Train travel is a very easy and low stress way to get around Italy but can initially be overwhelming. Once you get the system down you can relax and enjoy the scenery passing by without worrying about where you are going. Trains are what most Italians use for transportation, so you get a real feeling of being with the people. Connections are usually frequent and to all the large cities. These tips should help you ease into train life and after a few connections you will feel like an old pro.
READING THE SCHEDULE
This is probably the most intimidating of all. The train schedule is posted at every station, usually on the wall. Just like in the airport, there is an arriving and departing schedule. You are looking for the yellow one that says ‘Partenze.’ When looking for your connection, you must know which major city the train is heading to. For example: if your destination is Orvieto, you must first find Firenze (Florence). Under that main connection, each stop that train makes is listed including Orvieto. It’s hard to believe that a worn piece of paper posted on the wall is actually telling the truth, but it is. Many times I’ve chickened out and double checked at the ticket booth, only to receive the same information. Train schedules are listed in military time, so a train leaving at 5pm would say 1700. You will also need to know the Italian names for the cities you will be traveling to.
Each station will have several platforms or ‘binario.’ The posted schedule will have a binario assigned in the last column but this can change. At every station there will be either a TV monitor or electronic sign stating which train is about to depart from which binario. Also, in front (or at the side) of each individual track there will be a sign with the destination posted for that particular train. When in doubt, ask a railway official (they will be in green suits) or the closest Italian. Keep an eye on the reader board as I have missed trains because the track (binario) was changed at the last minute. Announcements will be made prior to the trains arrival and most of the time it is repeated in English.
FINDING A SEAT
Once you find the correct binario or track and your train, you will need to make sure that you get on the right car. Cars are divided by first and second class. The first few cars will have a big number 1 by the door which designates them as first class, followed by cars marked with a 2 for second class. I always travel 2nd class because there is little difference between the two except the price. Each car will also have a number and the seats inside that car will be numbered. This only matters when you have purchased a ticket that requires a reservation, similar to an airplane. Connections between Florence and Venice for example are reserved seating. Just look at your ticket. If you have a car number ‘carozza’ and seat number listed then that is where you must sit. Otherwise it is first come first serve and can get a little crazy. If you hit rush hour, you may have a hard time finding a seat. My trick…walk to the end of the train, hop on and move forward to find a seat. Many times the first few cars will be packed while the last few are wide open because everyone has tried to get on the train at the front of the station. Don’t panic if you can’t find a seat or find ones together. Places will open up as people get off at their stops, just keep your eyes open.
Ladies: You can’t pick who is in your family, but you can choose who you sit by. If you are traveling alone, find a seat next to a nun or cute old lady, otherwise you may find yourself sharing a seat with a dirty old man. NEVER pick an empty compartment or row of seats. It is better to choose your seat mates than have them choose you.
If you are getting nervous that the train will leave without you, you can always hop on and move through the cars from inside. The train can’t physically leave while a car door is open, so you won’t have to worry about leaving a travel companion on the platform. Rarely a smaller train will require a ‘reservation’ that wasn’t listed. Don’t worry, they won’t kick you off. Just smile and play dumb, they will just ask you to pay the difference on the spot and can even take credit cards. Large luggage will not always fit above or under your seat and must be stored near the front of the car (storage space and racks are normally provided). I have never had a problem with theft, but I do make sure I keep my eye on the suitcase at all stops and keep any valuables with me in my day pack. If you are traveling in Southern Italy or on a night train keep your bags with you at all times and when you are ready to sleep attach a strap from your luggage to the rack. Italian thieves do not want to work too hard and this is just enough to encourage them to move on.
You can buy your tickets several ways. Tickets can be purchased at the station at any time; you do not have to wait until the day you are ready to travel. At the large stations, the lines can be irritatingly long so plan ahead. A time saver would be to buy all your tickets at one stop from a local travel agent or to purchase them at a smaller station or during less busy times. Write down the connections and dates that you need on a piece of paper to hand to the person; this makes the process much easier. Most stations also have automated ticket machines, which work like an ATM. You scroll through a long list until you find your destination. This is a simple, easy and quick way to get your tickets yet they stand alone almost unused by most Italians. Don’t be afraid, they work well but Italians just don’t trust them because they are electronic. When asked ‘Fidelity Card?’ you must say no.
Your ticket must be validated before you board. There are yellow boxes posted all around the station, simply put your ticket in all the way to receive the time and date stamp. If you forget, you run the risk of high penalties from the train conductors who are not always the happiest people on earth.
TRAIN TRICKS AND MANNERS
Trains in Italy are not as timely as in other areas of Europe. I find that the later in the day you get, the later the train. If you want to be somewhere, try to get the earliest train that you can handle. Strikes are also very common throughout Italy; the only nice thing about them is that they are planned ahead of time so you can too. Strikes only last one day at a time and not over holidays or in August.
Opening the train door may sound simple but not always easy to do. Most trains have a button on the side which will open the doors, similar to an elevator button. This is the same when walking inside the train between the cars. Older trains tend to have handles or levers. Try rocking the handle clockwise (or counter clockwise if that didn’t work) or rotating it up and down.
The toilets empty out on the tracks and it is considered impolite to use the restroom while at a station or stop. I know because I was an offender.
Most trains have a snack car where you can purchase over priced sodas, beer/wine or snacks. I prefer to pack a lunch from the local market and eat that on the train. This is very acceptable and a fun way to get to know the people you are traveling with.
NOT MISSING YOUR STOP
Each stop has several signs with the name marked in white on a large blue background and you are given enough time to grab your things and exit. Watch for towns along the way that are before your stop so that you are ready to go just in case. The schedule at the station will have the approximate arrival time at each stop which gives you an idea of when to be ready.
If you are getting off in a major city like Rome or Florence, make sure you don’t leave the train too early. Most of the major hubs have stations that are dead ends and hard to miss. If for some reason you exited too soon just grab the next train coming through.
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