sightseeing and then catching another train later in the day, you’ll definitely want to store your luggage at the station. In Italian, luggage storage is called deposito bagagli, and the Trenitalia website lists all services offered in each train station, by region, including whether the station has a deposito bagagli

I’ve heard about the new Italo trains – should I book with them or with Trenitalia?

Italo is a private train service that launched in 2003 for fast trains only, so that Trenitalia would not have a monopoly on train travel. Italo’s routes are not nearly as comprehensive as Trenitalia’s but its trains are newer. Italo trains use different stations, but those stations are still centrally located in major cities. The ticket prices are in the same ballpark, so if you are doing a lot of train travel on your Italy trip it might be fun to do some Italo and some Trenitalia just to try them both out.  

Italy train travel, Italo train

How soon should I arrive at the train station?

If you already have a train ticket, you don’t need to be at the train station more than about 20 minutes before your train departs. You need to allow time to walk from the front entrance to the departures board and check to see from which platform your train is leaving. Then you just need to have enough time to walk to that platform, and find the car and your seat.   You might need time to buy a panino or have a coffee or use the restroom, and of course, you need leeway because it’s Italy. But that’s it. If you don’t already have a ticket, add 20 minutes to buy a train ticket.

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