Italy is one of the best connected countries by train. Many people travel the entire boot without even touching the seat of a car (including me, 15 years ago).
Once you get the hang of it, traveling by train in Italy is pretty easy. However, when you consider that many travelers do not use public transport at home and add to that the language barrier, you’ve got potential for a lot of confusion. So, here I am to break it down for you in hopes that it will make your travels smoother.
First things first, check the train schedules in advance. I’m a planner at heart. My best advice is to know what trains you’d like to catch, even before leaving your home country. My MVP resource is the official TrenItalia website www.trenitalia.com which is where you can check train times & schedules quickly and easily. I’ve linked to the English version of the website but if you are manually typing in the URL you’ll need to click the British flag to change languages. On this website you can also purchase your tickets in advance (recommended) using a major credit card or PayPal.
Travel tip: To purchase train tickets in Italy, I recommend using *only* the official TrenItalia website. Any other site will be an intermediary and some sort of commission or surcharge will be applied. Also, the TrenItalia website oftentimes has special dicounts & promos that other sites won’t have (bonus!).
Once you’re on the TrenItalia website, enter in where you plan to leave from and where you’d like to arrive, including the date and time of interest, and ta-da! The site will do all of the work for you, connections included.
Heads up: Keep in mind that even though the TrenItalia website may be available in English, you’ll need to use the Italian names for cities in your search query. Here’s a list of the main cities and their principal train stations (where 99% of travelers will arrive or depart from, if you will be using a secondary station and you know the name, choose that option).
- FLORENCE: Firenze S. Maria Novella
- GENOA: Genova P. Principe or Genova Brignole
- MILAN: Milano Centrale
- NAPLES: Napoli Centrale
- PISA: Pisa Centrale
- ROME: Roma Termini
- VENICE: Venezia S. Lucia (on the island) or Venezia Mestre (on the mainland)
Each of the five Cinque Terre villages has its own train station and you can enter them as either an arrival or departure station. They are:
- MONTEROSSO Beware, there is also a station called Monterosso Marche which is in a completely different region and NOT the station you want!
There are a few instances where I might hold off on purchasing rail tickets in advance. An example would be on the day your flight arrives to Italy (as it’s not uncommon to experience flight delays, missed connections etc.). I wish that wasn’t the case because honestly the last thing you want to do after a long flight is to queue up and buy your tickets (with your luggage in tow). FYI: If you decide to purchase your ticket in advance and you have travel insurance for your trip (which I highly recommend, you won’t catch me traveling without it!) you should be able to file for a refund for your railway ticket if there’s a documented airline delay. Be sure to read the fine print on your travel insurance policy in advance so you know all the details.
Tidbits of advice for traveling by train in Italy
Regional trains (the slow poke ones) never sell out as the seats are not assigned. By the way, this includes the Cinque Terre Express trains (which I’ve already explained in detail here). TrenItalia sells an unlimited number of tickets for these trains so if you want to hold off on buying them, you’re fine (but know that holding off could mean lots of wasted time in a long lineup at the station).
The faster trains (InterCity and Freccia) do sell out as they have assigned seats and only a limited number of tickets are available. You’ll definitely want to book these train tickets in advance (whether on the TrenItalia website or at a train station when you’re already here in Italy). If you don’t book your tickets in advance you risk not being able to catch the train that you’d like.
Worried about an Italian train strike? Check out my previous topic on the subject here. Did you know that Italy’s premier Freccia trains are exempt to the strikes? While they are a bit more expensive than the other trains, you can justify the extra cost as “strike insurance.” Plus, they are Italy’s fastest and poshest trains (score!).
Traveling with paper tickets? Be sure to validate them before boarding the train! You’ll find the validating machines throughout the train stations. Failure to stamp your ticket results in an expensive and totally avoidable fine (click here for more details). Technically, tickets for trains with seat assignments don’t require validation (as they are only good for that one specific train) but I personally recommend that travelers *always* stamp their tickets (as it will keep you in the habit and you won’t have to think too much about which ones need stamping and which ones don’t). My thinking: There’s no penalty for stamping a ticket that didn’t need to be validated, but there’s a hefty one for not stamping one that required it… so, why not? You only need to stamp a ticket once.
At most railway stations you’ll see an electronic screen with the train arrivals and departures. These are great because if there are any delays or cancelled trains it will be posted on the board, just to the right of the specific train affected. If you’re in a teeny-tiny or remote station without the screens, you’ll need to look for the old-fashioned printed schedules for arrivals and departures (in this case, you’ll need to listen for vocal announcements if there are delays or cancellations). Here’s important vocab to help you decipher the schedules (both printed and electronic):
- ARRIVI: arrivals
- PARTENZE: departures
- DESTINAZIONE: the last stop or final destination of the train
- ORARIO: time
- BINARIO: platform Sometimes abbreviated to “BIN” on the screens, this will tell you what platform number you need to make your way to in order to catch your train.
- RITARDO: delay Sometimes abbreviated to “RIT” on the screens, this will tell you how many minutes a given train is running late. For example, if you are wanting to catch the 10:00 train and the screen lists a delay of 20 minutes you can expect your train to arrive at 10:20.
- SOPPRESSO: cancelled Sometimes abbreviated to “SOPP” on the screens, you’ll usually only see this in rare instances (like during a strike or when a train breaks down).
I find that it can be a bit confusing for people when looking at the departures board and trying to figure out which platform they need to be on. I recommend simply looking on the screen for the train time rather than hassling with the train numbers. 99% of the time there will only be one train at that specific time (in the rare case that there are two trains listed at the same exact time then refer to your train number).
Don’t forget that only the final destination of the train will be displayed on the screen. All of the stops prior to that will not be listed on the board. In order to see those you will need to check the fine print on the traditional schedule. I actually love the new option on the TrenItalia website that lets you see how many stops there will be prior to your destination (including arrival and departure times for each stop):
Are you considering buying a Eurail pass for your time in Italy? Think twice about it and do the math (which is easy now that you can consult the TrenItalia website online). I was duped into buying one on my first trip to Italy and I soon learned that it would have been much, much cheaper to just buy point-to-point tickets (*sigh*). Learn from my mistake!
Don’t forget to be vigilant of your personal belongings on the trains and at the stations. More on that here.
I know I’ve crammed lots of info into just one post, but these are all things that I wish someone would have explained to me all of those years ago.