Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.


  1. Doug:

    Going to Italy is its own punishment.

  2. Xmas:

    Wait?!!? How can the Eurail pass be more expensive than the tickets AND you're required pay extra on top of the pass both be true?

    That's just wrong.

  3. Rick Caird:

    What happened that got your car hit three times in one week? Was it moving or parked? Are there some rules of the raod we just don't know about?

    Last April I spent one day driving form LeHavre to Rouen. I couldn't pay the toll on the road until some guy who knew enough English told me to insert a credit card in a certain slot. Without the GPS we would still be looking for the square in Rouen and we would never have gotten back to Hertz in LeHavre. It is a good thing we decided to drive, though. When we got to LeHavre, the port workers went on strike and would not let any of the buses through. All those people who were looking forward to their first trip to Paris were out of luck. I did like Rouen, though,

    So much for "the trains are great in Europe. We need to get us some here."

  4. pdb:

    What happened that got your car hit three times in one week?

    He was sharing the road with Italians.

  5. caseyboy:

    The rest of the trip must have been outstanding to overcome the train frustration. Reminds me of why I'm a stay-cation kind of guy (though my wife says its because I'm cheap).

  6. smcg:


    I spent 4 weeks a couple of years ago driving the highways and by-ways of Italy. Adrenalin rush every day from the driving of many Italians! Apparently they have some of the highest road crash/casualty rates in the developed world.

    Really nice people once they are out of their cars though!!

  7. Henry Bowman:

    Perhaps Coyote did not follow the first rule of driving in Italy: you are never supposed to be behind anyone.

  8. Evil Red Scandi:

    Perhaps they should rent tanks instead?

  9. me:

    Ouch - wish you had blogged about that intention before buying the pass. Italy is the one country where it didn't work out for me and the experience with trains there was so bad that I swore I'd take the car next time, never mind my righteous fear of Italian traffic.

    Good think food, drink and company usually more than make up for the inconvenience.

  10. Mike:

    Don't mean to spam here - that is not the intent, but my website is relaunching in the next week or so and we will have a direct connection to the Trenitalia reservation system allowing for super easy and convenient booking of tickets and/or reservations and Norh American based customer service.

    Sorry to hear that you had such a rough time taking the train in Italy - it is true that in only a few cases that a Eurail pass makes sense in Italy. There is a 10 Euro reservation fee on almost all trains as pointed out. The pass covers the price of the ticket but not the reservation.

    The issue with the entering of dates on the pass is a serious one in that there is a lot of attempted fraud and most railways are cracking down on this - it is too bad you made an honest mistake but the same thing would likely have happened in Germany or France - maybe worse.

    I think in most cases the train makes a lot of sense and hopefully you will give it another chance! We get overwhelmingly positive feedback from our customers on the Italian train system.

  11. Mike C.:

    Great - another country to scratch off the list. At this rate I'm going to be down to cruise ships and Branson, MO for potential destinations. And the thought of either makes me ill.

  12. delurking:

    Well, you know, when Mussolini was running the place...

  13. Jeff:

    Captured my own Eurail-Italy experience to a T! I did discover that you can evade the reservation system often by hiding in the dining car of the train, particularly if the train is full. The price of coffee and you avoid standing in those terrible lines.

  14. Miro:

    I rent a car and spend vacation driving in Europe every year for last 25 years. Never had any accident. es, Italian drivers are special, and I consider coming out from driving in Rome and Milan unscathed, one of my biggest lifetime achievements.

    Yes, there is few rules of driving in Europe largely unknown or ignored in US:

    1st - you have to actually use turn signal there, other drivers take it seriously and make decision based on your signaling.

    2nd - when turning right - you have to move closer to the right side of the lane, and when turning left - move to left side of the lane, not like it is commonly done in US. Moving to the left may be read as your intention to turn left, and a driver behind you may attempt to pass you on your right.

    3rd - when turning on the multi-lane crossing you have to stick to your lane. From right hand lane turn into right hand lane. From left lane into left lane. This rule is strictly enforced and followed.

    4th - on the multi-lane high speed highway it is illegal to pass on the right side. Left lane is a "fast lane" and slower traffic must move to the right lane. When somebody is blocking the left lane, blink with your head lights, and he will move to the right lane. This rule does not apply to multi-lane city streets.

    Hopefully, this will help you make your next vacation more pleasant.

    Also, hospital bills in Europe are about 5 times lower than in US. So don't be concerned about money when you damage yourself or somebody. It is not gonna cost you a lot.

    Another piece of advice for those on a tight budget: Renting a car in Italy is about twice as expensive than in France or Austria, and they don't accept waivers. So, if you intend to visit Northern Italy, consider flying to Nice, France, or to Innsbruck, Austria. You can rent a car, go to Italy and the difference in price will pay for your fuel.

  15. handsome floyd:

    for henry bowman -

    i think you may have mistranslated the italian driving manual just a tad. while "never get behind anyone" is serviceable, i think perhaps the classic 'gumball rally' xlation works best:

    step 1: yank rear-view mirror off, throw out window.
    step 2: declare grandly, as if you were still a real *roman* and someone to be reckoned with, rather than just a fast-talk talk TALKing, wine-guzzling, serial-arguing bottom-pinching laughingstock of the civilized world: "what's-a BEhind not *important*."

  16. Eduardo:

    I live in Italy so I know the train system is complicated and confusing for most foreigners. There two types of trains local and eurostars (and some in the middle like IC etc) for the last you need to reserve a seat number. That seems it was your problem with the Eurostar trains. You have to cover the difference to have the sit reservation ... it should be free, if you ask me, to eurilpass members but ... it doesn't work that way.

    I helped in the train a couple of americans with a similar problem to the one you are sharing and they escaped with their wallets unharmed but it requires some talking.
    My guess is that if you insisted your fate would have been the same.

    Regarding the sit reservation your experience is not common as if the train is not completely full people will switch sits. For example to sit alone ... etc. Of course if the legitimate "owner" asks you to move you will have to do so.

    I lived 6 years in the US and I can share a full book of weird American experiences... in the land of the "FREE"

  17. DirkH:

    Simple rule for driving in Italy: Italians are anarchists. Forget the turn signal and the lanes. Just look ahead and drive. Only ever look to the side when you need to change direction. Just look ahead. Don't ever look back.

    Italians break abruptly, that's why you gotta look ahead. When somebody in front of you breaks, DON'T EVER SWERVE! Just break as well.

  18. actsofvolition:

    I use(d) the trains in Italy and France without much problem, and in both cases, buying tickets from the machines in the local station is always a relatively painless experience (in multiple languages, payment by credit card etc..) Whenever I've had any doubts, Ive always asked the locals who appear bemused but friendly.

    That said, on the train from Milan to Paris, alot of people were having problems with their Eurail tickets because they had not paid a supplementary reservation fee. They were furious as you'd expect. Personally, I enjoy the more 'authentic' experience of buying tickets and riding like a local, it certainly seems to be less hassle than the Eurail pass!

    In defence of the italians, the Italian state machinery is less "organised" and more open to corruption than the more corporate quasi-private SNCF in France. You could probably sweet talk the Italians into turning a blind eye (and there were plenty of Italians without tickets or sat in the wrong place) but I wouldnt try it in France.

    One last point, the sort of nonsense you find in the UK is unfortunately the result of botched privatisation and state corporatism. Rail companies in the UK are private and the story you link to is an unfortunate example of honest people taking advantage of special prices without reading the small print.