This guide is all about how to navigate Italy by train. I’ve answered every FAQ I could think of about Italian train travel, and explained the differences between your options for buying train tickets: TrenItalia, ItaliaRail and Italo.
Now that I’m living in the land of highways and huge distances (the US), I really miss Italian train travel. Sure, the system isn’t perfect. And I remember complaining about the delays when I lived in Milan.
But still, the fact that you can easily travel Italy without a car (and without flying, except occasionally) is wonderful. Almost the entire country is connected by affordable, accessible, and sustainable transportation, and that deserves some respect.
Where to Buy Tickets: TrenItalia vs. Italo vs. ItaliaRail
Why they had to make all these names sound the same, I do not know. But here’s the deal:
Only two companies actually operate passenger trains in Italy: TrenItalia and Italo. Be careful because they are not just different ways to buy a ticket – they will put you on two totally different trains. ItaliaRail, on the other hand, is just a different way to buy TrenItalia tickets. It’s for tourists, but there are some benefits to the service, as I’ll explain in detail below – like customer service in English, and a simpler interface with the best deals more clearly marked.
Yes, you could wait to buy your train tickets at the station in Italy. But buying them ahead of time will save you money, and help you avoid the possibility of waiting around in case tickets are sold out. And having your tickets already saved on your phone just simplifies the train station experience.
TrenItalia is Italy’s original, state-owned train service. Anywhere you can go on a train in Italy, which includes most of the country, you can go on TrenItalia. (They certainly cover more terrain than Italo.)
There are many different types of trains, described below, with slower and far uglier trains covering smaller towns.
The TrenItalia website only recognizes city names in Italian, even if you set the site’s language to English. So it won’t work if you type Florence instead of Firenze, Rome instead of Roma, Naples instead of Napoli etc. (This is one reason ItaliaRail is easier for travelers. It recognizes both languages.)
Types of TrenItalia Trains:
The main difference between the train types is between “Le Freccie” (“lay FRECH-chay,” the Arrows) and everything else. The fastest trains are called Freccia Rossa (red arrow). After that are Freccia Argento and Freccia Bianca (silver and white arrows, with very little difference between them).
Then comes InterCity and finally Regional trains. Usually the Regionali are the slowest ones, but they’re the only option for many small towns. A Regionale Veloce (fast regional train) will make fewer stops than a normal Regionale. Otherwise, sometimes the regionals are labeled Diretto or Espresso, but in my experience that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be either direct or express. TreNord is the name of the regional trains in Lombardia, the region that Milan is in.
There are more details about the differences between the trains here, but the point is this: It depends where you’re going. Try to get a Freccia Rossa if you can, but you won’t have much choice if you’re going to a small town or remote destination. Just make sure you don’t accidentally book something like a Regional train from Milan to Rome, as you’ll end up spending 8 or 9 hours on multiple uncomfortable trains instead of 3 or 4 hours on one comfortable one.
Ticket Classes on TrenItalia (Types of Seating):
Premium class on TrenItalia’s fast trains doesn’t get you that much more than Standard (mostly just a free espresso or glass of prosecco and a snack) but Business Class is significantly nicer with big comfy seats and lots of room to spread out (and you get the prosecco).
Both Standard and Business often have an Area Silenzio (Silent Area) option. Great for sleeping, but don’t even think about taking a phone call or whispering to a neighbor in these. After that, there are a few fancy “Executive” type options, but really I can’t see the point of going above Business.
Only the Freccia Rossa trains have all of these categories. The slower trains offer just two types of seats: Normal “2nd Class” or “1st Class.” I’ve never bothered with 1st and don’t see the point of it, especially since you’re usually not on these trains for very long. Plus, after walking through 1st Class on regional trains, it seems nearly identical to 2nd Class.
Italo is the first private passenger train service in Europe, and is owned by an American conglomerate. (So… not exactly a local business.) Italo only runs fast trains, but they mostly just connect the big cities – Milan, Torino, Venezia, Firenze, Bologna, Roma and Napoli.
(They also serve a few smaller towns in Northeastern Italy: Verona, Brescia, Reggio Emilia, Salerno, Padua, Ferrara, Rovigo, Bolzano, Desenzano, Rovereto, Trento, Vicenza, Peschiera del Garda, Bergamo, Conegliano, Pordenone, Treviso, Udine.)
If you’re going to any smaller destination outside the Northeast, Italo is not an option. (They also have some bus routes in the South, but there’s no reason to take the bus when you could take a far more comfortable train!)
Don’t mix and match! Just like with airlines, if part of your trip is with Italo and part is with TrenItalia, you’ll have problems if a late train makes you miss your connecting train with the other company. So if you’re starting or ending anywhere but a major city, I don’t recommend booking any part of your trip on Italo.
Ticket Classes on Italo (Types of Seating):
The basic Smart seats on Italo are pretty cramped. That’s why I usually avoid Italo unless I’m taking a very short trip or willing to pay for an upgrade to Comfort or Prima (which both have the same wider seats, but Prima gives you a snack).
Then there’s Club Executive, which I’ve never sprung for. It gives you TV at your seat, but wouldn’t you rather daydream and gaze out the window at the passing countryside?
Which One is Best?
There isn’t a huge difference in the overall travel experience between Italo and TrenItalia, although I think TrenItalia’s cheapest seats (“Standard”) are more spacious and comfortable than Italo’s (where the cheap seats are called “Smart”).
Which One is Cheapest?
Italo sometimes costs less than TrenItalia, but not always. If you’re traveling between major cities and looking for the cheapest possible route (especially for a short trip), it’s worth it to check Italo – and to check their homepage for “promo codes” that sometimes offer holiday discounts.
But if you’re really traveling on a budget, you should check all three (ItaliaRail, TrenItalia and Italo). You never know which will have the best deal for a certain day, time, or route. It also pays to be flexible about your travel time as prices can vary a lot throughout the day.
Even though ItaliaRail isn’t used by locals (it’s all in English, after all) their prices are basically identical to TrenItalia’s, and occasionally lower.
ItaliaRail only sells TrenItalia tickets (not Italo), but they will put you on the same train you’d be on if you bought your tickets directly from TrenItalia.
You can also use ItaliaRail to buy international tickets from Italy to other countries.
While anything being aimed at tourists usually makes me run the other direction, there are actually some benefits to ItaliaRail.
The main benefit is that if you’re traveling and don’t speak Italian, ItaliaRail is just simpler:
When booking on either TrenItalia or Italo, you’re presented with a matrix of different “classes” (which are not well explained on their websites) and multiple price categories for each class (many of which you won’t qualify for, such as special discounts for seniors, youth, big groups or loyalty card holders).
ItaliaRail only shows you the lowest available price for each class (and it tells you which price category it’s in, and what that category means for making changes or cancelling your ticket). Plus it has descriptions with photos of what you get in each class.
Don’t ignore the fancier class options! In this example, Business actually costs less than Premium on ItaliaRail. (And as I said above, Premium doesn’t get you so much, but Business is quite nice.)
Pros & Cons of ItaliaRail
These are the features of ItaliaRail, with pros and cons and whether they’re actually worth anything:
- Customer service: It’s entirely in English. So if you don’t want to deal with normal Italian customer service (AKA: impatient employees who speak very bad English) in case your train is significantly delayed, or if you want to change your reservation, then ItaliaRail will be worth your money. (Trust me. I’ve interacted with a lot of Italian train station workers. The customer is never right, and patience is in short supply even when you speak Italian or are Italian. This is guaranteed to be simpler.)
- Free Upgrades: Certain departures on ItaliaRail have a little flag saying “free upgrade!” to Premium or Business Class. The same discount and upgrade are often available from TrenItalia – but it’s not nearly as easy to find. (TrenItalia just lists the lowest price available for each departure, without flagging whether that price includes a seat upgrade. So you think you’re comparing apples to apples, but you’re not. You have to click on each train to see what kind of seat is quoted as the main price, which can get tedious when there are departures every few minutes.)
- Prices in US dollars, Euros, or other currencies. ItaliaRail is the only site that lets you see prices in a currency you understand. The default is USD, but remember to change it to Euro if you’re doing comparison shopping with the other sites!
You have to change the currency from the homepage before selecting any tickets to buy, because changing the currency will clear your cart. It’s in the upper right hand corner on the ItaliaRail website.)
- Lounge at Roma Termini station (not included). For me, this is not a big benefit because it’s only available if you either buy a lounge day pass ($20 for up to 2 adults and 2 kids) or buy an “ItaliaPass.” The ItaliaPass is a tourist discount card for flights, hotels, car rentals, restaurants, and attractions. It costs $49 for ItaliaRail customers or $99 for anyone else. (But I suspect anyone can get the $49 price.) I’ve never used one, so I can’t say much more, but there’s more info here about ItaliaPass and the lounge. (I tend to avoid these discount cards, because it’s hard for me to get the value out of them unless I’m rushing around trying to fit in as many sites as possible. Not my typical M.O.)
But I have been to the lounge and it was perfectly nice with free drinks and snacks, fluent English speakers to answer any questions, and better Wi-Fi than in the rest of the station (the one benefits, in my eyes).
Be warned though – it was almost a kilometer (half a mile) away from the main station area! So it’s not useful if you show up at the front of the station and only have a few minutes before your train. If you do plan to use the lounge, you can enter the station at Via Giolitti 60 and you’ll be right next to it.
- Better for group travel. You can get discounts via this page on group bookings for 10 or more people when you let an ItaliaRail employee organize your tickets for you. If you want to do it all yourself, just using the ItaliaRail website, you can buy tickets for up to 20 people at a time, versus only 7 on TrenItalia. (On Italo you can book for 29 people at a time, but with limited destinations, of course.)
You can type right here to try a search for tickets on ItaliaRail:
What You Pay for The Convenience:
I’ve done a lot of comparison shopping, and sometimes ItaliaRail is slightly cheaper than TrenItalia, but it usually costs the same or just slightly more.
You do have to pay a $5 “service fee” when booking with ItaliaRail, so if you can plan ahead it’s best to book all your tickets at once. (It’s $5 per order, no matter how many passengers and how many different routes you book at once.)
Other than that fee, after using ItaliaRail a few times myself, I haven’t found any real “cons.” (And I’ve used all of these sites many times.)
More Train Tips & FAQ
Good To Know: Italian Train Lingo
- The platform (binario) where you’ll find your train often won’t show up on the board in the station until the last minute. (Maybe 30 minutes before departure, but maybe 5 minutes before. Don’t panic, just pay attention and be ready to move when it does appear.)
- So of course, the platform isn’t listed on your ticket, but your train car number (carozza) and seat (posto) are for the fast trains. Slower trains don’t have assigned seating, it will just say your ticket class (classe): 1 or 2.
- There’s no security line to go through, so there’s no reason to get to the station much more than 30 minutes early.
- You’re in Italy, so destination names will be in Italian on the boards and on the train. (Firenze not Florence, Venezia not Venice, etc.)
- You’ll have to show your paper or digital ticket (biglietto) to the ticket inspector at some point during the trip, so don’t bury it in your bag.
Train Hopping & Avoiding Fines
I can tell you from experience: Don’t get on a train without a ticket! In some smaller stations, like at Cinque Terre, there are no barriers before the platform, so you actually can get on without a ticket. That’s where I did it (accidentally) and had to talk my way down from a €150 fine to a €50 fine. (And I am 100% sure that my excuse would not have worked in English.)
Make sure you “validate” your ticket!
At those small stations where you can walk straight onto the platform without showing anyone your ticket, you’ll have to validate that ticket on the platform BEFORE you get on the train.
That’s how my Cinque Terre fiasco happened. I was with family, and in the confusion of making sure to get all of our bodies and suitcases on the train, I totally forgot to stamp our tickets in the machine. You might get away with this sometimes, but the ticket inspectors often do come around to check, especially in such touristic areas, and they are not very forgiving.
Budget Tip: Don’t Book Last Minute!
Usually the earlier you book a train in Italy, the lower the price. Especially if you’re traveling between major cities, do not wait until the day before you want to travel to book your tickets.
Again, I’ve made this mistake. I’ve seen ticket prices double between two days before departure and one day before. (For example, for a Friday train home to Milan from Rome, tickets were 45 euro on Wednesday, but I waited and they jumped to 90 euro on Thursday. Painful.)
Waiting will also give you less selection on popular routes. You might end up having to change trains instead of getting a direct route, take a slower train instead of the fastest Freccia Rossa ones, or have only one or two departure times to choose from instead of a dozen.
The Boring Part: Delays, Fees, Cancellations & Refunds
These are nitty-gritty details. Feel free to skip over this section and come back if you need it!
Train Delays & (Possible) Refunds
Both Italo and TrenItalia are pretty well run, although there can be delays. Not all the time, but don’t be surprised when they happen.
Delays over 30 minutes for a TrenItalia fast train (Freccia Rossa, Argento or Bianca) theoretically entitle you to a partial refund in the form of a credit… but so far I’ve always given up dealing with customer service before getting any of my money back. There’s more info about how to try here.
On Italo, the delay has to be 60 minutes to get anything back. (More info about that here.)
Changing or Cancelling TrenItalia (or ItaliaRail) Tickets:
You cannot cancel Super Economy or Economy tickets, but you can change the date or time for an Economy ticket. Base price tickets can be changed (or refunded for 80% of what you paid) any time until one hour after the train leaves the station.
But I personally never buy Base price tickets. Base price for Standard seating is often more expensive than an Economy or Super Economy train ticket in Premium or Business class. So what’s the point?
If you’re not sure about your date or time, it’s probably better to just wait to book until you can make a decision than to plan on dealing with the hassle of changing a ticket. (Although this may be a situation where ItaliaRail’s customer service would be useful, and certainly better than dealing with TrenItalia’s notoriously bad customer service. No matter where you buy your ticket, remember that if it’s called “Super Economy,” you cannot change it.)
All of these rules apply whether you bought your tickets through TrenItalia or ItaliaRail.
Changing or Cancelling Italo Train Tickets:
Italo is more strict. “Flex” tickets can be changed without fees or mostly refunded. “Economy” tickets can be changed or refunded for a fee. “Low Cost” tickets can be changed for an even bigger fee, but cannot be refunded.
If you’re booking your tickets on the assumption that you might have to change them, book with ItaliaRail and make sure you get an Economy or Base fare (not Super Economy).
Personally, This Is What I Do:
Here’s how I book trains in Italy: I generally prefer TrenItalia to Italo, so I check Italo only if I’m looking to (potentially) save money on a short trip.
Otherwise, I just use TrenItalia, because I get loyalty points (which you have to be local to get), and because it’s often slightly cheaper than ItaliaRail when factoring in the $5 booking fee (and the fact that I’m usually just buying one ticket at a time, not spreading that $5 over several tickets for an entire vacation). And I speak Italian, so I’m not too worried about customer service issues.
But if I were a traveler looking for the simplest, most stress-free option, I would skip the comparison shopping and just use ItaliaRail.
At the end of the day, trains in Italy are fast, affordable and far more eco-friendly than driving or flying.
According to the stats printed on the back of Italian train tickets, taking the train in Italy emits about 75% less CO2 than the same trip in an airplane, and about 65% less than driving, on average.
Plus, I wouldn’t want to deal with renting a car and driving in Italy unless absolutely necessary. Or unless a leisurely road trip through the countryside were the whole point. But if you’re just getting from one city or town to the next, trains are definitely the easiest, cheapest, and most comfortable option. (For an idea of what driving – and back-seat driving – are like in Italy, read #8 in this post.)
If you’ve read this far, you probably know far more than you need to about taking trains in Italy now – but if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below!
Remember, whichever option you choose for train tickets, it isn’t likely to make or break your trip. It’s much more important – and fun! – to plan where you’re going to eat.