This is Part Two of a three-part series on train travel in Italy. See the other two posts:
Part One: Understanding the Schedule
Part Three: Your Journey and Getting Off at the Right Stop
Purchasing your ticket and boarding
One of the questions that I see asked frequently on the internet travel forums comes from people who want to know if it is necessary or advisable to purchase their tickets in advance from the US. I would say that the answer is generally no. Unless you are traveling on a very popular route on a fast train with reserved seating at a high demand time, there is usually no reason to purchase in advance, unless you want to try and grab one of the limited discount “Mini” fares available only by advance purchase. Advance discounted sales are not available on regional trains, which are very inexpensive to begin with. Normally, you will just purchase your tickets at the station prior to boarding, or a few days in advance if you happen to be near the station.
If you are looking to purchase for a longer trip in advance you can do so on the FS Trenitalia website. www.trenitalia.com The site is available in English, but it is not particularly user friendly and I have found that US credit cards are frequently rejected by this Italian company even after you have successfully completed all of the previous steps. I recently obtained two advance purchase Mini fare tickets through another company, Italiarail www.italiarail.com. The transaction could not have been easier and there was only a $5 US transaction fee above the cost of the tickets, but let’s get back to the station.
Be sure to arrive at the station early and allow plenty of time to make your purchase if you are buying before boarding. The ticket windows may have long lines. Part of the anxiety attached to train travel in Italy is how to navigate an unfamiliar system when you don’t speak the language. Don’t worry about the language issue. You can try buying tickets in Italian if you’ve been practicing, but there’s no need. I’m quite sure that the person in the booth will understand “two round trip tickets to Florence please,” just as well as “due biglietti andata e ritorno a Firenze per piacere.” Good pronunciation of the name of your destination is far more important than understanding the language. As an easy alternative to the ticket window you can also use the automatic kiosks that most stations now have. You can usually select an English transaction, so don’t be afraid to try the machines, but be sure to bring some smaller bills with you as these machines usually limit the amount of change they will give and some do not take credit cards.
Before you board be certain to stamp your ticket in one of the little yellow or orange boxes that you see hanging on the wall in the station and on the platform. Just insert the ticket and push it firmly into the slot. Some machines are balkier than others. Try again if you do not hear it stamp. Find another box if it does not work after several tries, they don’t always work! You MUST validate your ticket before you board by stamping it, as your ticket is not valid for travel without this stamp! Forgetting to do so will result in a fine if the conductor on board discovers you riding on an unstamped ticket. Keep your validated ticket in a safe place to show the conductor if he asks you. Do not validate your return ticket until just before boarding on your return trip. Regional travel tickets are good for six hours after they are stamped, so this means you can make intermediate stops on that line using the same ticket.
When you are waiting for your train to arrive, pay attention. Keep track of the TV screens that are now in most stations. They announce arriving trains and what track (binario) they will be on. Rarely, you may find a change of arrival tracks and trains are sometimes late (in ritardo), so do not just hop on the next train, or you may end up visiting an unexpected destination. We always try to listen to the announcements over the loudspeaker, but we have often found it to be next to impossible to understand what is being said as the loudspeakers usually have the sound quality of someone with a pillowcase over their head talking into a paper bag.
One of the most useful tips that I share with clients in our orientation is how to confirm that this is the correct train before you board. It’s actually a no-brainer even if you don‘t speak any Italian. Find someone on the platform who does not look like a tourist. Simply say the name of your desired destination with the intonation of a question and watch for the person’s head to bob or nod either “yes,” or “no,” or shrug an “I don’t know?” If the person does not know, simply ask someone else. Once again, there is no need to speak or understand Italian, but proper pronunciation of the name of your destination town is helpful. If you follow these simple instructions, you should now be able to find your correct train, purchase and validate your ticket, and get on board without having a meltdown, but here’s one more word of advice: never panic, no matter what the situation is. Italy is a civilized country, generally safer than the US, and most Italians actually like Americans and are happy to help you. You will always return home somehow.
Part Three of this series offers some practical advice about your actual train ride and how to know when to get off at the correct stop.