Italy is a big country and unless you opt for a one-base holiday you will probably find yourself travelling around a fair bit. Both rail and bus services are good value and relatively efficient while regular ferries service the islands and local buses link more out-of-the-way areas. Internal flights can be worthwhile for some of the longer journeys – and may even work out cheaper than travelling by train. Naturally, you’ll have most flexibility with your own transport.
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The Italian train system is one of the least expensive in Europe, reasonably comprehensive and, in the north of the country at least, pretty efficient. Italian trains are run by Ferrovie dello Stato (FS; w fsitaliane.it), under the brand name Trenitalia (t 89 20 21), operating a comprehensive network across the country with numerous types of train. Most are pretty basic, with no refreshments. Sleeper trains connect the major Italian cities with cities such as Paris, Vienna, Hamburg and Barcelona. A high-speed line (Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, Salerno) forms part of the Eurostar network, served by the swish, super-comfortable 300km/hr Frecciarossa. Two other luxury trains, Frecciabianca and Frecciargento, are also capable of high speeds, but currently run on conventional tracks. The main Frecciargento routes are Venice or Verona–Bologna–Florence–Rome–Bari. The Frecciabianca runs on the following routes: Turin–Milan–Verona–Venice; Milan–Rimini–Ancona–Pescara–Bari–Brindisi; and Milan–Genoa–La Spezia–Pisa–Rome. Seat reservations are required before you board for all of these services, and even if you have a rail pass you will need to pay a small supplement. However, tickets are best purchased in advance online.
InterCity (IC) trains are the common long-distance expresses, which call only at larger stations, and also require seat reservations; tickets sold online or at stations automatically include the seat reservation. The main InterCity routes are Rome–Naples–Sicily; Rome–Pisa–Cinque Terre–Genoa–Milan; and Milan–Genoa–Ventimiglia (for Nice). Lastly, there are the ultra-cheap Regionale (R) and Regionale Veloce (RV) services, which stop at everywhere wit ha population higher than zero. No reservation is necessary, and there's no need to buy in advance.
A relative newcomer is NTV (Nuovo Transporto Viaggiatori), a private company whose high-speed Italo trains (w italotreno.it) run the same route as the Frecciarossa (at similar prices), as well as Venice–Bologna–Florence–Rome–Naples. There are also a number of smaller privately run lines, using separate stations but charging similar fares to the FS trains.
Timetables and fares
Timings and route information are posted up at train stations. If you’re travelling extensively invest in the Tutt’Italia timetable (available as a book or a CD), which covers the main routes and is sold at train-station newspaper stands. The Trenitalia websote (w trenitalia.com) has an excellent journey planner.
Basic fares are calculated by the kilometre, with supplements added depending on the type of train. There are huge savings to be had by booking in advance online.
Sleepers (cuccetta) are available on many long-distance services, and prices vary according to the length of journey and whether or not you’re sharing. Children aged 4–14 pay half-price on national trains (Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, Frecciabiance, InterCity), but only under-12s qualify for child fares on regional trains: under-4s (not occupying a seat) travel free on all trains. Return tickets are valid within two months of the outward journey, but as two one-way tickets often cost the same it’s hardly worth bothering.
A rail pass is unlikely to be worthwhile for an Italy-only trip. Prices are low and as you need to have a reservation for the faster trains, the convenience of a pass is outweighed by the extra queues and booking fees.
Europe-wide InterRail and Eurail passes are accepted on the Trenitalia network, though you will still have to book for certain trains and pay a supplement for travel on the Freccia trains; children’s, youth (under-26) and group tickets are available.
Trains don’t go everywhere and sooner or later you’ll probably have to use regional buses (autobus). Nearly all places are connected by some kind of bus service, but in out-of-the-way towns and villages schedules can be sketchy and are drastically reduced – sometimes nonexistent – at weekends, especially on Sundays. Bear in mind also that in rural areas schedules are often designed with the working and/or school day in mind – meaning an early start if you want to catch that day’s one bus out of town, and occasionally a complete absence of services during school holidays.
There’s no national bus company, though a few regional ones do operate beyond their own immediate area. Bus terminals or autostazione, are often conveniently located next to the train station; wherever possible we’ve detailed their whereabouts in the text. In smaller towns and villages, most buses pull in at the central piazza; timetables are widely available. Buy tickets immediately before you travel from the bus station ticket office, or on the bus itself; on longer hauls you can try to buy them in advance online direct from the bus company, but seat reservations are not normally possible. If you want to get off, ask Posso scendere?; “the next stop” is la prossima fermata.
City buses are always cheap, usually costing a flat fare of around €1. Tickets are commonly available from newsagents and tobacconists, but also from anywhere displaying a sticker saying “tickets” or “biglietti”, including many campsite shops and hotel front desks. Once on board, you must validate your ticket in the machine at the front or back of the bus. The whole system is based on trust, though in most cities checks for fare-dodging are regularly made, and hefty spot-fines are levied against offenders. Several cities, including Rome, now allow you to buy tickets on board – usually for a small supplement.
Travelling by car in Italy is relatively painless, though cities and their ring roads can be hard work. The roads are good, the motorway network very comprehensive, and the notorious Italian drivers rather less erratic than their reputation suggests – in the north of the country at least. The best plan is to avoid driving in cities as much as possible; the congestion, proliferation of complex one-way systems and confusing signage can make it a nightmare.
Bear in mind that traffic can be heavy on main roads (particularly over public holiday weekends and the first and last weekends of August) and appalling in city centres. Rush hour during the week usually runs from 7.30am to 9am and from 5pm to 9pm, when roads in and around the major cities can be gridlocked.
Although Italians are by no means the world’s worst drivers they don’t win any safety prizes either. The secret is to make it very clear what you’re going to do – and then do it. A particular danger for unaccustomed drivers is the large number of scooters that can appear suddenly from the blind spot or dash across junctions and red lights with alarming recklessness.
Most petrol stations give you the choice of self-service (Fai da te) or, for a few centesimi more per litre, someone will fill the tank and usually wipe down the windscreen while they’re at it. Petrol stations often have the same working hours as shops, which means they’ll be closed for a couple of hours at noon, shut up shop at around 7pm and are likely to be closed on Sundays. Outside these times many have a self-service facility for which you pay into a machine between the pumps by bank note or, more rarely, credit card; these are often not well advertised so you might need to go onto the forecourt to check.
Rules of the road
Rules of the road are straightforward: drive on the right; at junctions, where there’s any ambiguity, give precedence to vehicles coming from the right; observe the speed limits – 50km/hr in built-up areas, 110km/hr on dual carriageways (90km/hr when it's raining) and 130km/ph on autostradas (110km/hr in the rain); for camper vans, these limits are 50km/hr, 80km/hr and 100km/hr respectively – and don’t drink and drive. Drivers need to have their dipped headlights on while using any road outside a built-up area.
The centres of many Italian towns and villages have a Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL; restricted traffic area) where vehicle access is for residents only. These zones are marked by a red-rimmed circular road sign giving the hours and days of the limitation and are vigorously enforced, often by police on the ground as well as by cameras. Note that car-rental companies invariably pass the fine on. If your hotel is within one of these areas make sure the reception arranges a provisional transit permit with the local police.
If you’re bringing your own car, as well as current insurance, you need a valid driving licence and an international driving permit if you’re a non-EU licence holder. If you hold a UK pre-1991 driving licence you’ll need an international driving permit or to update your licence to a photocard version. It’s compulsory to carry your car documents and passport while you’re driving, and you can be fined on the spot if you cannot present them when stopped by the police. It’s also obligatory to carry a warning triangle and a fluorescent jacket in case of breakdown. For more information, consult w theaa.com.
The majority of motorways (autostrade) are toll roads. Take a ticket as you join the motorway and pay on exit; the amount due is flashed up on a screen in front of you. Paying by cash is the most straightforward option – booths are marked “cash/contanti” and colour-coded white. To use the Viacard lane (colour-coded blue), you'll have to buy a prepaid magnetic card, available at tollbooths, at Punto Blu service points, in some banks nad tabacchi shops, newspaper stands and petrol stations. Avoid the Telepass lane (colour-coded yellow), for which you have to have a linked bank account. Be alert as you get into lane as traffic zigzags in and out at high speed to get pole position at the shortest-looking queue. Rates aren’t especially high but they can mount up on a long journey. Since other roads can be frustratingly slow, tolls are well worth it over long distances, but be prepared for queues at exits at peak times.
Parking can be a problem. Don’t be surprised to see cars parked just about anywhere, notably on pavements and seemingly working tram lines and at bus stops – it would be unwise to follow suit. Parking attendants are especially active in tourist areas and if you get fed up with driving around and settle for a space in a zona di rimozione (tow-away zone), don’t expect your car to be there when you get back.
Most towns and villages have pay-and-display areas just outside the centre, but they can get very full during high season. An increasing number of towns operate a colour-coded parking scheme: blue-zone parking spaces (delineated by a blue line) usually have a maximum stay of one or two hours; they cost around €0.70–1.50 per hour (pay at meters, to attendants wearing authorizing badges or buy scratchcards from local tobacconists) but are sometimes free at lunchtimes, after 8pm and on Sundays. Meters can usually be fed the night before to allow a lie-in in the morning. Much coveted white-zone spaces (white lines) are free; yellow-zone areas (yellow lines) are for disabled drivers or delivery zones. In smaller towns, to use the designated areas, it’s handy to have a mini clock-like dial which you set and display in the windscreen, to indicate when you parked and that you’re still within the allowed limit. Rental cars generally come equipped with these, and some tourist offices have them too.
Car parks, usually small, enclosed garages, are universally expensive, costing up to €20 a day in big cities; it’s not unknown for hotels to state that they have parking and then direct you to the nearest paying garage. Parking at night is easier than during the day, but make sure you’re not parked in a street that turns into a market in the morning or on the one day of the week when it’s cleaned in the small hours, otherwise you’re likely to be towed.
Never leave anything visible in the car when you’re not using it, including the radio. Certain cities have appalling reputations for theft – in Naples, some rental agencies won’t insure a car left anywhere except in a locked garage. A patrolled car park is probably the safest overnight option, especially if you have foreign plates.
In the event of a breakdown, call the ACI (the national motoring association) on t 803 116, who will send someone out – this is expensive if you need a tow unless you already have cover with a motoring organization in your home country before you leave. Alternatively, consult the Yellow Pages (Pagine Gialle) under "Autoriparazioni" for specialized repaid shops.
Car rental in Italy can be pricey, especially in high season and in smaller towns. Local firms can be less expensive and often have an office at the airport –as do all the major chains – but generally the best deals are to be had by arranging things in advance. You need to be over 21 to rent a car in Italy and will need a credit card to act as a deposit when picking up your vehicle. If booking with a small local company, be sure to check whether CDW is included in the price before booking.
Sat nav systems are available to rent with cars from many outlets; reserve in advance.
Like most European countries, internal airfares in Italy have been revolutionized in the last decade or so. Small companies have taken on the ailing state airline and what used to be a form of business transport has become a good-value, convenient way of getting around the country. Budget airlines open and close every season and there are often special deals being advertised; it pays to shop around and, as always, book as far in advance as you can.
By ferry and hydrofoil
Italy has a well-developed network of ferries and hydrofoils operated by a number of different private companies. Large car-ferries connect the major islands of Sardinia and Sicily with the mainland ports of Genoa, Livorno, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Fiumicino and Naples, while the smaller island groupings – the Bay of Naples islands, the Pontine islands, the Aeolian islands – are usually linked to a number of nearby mainland towns. The larger lakes in the north of the country are also well served with regular ferries in season, although these are drastically reduced in winter.
Fares are quite expensive, with hydrofoils costing around twice as much as ferries, and on some of the more popular services – to Sardinia, for example – you should book well in advance in summer, especially if you’re taking a vehicle across. Remember, too, that sailings are cut outside the summer months, and some services stop altogether. You’ll find a broad guide to journey times and frequencies in the “Arrival and departure” sections within the Guide; for full schedules and prices, check the Italian website w traghetti.com.
By bike and motorbike
Cycling is a very popular sport and mode of transport in much of Italy. Italians in small towns and villages are welcoming to cyclists, and hotels and hostels will take your bike in overnight for safekeeping. On the islands, in the mountains, in major resorts and larger cities, it’s usually possible to rent a bike, but in rural areas rental facilities are few and far between.
Serious cyclists might consider staying at one of a chain of hotels (Italy Bike Hotels; w italybikehotels.it) that cater specifically for cycling enthusiasts. Each hotel has a secure room for your bike, a maintenance workshop, overnight laundry facilities, suggested itineraries and group tour possibilities, a doctor on hand and even dietary consultation. Bikes can be taken on local and slower inter-regional trains if you buy a supplemento bici (bike supplement) for a small fee, or for free in a bike bag; on faster Eurostar or equivalent trains cycles must be placed in bike bags.
An alternative is to tour by motorbike, though there are relatively few rental places. Mopeds and scooters are comparatively easy to find: everyone in Italy, from kids to grannies, rides one and although they’re not really built for long-distance travel, for shooting around towns and islands they’re ideal; we’ve detailed outlets in the Guide. Helmets are compulsory.