Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a car. Or perhaps you do, but travelled here by plan and wanted to avoid the cost of renting another. Either way, at some point you may find yourself relying on the Italian trainline.
Taking public transport here was one of my biggest fears – with little or no knowledge of the language and country, it can be easy to slip up, and there’s always the worry of ending up in some unknown place, or having the wrong ticket. But I assure that once you get the hang of it, the Italian train system isn’t all that bad: the trains, at least, are by far more comfortable than ones in the UK, with second class sometimes resembling our first.
So to overcome your fear, and avoid a disastrous journey, here are my top tips for train travel in Italy:
- Validate your ticket. I’m putting this first in the hope that you will remember it best, because it’s probably the most important, and certainly the area where most tourists trip up. If you don’t have a seat reservation or specific time on your ticket, you MUST validate it, or you could end up paying a €50 fine. The validation machines are quite small, often found on or just before you reach the platform, and are usually either a small yellow box or a green and white oval shaped machine. The reason for validating tickets is because you could otherwise use the same one repeatedly. If you do have a seat reservation or stated time, you are usually exempt, however make sure to double check (there tends to be some information in English on the reverse of your ticket).
- If it’s a short journey, choose regionale over the Frecciabianca, Frecciarossa, or Frecciagento trains. Like the UK’s Virgin Rail, Freccia trains are faster (travelling around 250km an hour) and more comfortable (some even equipped with TVs showing your gps, journey progression and the weather and news stories of your destinations). However, they are also at least double the cost. To give you an example, it’s €4.60 for me to travel to Verona via the Regionale train, yet it’s €12 to go by Freccia. Unfortunately, Regionales are as they say in the name: they travel only within the region. If you’re journey is a little farther, you cannot avoid taking a Freccia – and that’s where my next point comes in.
- If it’s a long journey (1.5 hours or more), book your tickets in advance. You can do this either at the station you’ll be leaving from, or online at trenitialia.it. Though there may be tickets available on the day, they could be almost double in price, as the cheaper tickets (economy and basic) will have sold out.
- If you’re Italian is bad, use the ticket machines. Let’s face it, you were probably going to do that anyway, because this is the 21st century where we love to avoid face-to-face contact with strangers. Using the machines here has the added bonus that you can actually understanding what you’re doing, because it gives you the option of selecting a language at the beginning. Look out for the ones with pictures of coins and notes – the others only take card. I would also recommend taking the machine even if you speak a little Italian, as in some places the ticket office staff can be a bit peevy if they recognize you’re foreign. Don’t worry, you have the restaurants and gelaterias to test out what you’ve learnt from your pocket dictionary.
- Listen to the announcements. Okay, I understand this is pointless when they’re in italian, as if you’re a tourist you probably won’t know enough of the language to translate it. BUT if you’re at a major station, or one in the vicinity of tourist spots, the announcement is often repeated in English. It can give you all sorts of useful information: for example, what order the carriages are coming in, so you know where to wait on the platform and don’t end up getting on the other end of the train only to make your way back through countless carriages (it’s awkward, embarrassing and frankly tiring).
- Expect the worst time-wise. I haven’t actually found Italian trains to be all that awful for delays – certainly not much more than those in Britain. Yet that said, you should be prepared for them. I also tend to arrive at the platform at least five minutes prior, as they often close the doors a minute or so before departure time.
And that’s your lot. It might seem terrifying getting a train in a foreign country, but once you get over the whole not knowing the language of the place thing you can sit back and enjoy the super comfortableness of Italy’s trains! Also, there is a slight thrill of not being certain what will happen, and a final feeling of accomplishment (and relief) when you arrive safely at your destination, that just doesn’t happen if you travel by car.