Through happy accidents and almost completely unintentionally, I’ve visited six Italian regions and roughly 11 cities/towns throughout Italy in the last two years. That seems so crazy to me, especially because it wasn’t planned! And it means that, again, unintentionally I’ve experienced more than my fair share of Italy train travel.
Travelling in Italy by train is one of the cheapest, easiest, most scenic and often fastest ways of getting from A to B. It usually makes more sense than flights and definitely makes more sense than driving. One day I hope to embark on a bigger Italian train trip because it’s just so easy and enjoyable. And although I’m not an expert, I think I do have a few good tips and hacks that will help beginners navigate the Italian rail system if they’re travelling to Italy and in Italy for the first time.
So here are my top Italy train travel tips! Leave me a comment if you have a more specific question and I’ll try to help if I can. I’m from the UK and have only really travelled by train somewhat extensively here and in Italy, so I can’t offer any other comparisons.
Italy Train Travel Tips
1. There are two main types of Italian trains: Regional and Intercity
Because Italy is such a big country, there are two main types of Italy train travel. One is regional trains and the other is intercity trains. Regional trains generally stay within a region (like Liguria, Lombardy, etc. although my train from Verona to Trento, two closeby cities in different regions, was a regional service) and often stop at lots of tiny towns every few minutes. And intercity trains are usually long-distance and high speed. They travel from, say, Rome to Florence and maybe hit one or two bigger cities along the way.
There are other companies that operate trains in Italy e.g. Eurostar but these are the main two ‘types’, and they’re run by Italy’s main rail operator, Trenitalia which is a company owned by the Government. Trains in Italy won’t necessarily be ‘labelled’ regional or intercity trains, it’s just something to be aware of in understanding how Italy train travel works.
When booking a ticket, it’s worth noting the duration of your train journey. For example, if you’re travelling from Venice to Verona, then you’re technically staying in the same region (Veneto) but are travelling between two big cities. So, it’s likely you’ll have the option of travelling on a much slower, cheaper regional train or a faster, more expensive intercity train for the same journey. On our journey between Palermo and Cefalú, we went out on an intercity train and returned on a regional one, so it often doesn’t matter. Just something to look out for!
2. Buy your Intercity train tickets in advance as they do sell out
This is something me and my family learnt when travelling from Genoa to Cinque Terre in Liguria during August last year.
We were looking through train timetables for our day trip the next day, and it seemed like every other train journey had sold out. We learnt that these were intercity trains from Genoa to big cities like Pisa and Florence that stopped at Cinque Terre on the way. And, unlike UK trains, when you booked that train you also booked a seat. And when all the seats are booked, the train is sold out!
Yes, in the UK we just pile on and stand if we can’t get a seat, but that’s not the case with Italy train travel on intercity trains. So, if you need to travel on an intercity train, make sure you book your ticket as early as you can! I booked my ticket from Milan to Verona online weeks before my trip, and I was able to print out my e-ticket at home or show an e-ticket on my phone.
And intercity trains are usually brilliant. They have live feeds of the journey on screens which is SO helpful and you probably have your own plug socket, as I did. The ‘Frecce’ or ‘Freccerosia’ trains are the super high-speed, more luxurious intercity trains with several classes. I have yet to travel on one but I hear they’re awesome.
3. Validate your regional train ticket before boarding
Regional train tickets are generally different. Whereas intercity tickets will have a service, time and date printed, regional tickets may only have a date or a date period. So, you need to validate your ticket before you board so Trenitalia knows you haven’t used your ticket more than once! It also means that you can pile onto a regional train and there are no seat reservations whatsoever. So, you may have to stand but the journeys are generally shorter.
These ticket validation points are easily accessible, usually by the platforms. Align them slightly to the left, push them in slowly and hold them for a second after you hear the ‘stamp’ sound. You feed the end of your ticket in the machine that has a blank space.
And if you think you’re booked on an intercity train but not sure? Validate your ticket anyway, there’s no harm.
4. Use the ticket machines to buy your tickets, they’re super easy
When travelling from Verona to Trento this year, I didn’t book a ticket in advance as I knew I’d be travelling on a regional service, so I just bought one at the station. As an English or non-Italian speaker, I would strongly recommend buying your train tickets using one of the Trenitalia ticket machines rather than a ticket desk.
Firstly, you can choose to purchase your ticket in your own language and take your time through the process. Even though you’re probably booking a regional service at one of these machines, you can book any kind of train. The machine will show you what services you can travel on and also remind you to validate your ticket at the end. Generally, you can pay in cash or card, too.
You can buy Trenitalia tickets in advance here, for both regional and intercity trains. You can often buy in advance and use an e-ticket, or get a code to pick up your ticket from a machine at the station. And you can check the timetables for Italy train travel here.
5. Learn some useful Italian train travel words
I think it will help to be aware of what some train-related words are in Italian so you can understand what you’re doing. Often, signs in Italian train stations will display the English equivalent next to it, but not on the departure boards.
Also, make sure you’re reading the departure board and not the arrivals board! Arrivals boards are quite common in larger Italian train stations. I’ve made that mistake a couple of times.
Treno – Train
Biglietto – Ticket
Binario – Platform
Carrozza – Train car/coach
Posto – Seat
Corridoio – Corridor (meaning an aisle seat)
Finestra – Window (meaning a window seat)
Partenze – Departures
Arrivi – Arrivals
6. Italy train travel delays are likely, so plan to be late
I don’t think I’ve ever arrived at my destination in Italy on time. Even if the train has departed at the scheduled time, I’ve always arrived late. This is a very anecdotal observation and I’m definitely not complaining as UK train travel is way worst than Italy train travel. But if you’re from Germany or even Switzerland, you may be used to trains running like clockwork.
If you’re catching a connecting train, just give yourself at least 30 minutes buffer time.
7. Make sure you keep your train ticket handy
There are conductors who will check your ticket during your train journey. So make sure you have your train ticket to hand when they check!
8. Take notice of the numbered code when purchasing your ticket
This is slightly difficult to explain. Each train journey you book will have it’s own numbered code. There’s no set amount of numbers the train code will have, some have two and others have five, most are in between. If you’ve booked an intercity train, the number will be on your ticket. But it might not be on regional tickets because you’ll have booked a general ticket so they won’t know what train you’re travelling on.
It’s worth paying attention to so you have peace of mind when scanning the departure board at your train station. Each departure board will often display the carrier (Trenitalia, etc.), the numbered code, the final destination or a running list of stops, the time of departure and the platform. So if two trains have the same departure time and you’re not sure what your train’s final destination is, the numbered code will differentiate the two services.
So, on the intercity ticket below from Palermo to Cefalú, the numbered code is ‘730’ next to ‘Treno‘ and my seat information.
9. Keep a few euros and 50c to pay for toilets
One thing that is good about UK train travel is that they’ve banned charges for toilets/bathrooms at train stations. Yay! So you don’t need to spend 30p in exact change to go to the bathroom in any station across the country. But in Italy, there is still a charge. Most major train stations have bathrooms and all have a charge. If I recall correctly, Trento and Verona’s stations had a 50c charge, whereas Milan had a €2 charge.
So don’t spend your pennies, save them for the bathroom in case you don’t have a choice!
10. Many train stations have ‘Centrale’ or ‘Porta Nueva’ in their name
This is a really anecdotal, general rule, but most train stations in Italy are in the heart of their city centre and are thus named ‘centrale’. It might be a really unnecessary thing to list, but here are some notable Italian train station names so you get an idea of what the main stations are called.
- Turin Porta Nueva (Turin)
- Milano Centrale (Milan)
- Verona Porta Nueva (Verona)
- Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia (Venice)
- Firenze Santa Maria Novella SMN (Florence)
- Genova Piazza Principe (Genoa)
- Roma Termini (Rome)
- Palermo Centrale (Palermo)
11. Italy train travel is faster, easier, cheaper and more enjoyable than you expect
If you’re also from the UK, you will be amazed at how cheap Italy train travel is. My journey from Milan to Verona? Under €20 for an intercity train with a plug socket. The train journey was only 1 hour 15 minutes with the most beautiful scenery, including Lake Garda, and a screen where I could watch out for my station. Those screens are the best and it just gave me more peace of mind, as a non-Italian speaker, that I’d boarded the correct train.
And most of the regional services I’ve travelled on have been journeys taking around one hour and have cost €7 or under and are never as crowded as are in the UK.
And you could fly from Milan to Rome… But in just over three hours (and you’d spend longer than that in airports) and for less money you could travel by train. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m kind of in love with the Italian rail network because it’s just so good. It’s much more efficient and cheaper than it is in the UK. And of course, you have the added benefit of travelling between all of these wonderful cities like Florence, Venice and Rome. All the beautiful Italian countryside is best viewed by train rather than by plane!
And those are my top Italy train travel tips! Are you planning on travelling through Italy by rail? Do you have any more questions? Let me know in the comments below!