Monday, May 9, 2016

Buying Train Tickets Before You Leave Home

   So, you're planning your great adventure to Italy! As you Google through countless beautiful photos trying to decide where to go once you get there, you should also be figuring out you're going to get to those places once you are in Italy. Will you rent a car and drive everywhere, will you sign up for a tour or will you venture out into the real country with Italians on a train? Traveling to rural areas and not going by anyone else's schedule might be attractive enough to you to rent a car. If so, here is a site with a lot of good info on driving in Italy. Remember, a car can be fairly useless in the big cities unless you're a resident and, even then, there might be very restricted driving in the city centers and less parking.
Italian train station, Florence.

   Of course, everyone may not be comfortable with driving or arranging their own train travel. Traveling with a group on an escorted tour of Rome, Venice and Florence or other areas may have advantages for people who want a planned itinerary. Here is a site that might help you in your decision about using an escorted tour.

   We have yet to rent a car on our three trips to Tuscany and we feel very positive that train travel has not hindered our ability to see everything we'd like. Still, it's good to know that there are hundreds of day tours you can arrange before you go or after you get there. One very reliable tour reservation provider that we used twice on our 2011 trip was Viator. We took a half day Chianti wine country tour and a full day walking, train, boat tour of Cinque Terre. The wine tour was especially nice because otherwise, without a car, we might not have seen the beautiful Tuscan scenery up close. We totally enjoyed both tours and taking a break from being responsible for planning each day was just great!
Greve in Chianti on 1/2 day wine tour.

A view from the Castello di Querceto Winery, Greve in Chianti.

Cinque Terre view on full day walking, train and boat tour.

   Since, we weren't going to have a car, we needed to plan a few of our train trips before leaving home. Once, we had developed a draft itinerary, we headed to the Trenitalia site for train ticket information. This past year, because we had lodging reservations for three cities and we knew for certain when we had to travel, we bought three important train tickets before we left home: 1) Milan to Bologna- 18 euros ($20) for two, 2) Bologna to Florence - 26 euros ( $29) for two,  and 3) Florence back to Milan for our flight home - 34 euros ($38) for two.  By buying these tickets on the Trenitalia site this way we saved 40-75% on each ticket. All of our tickets were 2nd Class on the fast trains, Frecciargento and Frecciarossa. We were aware that once these tickets were purchased we would have to travel on the days we had selected and there could be no changes or refunds. It is possible for these trains to be sold out if you wait too long, especially for popular routes like Florence-Venice, Florence-Milan and Florence-Rome. On our first trip in 2011, we bought our train tickets for our day trip from Florence to Venice (Venezia S. Lucia station) at Santa Maria Novella train station (Firenze SMN) in Florence a couple days ahead of time. We paid 86 euros ($125) each round trip RT, but in 2014, we purchased our tickets online at least a month before leaving home and paid just $65 each RT. Two advantages we had in 2014 - buying online in advance and a much better exchange rate (please see my earlier post, "How Much Does It Cost." Also in 2014, we took a day trip to Rome from Florence on Italotreno; the tickets cost 36 euros each ($48) RT which was a great deal! Those were advance online purchases, too.

From Rick Steves:
  • "Advance-purchase discounts are available online for reserved, medium-speed and faster trains (but not regional trains), and come in three price levels: "Super Economy" (up to 75 percent off), "Economy," and "Base" (full, unrestricted) fare. Privately owned Italo trains have similar advance-purchase rates between major cities."

   Tickets on regional trains usually can not be purchased more than 7 days in advance, but the trains do not sell out. Tickets can be bought the day of travel, if you like, but still get to the train station early to buy your tickets. There could be long lines at the ticket counter and at the machines. One warning: don't accept ticket help from anyone who isn't an official train station employee, especially at the machines. Also, it's good to remember, in my opinion,  that 2nd Class tickets save you money and there is little difference in ambiance between 2nd and 1st Class travel on Italian trains.

   On our last trip we traveled between three cities on trains with our luggage never out of our sight. The toughest part was lifting our one medium suitcase onto the train, but we managed with only the loss of the newspaper I had just bought to read on the train. Oops!There is a lot to learn about train travel and the best way to do that is to just go to the train station and buy your tickets and go. What's the worst that can happen? You might end up in the wrong town...that might work out perfectly in Italy! We have never really experienced a problem traveling by train in Italy. The train service is a far cry from what is available in the US - there is no comparison. The trains go almost everywhere and they go there often. It is a wonderful and easy way to travel, even with your luggage.
Milano Centrale Train Station.
Some of our validated train tickets...
Don't forget to validate your train tickets before you board the train and avoid a very large fine!

All aboard! Well, no one says that...

Other train (or bus) trips in 2014 and 2015 with prices from Florence (Firenze):
Riomaggiore via La Spezia (Cinque Terre) RT -  $78 each
Lucca RT - $25 each
San Gimignano (bus) RT - $19 ea.
Siena (bus) RT - $18 ea.
Pisa (and Livorno) RT - $24 ea.
San Miniato-Fuceccio RT - $12 ea.

Milan to Varenna-Esino (via Lecco) RT $15 ea.
Bologna to Parma (via Modena) RT $16 ea.

Here are two photos from our excursion to the  fantastic San Miniato White Truffle Festival last November:

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