Tips and tricks for travel by train in Italy and France?
June 30, 2006 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Tips and tricks for travel by train in Italy and France?

I am taking a two-week trip this summer; I start in Rome, then head to Florence, then Tende (in the Alps in southern France, by way of Torino), and finally Nice. All of this by train.

I already have the reservations (where possible) and my 1st class RailPass.

Aside from the commuter rail in Boston, and the Metro here in Washington, DC, I don't have much experience with trains - certainly not as part of a long vacation.

I also don't speak Italian, et j'ai oublié presque toutes mes leçons françaises.

What do I need to know?

I have this memory of the first time I was in France, and I didn't realise the seats on the train into Paris folded up (into the wall), so I stood, sort of bracing myself against the wall, until I figured out why everybody was staring at me. I wish to avoid this sort of thing on this trip!

What about coping with very short windows for train changes? What about luggage??? What quirky things have you figured out that made a trip by train more enjoyable?
posted by CaptApollo to Travel & Transportation around Italy (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a while since my backpacking days, but here's something I figured out that made my life easier, and my brother found this useful too during his trip.

I had to get from Madrid to Paris. According to the people at the Madrid station, this route was booked solid for 4 days. I had a flight to catch out of Paris in 2 days.

But, the Madrid station is only speaking in terms of Spanish train lines. If you can get to the Spain-France border, you can pick up a short-run French train that takes you into Paris. These run hourly.

So, I took regional Spanish trains to the border, switched over to the French train, and I got in Paris days ahead of those who sought a route straight from Madrid.

The lesson being, if a direct route appears to be booked, you may have better luck by catching a series of short-hop trains to your destination. A couple years ago I encountered the same problem when going from Rome to Paris, and went Rome-Geneva-Paris instead of direct.
posted by Brian James at 1:06 PM on June 30, 2006

I don't know about any quirky things, but two summers ago my girlfriend and I made nearly the same trip. Between the both of us we spoke only limited Italian or French, and everything still went smoothly. We were a little concerned about luggage (had 3 months worth of photo equipment/supplies, and clothing), and it was a little stressful to get our stuff on and off board between trains, but if we could do it with ~100lbs each, you should be fine.
posted by still at 1:06 PM on June 30, 2006

Someone else who knows may be able to explain this better, but many train stations in France have little pillar things on the way to the platforms where you need to punch your tickets before getting on the train. If you do not, you will be scolded by the SNCF lady. And if you are me, you will have to explain to the scolded American what his problem was.
posted by dame at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pack your own lunch, but buy beer/wine on board. Keep an eye out for non-smoking cars. Try to commandeer a six person cabin for you and your friends, but if you can't get one to yourself it's probably better to sit in the common car.
posted by Nelson at 1:23 PM on June 30, 2006

Yes -- be mindful of the whole ticket-punching-in-advance thing in Europe. I remember it in France -- not sure if it was an issue in Italy. Also, if you don't smoke, and you're traveling on a popular day (we returned from the beach to Paris on the last weekend in August -- not a good idea!) you may find non-smoking seats unavailable. And a smoking car in Europe is no joke!

That said, I've had pretty much uniformly great experiences on trains in both Italy and France; trains left when they were supposed to, complicated connections were all made -- and it's a great way to see the countryside. It's nothing like East Coast U.S. trains. Enjoy!
posted by BT at 1:25 PM on June 30, 2006

many train stations in France have little pillar things on the way to the platforms where you need to punch your tickets before getting on the train

They have those in Italy as well. And fairly often they don't work and you have to find another one. Apart from that I don't think you'll have too much trouble in Florence and Rome, I only had a little Italian when I was there and I was fine. And the trains are decent, sometimes better than decent.
posted by teleskiving at 1:29 PM on June 30, 2006

Make sure you buy the Thomas Cook European Timetable and keep it handy at all times.
posted by athenian at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2006

Oh, and 'to stamp your ticket in that funny pillar' is composter in French. Not sure what it is in Italian.
posted by athenian at 2:33 PM on June 30, 2006

If you're taking a bicycle, make sure you get a train that's explicitly marked as having a separate cycle carriage, otherwise you'll get very unhappy conductors who may not let you on the train.
posted by beerbajay at 2:38 PM on June 30, 2006

When you do get the Thomas Cook Schedule, it's helpful to know that the "espresso" trains in Italy are the opposite - they are really a milk run that stops everywhere.
posted by dbmcd at 3:47 PM on June 30, 2006

What everyone else said, plus a couple things I noticed last year on my 4th major Eurail trip:

First, be very careful in the train stations in the big cities. Two hours waiting for the police station in Rome Termini to open after your backpack is stolen will not be remembered as the best part of your trip.

Second, watch out for train strikes. My friends and I were almost stranded in Slovenia when Trenitalia decided to go on strike the day we HAD to get back into Italy. We basically did what Brian James did: got to a town on the border, made our way to the Italian train station, and found a train that could get us to our destination around the strike. My wife and sister-in-law have had a similar experience in Spain. Luckily, the strikes are generally announced ahead of time, so you should be able to make alternate arrangements if you notice one posted.

Third, make sure you get your railpass stamped at the station before you try to use it. In my experience from several trips with Eurail passes, conductors love to scrutinize your railpass when they come through checking tickets. Also, if your pass will allow it, try to get it stamped a day or so before you actually need to use it. That way if you have an early train you don't need to stress if the ticket windows aren't open yet, etc.

Finally, you should generally be okay without Italian as you're going to be in big, heavily-touristed cities, but if you do end up in some small-town station somewhere (like, say, on the Slovenian border), be prepared for ticket agents who speak NO English. Maybe try to find some Italian podcasts or CDs before you go? Even just getting the basics will probably get you enough to communicate in an emergency.

Like others have said, train travel in Europe is definitely the way to go. Have fun!
posted by sbrollins at 3:57 PM on June 30, 2006

Thanks for all the helpful advice! Can you tell me a bit more about the luggage system? Do I have to haul everything with me? My Eurail packet alludes to 'checked' luggage, but it's never really discussed. Did I mention I know nothing about traveling by Train? Thanks again!
posted by CaptApollo at 4:19 PM on June 30, 2006

This is kind of obvious, but if you're about to miss a train and your seats are in one of the last cars and you might no make it in time, hop on an earlier car...then you can walk to your seats after the train starts moving (although it can be pretty tight if you're carrying a lot of luggage).
posted by johnsmith415 at 4:41 PM on June 30, 2006

In my experience, some trains will check your luggage, some will not, and I found it difficult to find out what the rule would be from train ride to train ride.

This may sound really duh, but make sure you can lift your luggage. Easily. Without requiring much leverage. It can be very awkward getting into the train, especially when crowded. This is also great motivation to pack lightly and bring the smallest possible bag, as the corral at the front of the car for suitcases gets full pretty quickly.
posted by desuetude at 4:56 PM on June 30, 2006

most trains have a luggage compartment at the start of the carriage, so you leave your bags there then go find a seat. usual warning about being careful and not assuming they'll be fine.

other trains (usually in cities) just have luggage racks above your head. these racks are always just a little smaller than your bag, so you'll end up carrying it between your legs and annoying all the commuters.

don't fall asleep in a train in Italy with your legs on the seat across from you. it doesn't matter that they were only on the plastic part, it doesn't matter that your feet weren't dirty, you will be fined for it. and it will really hurt your budget and for four days you will eat nothing but pre-made pizza bases that you bought cheaply from a supermarket because they went out of date a week ago.

but yeah. it's great fun. have a blast!
posted by twirlypen at 6:21 PM on June 30, 2006

It's been a while since I travelled with a EuroPass, but a few things in general about Italy trains:
  • the 'little pillar things' are orange/yellow boxes on pillars (usually) at the beginning of the platform.
  • To validate: convalidare
  • If the validation boxes don't work (or you were running for the train and didn't validate), use a pen to write the full date and time on your ticket
  • better option than above: the minute the train starts to move, find the conductor and explain/gesture that you forgot to validate in your rush for the train. I have yet to meet a conductor who won't validate it for you.
  • sometimes your destination is not the last stop on the line, which makes things a bit confusing when trying to hunt down your platform on the departures board. Look for the exact time printed on your ticket and the type of train (EuroStar, InterCity, Regional, Diretto)
  • Train strikes (sciopero - pl. scioperi) generally only last 24 hours here (as compared to weeks when I was trying to rail through France) and except for extreme cases there's usually a (very) minimal amount of service for the larger cities. Check the Trenitalia news section for strike info.
  • If you are on an overnight IC train, but not in a couchette, the seats (6 to a compartment, three facing three) actually slide out horizontially so you can sleep (but I always travel 2nd class, so they might be a bit fancier in 1st)
  • I have yet to meet a train with checked luggage (again, could be the fact I always travel 2nd class). There are sometimes sections on either end of the wagon to put your luggage, or there are overhead racks, depending on the type of train (former usually on EuroStar, latter usually on Intercity & below)
Ticket/s: bigletto, bigletti
One way: solo andata
Return: andata/ ritorno (A/R)
Platform: binario
Departure: partenza
Arrival: arrivio
Date: data
Time: orario
Price: tariffa
adult/ children: adulto/bambini
Reservations prenotazione
Wagon: carrozza
Seat/s: posto, posti
Station: stazione
Out of Order: fuori servizio, guasto, non funziona
Late: (in) ritardo
posted by romakimmy at 5:11 AM on July 1, 2006

If you have reservations for trains where it's possible to reserve, once you get to the platform, look for a diagram of where your cars will be. I don't know about Italy, since I've never taken a train there, but in France, there will be a series of letters (usually A-E, but sometimes others) along the platform. In the middle, there will be a chart labeled "composition des trains" that indicates where each car will arrive, more or less, in relation to the letters on the platform. So if your reservation is for car (voiture) 12, look for no. 12 on the composition des trains.

On French TGV high-speed trains, reservation is mandatory and you should sit in your assigned seat. The larger TGVs consist of two trains coupled together, with no way outside of the stations to go between them. So make sure you get on at the right car. Don't worry too much about it, though; it's pretty easy to figure out.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:28 PM on July 1, 2006

I went all over Europe with my railpass a few months ago, and all I can say is take the smallest luggage you can possibly fit all of your shit into. The trains are small, especially if you have to take a night train, and they are often quite packed so there is not alot of room for your luggage. I almost got left by my train because I could not find a car that would store my huge bag.

Just make sure you always have your pass with you so they can check it, if you don't have it they will make you pay ridiculous fees on the train.

I also think it is helpful to make reservations whenever possible. You are required reservations on some trains(all night trains), and this you can find on the time table book. It is totally worth the small charge for the reservations when you are not sure if the train will be busy or not, because it is a pain in the ass to be looking for a seat all day.

It is alot more intimidating than it actually is. Have an awesome time, I'll be there in mid-August!
posted by meeshelle39 at 3:18 PM on July 5, 2006

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