AV, ES-Fast, ES, and ES-City TRAINS:
It's rarely worth the extra charge (most of the time), but here are the differences between first and second class seats on the aforementioned fast trains:
1. USUALLY, first class is three across, second class is four across. Consequently, first class has more seat and shoulder room
2. First class has electrically pivoting seats; second class are manually pivoting. (Seats pivot forward to afford a modest recline)
3. First class seat fabrics are "nicer" than second class. It's like having an "upgraded" cloth fabric on a passenger car.
4. There usually is slightly more leg room in first class (which may not be true in all cases, as it depends on the railcar configuration).
5. Because there are fewer seats per railcar in first class, seat density is lower, and railcars are usually quieter (fewer people talkiing to each other or on cell phones). This is not a "hard" rule, just a "rule of thumb."
6. Clientele in first class is often noticeably different than in second class. You usually don't see young travellers with backpacks or students in first class. You see more business people and government officials in first class.
7. First class seats are supposed to all have electrical sockets for high-tech portable gear such as laptops, dvd players, etc. Second class seats are also receiving these upgrades.
8. A first class railcar typically has 48-52 seats. A second class railcar typically has 68-72 seats.
9. On AV Frecciarossa trains, first class passengers are offered a complimentary "welcome drink" (juice or coffee), plus a sweet or salty snack, plus (a.m. departures only) an Italian-language newspaper. Market value is 3 Euros. Beverages and snacks may be purchased for nominal amounts from the bar in the cafe car.
10. The special luggage racks at the railcar ends for large suitcases are usually much larger in first class railcars. The ES-City trains have luggage racks in the center of each railcar.
OPINION: I often recommend first class for travellers who are LADEN DOWN with LOTS OF BIG AND HEAVY LUGGAGE. Otherwise, second class is perfectly fine for most, and on trips up to about 5 hours.
INTERCITY (IC) TRAINS:
Here are the differences between 1st and 2nd class on traditional Intercity (IC) trains (those with separate seating compartiments with sliding glass doors):
1. Because there are 11 compartments per second class railcar, but only 9 compartments per first class railcar, there is more legroom in first class. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE IN SEAT AND SHOULDER ROOM, because seats are all THREE across in the compartments.
2. Seat fabrics are "nicer" in first class.
3. Typically, each IC convoy has eight second class, and only two first class, railcars. Convoy compositions can change depending on seasonality and route.
1. IC trains no longer have restaurant or cafe cars. Some may have a "rolling cart" snack/beverage service.
2. ALL SEATS ON ALL IC TRAINS ARE NOW AUTOMATICALLY RESERVED UPON TICKET PURCHASE (as on the AV, ES-Fast, ES, and ES-City trains).
3. IC trains have air conditioning and heating, but sometimes it does not function correctly (or at all).
4. All trains in Italy are non-smoking.
5. The IC trains are a useful "budget" alternative to the faster and nicer AV, ES-Fast, ES and ES-City trains.
"REGIONALE" (COMMUTER) TRAINS:
The story is different as far as concerns "regionale" trains. VERY FEW regionale trains still have first class railcars. They are found primarily on longer-distance routes, such as Milan/Venice, Brenner Pass/Bologna, Pisa/Rome, Florence/Rome, Florence/Foligno and Rome/Perugia.
The most significant difference between first and second class on the regionale trains is that first class seats pivot forward to provide a modest recline, whereas second class seats do not. Consequently, first class seats are significantly more comfortable, and the extra cost (approx. 50%) can be justified on the longer trips approaching four hours.
The regionale trains between Florence and Rome have recently been modernized to the point that their comfort level approximates that of the traditional IC trains (indeed, they utilize converted IC railcars). Here is a description of these railcars (currently used between Florence and Rome) which points out differences between first and second cllass:
Each railcar has a combination of separate glass-enclosed compartments with sliding glass doors (as on the traditional IC trains), together with open-compartment seats (as on the AV trains). The closed compartments are at both ends of each railcar (two on one end and three on the other end). Each compartment seats six, three across, facing each other. Passengers travelling together can have more private conversations by choosing to sit in one of these compartments. By contrast, the open-compartment seats, which are in the center of each railcar, either face each other or face in the same direction. They are four-across in second class and three-across in first class. There are 50 such seats in each second class railcar and 28 seats in each first class railcar. That makes for a total of 80 seats in each second class, and 58 seats in each first class, railcar.
Each regionale convoy between Rome and Florence has six second class and two first class, railcars. That makes the total seating capacity 480 in second class and 116 in first class.
The seats, in both first and second class, are very firm, contoured, and entirely upholstered in cloth, with no vinyl or hard rubber as on second class seats on other regionale railcars. First class seats pivot forward (by pushing the seat bottom forward) to provide a modest recline, but second class seats are fixed and do not recline at all. Second class can consequently be slightly uncomfortable for a four-hour ride. The seats in first class are slightly wider (more hip and shoulder room), and there is more leg room as well because there are fewer seat rows in first class. Only first class seats have folding tray tables.
There are electrical outlets incorporated into the bottom of the trash recepticles at each seat row (both first and second class), which is handy for using laptop computers, DVD/CD players, cellphones and other electrical equipment.
These regionale trains between Florence and Rome have plenty of overhead room for luggage, as well as a few spots on the floor for heavy suitcases.
Most other regionale trains are NOT as nice as the regionale trains between Florence and Rome described above. Most regionale trains have only second class railcars, and are deployed on short-distance, high-density routes such as Florence/Viareggio and Florence/Pisa. Some routes have double-decker regionale trains, with very little space for large pieces of luggage. Other routes still utilize much older railcars which are relatively noisy and not as smooth as modern railcars (although these are slowly being replaced by state-of-the-art rolling stock).
Not all regionale trains have functioning air conditioning (although many do), and it's not unusual for one or more washrooms to be locked and out of order. There is no smoking on the regionale trains (as on all trains in Italy). Travelling on the regionale trains is definitely the "budget" option.
There are NO RESERVED SEATS on any of the regionale trains. Tickets for the regionale trains must ALWAYS be "validated" before boarding by punching them in the little yellow machines at the head of the track. All other Trenitalia trains have reserved seats which are assigned contemporaneously with ticket purchase, and tickets for these reserved trains do not need to be validated (although there is no harm doing so).
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AV, ES-Fast, ES, and ES-City TRAINS: