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Trains in Italy: Buying Train Tickets

Alice Twain Updated by Andrew

Everything you need to know about buying train tickets in Italy or online, when you need to buy tickets in advance, special train passes.

Buying Tickets and Town Names

Remember, you must know the names of the towns in Italian (e.g. Florence is "Firenze", Milan is "Milano", Rome is "Roma", etc.). If you do not speak Italian, you can bring your map with you when purchasing tickets and point to the town you are going to. Even if you are sure you know the correct name, it is a good idea to point to the town on the map anyway, just to be sure.

SlowTrav Note: One trip in England, Pauline and Steve purchased a train ticket for London from a small town train station. The clerk sold them a ticket for Langdon, a small town in the other direction, because no one asks for a ticket to "London", they say the name of the station (Pauline thinks it was "Tower Station"). And if that can happen to them in an English speaking country, imagine the possibilities in a country where you do not speak the language.

Stations' Ticket Offices

The most obvious place to buy train tickets is at the train stations. Every Trenitalia station with a ticket office will be able to sell you tickets and reservations for any Trenitalia train and for international trains as well. Most clerks at ticket offices do not speak more than a rudimentary English, so it may be useful to write a note with the information about the ticket you want to purchase: the departure station, the arrival station, the day and hour you want to leave, the number of people traveling together, if you want a reservation. Check out the glossary for useful words in Italian.

Remember that on trains not requiring a reservation and on Intercity trains if you don't request a reservation, tickets will be sold even though there are no available seats. A ticket grants the right to travel on the train, not to travel sitting comfortably. Only reservations grant the right to have a seat of your own.

Sometimes, larger stations have two different ticket offices, one for buying tickets for the same day, and one for buying tickets and reservations for the following days. The latter has a number system similar to the one you can find in shops: you take a number and wait until your number is called by one of the displays. Although this seems to be more efficient, actually waiting for a reservation sometimes can take forever. Once I gave up waiting to be able to reserve a seat at Milan's Central Station (Stazione centrale) when faced with the prospect of having four hours to wait! (Ok, it was August and everybody was getting tickets for the holidays.) Therefore, when I have to book a seat I usually opt for getting my tickets at some smaller station with a single ticket office (for instance at Stazione Lambrate in Milano) or buy directly from a ticket machine.

If you do not plan to reserve seats, you can go straight to the main ticket office, since the tickets will not be marked with a date: you can buy a ticket and use it any day you want within two months.

Travel Agents

Buying train tickets from a travel agent is probably the easiest option for an English-speaking tourist, since most travel agents speak English, or have an English-speaking clerk (usually much better than ticket clerks at the stations).

Not all travel agents are equipped to sell train tickets, and some are equipped for selling them but add a (small to moderate, indeed) fee. When looking for a travel agent to get train tickets, make sure you spot one with the Trenitalia logo on the window.

The logo means that the travel agency is a certified Trenitalia ticket office and will sell you the ticket with no further fee.

In my experience the travel agents are less expert in selling the tickets than the railway guys. As a result, I have always received better advice from the ticket offices at the stations than from travel agents, when it came to choosing which train to use.

Ticket Machines

There are two kinds of ticket machines.

  • The most common are the big "yellow machines" that sell every kind of ticket.
  • In many smaller stations there is another kind of light blue machine, which sell only tickets for the local trains.

Both machines seem pretty complex, but getting a ticket from them is easier than you may think (I can use them!). The only problem is that you need to have a pretty good idea of what you want to buy.

Click to see larger image

Yellow machines are operated through a touch screen. Instructions are available in six languages (Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese). The machine takes you though a well developed series of multiple choice questions, asking you first where you want to depart from, where you want to go, on which day and at which hour you want to leave, and so on, narrowing down the choices, than proposing different ticketing and service solutions. It is simple and logical, but it can become a bit confusing if you don't have already a clear idea of how the train system works.

At these machines you can pay with credit cards and ATM cards. Most machines will also accept cash, but at the major stations you will also find at least one row of machines that only accept credit cards.

Click to see larger version

The smaller machines are operated like a ATM, with a small display and rows of buttons. They only sell tickets for the local trains (Interregionale, Regionale, Diretto) and for a limited number of destinations. They accept cash and a special card that is sold from the ticket office (not convenient for a tourist).

On the picture of this machine (click image to see larger version), from the train station in Levanto, you see that the slot that takes the special card and the one that takes paper money are taped off. This machine will only accept coins.

These are the words on the machine:

ANNULLA - cancel the transaction

MONETE - put coins in here

HELP- press this button to speak to someone thru the speaker on the machine

TESSERA MICROCHIP - the special card used to buy tickets

BANCONOTE - put paper money here

Newsagents

Click to see larger image

Newsagents and tobacconists in and near the stations sell biglietti a fascia chilometrica (kilometric area tickets). These tickets can only be used on local trains (Interregionale, Regionale, Diretto). Just ask for a train ticket for the chosen destination, and the newsagent or tobacconist will know which ticket to sell you. If you plan to take several trips to a nearby destination (for instance, if you are staying in Lucca and plan on day tripping to Florence twice), you can buy all the tickets you need at once.

Reading this ticket (click image to see larger version):

Tariffa Regionale TOSCANA: This ticket is to be used in Tuscany.

Fascia 20 Km.: This ticket is good for a 20 km distance.
2Cl: This is a ticket for a second class car.

Corsa semplice: This is a one way ticket.

Scade dopo 6 ore dalla convalida: Ticket is valid for 6 hours from when it is stamped at a machine.

On the Web

SlowTrav Note: Apparently the Trenitalia site does not "always" accept US credit cards. Discrepancy arise as to the reasons why, some say IP, some say they do not have valid number ranges in their system, but in recent years, only a small number of people who have actually been able to purchases tickets online from the US. For recent success stories, check the Italy Forum.

An alternative, you can wait until you are in Italy to purchase tickets (see "How Long in Advance Should I Buy My Tickets?") or you can contact a US agency that sells the tickets. While they do provide the discounted online price, they also have a service charge. You will need to decide if having the tickets before leaving home is worth the charge. Here is a list, according to Trenitalia, of US Agents authorized to sell tickets.

Train tickets can be bought on the web from the Trenitalia website. Tickets are the same price as you would pay at ticket offices at the train stations. The Trenitalia website has an English-language version.

The best way to purchase tickets in advance on Intercity, Intercity plus and Eurostar Italia trains is the Ticketless service on the Trenitalia website. It works just like the ticketing system of most low-cost airlines -  you don't receive a regular ticket but just a reservation code number.

During the online ticket purchase, select the "Ticketless" option. You receive an e-mail that gives you both the reservation information (train, car and seat number, and hour of departure from the station of your choice) and a code (PNR). Print the e-mail and take it with you. When boarding the train go to your reserved seat and wait for the conductor. When he arrives, show him the e-mail with the data. You will be issued a receipt that is the actual ticket.

This service from Trenitalia does not have any extra fees. If you are in Italy, you can also ask to receive a free SMS on your cell phone, to use as a backup in case you lose the e-mail printout. If you are abroad, I suggest writing down the essential data before departure (add the reservation code, CP), or having a second copy of the printout stashed in your bag, as a backup.

You can also use the Trenitalia website to buy a regular ticket (not "ticketless") which you will have to collect from the ticket vending machines at the stations (the big yellow ones, not the smaller light blue ones) or from the stations' ticket offices.

In case you can't navigate the Trenitalia site, there are international services that sell train tickets for Europe, like RailEurope. These may be easier to use, but they sell the tickets with extra fees (up to 50% of the ticket real price), so I suggest using them only if you really can't use the Trenitalia site and are traveling in a "high season", so need tickets in advance. Another option for purchasing tickets ahead of time would be Select Italy.

"How long in advance should I buy my tickets?"

This is a common question asked by foreign tourists on the Slow Travelers message board. Many think of train travel as something similar to air travel, where you want to buy your tickets as soon as possible for better prices and to make sure you can really leave. Italians use trains daily and in a very carefree way, you should do the same (with a few exceptions during high-traffic periods - see below).

Tickets for the non reservation trains (check out the Types of Service page for train types classification) can be bought at the moment of departure. Since the seats are not assigned and that the ticket does not bear any information on which train you are going to take (just departure and arrival or kilometric validity), you can take any train within validity range of the ticket (2 months).

Seat reservations may be available until a few moments before departure (especially first class), but it is safer to reserve seats a little in advance. These tickets are available two months before the desired date of departure, but a couple of days is usually more than enough, though you will hardly have problems finding the seats booking one day in advance.

When to purchase train tickets in advance

Certain dates and times of year in Italy are always busy on the trains ("high-traffic") and you will need to book ahead. These include:

  • the Easter week-end (which includes the following Monday):
  • April 25 (national festivity) and May 1st (including the Fridays right before these dates and the Sundays right after, since the Italian habit is to add a few vacation days to these festivity and the neighboring weekends to fix a short holiday);
  • June 2;
  • the month of August;
  • December 7 (in Milan only) and 8;
  • Christmas, New Year's Day and January 6 period (usually since December 23 until January 6).

In these periods you should consider getting your tickets 3-4 days in advance just to be extra careful.

For more information read Trenitalia Tickets, Dangers of Buying in Advance.

SlowTrav Note: Colleen learned this lesson about booking ahead in Rome for Christmas 2003. Colleen wanted to take the train to Florence for the day on the day after New Year's. She figured she could just get a ticket at the station, since the train ran every hour, but when she got there at 9am, the trains for Florence were sold out until the 1pm train.

Regional Passes

 

Some areas offer special train passes for one or more days. This image shows the Cinque Terre Card, the card you can use on any train between Levanto and La Spezia, valid for one day. It also covers the costs on the Cinque Terre trails.

This card is good value if you are exploring this area. Validate it before you use it for the first time in the day.

Train Passes and Special Offers

Train passes for tourists are a delicate subject. I will not give a list of them since they vary quite often, just a few suggestions on whether they are convenient or not. The point is that these passes are for whirlwind tourists; those who in one week wish to see Venice, Florence, Pisa, Perugia, Rome, and Naples - not for Slow Travelers. Therefore these passes usually become convenient only if you plan to move a lot, on fast high-price trains and on long trips. Also, some of these passes do not include reservations (3 euro in Intercity trains) and other services (sleeping berths).

My suggestion is not to buy them because they seem convenient. Much better to first check carefully on point-to-point ticket prices, since they are often more convenient. Point-to-point tickets are even more convenient if you check the offers issued by Trenitalia. Some of these are periodic: during low-traffic periods Trenitalia offers Intercity tickets for the Saturday at 10-15 euro, no matter where you go. Yet most of them are regular and extend throughout the year.

  • Children up to 4 years travel for free, since 5 to 12 years they ticket costs half as much as an adult's.
  • Families (or rather groups, since family relation is not required) of three people composed by two paying adults and a child under the age of 12 can use another offer: the child will travel for free.
  • Groups of 6 or more people traveling by train can request a special discount ranging (according to the train category) from the 10% to the 20%. This offer can only be arranged by booking minimum 15 days prior departure at any station's ticket office.

Resources

www.trenitalia.com: Italian Train Site

US Agents: List of US Agents authorized by Trenitalia to sell tickets

Select Italy: Travel service providing tickets for music, events, tours, museums and trains in Italy.

www.RailEurope.com: internation site selling tickets for trains across Europe.


Written by Alice Twain, a regular on the Slow Travel Forums. Alice is Italian and lives in Milan. Read her blog in Italian: A Typesetter's Day 3.0. See her Slow Travel Member page.

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