A new month is upon us, and for May we wanted to bring you something different; a weekly rather than monthly focus. For the first week, we are going to concentrate on practical tips on how to save money while travelling, starting off with a simple guide to Italian trains.
So, let’s imagine the situation. You are backpacking Europe, you arrive in Italy and have decided to travel around the country by train. Great choice, by the way. I am a big fan of trains myself. Not to mention, train travel will save you a lot of hassle and aggravation that driving is sure to bring, if you’re not used to Italy’s notoriously lax approach to road rules.
How to choose which type of train to take? It all comes down to a very simple question…
How much time do you have?
1) Not much. Go for Le Frecce or Italo, and read on.
2) Lots! Go for Regionale or Intercity trains, and skip down to the end.
Le Frecce and Italo, high-speed trains
You have a week or two, want to check Italy’s main sights; Rome, Florence, Venice, perhaps Milan and Naples. In this case, the answer is pure and simple, go for high-speed.
Trains are modern, clean and comfortable, and reach speeds of 300 km/h in some stretches, similar to Japanese bullet trains.
Le Frecce are run by Trenitalia, Italy’s state railway company.
Frecciarossa trains are the fastest and cover the high-speed Turin-Naples rail line, running through Milan, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Travel time is cut to the bare minimum: for example, 3 hours from Milan to Rome, a distance of 580 km. They have wifi and power outlets at all seats.
Frecciargento and Frecciabianca run on both high-speed and traditional lines, reaching Verona and Venice, as well as further south to to Puglia and Calabria. They take a little longer, but still much shorter than traditional trains.
Italo trains are similar to Frecciarossa. The only difference is that they are run by a private company, and cannot be found on the Trenitalia website. You can get info on their own website.
So, all in all, Le Frecce and Italo are pretty good, ideal if you’re pressed for time.
The flip side of the coin? The price tag, of course. Ticket prices run around 90-100€ for Milan-Rome, and around 40€ for an hour-long ride, such as Florence-Rome or Rome-Naples.
The pricing system on these trains works like that on planes. Earlier means cheaper, weekends and public holidays means VERY expensive, If you plan and and book in advance, though, you can sometimes (read: very rarely) find great fares; Milan-Rome from 29€ and Florence-Rome for 9€.
Italo tickets are usually slightly more convenient than Frecciarossa, with some travellers reporting that they’ve been to score Milan-Rome tickets for 15€. The secret is planning in advance and travelling off-peak.
Frecce and Italo tickets include booking and are non-exchangeable and non-refundable.
If you can’t find any cheap tickets, have lots of time and/or you want to travel on Italian trains the fun way…
Go for regular trains! Regionale and Intercity
Before high-speed took over, these were the only trains. Regionale travel shorter distances, within a single region or two neighbouring ones, generally covering distances of 150 km or thereabouts in a couple of hours (i.e Milan-Turin, Milan-Verona, Verona-Venice). You can travel everywhere on Regionale trains, you would just need to connect every two-three hours or so. For example, if you want to go from Milan to Rome, here’s what you have to do:
Milan-Bologna, 2.5 hours, 16€
Bologna-Firenze, 1.5 hours, 9€
Firenze-Roma, 3.5 hours, 20€
There’s no need to plan in advance on Regionale trains, as prices are set. You get an open ticket, valid for two months, that must be validated before boarding the train. You can even hop on and off, provided you complete your journey within 6 or 9 hours, depending on distance.
Intercity travel further, between north and south, and even all the way to Sicily with a super-cool ferry ride, the train actually goes into the ferry! Intercity take a lot longer than Frecce, about double the time, but are about half the price.
For example, Milan-Rome takes 6.5 hours, and on average costs about 50€. On top of that, you can get supercheap fares if you book in advance.
Many Intercity trains still have the old cars with 6-seater compartments, ideal to make friends on the way, not to mention that the slower pace allows you to better appreciate the landscape. Intercity trains are non-exchangeable and non-refundable.
Online agencies, not to mention Trenitalia itself, usually promote Frecce tickets. If you want to get info about Regionale or Intercity, check the timetables at stations or ask for info at the ticket office. There is usually one at least one window with an English-speaking attendant.
I personally love travelling by regular train, and as I am not much of a planner, Frecce are definitely out of my budget. I very much recommend choosing Regionale and Intercity, for those with the time and inclination to explore the country on the slow.
Have you ever used Italian trains? Let me know about your experience!