Most of the time when we travel around Italy we take the train. Flying from Australia, we don’t usually have the option to fly into the city of our choosing, we have to fly into either Milan, Rome or Venice, and while those cities are great places, we usually want to go somewhere else too. The train is faster and safer than driving, particularly after a 22 hour flight when we’re likely to be exhausted. That’s not to say that we don’t rent cars — we often do — its just that we don’t often use a car to get us across the country.
When we started travelling around Italy, we’d typically turn up at the station (as you would in Australia) and book our ticket on one of those self-serve machines, usually one way, and we’d simply take the next arriving train, assuming that the price and speed would roughly be the same on each train. Not so!
In Italy, buying a train ticket is a bit like buying a flight. The price you pay for your ticket reflects the speed and the quality of the train, and how far in advance you buy the ticket. That is, the cheapest way to get from point A to point B is to book ahead, on the slowest, least comfortable train. But, as a tourist, sometimes the cheapest price is not the best.
We once turned up at the station and bought tickets from Venice to Milan, but then we noticed that there was a train departing for Milan earlier than our ticket showed, so we jumped on, not realising that that next train was a regional train. It had no air conditioning, hard seats, and stopped at just about every single stop along the way. The whole trip took us something close to 5 hours (instead of 2 hours and 45 minutes) and in the time that we were on that train we were passed by not only the train that we should have been on but at least 4 other high speed trains that departed after us and arrived in Milan before us. What made it worse was that we had actually paid for tickets on the high speed train, but used them on the regional train. Had we actually bought a ticket for the regional train that we actually travelled on train we probably would have saved €20 or so per person. But we’d purchased a fast train ticket and wasted a whole day sitting in a hot, uncomfortable train that smelled of… well, you can imagine. It was bone-crunchingly awful. We should have waited half an hour and gotten on the train we’d purchased the ticket for, that we’d selected on the machine.
What you’ll find is that if you’re prepared to travel on a regional train (or even part of the journey on a regional train) the price will be lower when compared to the high-speed Freccia (Arrow) trains. But you have to take care to look.
For example, looking at the trenitalia.com website today, there are currently two prices to travel by train from Rome to Treviso on the 1st of May: €42.30 and €52.30. The cheaper fare takes 4 hours and 44 minutes, the more expensive fare takes 4 hours and 2 minutes. That is, paying €10 more means saving 42 minutes of travelling time.
But: that’s the price I would pay if I booked the ticket today. If I book the ticket on the day, the price is likely to be much higher. Did you know that? I did not! For example, if you selected that same €52.30 trip on the day it could be as much as €80 (in second class, and if second class is sold out, it could cost you €109) if all the cheaper inflexible tickets are sold out. And, in fact, when I select the 10.35am train which costs €52.30 it shows me that there was an even cheaper fare which has already sold out. So… in addition to choosing the slower train we’ve learnt that the cost of the ticket is cheapest the further ahead you book. But beware: the cheapest fares are non-refundable, and not transferrable. This can be very expensive if you miss that train.
There are usually 3 options in each class on each inter-city train; the Super Economy (which is unchangeable) the Economy (which can be transferred) and the Base fare (which can be transferred and refunded). Obviously First Class costs more than Second, but it is possible — if you book ahead and are prepared to waive the right to change your ticket — to travel First Class for less than the cost of Second Class. Yes, its complicated!
So, I’ve learnt to book ahead; I almost always choose the fastest train, but not necessarily the cheapest ticket on that train. The other thing to remember is that Trenitalia only allows you to buy your train ticket 3 months in advance, and you must have the printed ticket with you on the train for the inspector to see. You can also choose your seats. My recommendation is to look at the train plan and choose seats close to the luggage rack ~ although this isn’t always possible as its position isn’t always clear.
Another mistake I made several years ago was to buy the ticket (at the station) and have the machine auto-select our seats. What a mistake. The train was full when we got on, and we were travelling with our son plus three large pieces of luggage… we discovered very quickly that our seats 17A, 17B and 17 C were on three different carriages. Fortunately a lovely young Italian man was happy to swap his seat up for mine so I could be with my young son, but we had no real idea of where my husband was sitting. This is another good reason to buy your ticket in advance, and select the seat yourself. Check that your seats are on the same carriage, as seat numbers will repeat for each carriage. (Tip: Carrozza = carriage)
One more thing. Apparently buying a train ticket using the TrenItalia website triggers a fraud warning at some of our Australian banks. Well, it does at my bank. Within seconds of booking a train ticket I usually get a text message from my bank advising me that they’re freezing all my accounts until I call and confirm that its me buying the ticket!
Having finally learnt from all my mistakes, I now find train travel in Italy to be a very comfortable, very fast and safe way to travel across the country.
If you want to read more about taking the train around Italy I can recommend Tim Parks lovely book called Italian Ways. He describes his various train trips to and from work, and around the country, and the crazy logic of the ticket buying system. Its a lovely read to get you excited before a trip.
I must say I’m no expert on trains in Italy, if anyone has any more tips please leave a comment ~ I’d be very grateful!