t happened again. For the hundredth time.
On a train ride to Livorno a gaggle of Americans jumped on and I overheard some of them say they hadn’t had time to stamp their tickets before boarding. They didn’t seem too worried, I hoped against hope they would get off safe and sound. Sadly, the conductor arrived within 5 minutes and 40-euro-a-head-later, these kids had learned a hard lesson. I felt so bad and was once again surprised at how few people know the ins and outs of train travel in Italy. I have written about it before in our Top Ten Tips for Studying Abroad Part I blog (some of which I will repost below where pertinent), but today I wanted to really get down to the nitty-gritty. Every detail. For those of you who get nervous about traveling, don’t be. Just read below and then enjoy the luxury of train travel in Italy! It doesn’t have to be painful or stressful! It can actually be fun!
Step 1. Identifying Different Train Types
The first thing you have to know about the trains in Italy is that there are several different kinds. The first type I will discuss is the super fast Eurostar (also called the AltaVelocita or FrecciaRossa or FrecciaArgento depending on where it is headed). These sleek looking trains go between major cities Milan-Venice-Padua-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples. This is the quicker, more plush option, that seems to have become much more standard of late. On the Eurostars you buy a ticket for a specific date, time, and even assigned seat. This is the train you HAVE to take (unless you change it before it departs). If you miss your train, you cannot simply take the next one, you will have to buy another ticket.
The second option is the slower Regional Trains that stop at all the cities and towns in between, like Siena or Cinqueterre. These are called either Regional or Intercity trains and look like the vintage trains of your imagination (and smell like them too). These tend to be less fancy and less expensive. The regional trains, however, do no need reservations. While you may purchase a ticket from a teller or an automatic machine for a specific date and time, the ticket that you will receive will not list this information (tip: write it down or take a picture with your phone so you know!). The tickets will only list the departure city and the destination, which basically proves that you have paid the appropriate amount of money. Otherwise, these tickets are open-ended and they are good for up to three months (the exact amount of time is printed at the top of the ticket). The way you “activate” the ticket is by validating it one of the stamping machines in the station (see photo and explanation below). If you ride on a train with an unstamped ticket the fine can be around 40 euro! So make sure you stamp!!
2. Buying Tickets
Now, once you know the train you want to take there are several options for buying tickets:
A. Talking with a Teller. You can always go to a teller and explain your trip details and have them explain the options.
Pros: They understand the system and save you some serious headache, they usually have tight budgets in mind and will do their best to find you the cheapest route possible, and they know details about the stations and whether you will have time to make a transfer if that is necessary.
Cons: They often do not speak great English so there may be some miscommunication, they can be a bit gruff, and the lines to see them can be a bit long at big cities like Rome and Florence.
(Tip: In general, keep in mind that army time is still used in Europe so be sure you’re asking for a train at the right time!)
B. Using the Automatic Machines. These machines can be found in any station (with the exception of VERY small ones where everyone uses the teller and there are very rarely lines).
Pros: The first step involves choosing your preferred language so have no fear if you have not picked up enough Italian quite yet, they accept cash or credit card and make purchasing a snap, and they’re open 24/7.
Cons: They can be a little tricky if you do not know the system or the exact ITALIAN name of your train station (aka FIRENZE Santa Maria Novella not Florence), they are usually surrounded by a fair amount of sketchy people and often involve you being begged for money at least once during the process. So do watch your surroundings while at the machine.
(Tip: If your goal is to travel on the cheap, make sure you tell the machine to show “all the solutions,” otherwise you’ll just get a list of all the super fast expensive trains.)
C. Buying Tickets Online. This is my new favorite way to buy train tickets. You need a log in, and while it’s not the most seamless system, it will eventually work and you will be happy you made the effort. Head here to buy tickets online.
Pros: There is no teller, no creepy people, and no line (you can do it over your morning coffee in your slippers), you can see all the options and get a clear sense of the route before you buy, and, best of all, the ticket is emailed to you. No need to print anything (so long as you have a smartphone that can read the attached PDFs). In addition, finding great deals is much easier in this format (see below).
Cons: You will need to print your ticket if you can’t access the PDF attached to the email while in route and there are some slight train change restrictions. Namely, if you buy a regional ticket online, you will be given an exact time and date (as opposed to when you buy from a teller or machine and it is open ended). This time is the earliest train time you can take. After that, you have 4 hours to use the ticket (see image above of a regional ticket purchased online). So, if you’re not sure, just aim earlier than you think you want to leave and have a list of the next 4 train times written down somewhere.
Getting Cheap Discount Tickets in Advance.
If you are able to buy your tickets in advance and know you won’t have to make changes to it, you can save a bundle! The above image is from the online system. After searching for trains that leave after 9:00am, I selected this one and was given the following options. Across the top are the various levels of travel, such as second class (standard), business class (Premium, Business Silent, Business, and Business “little private room”), and first class (Executive). Along the left side are ticket types. These are important. Base is a full price ticket, but it allows you to change and refund the ticket (minus 20%) without a problem at any time before the departure of your selected train. Below this are various levels of savings: economy, super economy and a new ticket type called “a/r in giornata” that allows you to travel anywhere for fixed price if it’s within the same day. If you can, grab those super economy tickets as you will save a ton of money (43 euro vs 19!), but just remember you can’t change them or refund them. This is the price of savings.
Step 2. Time to Take that Train
So you’ve got your ticket, you’re packed, and you’ve arrived to the station.
First, check the departure board.
At every station you will find Arrival and Departure boards all over. Find one for departures (not arrivals!) and look for your train time (the middle column on the above image). It is rare to find two trains with the exact same time, but if you do, check for the train number next (the train numbers are listed second in from the left. The first column lists the type of train: R for regional or AV for AltaVelocita, for example). The train number will be more helpful than the destination listed as your train’s final stop may not be the same as your final stop.
Check your ticket for this information using this helpful guide:
At the right of the train times on the departures board there should be a running scroll of the stops each train will be making. If you’re nervous you can watch to make sure your desired stop rolls by in the scroll on the right hand side under “information.” Finally, the number at the farther right (which as you can see above is sometimes not listed) is the binario, or train track number. This will usually pop up right before the train arrives, but with some of the daily trains the track never changes and so the number will be up as much as 30 minutes before. Pay attention to this section so that you know where your train is leaving from.
If your train is listed, head to your track number. If not, go grab a coffee and wait until it shows up.
Step 3. To Stamp or not to Stamp?
As I described above, the way Italian train tickets used to work before the days of the super fast Eurostar, AltaVelocita and FrecciaRossa (with their reserved times and seats), was that tickets were open-ended. You bought a ticket that was good for months and only stamped it the moment you wanted to use it.
These days, most people travel on the super fast trains. BUT if your ticket does not have a time, date, and seat assignment, then YOU MUST STAMP IT.
Let me repeat that.
YOU MUST STAMP YOUR TICKET.
If you’re not sure, just stamp it anyway. TO DO SO go to one of the above pictured machines and place your ticket inside the slot until you hear the machine print your ticket with the date and time. If it doesn’t work, try putting it as far left as you can. If it still doesn’t work or you cant read the numbers printed (generally in purple ink), find another machine and stamp it again. Note: IF YOU HAVE ANY CONCERNS WHEN YOU BOARD your best option is to find the conductor right away and explain your situation. Had those kids on our Livorno train told the conductor right away that they had had a problem with the machine, or didn’t manage to stamp their ticket in time, they likely would have escaped the fine. Instead, by not telling the conductor, and simply sitting in their seats, it appeared as if you they were trying to ride without actually paying. Find the conductor!
Step 3. Heading to Your Train.
Now that you have your track number and your ticket stamped, if that is required, you can head to the binario (track). You’ll likely see other people doing the same shortly after the track is posted. Most stations now have electronic signs with all the pertinent info listed right as you enter the track (see photo above) so you are sure to find the right train.
Now, if you’re on a Eurostar with an assigned seat this is when you would check out your carrozza number or your coach number (see ticket reading guide above). These days many stations are equipped with signs along the track that tell you roughly where the cars will stop so you can head straight to where you need to be. If they don’t, you can head towards the middle and move once you see which end of the train is heading into the station first. Car 1 is not always at the front.
Step 4. Getting on.
As the train pulls in, it would be a good time to check what row you are sitting in (again, check above guide). Once the train has arrived and you have reached your coach, check the door signs. These have some helpful information that will make boarding a bit easier. Usually, each coach has two entrances so be sure to get on the one that includes your row number (notice 1-17 listed in the image above). Otherwise you will have to fight your way to the opposite end of the train car with many other people trying to find spaces for luggage or just generally lost and confused.
Step 5. Sitting Down and Getting Comfy.
Once you’ve reached your row, check your seat letter. This will tell you whether you are on a window or aisle (see image above). It is a bit of a habit of Italians to sit wherever they like within the vague area of their reservation. If you don’t mind you can do the same. But if you prefer to have your EXACT seat, be prepared, you may have to ask someone to move.
If you have luggage, try and place it above your head. If it’s too large there will be either racks at the ends of the cars, near the bathrooms, or sporadic spaces between the seats where one or two bags can fit. These are first come, first serve so snag them fast.
At this point I always do an obligatory “am I on the right train” check, which has become much easier on the Eurostars with the new tv monitors that list the upcoming stops. When you arrive at a new station, these same monitors will show the connecting trains at that station should you need or want to check your next train and what track it is on before disembarking.
If you’re on the right train (don’t worry you will be!), you can now sit and relax. If you plan to sleep, take out your ticket and leave it on the table for the conductor so they won’t have to wake you up. Note: if you are alone, I would recommend not sleeping or at the very least keeping your belonging very close at hand.