How to get around in Italy
Trains in Italy are generally good value; frequent, but of mixed reliability.
The railway market in Italy has been recently opened to competition, so on some high speed routes you have the choice between “Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori” (privately owned) and “Trenitalia” (state owned). On every other route, the state is the sole player, with either Trenitalia or a regional operator monopolizing local markets.
Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, ☎ 060708.NTV’s “.Italo” train started Italy’s high speed network in 2012. Their services have expanded ever since, currently serving Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Naples and other major cities. While they are not positioning themselves as a low cost carrier (focusing instead on providing a much better service), for some routes and dates their prices may be substantially lower than the competition. Check their website along with Trenitalia’s to choose the cheapest or most convenient solution. Italian people generally refer to NTVas Italo.Trenitalia, ☎ 892021. Trenitalia runs a wide range of train types: high-speed trains(Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, Frecciabianca, Eurostar Italia), Intercity, regional trains(Regionali, Regionali Veloci) and international trains (Eurocity, Euronight).
High-speed trains are efficient and very comfortable, travelling up to 360km/h and stopping only at major stations. They connect Rome with Turin, Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Naples and other cities. They are also the most expensive train type by far. To travel on these trains you are required to pay a supplement to the standard ticket, which includes the booking fee.
Regional trains are the slowest, cheapest and less reliable, stopping at all stations.
Intercity trains are somewhere in between high-speed and local trains. They are generally reliable, but if you need to catch a flight, for example, it might be better to pay extra for the high-speed trains.
On long distance trains there are 1st and 2nd classes. A 2nd class ticket costs about 80% the price of a 1st class ticket. On high-speed trains you can also choose between basic, standard and flexible tickets. Basic tickets are of course the cheapest. On high-speed trains seating reservation is compulsory. This means your seat is theoretically guaranteed, but it also means you will need to purchase tickets in advance. Actually, many passengers with tickets for other trains that take a wrong one will have to pay the cheap fine for not having a seat reservation. As a result, on major routes or peak hours, expect to find your seat taken, in this case just showing the ticket is enough to get your seat.
During commuter hours, on major north-south routes during the holidays, or before and after large political demonstrations, trains on the lower train types can become extremely full, to the point where it gets very uncomfortable, in which case you could find yourself sitting on a tiny fold out flap in the hallway, where you’ll have to move for everyone passing by.
While between Milan and Naples (including Bologna, Florence and Rome) high-speed trains cut travel times in half, on other routes, such as between Rome and Genoa, Naples and Reggio Calabria, Venice and Trieste, high-speed trains travel on the traditional line rather than on a dedicated high-speed line, with only marginally shorter travel times compared to Intercity trains, thus taking them might be a waste of money. Just check the Trenitalia website or the printed schedule, usually located near the entrance to each platform, to see how long the trip will take.
On long routes, such as Milan – Rome or Milan – Reggio di Calabria, Trenitalia operates special night trains Treni Notte. They depart around 22.00 and arrive in the morning. Depending on the train, you may be able to choose between normal seats, couchette and sleeper cabins of different categories. Seats are cheapest, but even sleeper cabins are not prohibitively expensive and are a very relaxing way to travel long distances. Also keep in mind some trains do not provide air conditioning so bring your own water bottle during the hot summer months.
On the train schedules displayed at each station, every train is listed in different colours (i.e. blue, red, green). The arrival times are listed in parentheses next to the names of each destination. One thing to watch out for is that certain trains only operate seasonally, or for certain time periods (for example, during holidays).
The lines to buy tickets can be very long, and slow, so get to the station early. There are touch-screen ticket machines which are very useful, efficient, and multilingual, but there are never that many, and the lines for those can be very long too.
You can also buy tickets online on the Trenitalia website; you will receive a code (codice di prenotatione (PNR)) that is used to pick up the ticket from a ticket machine in the station (“Self Service”). For some (but not all) trains you can also choose a ticketless option, where you print out the ticket yourself. See also below at Trenitalia Ticketless. You can also choose an option to have a “proper” receipt printed on the train, should you need one. By default the site will only show the “best” (usually more expensive) connections – you may select to “show all connections” to see if there are slower but cheaper connections available.
High-speed trains can fill up, so if you’re on a tight schedule you should buy those tickets in advance. In general, you should buy the tickets beforeboarding the train. The Italian Rail recently (end of 2007) started a campaign against fare evasion, and introduced heftier fines (starting at €50). If you’re really running late and you have no ticket, it’s probably best to directly talk with the conductor (il controllore or il capotreno) outside the train when boarding.
Remember that you must validate the ticket before boarding most trains, by stamping it in one of the yellow boxes (marked Convalida). Travelling with an unstamped ticket is technically the same as travelling without ticket. It is quite important not to forget to validate your ticket as the conductors are generally not tolerant in this particular matter. The exception are tickets which specify the day and time of travel; since those are only valid for one specific train they generally do not need to be validated.
The cheapest way to travel in a region is to buy azone ticket card. A chart displayed near the validating machine tells you how many zones you must pay between stations. To buy a zone card for the next region you would have to get off the train at the last station and because the stops are so short you would have to board the next train (usually in about 1 hour).
Since 2005 a smoking ban in public places has been in effect in Italy. You will be subject to fines for smoking on any Italian train.
There are special deals offered too, some of them are reserved to foreign tourist and others are available to locals. Some deals are passes that allow travel during a chosen period, while other special offers are normal tickets sold at decent prices with some restrictions. Before you choose to buy a pass, check first if it is cheaper than buying a normal ticket (or better, a discounted normal ticket, if available).
If you are travelling a lot, and you’re not Italian and a resident of another EU nation, you can get aTRENITALIA PASS: you buy a number of days of travel to be used within 2 months, however you still have to pay a supplement on the compulsory reservation services, i.e. TBiz, Eurostar Italia, Intercity Plus and Intercity which will betweenEUR 5.00 and EUR 25.00 depending on the train type. Details are on the Trenitalia website, and also on the RailChoice website.
Trenitalia’s Ticketless option is only available when booked online or at an approved travel agency, and only for high-speed and intercity trains. The Ticketless solution allows you to buy a ticket online, get a PNR code via mail and board the train directly. You can choose whether to obtain a receipt by email or pick it up on board the train. On board you must tell the conductor yourPNR code to allow him/her to issue the receipt, or confirm your presence on board if you have already obtained the payment receipt by email.
The advent of low cost carriers made domestic air travel a viable option for almost everyone. When booked in advance, plane tickets for long trips are almost always cheaper than train fares. The most prominent competitors in the domestic air travel market are Alitalia, Ryanair and Easyjet. Blue Express and Meridiana Fly follow suit, with other small players appearing and disappearing often.
Pass either side
Italy has a well-developed system of motorways (autostrade) in the North, while in the South it’s a bit worse for quality and extent. Every motorway is identified by an A followed by a number on a green backdrop. Most motorways are toll roads. Some have toll stations giving you access to a whole section (particularly the tangenziali of Naples, Rome, and Milan, for example), but generally, most have entrance and exit toll stations; on those motorways, you need to collect a ticket upon entrance and your toll amount will be calculated upon exit depending on the distance covered. Tolls depend on the motorways and stretches; as a rough estimate, you should expect a toll between €0.06 and €0.12 for each kilometre. Don’t lose your entrance ticket, for if you do, it will be assumed you have entered the motorway at the farthest station from your exit and be charged the maximum toll possible. All the blue lanes (marked“Viacard”) of toll stations are automatic machines accepting major credit cards as well as pre-paid cards (called Viacard) that are for sale at service stations along the motorway or for instance at several tobacconists’ in cities. If you have problems with the machine (e.g. your credit card can’t be read), press the assistenza button and wait for an operator to help you – be prepared to have to pay your toll in cash if problems persist. Do not reverse to move into another lane, even if you might see other locals doing it, unless the personnel or the police clearly instruct you to do so; reversing in toll stations is considered equivalent to reversing on the motorway and very heavily fined if you get caught.
Many Italians use an electronic pay-toll device, and there are reserved lanes marked in Yellow with the sign “Telepass” or a simply “T”. Driving through those lanes (controlled by camera system) without the device will result in a fine and a payment of the toll for the longest distance. Due to agreement with other countries, if you’re foreigner, you’ll pay also extra cost for locating you in your country.
Speeding on the autostrade is nowadays far less common than in the past because of sensibly strengthened control in the last years. There are a number of automatic and almost invisible systems to punish speeding and hazardous driving, also Italian Highway Patrol (Polizia Stradale) operates several unmarked cars equipped with very advanced speed radars and camera systems. Since 2006, several sections of the Italian Highways are equipped with an automatic system called Tutorwith automatic license plate recognition, which checks the average speed of all vehicles over a road stretch. The coverage of this system is being extended to more and more motorways. At times, road signs will remind you of the presence of this system.
If virtually all vehicles around you seem to behave, scrupulously driving at the speed limit or even a bit below, this is a good hint that some kind of enforcement system is in operation on that road. As a foreigner, it will be better to stay on the safe side and respect limits and rules at all times, even when locals driving like crazy might lead you to think a certain speed limit or “no passing” sign was a mere suggestion: every now and then, those locals do encounter the police on their way.
Flashing your headlights may be interpreted differently to the way you intend. Flashing your lights may be understood either as a request to give way or as an invitation to go first, depending on the situation. A vehicle coming in the opposite direction flashing repeatedly might warn you about a danger or a police car/checkpoint further on the road (although this practice is forbidden).
Unless different limits are posted, general speed limits are:
130 km/h on motorways (autostrade) (110 km/h in case of rain);110 km/h on divided, grade-separated highways marked with blue motorway signs at the entrances, called superstrade;90 km/h general speed limit on highways and roads outside urban areas;50 km/h in urban areas – an urban area beginning with a white sign with the town/city name written in black, and ending with a similar sign barred in red.
Italian laws allow a 5% (minimum 5 km/h) tolerance on speed limits. Fines are generally very expensive. If you are caught doing more than 40 km/h over the speed limit, you will be fined in excess of €500 and will receive an immediate driving ban from 1 to 3 months, leaving you on foot that very moment (you may reach the destination of your current journey). Non-resident drivers of vehicles with foreign registration are required either to pay their fines on the spot if they accept it, or to pay a deposit on the spot if they intend to appeal afterwards; either way, you must pay something immediately and the police won’t hesitate to escort you to the nearest ATM to withdraw the cash you need. While chances of getting caught are admittedly not terribly high, you really don’t want all of this to happen to you.
As of 2003, all vehicles must use headlights at all times outside urban areas, including motorways. Motorbikes must drive with headlights on at all times everywhere.
The issue of drunk driving has received a great deal of attention in the last years after a series of lethal accidents. The tolerated limit is 0.50g/L in blood; being above this limit is a crime punishable by heavy fines, license revocation, jail time and even immediate confiscation of one’s own vehicle in the most serious cases. The limit for drivers under 21 years of age or less than 3 years of driving experience or professional drivers is zero. Unfortunately, enforcement, although stronger than before, is still insufficient and drunk driving is still somewhat an issue.
All passengers are required to wear their seat belts and children under 10 must use the back seats. Children under 12 years of age must use either an approved car seat or a seat booster, depending on the age.
At unmarked intersections, you are supposed to yield to any vehicle coming from your right. Be on the look-out because many Italians seem to ignore this rule and will insist on an non-existent right of way just because they are going straight on or they are travelling on what they think is the main road, even if the intersection is actually completely unmarked. This especially occurs in large cities at night time, when traffic lights at some intersections are switched off. Most times, the minor roads at those intersections will have a “give way” sign, but sometimes they don’t, which is both confusing, because you never know if the crossing road has a sign or is unmarked, and dangerous because you might expect the vehicle coming from your left to let you pass while it will assume you have a “give way” sign and will carry on travelling like a bullet.
Be advised that many Italians don’t take road markings too seriously (a few of them don’t even seem to notice there are any road markings…), which can be odd if you come from north of the Alps. On multi-lane roads, you should always be wary of vehicles on other lanes invading your lane in curves. Lane markings in multi-lane roundabouts are systematically ignored and virtually all motorists will “cut off” while negotiating the roundabout and again when exiting, of course without signalling. There is a fair amount of confusion in Italy about the correct behaviour in large roundabouts; you should exercise caution there, expect vehicles entering, turning and exiting at any time without signalling and never travel side by side with other vehicles in a roundabout assuming the other will respect the lane markings.
Signposts used in Italy are patterned according to EU recommendations and use mostly pictographs (not text). Motorway (autostrade) directions are written on a green background while general highway signs (including those on the divided-carriageway, grade-separated superstrade) are on a blue background, and urban or local road signs are on a white one.
When on a timetable, use the autostrade – marked in green – where available and avoid using the general highways – marked in blue – for long distances (unless they are the divided-carriageway, grade-separated superstrade). While the toll on theautostrade can be rather expensive, they significantly decrease your travel time, whereas general roads can be annoyingly slow since they are heavily used by local traffic, can be clogged with trucks, can feature lots of roundabouts or traffic lights and will often run through towns and villages without bypasses. On the other side, general roads often offer breath-taking scenery and should be your first choice if you are not in a rush and want to explore the real nature of the country.
Fuel prices are in line with those in western Europe and considerably more expensive than in North America and Japan. As of 2012, prices wander about €1.80/L for gasoline and €1.70/L for diesel. At most stations, only one sort of 95-octane gasoline and one sort of diesel is available; some others additionally have premium gasoline and/or premium diesel sorts. At many service stations, there is a considerable price difference between self-service filling (self-service) and having an attendant do it (servito). The respective pumps are marked accordingly when you enter the gas station, and you are supposed to pull up to the pump(s) according to the type of service you’d like. If you stop at an attendant-served pump, just wait and an attendant will pop out within seconds.
Traffic in large Italian cities is really heavy and finding a parking spot can vary from a challenging to an impossible enterprise at times, so driving in Italian large cities is not advisable unless you really need to. Basically in any large city, you’ll be better off parking your vehicle at a park-and-ride facility or somewhere in the outskirts and using public transport, which is reasonably reliable and quite cheap. Be very careful with Zone a Traffico Limitato or 1 ZTLs (Limited Traffic Zones) They are restricted areas in many medium-sized and large Italian cities, mostly but not only in the historical centres, where only authorized vehicles are permitted. The entrance to a ZTL is marked by signs and cameras, which go easily unnoticed by tourists driving a car. Many tourists every year report being fined (about €100) for entering a ZTLunknowingly. Tourists renting a car will end up receiving one or more tickets months later at their homes, including additional fees for the paperwork needed to send the papers abroad. Also, the renting companies may charge from 15 to 50 euros to give the driver details to the police. So entering those zones without authorization might easily add up to a fine over €200. If you booked an accommodation in a city centre and plan to reach it by car, you should check in advance if it lies within such a limited zone and if you are entitled to an authorization.
EU licences are automatically recognized. If you don’t have an EU driving licence, you need an International Driving Permit in addition to your home driver’s license in order to drive. To obtain a formal recognition of your driving licence (adeguamento or tagliando di riconoscimento) you will need to pass a medical examination. You can ask Italian authorities for a duplicate if it gets lost or stolen.
All motor vehicles in Italy must have insurance (assicurazione) for at least third party liability.
Buy town bus tickets from corner shops, bus company offices or automated machines before boarding (on some systems, tickets might be bought on-board from an automated machine). Buying tickets from the bus driver is generally not possible. The payment system for most mass transit in Italy (urban trains, city buses, subway) is based on voluntary payment combined with variable enforcement. Tickets are bought before boarding and validated on an on-board machine; inspectors may board the vehicle to check the passengers’ tickets and issue fines to those who do not have a validated ticket. Bus company inspectors are generally recognizable by some item displaying the company’s logo. When issuing a fine inspectors are allowed to ask to see your documents, and they have to give some sort of receipt with date, time and location. They are never allowed to directly collect the fine (which generally can be paid at a post office). Assaulting an inspector during his work is a serious offense.
Daily, weekly, monthly and year-round tickets are generally available, in addition to multi-use tickets. These may or may not need to be validated. In almost every city there’s a different pricing scheme, so check in advance ticket formulas and availability. For tourists it may be very convenient to buy daily (or multi-day) tickets that allow you to travel as much as you want in a single (or more) day. Every major city also has some type of City Card, a fixed-fee card allowing you to travel on local public transportation and visit a number of museums and giving you discounts in shops, hotels and restaurants.
Check for both these possibilities at local Tourist Offices or on the city’s website (which is often of the form www.comune.cityname.it as for example www.comune.roma.it).
Hitchhiking in Italy is associated with the 1960s hippies and “on the road” kind of culture. Therefore, it is considered out-dated and useless. You will almost never find Italians hitchhiking unless there’s a serious problem with the bus or other means of transportation. Also, it is nowadays common to spot prostitutes by the side of the road pretending to hitchkike to attact clientele so it’s advisable to avoid being mistaken for one. Hitchhiking in the summer in touristy areas works okay because you’ll get rides from Northern European tourists, and it works okay in very rural areas as long as there is consistent traffic (because you’re still playing the odds), but hitchhiking near large cities or along busy routes is extremely frustrating. Hitchhiking along expressways and highways is forbidden by law. Off the Autostrada things are also a bit difficult: Italians are generally friendly people, but they’re extremely unlikely to pick up hitchhikers.
Approaching Italy by sea can be a great experience and is a good alternative to traditional onshore “tours”. A yacht charter to Italy is a fulfilling way to experience the country. Although the yacht charter industry is smaller than one would expect for this incredibly popular tourist destination, there are many reasons to choose a yacht over a more conventional onshore approach. The Italian coast, like the French coast, attracts luxury yacht charters of the highest standards. “Touring” Italy from a private yacht is surprisingly convenient and comfortable. Italy’s dramatic coastline is best appreciated from the sea and the Italians know it! You may take a swim whenever you like, and many of the most famous sights are within easy reach of the seashore. Cruising on a private yacht also offers you a certain relief from the crowds and traffic that are traditionally unavoidable in Italy’s most popular destinations. There are major distinct nautical regions in Italy: Tuscany, Amalfi Coast, Sardinia and Sicily. Each has its own flavor and focus. Be sure to plan your itinerary carefully as each region is rewarding in its own particular way.
Written by The Travel Valet
Photo courtesy of Fototeca ENIT