By guest blogger Jessica Spiegel
Ask anyone who’s travelled in Italy before and it’s quite likely they took the trains to get around. Despite how frequently people travel by train in Italy, however, there are still some lingering misconceptions about train travel in Italy – misconceptions I’m hoping to clear up in this post.
Tickets & Reservations are Not the Same Thing
At first glance, the fact that Trenitalia says a ticket and a reservation are two separate things – and that for some trains you need to buy both of them – seems ludicrous. What you may not know, however, is that train tickets in Italy are not affixed to one time or even a date, so you could theoretically buy a ticket for the trip between Milan and Rome on a Tuesday and not use that ticket until Friday. A reservation, then, is the thing that has a specific date and time associated with it – and it’s also the thing that assures you of a specific seat.
Not all trains in Italy require reservations, but all trains require tickets. Generally speaking, it’s the high-speed trains and overnight/long-haul trains that require reservations in addition to tickets, and if you’re not sure what you’ll need you can ask a ticket agent. Note that if you have a Rail Pass, that’s the equivalent of a ticket – so at most, the only additional thing you’d need would be a reservation.
First Class is Not Usually Worth the Expense
The difference between the “first class” cabin in a plane and everything behind the curtain is enormous, so you’d be forgiven for thinking the same is true on Italian trains. In fact, there are differences between first and second class cars on the trains in Italy, but the differences are slight enough that the additional cost of a first class train ticket usually isn’t worth it.
The seats are a bit more spacious in first class, and there are fewer seats per car. On the newer trains, an airplane-style cart comes through once or twice during the trip to distribute a small beverage and a packet of cookies or crackers. But both classes of cars (on the newer trains, at least) have electrical outlets at the seats and “first come, first served” luggage storage. The dining cars are open to anyone, and air conditioning is either throughout the whole train or not at all.
The only instance when first class may be worth the expense is on an overnight trip when you’re booking a sleeping compartment. I’ve happily paid extra to have a cabin with just two beds in it as opposed to sharing a cabin with 4-5 strangers.
City-to-City Tickets Are No Longer Always the Cheapest Option
It wasn’t so long ago that the common wisdom for travellers in Italy was that it didn’t make sense to buy an Italy Rail Pass before a trip, because train tickets were so cheap. That can still be true, but it’s not true just as often these days.
The high-speed trains in Italy were always the most expensive tickets (they still are), and now there are even faster trains connecting some of the biggest rail hubs. Travelers who don’t have more than a week or two to spend in Italy don’t usually want to take the slower (cheaper) trains if that means they’ll have less time to actually be in the cities they’re visiting – and it doesn’t take many of those high-speed train tickets to add up to more than the cost of a Rail Pass.
The only way to figure out whether an Italy Rail Pass will save you money is by looking up the cost of tickets for your itinerary and comparing it to the various Rail Pass options. You may find that you’re still better off buying tickets as you go, but it’s no longer safe to assume that without doing the math.
About the Author: Jessica Spiegel is a Portland-based travel writer for BootsnAll Travel, where she specializes in doling out Italy travel advice.