Travelling by train is one of the best ways to get around Italy. It doesn't involve sitting on an orange plastic seat, or waiting next to 'fermata' sign with no shelter for twenty minutes. It doesn't require a stomach of steel and a hefty insurance fee. It's a relative inexpensive, relatively regular service, which usually passes through some rather beautiful towns, villages and countryside.
That doesn't mean it's easy though. For the unsuspecting tourist, it can prove a rather traumatic experience. Following my haphazard introduction to the Italian train network, I've written some top tips for all you novices out there.
1. Use trenitalia.com to find your train.
In this day and age, there really isn't any need to traipse all the way to a train station to pick up a schedule or to consult the large departure and arrival boards on the platform. The site reads in both English and Italian, includes up-to-date schedules, journey planners and a price check. You can book your tickets online but bear in mind that you'll have to print out a PDF copy and once you've purchased that particular train ticket, you'll need to stick to the allotted schedule. Unless you're making a long trip, in which case you will end up saving money online, I suggest buying your ticket at the train station.
2. You might end up spending more money on a Rail Pass than buying individual train tickets
There's a lot of talk on the internet about the virtues of getting a Rail Pass in Italy. If you're planning on bashing out a dozen cities in a week, its probably worth picking one up. You can buy them online here. However, if you're planning on leisurely visiting a few cities over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks, it's worth giving some serious consideration to whether you really need to buy one. A rail pass will set you back around £190 for eight days of train travel. Compared to other European cities, Italian train travel is relatively inexpensive, it doesn't need a lot of planning in advance and it is relatively flexible.
3. You'll save money by going 'Regionale'.
The bulk of the railway network in Italy is run by TrenItalia, but they operate a few different types of train which differ in speed and price: AV & FR trains, Intercity & Eurocity trains, and Regionale trains.
- AV Trains & Le Frecce Trains are a series of high speed trains connecting major cities across Italy. Frecciarossa Trains connect Turin - Milan - Bologna - Rome - Naples - Salerno. You can get from Milan to Turin directly in an hour, but be prepared to pay between 32 and 74 euros for a single journey. Frecciagento Trains, a marginally slower service, connects Rome to Venice - Verona - Bari - Lecce - Lamezia Terme and Reggio Calabria. Frecciabianca Trains connect Milan to Venice - Uldine and Triest - Genoa - Rome and Bari. These are plush trains, pricier than the Intercity but faster.
- Intercity Trains operate in most major cities including Rome- Naples -Sicily; Rome - Pisa- Cinque Terre - Genoa - Milan; Milan - Genoa - Ventimiglia (for Nice). Like the AV and FR trains these require a seat reservation.
- Regionale Trains basically go everywhere else. They are significantly cheaper than Intercity Trains and, whilst the internet may have you believe otherwise, often take the same amount of time as the InterCity. For example, an intercity train from Genoa to Milan costs £13 each way more than its Regionale counterpart. Be warned, if you do choose regionale, opt for trains with the least changes. It might seem obvious but, what might seem like ample time between changes, probably isn't. TrenItalia are notorious for delays and do bear in mind that there may not be another train service to your destination, from whichever train station you've been deposited at, for a couple of hours.
4. Validate your ticket
You’ll see that the train tickets don't have a specific time on them and can be used for up to sixty days after the purchase date. To stop nifty, thrifty types from using the same ticket multiple times, you need to validate the ticket before hopping on your train. Failure to do so may result in a fine of 200 euros. Note, if you’ve booked your train ticket online, you wont need to validate the ticket before boarding the train.
5. Make sure you've made a note of any changes en-route and the duration of the journey.
Your ticket won't reference any details other than your departure point, destination and the price you paid. So, if you do have to make changes, make sure you make a note of where you're supposed to be stopping, or you could end up a couple of hours away from where you want to be.