After one year of traveling through Italy–from Rome to Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily in the South to Tuscany and North–it is time to share with you my ultimate tips of how to navigate the country without your own car.
To me, any travel preparation, anywhere in Europe, starts with rome2rio. The site gives a basic overview of what transport options are available and also allows me to get a first idea of what price I am looking at.
Italy is surprisingly big–the boot-shaped mainland measures almost 1,200km, which is longer than the distance from Berlin to Paris–, and therefore flying cross-country occasionally is a good budget option. But most of the time trains and buses or a car sharing with BlaBlaCar win in terms of speed and budget.
To me the best way to discover Italy is by train: the network in the center and the North is tightly knit and if you stick to a few simple rules the prices are very affordable.
First up, there are two national companies operating in Italy (plus a few regional ones):
- Trenitalia is the national railway company. They operate all the regional trains plus the newer, faster, more expensive InterCity, EuroCity (in cooperation with other European railway companies such as Deutsche Bahn), FrecciaArgento, FrecciaRossa and FrecciaBianca trains. For all trains that are not treni regionali (i.e. Freccia* and *City trains) you need a reservation. That means these tickets are bound to a specific seat on a specific train.
- Italo trains are run by a private company. With two lines they serve major Northern cities Turin, Milan, Florence, Bologna and Venice as well as Rome and Naples. Tickets, if bought in advance, can be good deals–low cost for higher speed, better service, occasionally even 1st class–but will not be cheaper than the cheapest Trenitalia option.
Now, I start train trip prep by checking out the options on the TrenIt app (available for Android and iOS). The advantage of starting here is that they also include Italo trains and–for more complicated journeys–options that aren’t easily found on the Trenitalia app.
But if you don’t have a phone with the app available you can simply check Italo offers on their website (since their routes are limited that should be quick enough). If you end up wanting to travel on Italo I recommend booking ahead rather than on the day of travel at the station as discounted seats are limited.
Once you’ve ruled out Italo you can work with Trenitalia’s website/app or head to the station and play with the ticket machine.
I find both easy to use when you know one important thing: regional trains are cheap, not a lot slower than most Freccia trains and the tickets are not bound to a certain train.
That’s right: you can use any regional train ticket bought at the station on the booked itinerary anytime within 60 days from the date of purchase. Even better, once punched you always have 6 hours to complete your journey, a rule that allows you make stops in-between, say if you want to see a few villages on route from Taormina to Catania on Sicily…
But be careful: I recently saw someone with a regional ticket she had bought online and it was limited to one train. So buy your regional train tickets at the station–they are the same price.
How do you find those cheap tickets?
If you look at the Trenitalia website it will preferably display more expensive routes, often including Freccia and InterCity trains. On the website you can easily change that by checking the “Regionali” box at the top and with this one click the €30 trip from Vicenza to Milan is only €16.
On the app the box doesn’t exist, checking with TrenIt is the easiest remedy, another one is to test different routes (e.g. for Vicenza to Milan you’ll see that you can connect via Breschia and can look up Vicenza to Breschia and Breschia to Milan separately).
When you’re looking at the ticket machine at the station you’ll find a button in the bottom left corner which says “Show all connections”. That button is magic. Because it’s behind that button that the cheap prices are often hidden.
I usually do the following: I find and buy the cheapest ticket in the machine before or on the day I plan to travel (regardless of which concrete trains are listed, remember: you have 60 days to use the ticket on any regional train within the itinerary). When I want to actually go and whenever I have to change trains I check the yellow posters at the train station to find the departure time (partenze) for the next regional train to take me to my next stop on the itinerary.
If I happen to for some reason have to take an InterCity or Freccia train, after all, I play dumb when the conductor catches me, pointing at my ticket and the fact that it only specifies a vague itinerary (it doesn’t say anything about regional trains). So far I either got by without paying anything or the maximum I ever had to pay was the booking charge, prenotazione, in my case €8 from Southern Tuscany to Florence (in total I still paid less than the InterCity ticket would have cost me…).
Price-wise, if you are smart, the bus will only rarely be at an advantage compared to the train. Notable exceptions are highly frequented routes such as Pisa (airport) to Florence.
However, sometimes a (reasonable) itinerary by train simply doesn’t exist. While you can easily stick to trains when you travel to the usual tourist destinations and in central and northern Italy other regions are less endowed with iron horses.
Finding a bus in Italy can be a challenge. I vividly remember when I first arrived in Rome and desperately tried to get on a bus to Basilicata.
While you can get by looking at just the major European companies, Eurolines, Flixbus and megabus, I recommend checking Rome2Rio before you place your booking.
The national routes that the international providers cover–and many routes beyond those–are run by a multitude of Italian companies. Sometimes one company covers one region (Tuscany has an especially beautiful regional bus network), sometimes a company only has one route. But the bottom line is: there are too many companies to list them all and the best way to see the current status is by searching your route on a platform which compares the majority of providers.
Click on the following links to read about some of the specific, more intricate routes I have traveled into, within and out of Italy:
- From Rome to Policoro, in Basilicata
- How to get to Matera
- From Puglia to Sicily, Southern route
- Within Cinque Terre
- On pre-booking versus winging it
Car sharing with BlaBlaCar
Now, obviously, if you have the budget renting a car is a fabulous way to discover the numerous picturesque villages and small towns in Italy.
However, sticking to backpacking you might not be able to afford your own car. Car sharing platform BlaBlaCar is widespread and growing all over Italy and presents an easy, low-cost way to move between cities.
For better or worse, as of now, you cannot book a car directly via the app/website. Instead, you send an inquiry to the driver, which he is free to accept or not. That can be intimidating if you don’t speak Italian. The advantage here is that you don’t have to pay a fee to BlaBla but really only pay the price the journey is advertised for.
Given that Italy has a whopping 7,600km of coastline ferries are one last travel option I want to talk about.
Major international routes go to France and Spain in the West, Croatia, and Greece in the East and Tunisia in the South.
Major national routes connect the islands Sicily and Sardinia to the mainland, in the South in Naples, in the center in Livorno and in the North in Genova.
Though boat travel is charming and can save time if you opt against flying, it is also rather expensive.
That sums up my tips and tricks on how to use public transport on national travel in Italy. If you have any more questions or your own tips feel free to sound off on social media or below in the comments.