A Simple Guide to Italian Trains

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.

swiss train frecciarossa
Ok, this is a Swiss trains, but it looks like a Frecciarossa!

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.

A Swiss train, kind of looks like a Frecciarossa
Another shot of the Swiss Frecciarossa

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.

Departures Board at Milan Centrale
Departures Board at Milan Centrale

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

Freccia and Regionale trains
Freccia and Regionale trains side by side

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.

Empty train Station Platform
My favourite train station, Milan Centrale

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!




28 thoughts on “A Simple Guide to Italian Trains”

  1. I love taking the train so much I even love taking them in Italy. I’m not sure if I’ve just had a bad run or if they’ve improved over the last (what?) eight years or so but I’ve never been delayed so many times (or for so loooong).

    Still, I’d say they compare favourably to the other options, with the possible exception of a vespa 🙂 . I’d take the train next time again for sure, but I’d make sure to have some flex time in the itinerary (and extra drinks and snacks).

    • hey Bronwyn! They have improved a bit, delays are still frequent though! Still a great way to travel around the country, but you’re right, vespa wins hands down!

  2. I’ve heard a lot about the train system in Italy. My husband visited years ago with his highschool class and they loved it. Thanks for all this info — the Milan train station is gorgeous!

  3. I love the trains in Italy! I think it’s great that there are both the fast and slower local options…I’m not usually in a rush so the cheaper slow option is perfect, plus a great way to see the countryside!

    • I love train travel so much and prefer the slow trains just like you! Looking forward to a slow train journey through the Apennines in three weeks time!

  4. Hey Elena! I remember when intercity was top class… you even had to pay a supplement to get in! Now they’ve become outdated, but they still occupy a special place in my heart.

  5. Taking the trains in Italy is one of my favorite memories from spending 2 weeks backpacking around Italy in the summer of 2009 with my sister and best friend. There is nothing more relaxing then cruising through the countryside and relaxing on your way to your next city. Hands down the best way to travel in Italy!

  6. We have traveled extensively in Italy on the trains and sometime they can be quite confusing – this is a great post and very helpful to anyone who wants to see the country via train! Thank you for sharing!

  7. Beware of the ticket scams and traps on Italian trains!!!!
    On some regional trains you need to “Validate” your ticket at a machine in the station or on a platform. No one will tell you this when you buy the ticket. If you don’t, the inspector will make you pay again PLUS a 50 euro fine. Easy for tourists and new travellers NOT to know this. After all, the inspector usually punches or checks the ticket on board.

    Watch also for the ‘e-ticket scam’. You buy your ticket online in your own country and print out your eticket. It will say “Finalized” at the top and say, “Electronic ticket”, but this is NOT like a plane ticket. The small print in the conditions might say ‘Self service delivery’. So when you get on the train and show your eticket that you HAVE paid for, guess what…. You got it, the inspector will charge you again for the full non-discount fare and probably fine you another 50 euro, because you did not print out a paper ticket at the station. Welcome to Italy and Trenitalia.

    • Thanks for the comment Philip. Good of you to mention that tickets need to be validated – I did say so in the article, but I guess didn’t emphasise it enough. As for e-tickets, they are now accepted on all trains. You can just show a copy of the tix from your phone and it’s valid, even on regional trains (I did it not even a week ago). Take care, I hope you enjoyed the rest of your Italian trip besides these mishaps!

  8. Thanks for these tips. I’ll go in Italy next April. First time. In Rome, I will be near Termini. After Rome, I am planning to go in Palermo. For sure I will go by train. What is the easiest way: Italo or the regular trains?Thanks again.

    • Hey Irene! As far as I know, Italo doesn’t go to Palermo. The furthest south Italo and Freccia Rossa travel is Salerno and Puglia (which is not on the way if you need to get to Sicily). So, I think regular trains would be the only solution. I just checked for you on the Trenitalia website. Prices start from €38 and it takes about 12 hours, so perhaps you could opt for a night train. Hope it helps!

  9. Thanks for your guide–very helpful! I am taking the train from Nice to Florence in September. From what I see, I would take a regional to Ventemiglia, then Italian trains to Genoa > Pisa > Florence. I’ve looked at the Tren Italia website but I’m not clear as to whether I will be able to purchase in advance from the US. Any advice?

    • Hey Lee! I’m pretty sure you can purchase in advance from any country you like, as you get an e-ticket from the Trenitalia site, not a paper one mailed to you. Regionale tickets can only be bought 2 months in advance, but Intercity (you can take Intercity from Ventimiglia to Genova and from Genova to Florence) can be purchased earlier, and you can avail of cheaper fares by doing so. Florence-Pisa is only a one-hour journey, you can easily buy tickets for that on the train. Let me know if I can help you further! Thanks 🙂

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