Trains in Italy are generally of good quality, frequent but not always reliable.
The railway market in Italy has recently been opened to competition. On some high-speed lines, you can therefore choose between the “Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori” (private) and “Trenitalia” (state-owned). On all other lines, the state is the only player, with Trenitalia or a regional operator monopolising the local markets.
- Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, +39 060708. NTV’s “.Italo” train was launched on the Italian high-speed network in 2012. Since then, the service has been steadily expanded and currently serves Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Naples and other major cities. Although it does not position itself as a low-cost carrier (it focuses instead on offering a more luxurious service), its prices can be significantly lower than its competitors on certain routes and dates. Consult their website and Trenitalia’s website to choose the cheapest or most convenient option. Italians generally refer to NTV as “Italo”.
- Trenitalia, +39 892021. Trenitalia operates a wide range of train types: High-speed trains (Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, Frecciabianca), Intercity, regional trains (Regionali, Regionali Veloci) and international trains (Eurocity, Euronight).
High-speed trains are efficient and very comfortable. They can travel at speeds of up to 360 km/h and stop only at major stations. They connect Rome with Turin, Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Naples and other cities. They are also by far the most expensive trains. To travel on these trains, you have to pay a supplement to the standard ticket, which includes the reservation fee.
Regional trains are the slowest, cheapest and most unreliable, stopping at all stations.
Intercity trains are somewhere between high-speed and local trains. They are usually reliable, but if you have to catch a flight, for example, it is better to pay extra for high-speed trains.
On the timetables displayed in the individual stations, the individual trains are listed in different colours (blue, red, green). Arrival times are shown in brackets next to the name of the respective destination. Please note that some trains only run seasonally or at certain times (e.g. holidays).
Types of trains
On long-distance trains there is 1st and 2nd class. A 2nd class ticket costs about 80% of the price of a 1st class ticket. On high-speed trains, you can also choose between basic, standard and flexible tickets. The basic tickets are of course the cheapest. Seat reservation is mandatory on high-speed trains. This means that your seat is theoretically guaranteed, but also that you have to buy tickets in advance. In fact, many passengers with tickets for other trains who take the wrong train have to pay the cheap fine for not reserving their seat. Therefore, on the main lines or during rush hour, expect your seat to be occupied. In this case, simply show the ticket to get your seat.
During rush hours, on the main north-south routes during holidays or before and after major political demonstrations, the lower type trains can be extremely crowded, to the point that it becomes very uncomfortable. In this case, you might find yourself on a tiny flap in the corridor where you have to move for all the passers-by.
While between Milan and Naples (including Bologna, Florence and Rome) high-speed trains halve journey times, on other routes, such as between Rome and Genoa, Naples and Reggio Calabria, Venice and Trieste, high-speed trains run on the conventional route rather than on a dedicated high-speed line, with journey times barely shorter than those of intercity trains, which could be a waste of money. One only needs to consult the Trenitalia website or the printed timetable, usually located near the entrance to each platform, to find out how long the journey will take.
On long routes, such as Milan – Rome or Milan – Reggio di Calabria, Trenitalia operates special Intercity notte night trains. They depart around 10 pm and arrive in the morning. Depending on the train, you can choose between normal seats, sleeper cabins and sleeper cabins of different categories. The seats are the cheapest, but even the sleeper cabins are not overpriced and are a very relaxing way to travel long distances. Also remember that some trains are not equipped with air conditioning. So bring your own bottle of water in the hot summer months.
The queues to buy tickets can be very long and slow, so arrive at the station early. There are touch screen ticket machines which are very useful, efficient and multilingual, but there are never many of them and queues can be very long.
You can also buy tickets online on the Trenitalia website; you will receive a code (codice di prenotatione (PNR)) with which you can collect the ticket from a ticket machine in the station (“Self Service”). For some trains (but not all) you can also choose the “no ticket” option, where you print the ticket yourself. You can also choose the option to have a “voucher” printed on the train if you need it. By default, the page only shows the “best” (usually more expensive) connections – you can select “show all connections” to see if there are also slower but cheaper connections.
High-speed trains can be full, so if you are pressed for time, you should buy these tickets in advance. In general, you should buy tickets before you get on the train. Italian Railways recently (late 2007) launched a campaign against fare fraud and introduced higher fines (starting at €50). If you are really late and don’t have a ticket, it is probably best to speak directly to the conductor (il controllore or il capotreno) outside the train when you board.
Remember that you must validate the ticket before boarding most trains by stamping it in one of the white boxes (marked Convalida). Travelling with an unstamped ticket is technically the same as travelling without a ticket. It is very important that you do not forget to validate your ticket, as train conductors are generally not tolerant in this area. The exception is tickets that indicate the day and time of travel; as they are only valid for a specific train, they usually do not need to be validated.
The cheapest way to travel in an area is to buy an area card. A card displayed near the validation machine shows you how many zones you have to pay for between stations. To buy a zone card for the next region, you have to get off at the last station and board the next train due to the short stops (usually in about 1 hour).
Smoking in public places has been banned in Italy since 2005. Smoking on an Italian train is subject to a fine.
There are also special offers, some of which are reserved for foreign tourists and others are available for locals. Some offers are passes that allow you to travel for a selected period of time, while other special offers are regular tickets sold at low prices with certain restrictions. Before you decide to buy a pass, first check if it is cheaper than buying a regular ticket (or better a regular ticket at a reduced price, if available).
If you travel a lot, are not Italian and live in another EU country, you can buy a TRENITALIA PASS: you buy a number of travel days that you can use within two months, but you have to pay a supplement for the obligatory reservation services, i.e. TBiz, Eurostar Italia and Intercity, which varies from 5 to 25 euros depending on the type of train. Details can be found on the website, as well as on the RailChoice website.
Trenitalia‘s Ticketless option is only available when you book online or through an authorised travel agency, and only for high-speed and intercity trains. With the Ticketless solution, you can buy a ticket online, receive a PNR code by post and board the train directly. You can choose to receive a receipt by email or collect it on the train. On board, you have to give the driver your PNR code so that he can issue the receipt or confirm your presence on board if you have already received the receipt by e-mail.
The advent of low-cost carriers has made domestic flights a viable option for almost everyone. If you book in advance, airline tickets for long journeys are often cheaper than train tickets. The main competitors in the domestic air travel market are Alitalia, Ryanair and Easyjet. Blue Express and Meridiana Fly follow them, with other smaller operators appearing and disappearing frequently.
Italy has a well-developed system of motorways (autostrade) in the north, while in the south the quality and extent is somewhat less good. Each motorway is identified by an A followed by a number on a green background. Most motorways are toll roads. Some have toll booths that give you access to an entire section (such as the tangenziali of Naples, Rome, and Milan), but generally, most have toll booths at the entrance and exit; on these motorways you must collect a ticket at the entrance and the amount of your toll is calculated at the exit according to the distance traveled. Tolls vary depending on the motorways and the sections; as a guide, you should expect to pay between €0.06 and €0.12 per kilometer. Do not lose your entry ticket, because if you do, you will be deemed to have entered the motorway at the station furthest from your exit and will be charged the maximum possible toll. All the blue lanes (marked “Viacard”) at the toll stations are vending machines that accept both major credit cards and prepaid cards (called Viacard), which are sold at petrol stations along the motorway or, for example, in several tobacconists in the city. If you have problems with the machine (e.g. your credit card cannot be read), press the “Assistenza” button and wait for an operator to help you – be prepared to pay your toll in cash if the problems persist. Do not reverse to change lanes, even if you can see others doing so, unless clearly requested to do so by staff or police; reversing at toll booths is equivalent to reversing on the motorway and carries a very heavy fine if you are caught doing so.
Many Italians use an electronic toll system and there are reserved lanes marked with the sign “Telepass” or simply with a “T” in yellow. Driving in these lanes (controlled by a camera system) without this device will result in a fine and the payment of the toll for the longest stretch. Due to agreements with other countries, as a foreigner you also have to pay a surcharge for localization in your country.
Speeding offences are much rarer today than in the past, due to much stricter enforcement in recent years. There are a number of automatic and almost invisible systems that penalize speeding and dangerous driving. In addition, the Italian Road Police (Polizia Stradale) operates several unmarked vehicles equipped with speed cameras and sophisticated camera systems. Since 2006, several sections of Italian motorways have been equipped with an automatic system called Tutor with automatic number plate recognition, which checks the average speed of all vehicles on a section of road. Coverage of this system is being extended to an increasing number of motorways. In some cases, traffic signs remind drivers of the presence of this system.
If virtually all vehicles around you seem to behave and scrupulously adhere to the speed limit or even slightly undercut it, it is a good indication that there is some kind of control system in place on that road. As a foreigner, it is best to remain cautious and respect the limits and rules at all times, even if crazy driving residents fool you into thinking that a certain speed limit or “no overtaking” sign is just a suggestion: from time to time these residents meet the police on their way.
The flashing of your headlights can be interpreted differently than you would like. Depending on the situation, the flashing may be interpreted either as a request to swerve or as a request to move forward. An oncoming vehicle flashing repeatedly may warn you of danger or a police car/checkpoint further down the road (although this practice is prohibited).
Unless other limits are specified, the general speed limits apply:
- 130 km/h on motorways (autostrada) (110 km/h in rain) ;
- 110 km/h on roads with pavements separated by slopes marked by blue signs at the entrances, called superstreet ;
- General speed limit of 90 km/h on motorways and roads outside built-up areas ;
- 50 km/h in an urban area – an urban area beginning with a white sign with the name of the city in black letters and ending with a similar sign crossed out in red.
Italian legislation allows a tolerance of 5% (minimum 5 km/h) for speed limits. Fines are usually very expensive. If you are caught speeding more than 40 km/h, you can expect a fine of more than 500 euros and an immediate driving ban of 1 to 3 months (you can reach the destination of your current journey). Non-resident drivers of foreign-registered vehicles must either pay their fine on the spot if they accept it, or pay a deposit on the spot if they intend to appeal later; in both cases, you will have to pay something immediately and the police will not hesitate to accompany you to the nearest ATM to withdraw the money you need. It is true that the probability of getting caught is not very high, but you really don’t want that to happen to you.
Since 2003, all vehicles outside built-up areas, i.e. also on motorways, must always drive with headlights on. Motorbikes must always and everywhere be driven with their headlights on.
The issue of drink-driving has received much attention in recent years following a number of fatal accidents. The tolerated limit is 0.50g/L in the blood; exceeding it is a criminal offence punishable by heavy fines, suspension of driving licence, imprisonment and, in the most serious cases, even immediate confiscation of one’s vehicle. The limit for drivers under 21 years of age or with less than 3 years of driving experience or for professional drivers is zero. Unfortunately, although controls are stricter than before, they are still insufficient and drink-driving is still a problem.
All passengers are required to wear seat belts and children under 10 must sit in the rear seats. Children under 12 must use either an approved car seat or booster seat, depending on their age.
At unmarked intersections, you must give way to any vehicle coming from the right. Be on your guard, because many Italians seem to ignore this rule and will insist that there is no right of way just because they are going straight or driving on what they think is the main road, even if the intersection is actually completely unmarked. This usually happens in big cities at night when the traffic lights are off at certain intersections. This is both confusing because you never know whether the intersecting road is marked or not, and dangerous because you can expect the vehicle coming from the left to let you through if it assumes you have a “give way” sign and proceeds like a bullet.
Be aware that many Italians don’t take road markings too seriously (some don’t even seem to notice that there are road markings…), which can be strange if you come from north of the Alps. On multi-lane roads, always watch out for vehicles from other lanes entering you on bends. Lane markings on multi-lane roundabouts are systematically ignored and virtually all drivers “cut” when going through the roundabout and again when leaving it, without signage of course. In Italy, there is some confusion about the correct behaviour at large roundabouts; you should be careful there and expect vehicles to enter, turn and exit at any time without signage, and never drive alongside other vehicles on a roundabout assuming that the others will respect the lane markings.
The road signs used in Italy are designed according to EU recommendations and mainly use pictograms (no text). Motorway signs are written on a green background, while general road signs (including signs for divided roads, superhighways with separated levels) are written on a blue background and urban or local road signs are written on a white background.
If you have a timetable, use the motorways – marked in green – when available and avoid using the general roads – marked in blue – for long journeys (except for the divided lane, segregated super road). Tolls on motorways can be quite expensive, but they can significantly reduce your travel time, while general roads can be annoyingly slow because they are heavily used by local traffic, can be clogged with trucks, have many roundabouts or traffic lights, and often pass through towns and villages with no bypass. On the other hand, general roads often offer stunning scenery and should be your first choice if you are not in a hurry and want to explore the true nature of the country.
Fuel prices are the same as in Western Europe and are significantly higher than in North America and Japan. As of 2012, prices will be around €1.80/l for petrol and €1.70/l for diesel. Most stations offer only one type of 95 octane petrol and one type of diesel; some other stations also offer premium petrol and/or premium diesel. At many petrol stations, there is a significant price difference between self-service and servito refuelling. The respective petrol pumps are marked accordingly when you enter the petrol station and you are expected to stop at the pump(s) depending on which service you want. If you stop at a pump that is serviced by a petrol pump attendant, simply wait and a petrol pump attendant will come out within seconds.
Traffic in Italy’s big cities is very heavy and finding a parking space can sometimes be a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. It is therefore not advisable to drive in Italian big cities unless you really need to. In principle, in any big city, it is best to park your car in a park-and-ride facility or somewhere on the outskirts of town and use public transport, which is quite reliable and fairly cheap. Be very careful with traffic restricted zones (ZTLs). These are traffic restricted zones in many medium and large Italian cities, mainly but not only in the historic centres, where only registered vehicles are allowed. Entry into an LTZ is signalled by signs and cameras that easily go unnoticed by tourists driving. Every year, many tourists report that they have received a fine (about 100 euros) for entering an LTZ without knowing it. Tourists who rent a car end up with one or more tickets several months later at home, including an additional fee for the administrative formalities necessary to send the papers abroad. In addition, rental companies can charge 15 to 50 euros for giving the driver’s details to the police. Thus, entering these areas without permission can easily lead to a fine of more than 200 euros. If you have booked accommodation in a city centre and plan to drive there, you should check in advance whether it is in such a restricted area and whether you are entitled to a permit.
EU licences are automatically recognised. If you do not have an EU driving licence, you will need an international driving licence in addition to your national licence in order to drive. To get your driving licence officially recognised (adeguamento or tagliando di riconoscimento), you must pass a medical examination. If it is lost or stolen, you can request a duplicate from the Italian authorities.
In Italy, all motor vehicles must be insured for at least third party liability (assicurazione).
Buy tickets for city buses in corner shops, bus company offices or from vending machines before boarding (on some systems, tickets can also be bought onboard a vending machine). It is not usually possible to buy tickets from the bus driver. The payment system for most public transport in Italy (suburban trains, city buses, metro) is based on voluntary payment combined with a variable application. Tickets are purchased before boarding and validated at a machine in the vehicle; inspectors may enter the vehicle to check passengers’ tickets and impose fines on those who do not have a validated ticket. Bus company inspectors are usually recognizable by an item with the company logo. When issuing a fine notice, inspectors are allowed to look at your documents and must issue some kind of receipt with the date, time, and place. They may never collect the fine directly (which can usually be paid at a post office). Assaulting an inspector while on duty is a serious offense.
In general, daily, weekly, monthly and year-round tickets are available, in addition to multi-ride tickets. These can, but do not have to be validated. Almost all cities have a different fare system, so you should check the fare formulas and ticket availability in advance. For tourists, it can be very convenient to buy day (or multi-day) tickets that allow you to travel as much as you want in one day (or more). Every major city also has some kind of City Card, a flat-rate card that allows you to use public transport, visit a number of museums and get discounts at shops, hotels and restaurants.
Check both these options at local tourist offices or on the city’s website (often in the form www.comune. cityname.it like www.comune.roma.it).
Intercity buses used to be a niche market in Italy, but the situation has changed radically in recent years with the entry of several international operators. Megabus and Flixbus may be the biggest players at the moment, but they are far from the only ones.
In Italy, hitchhiking is associated with the hippies of the 1960s and the “on the road” culture. It is therefore seen as outdated and unnecessary. You will almost never find Italians hitchhiking unless there is a serious problem with the bus or another form of transport. Also, these days you often see prostitutes on the side of the road pretending to be hitchhikers to attract customers, so it is advisable to avoid being mistaken for one of them. Hitchhiking in tourist areas in summer works well because tourists from northern Europe will give you a lift, and it works well in very rural areas as long as there is regular traffic (because you are always playing the game), but hitchhiking near big cities or along busy roads is extremely frustrating. Hitchhiking along motorways and highways is prohibited. Apart from hitchhiking, it is also a bit difficult: Italians are generally nice people, but they are extremely unlikely to pick up hitchhikers.
Approaching Italy by sea can be a great experience and is a good alternative to the traditional “excursions” on land. Chartering a yacht in Italy is an enriching way to discover the country. Although the yacht charter industry is smaller than you would expect from this incredibly popular destination, there are many reasons to choose a yacht over a conventional land-based approach. The Italian coast, like the French, attracts luxury yachts of the highest standard. “Sailing around Italy from a private yacht is surprisingly convenient and comfortable. Italy’s spectacular coastline is best enjoyed from the sea and Italians know this! You can swim whenever you want and many famous sights are within easy reach of the seafront. Travelling on a private yacht also offers you some relief from the crowds and traffic that are traditionally unavoidable in Italy’s most popular destinations. There are large and distinct nautical regions in Italy: Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Sardinia and Sicily. Each has its own flavour and focus. Plan your itinerary carefully, as each region is rewarding in its own way.