Our friends Nate and Elizabeth are headed to Italy in a month and we sat down with them a couple of weeks ago to talk some general travel tips for Italy as well as some tips for their time in Rome!
We hope this is helpful to anyone who is trying to book trains in Italy, deciding whether to book a train pass in Italy, find cheap accommodation in Italy,
Booking Trains in Italy
Italy has an expansive train system that links the country very well. See this diagram for a map of the major routes- light blue lines are the regional lines (which tend to stop at every small town along the way), while the darker lines are the faster lines. Click the image for it to enlarge.
It is possible to travel between Milan and Rome in under three hours on the highspeed train. The main train company in Italy is the state-run Trenitalia, however, Italo is a private company founded in 2011 to compete with the monopolized Trenitalia. While Italo is not as extensive as Trenitalia, it does serve the major routes- make sure to check the exact station that you are departing from once you have bought your ticket as Italo tends to depart from alternate stations than Trenitalia.
See the pictures below with a cost comparison of the three sites for comparison. This is a one way ticket from Rome to Milan on March 21, 2019. As you will see, Italiarail charges a booking fee for their service, while Trenitalia does not. .
For a similar time, Italo is the cheapest train. For the same train, you will pay a 15 percent markup on Italiarail if you book it with them versus booking directly with Trenitalia.
For these long distance and high speed trains, prices are dynamic like airline prices so make sure you book in advance and read the fare rules carefully- some tickets are only valid for the specific train time that they have been purchased for.
Local trains do not have to be booked well in advance- trains in and around the major cities can just be bought on the day of travel. One HUGE thing to make sure you do when you do get tickets for these trains, however, is to validate them. Because the local train tickets do not have a specified time assigned to them, the tickets must be validated on the day that you use them. Yellow boxes (old model which are common at stations outside of the major cities) or the white and green box are often what you should look out for to validate your ticket- insert the ticket into the validation box and they will be time stamped. Give yourself ample time to get the ticket validated- some platforms do not have validation machines so you may need to go to another platform to get them validated. You can then proceed on the train when it arrives. Tourists are often fined (commonly around 50 euros) for not validating their ticket on the day of travel on these local trains. Sometimes the validation box is marked with “Convalida Biglietti Ferroviari” (Validate train ticket here”)
Train Passes in Italy
You will likely see many ads for train passes in Italy once you have started looking for tickets. Are train passes in Italy worth it? If you don’t make plans in advance and want to be able to be very flexible in your travel- sure. As mentioned above, tickets are dynamic in their pricing so if you suddenly decide one day to go to Milan, then ticket prices could be very expensive. Then, they can be worth it. However, if you have planned out your travel in advance, then booking your tickets in advance can be much cheaper.
Saving on accommodation
When we went to Italy in 2013, our average nightly cost was $51. You read that right. This was a mix of airbnb type accommodations- an entire apartment to our own in Bellano, a cosy room 2 minutes from the beach in Viareggio (used as a base to explore Cinque Terre), a private loft room in a lovely Italian family’s home in Rome (which is no longer on Airbnb) a hotel in Sorrento, and an overnight train.
If you are hard pressed for time, we would suggest trying to stay more central to the sites you are visiting. Our Rome and Cinque Terre accommodation was further out from where we would ideally have liked to stay- however, we had time on our side and could afford a little bit longer of a train ride each morning.
Combine a bed and travel in one- consider night trains where possible. In retrospect, we should have paid more for our sleeper cabin. We were in a cabin with 2 Italian men who smoked and talked loudly for most of the night. When we did try and get some sleep, Melissa was guarding the passports with her life while Peter (who can sleep anywhere) had a lovely night’s rest!! Pay for the upgraded, private cabin and not a shared cabin.
The intercity trains generally have a standard seating section, 4 person sleeper cabin, 3 person sleeper cabin, and 2 person sleeper cabin.
Other than these hacks, if you have points in hotel programs- there are many hotels across Italy that are part of IHG, Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton (to name a few of the major hotel groups) that have hotels available to book with points.
Rome Pass Review
We have had a number of questions about this from people that are going to Rome. Is the Roma Pass worth it? The Roma Pass was one of our best buys in Rome! There are 2 versions- one that is valid for 72 hours (38.50 euros), and one that is valid for 48 hours (28 euros).
Both come with 2 museums free of charge and then discounted rates at any museum after that. They also come with unlimited metro rides. The best 2 museums to use it for to maximise the value (and skip the line!) are the Colosseum (18 euro) and Borghese Museum (20.50 euro).
Some other quick hit notes and general tips for Italy travel:
Set aside a daily budget for gelato- and don’t abide by it at all! You’re in Italy! You won’t get any budget saving tips from us on this one! Eat to your hearts desires! Melissa scored big with “gelato con broiche;” gelato served in a brioche bun instead of an ice cream cone in Cinque Terre!
Beware of your belongings at all times- Rome (and other popular sites in Italy) are known for pickpockets and be sure to know where your belongings are.
Be aware of the gladiators offering to take pictures with you- gladiators at the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps (among other places) will offer to let you take their picture with them. If you accept, be sure to settle on a price before hand. We saw many tourists having their camera held until they paid an amount that they obviously had no idea about to begin with.
House wine for the win- sometimes cheaper than bottled water, the house wine at restaurants is what the locals are drinking!
Know about closed days- Wednesdays in Rome most (Catholic) tourist sites are closed. The Accademia in Florence (where the David statue is located) is closed on Mondays.
Catacombs- St. Callixtus is regarded as the best in Rome.
Spanish steps, Trevi fountain and other popular sites- go first thing in the morning to avoid crowds
Market days- Villages across Italy have regular market days that are very easily found by googling (or Asking Jeeves- your pick) “Market day _____”. Outdoor markets will have fruits, cheeses, meats, local wines, fish and trinkets. We had many inexpensive lovely lunches from these markets and it is a great way to eat on a budget across Italy, and enjoy a picnic at a historic site.