Getting around Italy: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Unless you opt for a one-base holiday, you will probably find yourself travelling around Italy a fair bit. When planning on how to get around Italy, it is worth considering personal and public transport options. Both rail and bus services are good value and efficient. Regular ferries service the islands, and local buses link more remote areas. Internal flights can be worthwhile and even work out cheaper than the train for some of the longer journeys. Naturally, you’ll have most flexibility with your own transport. Discover the best way of getting around Italy and plan your trip with our travel guide.
There are regular direct flights to Italy from the UK and the US. Airlines from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa fly via Asian or European cities. Rail connections with the rest of Europe are also good and link well into the national network.
Once in Italy, you’ll have a good choice of affordable and efficient transport options. Note that on Sundays and public holidays, the frequency of public transport can be heavily reduced or even non-existent, so it is important to check before you travel.
Getting around Italy by train is a great option. The Italian train system is pretty efficient and one of the least expensive in Europe. Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane runs trains under the brand name Trenitalia, operating a large network across the country. Sleeper trains connect the major Italian cities with Paris, Vienna, Hamburg and Barcelona.
All stations have yellow validating machines in which passengers must stamp their ticket. Passengers must validate their ticket before starting their journey. If your ticket is booked for a specific train, there is no need to stamp it. If in doubt, ask. Look out for the machines in the station or as you come onto the platform. Failure to validate your ticket can result in a hefty on-the-spot fine. Tourists who feign ignorance are not exempt.
Regionale trains are the most economical, but can be very slow. No reservation is necessary, and there’s no need to buy in advance for these.
Le Frecce is the country’s swish high-speed train network offering daily connections between the main cities. Book tickets in advance for the best fares. Seat reservations are required for all these services. Even if you have a rail pass you’ll need to pay a €10 or €15 supplement.
Intercity and Eurocity trains are fast and comfortable, connecting main towns. A number of Eurocity trains cross the border to connect with European cities.
Privately run high-speed Italo trains connect a number of destinations in Italy, from Bolzano in Alto Adige to Salerno in Campania. There are also a number of smaller privately run lines, using separate stations but charging similar fares to the FS trains.
Timings and route information are posted at train stations. Check the Trenitalia website for the latest schedules.
Fares are inexpensive. They are calculated by the kilometre and easy to work out for each journey. The timetables give the prices per kilometre. As a rough guide, a second-class one-way fare from Milan to Verona (1hr 50min) currently costs about €22 by Intercity, €13 on Regionale.
Return tickets are valid within two months of the outward journey, but as two one-way tickets cost the same it’s hardly worth bothering. Children aged 4–12 qualify for a fifty percent discount on all journeys. Children under four travel free.
There are huge savings to be had by booking in advance online, especially for Le Frecce. As a rough guide, a Frecciarossa high-speed train from Rome to Milan costs from €45 for the three hour journey.
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. You will still have to book for certain trains and pay a supplement for travel on the Freccia trains. Children’s, youth and group tickets are available.
If you are travelling around Italy by train, it is more than likely you will need to use a bus at some point. Nearly all places are connected by some kind of bus service, but in remote towns and villages schedules can be sketchy and are reduced, or even non-existent, at weekends.
Bus terminals (autostazione) are often conveniently located next to the train station. In smaller towns and villages, most buses pull in at the central piazza.
Buy tickets 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. To get off, ask Posso scendere? “The next stop” is la prossima fermata.
City buses are always cheap, usually costing around €1.20. Tickets are commonly available from newsagents and tobacconists. 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. Hefty fines are issued to offenders.
Depending on where you’re travelling to, it may be worth considering travelling around Italy on internal flights. These can sometimes be cheaper and quicker than travelling by train. Budget airlines open and close every season and there are often special deals being advertised. You can save by shopping around and, as always, booking as far in advance as you can.
Car rental in Italy can be pricey, especially in high season and in smaller towns. In bigger cities there are savings to be made. By booking in advance and shopping around, you can rent a small car for a week for under £100. Local firms can be less expensive and often have an office at the airport. 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. You 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 and as always, be sure to reserve in advance.
Camper van or mobile home holidays are in Italy are growing in popularity. They are convenient, facilities in campsites are usually dependable, and more and more resorts have created free camper-van parking areas (sosta camper). Blurent, Comocaravan and Magicamper are among the companies offering reasonably new quality vehicles for rent. Prices are usually around €900 for a four-berth vehicle for a week in high season, with unlimited mileage.
Driving is one of the best ways to travel around Italy. It is a great place for a self drive holiday, though cities and their ring roads can be hard work. The roads are good and the motorway network is very comprehensive. Italian drivers are also less erratic than their reputation suggests.
Driving in cities should be avoided whenever possible as congestion, complex one-way systems and confusing signage can make it a less than relaxing experience. Out of the towns, there are stunning rural routes like the Passo dello Stelvio in the Ortles mountains, which many claim to be one of Europe’s best drives.
Traffic can be heavy on main roads and appalling in city centres. During rush hour, roads in and around the major cities can be gridlocked and are best avoided.
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.
Rules of the road are straightforward. Italians drive on the right and give way to vehicles coming from the right. The speed limits are 50km/hr in built-up areas, 110km/hr on dual carriageways (90km/hr when it’s raining) and 130km/hr on autostradas (110km/hr in the rain). For camper vans, these limits are 50km/hr, 80km/hr and 100km/hr respectively. Drivers need to have their dipped headlights on at all times when using any road outside a built-up area. Drinking and driving is illegal, so do not do it.
The majority of Italian towns and villages have a Zona Traffico Limitato (ZLT; restricted traffic area), where 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.
If you’re bringing your own car, as well as current insurance, you need a valid driving license and an international driving permit if you’re a non-EU licence holder. It is important to carry your car documents and passport when driving as failure to provide them if stopped by the police, can result in a fine on the spot. It is also obligatory to carry a warning triangle and a fluorescent jacket in case of breakdown.
It is a legal requirement to have snow tyres or chains on board between mid-November and mid-April when travelling on motorways. You can incur a hefty fine if you are not suitably equipped.
The majority of motorways (autostrade) are toll roads. Take a ticket as you join the motorway and pay on exit. Paying by cash is the most straightforward option. Booths which accept cash are marked “cash/contanti” and colour-coded white. Avoid the yellow colour coded Telepass lane, for which you need a linked bank account.
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, and rates can mount up on a long journey.
Most petrol stations have someone who will fill the tank for you, with some giving the choice of self-service (fai da te). With the exception of the ones on motorways, they often have the same working hours as shops, meaning they’ll be closed for a couple of hours at midday, all day Sunday, and will close at around 7pm.
Outside opening hours, many petrol stations have a self-service facility for which you pay into a machine between the pumps by bank note or credit card. These are often not well advertised so you might need to go onto the forecourt to check.
In the event of a breakdown when travelling around Italy, call 116 or the ACI (the national motoring association) on 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. Alternatively, consult the Yellow Pages (Pagine Gialle) under “Autoriparazioni” for specialised repair shops.
Italians may seemingly park just about anywhere, but we advise not to follow suit. Parking attendants are especially active in tourist areas and if you park in a zona di rimozione (tow-away zone), then do not expect your car to be there when you get back.
Never leave anything visible in the car when you’re not using it. Certain cities have appalling reputations for theft. In Naples, some rental agencies won’t insure a car left anywhere except in a locked garage.
Most towns and villages have pay-and-display areas just outside the centre but these can get very full in high season. Lots of towns now operate a colour coded parking scheme:
Spaces in these zones (blue lines) have a maximum stay of one or two hours, cost around €0.70-1.50/hour, and are sometimes free at lunchtimes, after 8pm and on Sundays. You can usually pay at the meter or buy tickets from local tobacconists.
These spaces (white lines) are much coveted as they are free, so will be difficult to come by.
These areas (yellow lines) are for disabled drivers or delivery zones.
It is handy to have a mini clock like dial which you set and display in the windscreen when you park to indicate that you’re still within the allowed limit. Rental cars generally come with these, and some tourist offices have them too.
Secure car parks often come in the form of small, enclosed garages, which are universally expensive. These can cost up to €20 a day in big cities. A patrolled car park is probably the safes overnight option, especially if you have foreign plates.
Finding a place can be much easier at night, but make sure you’re not parked on a street which becomes a market in the morning or on the day of the week it gets cleaned in the small hours, otherwise you’re likely to be towed.
Cycling is a very popular sport and mode of transport in much of Italy. Hotels and hostels will take your bike in overnight for safekeeping. On the islands, in the mountains, around the Italian Lakes, in major resorts and larger cities, it’s usually possible to rent a bike. In rural areas rental facilities are few and far between. Unless you are travelling to Italy for a cycling trip, public transport or renting a car, remain the best way to travel around Italy, especially over long distances.
Serious cyclists might consider staying at one of a chain of hotels, such as Italy Bike Hotels. These hotels cater specifically for cycling enthusiasts. Each provide 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 Regionale trains if you buy a supplemento bici (bike supplement) for €3.50, or for free in a bike bag. On faster Eurostar or equivalent trains cycles must be placed in bike bags.
It is possible to tour Italy by motorbike, but there are relatively few rental places. Mopeds and scooters are comparatively easy to find: virtually everyone in Italy can ride one and although they’re not really built for long-distance travel. They are ideal for shooting around towns and islands. Helmets are compulsory.
Boat and Hydrofoil are the best ways to travel to Italy’s islands from the mainland.
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.
The smaller islands of 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 boats and ferries in season, but are drastically reduced in winter.
Fares are quite expensive, and on some of the more popular services, to Sardinia, for example, you should book well in advance in summer. Remember that sailings are cut outside the summer months, and some services stop altogether. For full schedules and prices, check directferries.co.uk or the Italian website traghetti.com.
Top image: Travelling in italian Alps © Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock