What is the best way to travel throughout Italy?
June 9, 2008 6:20 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to travel throughout Italy? So far we're looking at Venice, Florence, Pisa, Milan, etc. People have been recommending the Italy Rail Passes from here. Is it better to get one of these? Or would it be better to get a ticket at the train station for city to city? Or are there other options that I should know of?

The biggest issue we have with these Rail Passes is that we have to get them while we're in the States, because each "day" comes out to 62 dollars in cost, but on some days, like the days where we might be traveling between Venice and Milan, or a trip that is shorter than Rome to Milan, it might not be worth it. Also, I'm not even sure how the Rail system works in Italy, it seems like Trenitalia is the big line, but then there are a lot of online vendors that sell the same "EuroRail" pass at similar costs.

Also, if you guys have any random general tips regarding Rome/Italy, feel free to post them. They'd be much appreciated. Thanks!
posted by petah to Travel & Transportation around Italy (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, I did search past questions, but they seemed to be focused more on traveling in/out of Italy into/from other countries via train, which I won't be doing.
posted by petah at 6:24 PM on June 9, 2008

I say, get a station to station rail pass. They're super-cheap. The train station in venice is very convenient and only for a few dollars got us to Florance and onward. Just be flexible and wait on the tickets until you're there.
posted by arnicae at 7:01 PM on June 9, 2008

Rick Steves' on Italy trains
posted by smackfu at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2008

I agree with arnicae's advice. Last year I traveled from Naples to Rome to Florence to Venice and to all kinds of small towns in between, and buying the station to station tickets were significantly cheaper than the rail passes would have been. Good luck on your trip!
posted by taraza at 7:25 PM on June 9, 2008

We went to an American Express travel agent in Venice (they're all over the place), and got phenomenal service and good prices, but we had to pay with an AmEx. It was much easier than trying to negotiate the mystifying train station alternatives.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:26 PM on June 9, 2008

Trains (not counting metros/commuter rail-type things) in Italy are all run by Trenitalia - it's a national monopoly, like Amtrak in the US or VIA in Canada. Trains between big cities, especially north of Rome, are fast, comfortable and reasonably priced. Most fast/fast-ish intercity trains have cafe cars, so an early train doesn't mean a lack of espresso.

You can use the Trenitalia website to look up prices and fares for the days you're most likely to travel on. I looked up a ticket in second class on the fastest-possible train (2h35m) for a trip from Venice to Milan on 1 August, and one adult with the "standard" fare came out to about 25 euro, which is around 37 dollars. A shorter trip, from Florence to Siena (which you must visit!) is much less, at 10 euros - 15 dollars.

Some more resources:

1) Check out the Seat 61 page for Italy. (Seat 61 is pretty much the best objective/non-profit site on passenger trains...ever.) Here's the site's guide on using the Trenitalia website.

2) The Trenitalia website is available in English. You can book tickets online for most trains (though not all, especially not between really small places) and pick them up in special ATM-like machines in pretty much every major station in the country (here's the list of stations with these machines). I have used this system before - in 2002 - and it worked really well.

3) There's also a service which will send you a text message with your confirmation, so if you've got an Italian SIM card (which, if you've got an unlocked GSM mobile phone, is something you can just pick up at a corner store or convenience store when you arrive), you can provide your (new, Italian) phone number to Trenitalia when booking on the website and they'll send you a message to show the conductor instead of a ticket. Here's a pretty exhaustive description of the service, which might help justify getting an Italian SIM card while you're there.

Were I in your position...I'd skip the pass and go for the e-mail/printed-at-the-station confirmation pathway as it's probably the least likely to involve queues in train stations and lets you pick up your tickets for the next trip, if booked in advance, on your arrival, so no need to rush to the station to sort out details on the day of travel. it's probably also a good idea to know if there are any public holidays coming up during your trip, so you book tickets for those days in advance, as more people will be travelling then.

As I am not actually in Italy and haven't been for a few years, though, caveat lector.
posted by mdonley at 8:33 PM on June 9, 2008

I always buy e-tickets on the Trenitalia website -- register on the site, select day, hour and train, choose your seats (it is required on eurostar - ES* - trains, I think, regulations change frequently) pay with your credit card and get a code (emailed) to show to the ticket clerk on the train, he'll issue you the ticket (ditto on the ticket machines at the stations, too, but this way you don't even need to have a ticket before boarding the train: just the code).

If you're leaving from cities on fridays or during the summer in general, you really might want to buy tickets online anyway to avoid long lines.

I see there's also a 5% discount on ES* trains when buying online. The site itself is a bit involved, but in the end I think you'll end up saving more than a little. Rome to Milan - which I understand is the longest leg of your trip - is €56,10; I wouldn't bother traveling 1st class.

Apart from a few smaller local companies, Trenitalia is the only national train company.
posted by _dario at 8:38 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I also think you should just get station-to-station tickets. I priced out a rail pass for my last two trips to Italy, and it would have cost more than purchasing individual tickets. The Trenitalia website is the best bet, and then the electronic ticket kiosks in all the major stations would be another way to do it. Unless you are traveling in the off-season, though, you should probably get your tickets online in advance.

General Italy advice: When are you going? During peak travel season everything is crowded and you should heed Rick Steves' advice (site mentioned above) about booking museum and other reservations in advance. Florence is wonderful and you should take some time to just walk around leisurely and take it in; also explore the Oltrarno, which is the general area south of the Arno and not near most tourist attractions (except for Pitti Palace and a handful of churches), but has great local flavor. Pisa and Venice are... full of tourists no matter the season, so I hope you don't mind crowds. If you can, take a side trip to Siena from either Pisa or Florence and if you can take a trip to Orvieto (between Rome and Florence off the A1; there is a train station there as well) do so - it's a gorgeous medieval hill town with an amazing Duomo (cathedral) and Etruscan ruins. Oh, and if you go there, go to Civita di Bagnoregio nearby - there are buses (check Rick Steves' Italy book for this - he has recommendations). It is another hill town that is only accessible by footbridge and is completely freaking awesome.

Feel free to MefiMail me for more info; I would not like to bore all these nice people with the minutiae of my Italian travel. However, I did just get back from a 3-week trip there and have many, many, possibly boring but maybe useful anecdotes for you, if you wish to hear them.
posted by bedhead at 11:11 PM on June 9, 2008

Seconding what bedhead said about prebooking museums - even in winter major attractions like the Galleria D'Uffizi in Firenze have 4 hour queues (I missed out, sigh).

From Firenze be sure to travel to Toscana, especially Siena. There's a local train that takes this route.

Train travel in Italy is easy but there can be delays, announcements will only be made in Italian so don't be shy to ask others what's happening.

And don't buy from non-uniformed people selling food on the train - staff turn a blind eye to hawkers and beggars and unofficial types.

Have a great trip!
posted by wingless_angel at 12:29 AM on June 10, 2008

I realise that your question is aimed at Rail transport and the answers have been aimed at giving great advice on that mode, but I would at least suggest renting a car. Our family did that and while it brings a whole set of other issues (parking, navigating, cost, etc), the freedom it brings and the chance for serendipitous encounters and experiences are unmatched. You may like to try it for at least a day or two.

And I do echo the point about pre-booking for the Uffizi - it will save you hours.
posted by vac2003 at 2:30 AM on June 10, 2008

mdonley and _dario nailed it. I'll add that you'll want to check if there's any strikes on during your holiday.

You don't say when your trip is, but I'm going to counter vac2003's advice about renting a car. My advice from this thread still applies: add in higher Autostrada tolls & pricier gas since then.

Milan, Florence & Rome all have the ZTL areas noted in that thread - cross a boundary unawares and you might find a fine in the mail 6 months later.
posted by romakimmy at 3:54 AM on June 10, 2008

re. renting a car, just to add a data point in favor of travelling by train: gas (or diesel, for that matter) is now more or less 1,50 eur/litre, which translates to 8,77 $/gal.
posted by _dario at 6:50 AM on June 10, 2008

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