For the Love of Italian Train Travel

I moved to Italy at 29 years old to have my Italian citizenship recognized and to have a new experience (background story here). Since living in Italy and having taken almost 100 train trips around the country, amounting to almost 16,000 miles, one thing I learned is that I absolutely love train travel.

Trenitalia Passenger Train - Train travel in italy
Trenitalia Regionale train

Train travel in Italy, while not perfect, is amazing. In this post I will explain why I love train travel, including a brief overview of the train options in Italy, as well as a cost comparison with car travel. Here’s some links to jump to the sections of interest.

  1. Why I Love Train Travel
  2. Train Travel in Italy – Overview
  3. Where to Buy Tickets
  4. Additional Tips for Trains
  5. Cost Comparison
  6. Negatives of Train Travel
  7. The Best Way to Travel in Italy
  8. A Final Thought

Why I love Train Travel

Coming from the United States, specifically outside of Atlanta, one of the things I was most excited for when I moved to Italy was not needing a car. Frankly, cars are a pain in the a*s. They’re expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and expensive to fuel up. Not only that, but cars with single passengers (let’s admit, that’s most of us) have over 4 times the CO2 output per passenger per kilometer traveled when compared to trains.

When factoring in negative externalities, lifetime car ownership has been shown to cost nearly $700,000 for a small car.

This isn’t a post about why the US sucks because we don’t have extensive train travel and all of our problems could be solved with high-speed rail. I recognize that the US is not Europe geographically (non-changeable) or culturally (slightly more changeable) speaking.

I also don’t particularly enjoy driving. I have a lot of friends who are into cars, so I can appreciate car enthusiasm. And as an engineer, I can appreciate the craft and problem-solving that goes into a well-designed car. I just don’t have the bug to the extent that it makes me want to own one. Yeah, every now and then it’s fun to get behind the wheel, and the couple times that I’ve rented a car in Italy it’s pretty liberating. But all the time? No thanks.

Selling Points

Like Italian trains, I’m not perfect. I’d be lying (i.e. virtue signaling) if I said that environmental effects were a leading motivator for me choosing trains to get around while living in Italy. 

For me it comes down to:

1. I can read or use my laptop on a train. I’m prone to carsickness, so this is unfortunately not an option on a bus or in a car. Also, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can’t do these things while driving a car.

2. You can meet people on the train.

3. It’s one less material object to worry about.

4. Train travel is inexpensive when compared to car travel (more on that later).

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Train Travel in Italy – An Overview

Technically, there are more than a dozen or so train services in Italy. This includes everything from the high-speed to regional trains that most people use, including tourists. But there are also local train companies such as FUC in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Circumvesuviana (EAV) in Campania, or FAL in Puglia and Basilicata.

The two train companies that most people visiting Italy need to pay attention to are Trenitalia and Italo.

Trenitalia is a subsidiary of state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane. It has roughly 27,000 employees. Trenitalia has both regional, Intercity, and high-speed trains.

Italo is privately owned by NTV. It has roughly 2,000 employees. Italo has only high-speed trains, connecting major cities.

Italo or Trenitalia – Which One?

If you are traveling to or from smaller cities (like Camogli to Genova, or Florence to Pisa) you will be using Trenitalia Regional trains (normal speed). For connecting larger cities (Milan to Florence, Rome to Naples, etc.) you can use either Trenitalia (regional, Intercity, or high-speed) or Italo (high-speed only).

For bigger cities, and when I’m willing to pay more for high-speed, the decision will come down to price.

High-speed trains (both Italo and Trenitalia) travel up to 360 km/h (220 mph). They have assigned, more comfortable seats, a table at every seat, and reliable electrical outlets. They normally have free Wi-Fi (it doesn’t always work amazingly, but it’s there). High-speed trains will feel more like riding on a plane, but with bigger bathrooms and less turbulence. There will usually be a train car with a bar/cafe, where you can get small items like coffee, beer, cornetti, and the like. High speed train prices are more expensive and increase closer to the departure date. Trenitalia high speed trains fall under the names Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, and Frecciabianca.

Regional, standard speed trains (Trenitalia only) will be basic transport, with no assigned seating. There are 1st and 2nd class tickets available, but as far as I can tell the only difference between the 1st and 2nd class cars is the presence of a table at the seats. Regional/standard speed train prices do not increase closer to the departure date. As of December 2022, there are generally two iterations of Trenitalia regional trains in existence:

  • An older, single level version with seats in groups of 4. There’s an electrical outlet at each pair of seats, but half the time it doesn’t work. The bathrooms on these older trains leave a lot to be desired, but they’re there.
  • A newer iteration, with single and 2-level cars, with seats in groups of 2 or 4, with more reliable electrical outlets (including USB), and much cleaner bathrooms. These trains often say things on the side like “pop”, “rock”, or “jazz”. Not really sure what they were going for there, because unfortunately there are no music genre themes to speak of on these trains.

Intercity trains, a confusing 3rd category from Trenitalia, are sort of between high-speed and regional trains. Intercity trains are cleaner and have assigned seats, but are not high-speed. They don’t run as frequently as regional trains though, and they don’t make as many stops at small towns. There are also overnight routes (called Intercity Notte – details here); you can read about my recent Intercity Notte trip from Rome to Palermo here. Intercity train prices are generally between regional and high-speed prices and increase closer to the departure date. 

Where to buy tickets

The best way to buy train tickets for most tourists is with Trainline. With Trainline, both Trenitalia and Italo are included in the platform, so you don’t have to think about one company or another. It also puts everything in English, which is not the case with something like the Trenitalia website. And if your trip includes other countries, you can keep using Trainline elsewhere for buying tickets. 

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If you prefer to buy in-person, there will be machines for both Trenitalia and Italo (if Italo services that station) at the train station. I almost never buy tickets at the machine, because it’s a slower process. Buying at the machine in bigger stations also makes you a target for unwanted attention, begging, or pick-pocketing.

When you arrive at the station and need to find your train, you just need to know the train line operator (Italo or Trenitalia) and train number, and look on the digital board to see what platform (binario) it’s on.

Additional tips for Train Travel

This section will likely become a separate blog post one day, but for now here’s some useful info that comes to mind.

Many of the stations in larger cities (Rome, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Naples, etc.) have train platforms that take an extra 5 minutes to get to. There will be the main group of platforms, say 1 through 15. But then there will be platforms “1est” and “2est” or “1ovest” and “2ovest”, which are separate from the main group and further away from the station entrance. I have almost missed several trains because the train was waiting at platform 1est and took another 5 minutes to walk to.

Additionally, you’ll want to carry some 1€ coins, because most train station bathrooms cost 1€ to use.

Electronic tickets do not need to be validated (punched in a machine) like paper tickets do before getting on the train.

If a train with non-designated seats is crowded, make sure to keep the seat next to you available for someone else. Your jacket doesn’t need it’s own seat. If you are the one looking for a seat and someone has an open seat next to them, it’s customary to ask “posso?” (“can I?” in Italian) before sitting down.

Cost Comparison (Train vs. Car)

This is where it gets fun (for me).

Between March 24 and December 17, 2022, I traveled 15,639 miles (25,169 km) by train in Italy, using both Trenitalia and Italo. That’s enough to go across the United States roughly 5 times. Technically this number is higher, but unfortunately I couldn’t include the few dozen trips I’ve taken with regional companies where tickets can only be bought in person, thus I have no digital record of the costs. 

This cost me $2,420 in train tickets (roughly 2,283€ at the December 2022 exchange rate). This equates to $0.15 per mile (€0.09/km).

For comparison, let’s say I was instead driving a Fiat Panda (the Ford F-150 of Italy – not because they’re in any way similar but because it’s the best selling car in Italy).

A 0.9-liter engine (adorable, right?) Fiat Panda averages about 57 miles per gallon (5.0 liters per 100 kilometers). For this comparison, I used the average price of unleaded gasoline in Italy in 2021, as the 2022 numbers were abnormally skewed due to the higher gas prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, the average cost of unleaded gasoline in Italy was $6.46 per gallon (1.61€ per liter).

To drive the same distance that I rode the train, it would have cost $2,021 (1,907€) in gas alone, about 17% less than the total cost of all of my train tickets. Obviously there’s some missing pieces here.

There’s the cost of the car rental or purchase. To rent would be at least 1,500€ per month. To buy a new Fiat Panda would be around 16,000€, and used could be 5,000€ to 10,000€. Add to that the cost of ownership registration fees, maintenance, road tax, and insurance. 

Additionally there’s the cost of parking. Italy as a whole has somehow managed to have a shortage of parking country-wide, and as a result it’s almost never free.

In sum – train travel is cheaper than traveling by car in Italy at an individual level. This is not taking into account taxpayer-funded infrastructure costs. 

It’s worth noting that a family of four may come out ahead cost-wise in a car versus a train. But that’s a separate blog post.

The Negatives of Train Travel

I can’t write a love letter to train travel without admitting it’s shortcomings, most of which can’t be quantified in a cost comparison. Where train routes end, bus routes can save the day – but not always, and not always at the most convenient hours. 

With a car, you have freedom with both time and location. If you’re driving on a highway and see an interesting hilltop town nearby, you can just pull off and go explore. On a train, you’ll just have to look from a distance and mark it in your “Want to Visit” list in Google Maps. Or you could be enjoying a day trip to a nearby town and find that you don’t want to go back to the room until after dinner, but the last train is at 9 pm, so you have to cut the day short.

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The Best Way to get around in Italy

While I’ve become a big advocate for train travel based on everything above, I recognize that it’s based on my preferences. In the end, the best way to get around in Italy is the way that fits your budget and needs.

  • If you are on vacation and only going to places like Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Siena, Naples, Pisa, Como, you should only be taking trains and buses.
  • If you want freedom to explore some less-connected parts of Italy (such as inland Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, or parts of Tuscany), you could benefit a lot from a car.
  • If you are doing a long stay in Italy like I did, you can get by with trains and buses predominantly with an occasional car rental as needed.
  • As mentioned above, if you are traveling as a family, a car may make more sense cost-wise.

One Final Thought

At the time of this writing (December 2022), you can buy a ticket to get from Turin (far north Italy) to Reggio Calabria (the toe of the boot) on a high-speed Trenitalia Frecciarossa for about 83€ ($89) one way. Travel time: just under 11 hours, no train changes. 

Pivoting to the United States for a moment – Turin to Reggio Calabria is roughly the equivalent distance as going from Philadelphia to Atlanta. An Amtrak ticket from Philly to Atlanta is $118 one way (111€). Travel time: just under 17 hours, no train changes. 

A question to readers in the United States: If you could get to take a trip from Philly to Atlanta, or similarly New York to Chicago, in about 11 hours and under $100 one way, would you? Feel free to comment below.

That’s All For Now

I sincerely hope you found value in this article.  If you have recommendations of your own or have suggestions on what else you would like to see covered here, please write in the comments below. Additionally, if you’re planning a trip to Italy and need one-on-one support or guidance, check out my services page where you can get in touch with me.

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4 thoughts on “For the Love of Italian Train Travel”

  1. Ciao caro! What a lovely and interesting post. I never traveled by train in Italy. Rented a car once (Milan – Firenze) and other times were one city only visits. Will plan this for the next time I go. When I lived at the NL, I also loved the fact that I didn’t need a car. I don’t know however how the Dutch trains compare to the Italian. Ciao, buon ano nuovo!

    1. Ciao Jose! I appreciate the kind feedback. I was briefly in NL and took the train from Eindhoven to Amsterdam and it was comparable (more expensive, maybe a little cleaner) to the Trenitalia Regional trains. Auguri! Ciao

  2. This post was SO helpful – thank you! I would consider paying $100 one way from Philly to Georgia. It’s $30 one way from Central NJ to NYC 1.5 hours), so $100 seems fair for an 11 hour trip that I don’t have to drive or spend money on gas 🙂

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