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TRAIN travel in Italy: Help! I can't figure it out.

TRAIN travel in Italy: Help! I can't figure it out.

Nov 18th, 2005, 02:51 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 96
TRAIN travel in Italy: Help! I can't figure it out.

Hello to all you Fodorites familar with train travel in Italy. We're going for the 1st time in May, and will be taking a 9 day hiking tour in the middle of 3 weeks in Italy. For the non-hiking part, we have most hotels decided upon, thanks to this board and Trip Advisor. But I can't for the life of me figure out the train system. I've been spending so much time on here trying to understand it....after trying to make sense out of it on the Trenitalia site.

There are several things I'm confused about, so maybe someone out there can help me get this straight. And unlike Tom (Maitaitom), a car is out of the question, although I have thoroughly enjoyed the postings of his exploits.

1. It seems like it would be easier to get a 4-day rail pass while here at home, however, several people on the board have said that because of the possibility of strikes, wait until we get to Italy to buy tickets. Then purchase point to point.

2. Is a 4-day (within 2 months) pass good for on and off travel on the same day. That is, let's say we travel from Florence to the Cinque Terre. Can we depart the train along the way, have lunch, and then continue on to the Cinque Terre...... is that considered 1 day?

3. It looks like it's less expensive to purchase point to point, but would we spend way too much time waiting in lines?

4. Everyone seems to reiterate how important it is to "validate train tickets" before you board. But then it appears that you do not validate the ticket if you have a pass.

5. And what about reservations? We're traveling with another couple and they, as well as my husband, want to get reserved seats. But then we would have to be on a particular train at a set time, and if there were any problems and we were unable to make that train, will it be a huge hassle getting our tickets straightened out? Plus, you would have had to wait in line anyway for the reserved ticket. So I wonder, why get the reservation?

6. Might we be standing for the whole train trip if we do not make a seat reservation?

I don't know if this makes a difference, but we'll be traveling by train on a:
Monday: Rome to Florence

Tuesday: Florence to the Cinque Terre

Thursday: Cinque Terre to Varenna

Sunday: Varenna to Venice

Please give me a hand. I'm so excited about this trip, however, I get intimidated just thinking about the trains. None of us speak or understand any Italian either....... unless you count the hand signals my husband's grandmother from Sicily made when she was angry!

Grazie, grazie, grazie!

olijoc is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 04:19 PM
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 21
I'll try to help with a few points:

1) I generally recommend against buying a railpass for Italy. Train fares are quite cheap in Italy, and even with a railpass, you will have to pay mandatory supplements/reservation fees on Eurostar Italia trains (as well as any optional reservations you choose to make on other trains).

2) If you are using one "day of travel" on a pass, you can take multiple journeys on the same day. But this of course becomes moot if you don't have a pass.

3) I don't think that you will have to spend more than 5-15 minutes waiting in line for a ticket (or using a machine). Nothing to worry about at this point. The only time waiting would be an issue would be if there was a strike and then the traffic was disrupted. Again, nothing to worry about at this point.

4,5) If you are traveling on the faster Eurostar Italia trains, reservations are mandatory. So you are going to have to wait in a line (or use a machine if possible) for ES tickets. For Intercity trains, reservations are not mandatory and should not be necessary on most of your trains. I doubt you would be standing but it does happen. For example, regarding Rome-Florence, there are 10+ ES trains and 2-3 (cheaper) IC trains per day, thus it is likely that the IC trains might be pretty full. So for 3€ a reservation will guarantee you a seat and peace of mind. Finally, some of your itinerary will involve regional trains, which will have space and where you can't even make a reservation if you wanted.

If you miss the reserved train, you lose your reservation fee, not the entire ticket. You will easily be reissued and pay for another reservation.

Validate your tickets at the front of each platform.

For Florence-Cinque Terre, change trains in La Spezia.

You'll get the way of things quickly.
minceta is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 04:35 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 96

Thanks so much for your help. We don't need to validate the train pass do we, if that's what we end up with? (I'm thinking I may get out-voted on that).

After your post, I think I'd rather do without the pass. You've made me less worried about that question. I wish I could get over my train 'fear' issues.

I feel much better though, after your last sentence, "You'll get the way of things quickly."
olijoc is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 04:58 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 9,402
Hi O,

I really don't think you need passes, they will cost you more. On my recent trip I never waited in line more than 10 minutes for a ticket - including Roma Termini and Naples.

However, there is one leg I would recommend getting a reserved seat for and that is Varenna - Venice. You shouldn't need a res for Varenna - Milano Centrale - but you very well might need one from Milano Centrale to Venice!

A few years ago I traveled Milan - Venice on a Thursday morning, ES train. the train was completely full starting in Milan and made only one stop in Verona. Everyone who got on in Verona stood the 1 1/2 hours to Venice.

Be aware that train service from Varenna to Milan is NOT very frequent. At the time I visited, it was 2 or more hours between trains.

Buon viaggio!
Dayle is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 05:53 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 911
Last May we travelled by train from Rome to Venice to Florence and then back to Rome. I reserved all the ES trains in advance from home on the Trentalia website and got first class for 28 Euros for each leg of the journey which was significanlty less than buying at the counter. With reservations you just get on the train with your print out and the conductor checks it on the train after you have boarded. Smooth and easy and no lineups at all. There were two stikes while we were in Italy but luckily not on our travel days. Even with strikes not all train travel is affected.
Lily is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 05:59 PM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 7,134
The received wisdom is that point-to-point train tickets are so cheap in Italy that passes are no big bargain. There are detailed instructions on using Italian trains at www.slowtrav.com. One important plus is that you can buy train tickets at travel agents at your convenience in the course of your touristing. No line and they usually speak good English.
Mimar is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 07:47 PM
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Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 96
Again, thank you all. You are boosting my confidence regarding this whole train travel. I know I'm probably being childish but it really concerns me, but then, I'm not too wild about NYC trains either.

A few years ago, my hubby and I weren't sure about the train we caught in Britain. We were trying to get to Chester, England and the announcement stating the destination and track # were so garbled. But we got on the train anyway. I was a nervous wreck wondering where we'd end up. We spent the trip speaking with a lovely woman (from England) who assured us that we were "on track." She told us that her son & girlfriend who were picking her up at the station would drop us off at our hotel. And she told us that he was a football player for Manchester United.

So upon our arrival at the station, her son, a very nice young man, carried our bags into the hotel for us. Not being very athletically savvy, I thought he must have played local football because he wasn't very big, of average height and stocky. Last year in a B & B we stayed at, we met a British couple, and the man was carrying on and on about how big a team Manchester United is. He couldn't believe a player carried our bags and even more than that, he couldn't believe that I didn't know his name. What fun we all had trying to figure out the identity of that player. We never did, I just remember a really nice family and a very mannerly young man. Sorry to get off track here...... So even that train travel had a great ending.

Dayle, we'll definitely get a res. for the Varenna to Venice leg as I'm sure my DH and friends would not be smiling while standing for 1 & 1/2 hours. BTW, I enjoyed your trip report. Thanks.

Lily, I think my husband will want the pass, especially when he reads your post, thanks.

Mimar, thanks for the slowtrav tip, I'll check it out.
olijoc is offline  
Nov 18th, 2005, 08:43 PM
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 32,281
olijoc - There are several types of trains in Italy. ES and IC trains are faster and you can get seat reservations. The other trains are D and R trains. These do not allow or have any seat reservations. Some of the places you are going will only have R and D trains.
kybourbon is online now  
Nov 18th, 2005, 09:28 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 2,937
Something else that might help you - I printed out a brief list of where we wanted to go with dates and times, non-smoking etc. I showed it to the man at the ticket office in Roma Termini and asked about a rail pass but he told us point to point tickets would be cheaper. It was good to have it written down because our Italian is very limited. We bought about half our tickets for a five week trip then and there and the other half at a travel agency in Lucca. At the travel agency the woman spoke perfect English and it didn't cost any extra.

We did have one seat reservation where we missed the train (not our fault, the connecting train was late) and we could still use the ticket but not the seat reservation. We were told we couldn't pay for another one so as soon as the next train pulled in we jumped on quickly to find 2 seats that weren't reserved. You can tell by the little board on the outside of each 6 seater compartment. There are also pull-down seats in the corridors if you get desperate.

We were nervous about the trains too because we never use public transport at home but very quickly got used to it. You can usually find someone to ask if you are unsure. It also helps to know the name of the station immediately before your stop. That way you can start getting ready to get off. Often the trains don't stop for long.

There is good info on the Italians trains/tickets on Rick Steve's website. Also good is http://www.sbb.ch/en/index.htm
It's Swiss Rail but all the info on Italian trains is there. I think you need the Italian spelling, e.g.Venezia not Venice.
KayF is online now  
Nov 18th, 2005, 09:48 PM
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 386
If you absolutely, positively have to be somewhere by a certain time (like a FedEX package : )))) then I would get reserved seats.

I tried to book some trains in September (in still somewhat of a tourist season) which were full. I don't go to the hassle of trying to get tickets from the States but I do try to get tickets the night before I'm going to leave if I'm near the train station. The lines are shorter then.

We have stood on the train for short times and also it's a pain to be chased from seat to seat by reserved ticket holders if you haven't reserved.

If you take an earlier or later train the conductor may charge you a slight fee on board for the change.

Gettng the tickets at the station is fairly straight-forward and I wouldn't worry about the language problem at all. English is spoken widely. Take a small translator to make yourself feel more confident if you like.

The stations boards and tracks are well marked if you are accustomed to traveling.
kakalena is offline  
Nov 19th, 2005, 05:33 AM
Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 1,323
We did exactly what Kay F. suggested on our trip in April. I had everything written down. We flew into Rome and the night before we left for our next stop, we went to the Termini and bought all of our tickets for the entire trip. We waited about 10-15 minutes. Went on our way to dinner. Very painless, but I was also VERY nervous about using the trains.

The man was very helpful and it was cheaper than buying a pass. We only made one mistake and just paid the conductor the extra, not an expensive mistake so okay.

The boards at the stations are very helpful and we did not find it difficult finding our platforms. Just be careful in La Spezia...the trains come really quickly but also very regularly. We were still alittle confused about our last leg...Monterosso to Venice. The woman at the counter in Monterosso double checked everything for us and was very friendly.

You all will do fine!

motor_city_girl is offline  
Nov 19th, 2005, 02:48 PM
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 1
Your post caught my attention because I noticed that you're heading to the Cinque Terre. GREAT choice!! My mom lives in Monterosso and I've been to visit quite a few times over the years. I lived in Monterosso for six months a few years ago and, during the tourist season, I had my own tour business. So if you would like any tips on the Cinque Terre, please feel free to ask. I can give you the skinny on the hotels, restaurants, shops, etc.

Anyway, try not to be too intimidated by the train system. Honestly, it's fairly easy once you get the gist of it, and I think you and your husband will do just fine! I agree that passes tend to be more expensive than point-to-point tickets and the only time I have found a pass worth it is when my friend and I were touring several countries in Europe. The exception that I know of is in the Cinque Terre, where they sell passes for travel between the five villages, and if you'd like to visit them all without hiking or taking a ferry, a pass is definitely the way to go. I think they have them in 1-day, 2-day, 3-day.. from what I remember, they're fairly unlimited travel between the villages for the time period, so that's something to consider.

If it feels safer for you to get a pass and you don't mind the extra cost, go for it. But to be honest, if it were me, I wouldn't. You can buy your point-to-point tickets in advance and all at once if you so desire, which will save you the hassle later. This can come in handy if you're running late for your train, as you can bypass the ticket lines. As someone else mentioned, please be sure to validate your tickets for each trip. Most of the time, the conductors are very understanding (especially if you explain your situation), but if they're not, you could be facing an annoying fine. If you have to run to catch a train and don't have time to validate, be sure to seek out a conductor and tell them right away, so they can validate the ticket for you (and avoid a fine).

If you do get a pass for your general train travel, you will almost definitely have to validate it in some way. This is to prevent people from using their passes more than what they've paid for. I've never used a Trenitalia pass, but with our Eurail passes, we had to write down our date of travel on the pass, which the conductors did check.

Once you get the hang of it, you'll be asking your husband why the U.S. doesn't have such an awesome train system. Keep in mind that you will be in Italy and things will not always be completely smooth. I don't know how to explain it other than it's simply the culture.. for one, things there generally happen at a much slower pace than we're used to, so if things aren't going as expected, just take a breath and try to relax.. Even if the outcome of things isn't entirely as expected, you two will be fine. Trains run late sometimes, and while the Italians do complain about it, most of the time they simply shrug and sort of accept it because, well, that's Trenitalia for you. Of course be careful in the bigger cities, but generally you can ask help of just about anyone and they're more than happy to accomodate you.

My last piece of advice is to PLEASE be careful of gypsies. They come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and they are incredibly good at nabbing your wallet or expensive gadgets without you even realizing it until later. In crowded places like a train, one of their tactics is to bump into you while reaching into your bag. Another tactic is to use multiple gypsies.. one or two to distract you while another does the stealing. I personally have been lucky when it comes to gypsies (knock on wood), so I think that as long as you're aware of your surroundings and careful with your belongings, you have a good chance of fending them off.

I'm very excited for you both.. I hope you have a great trip!

-- Alena
AlenaD is offline  
Nov 21st, 2005, 05:23 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 96
Thank you all so much. Everytime I read a reply I feel more and more comfortable. I'll have to post a trip report after we return, and hopefully I will be able to laugh at how worried I was because it was all so easy!

Kay and motor city girl: I'll make sure to take a print out with me of everywhere we're going. It sounds like a lot of Italians can speak English fairly well. That amazes (and as an American, embarrasses) me. I tried a set of Italian tapes and had no luck at all. Buon giorno is about it for me.

Kaka: no, we have no set times for anything except for the days we'll be on the hiking tour.

Alena: we'll be very careful. Yes, I'd love some tips for the Cinque Terre. I've been trying to get a response from the Hotel Pasquale, but no luck and the Steno is booked. I've gotten responses from the Gianni Franzi (in Vernazza) and the A Ca du Gigante, which our friends found on line. They may have booked there, but that one doesn't have a sea view, which is something I was hoping for. But maybe after hiking the CT, I'll be too beat for any views!

Thanks again everyone, and any more comments are very much appreciated.
olijoc is offline  

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