There’s nothing like the surge of scenery as you roll through mountains on a fast train from Zurich to Milan.
Or the thrilling chaos of alighting at Rome Termini.
Or the quaint fun of a local train in Puglia.
That said, it’s not always easy for non-Italians to smoothly navigate ticket windows, train stations and, most importantly, chatting with Italians on board.
So whether you’re a beginner in Italian or well on your path to fluency, it’s worthwhile to know a bit about the Italian train system and some specific vocabulary that can get you through the experience and happily over to your destination.
This post will introduce you to the different types of Italian trains, then take you through finding your route, buying tickets and finding your way to your seat. We’ll also give you some phrases and tips for enjoying the ride—and practicing your Italian while you’re at it.
Fab Phrases and Smart Strategies for Fluent Italian Train Travel
Below, we’ll cover the most important vocabulary for each part of the process. Since you’ll be traveling through Italy I’d suggest you also familiarize yourself with key phrases for ordering in restaurants, general travel and, for those into more extreme adventure, falling in love with Italians.
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Your Travel Options on the Italian Train System
The Italian national train company is Trenitalia, which runs both regional and long-distance services. The fastest long-distance trains are the Frecciarossa (red arrows), followed by Frecciargento (silver arrows), then the Frecciabianca (white arrows) and finally the InterCity trains.
All of the fast trains offer smooth, impressive rides, with seating divided into four classes.
For shorter local routes there are are the Regionale Veloce (fast regional) and Regionale (regional), which can be a bit bumpier and don’t take seat reservations.
Train passes are available for Europeans as well as non-Europeans, but generally they’re not a very good deal unless you’re going to be constantly traveling between different cities every few days. And that, in my opinion at least, is a very poor way to really dig in, make friends and explore Italian culture. For other perspectives on Italian train passes, see this full discussion on Trip Savvy or travel writer Rick Steves’ advice on their value (or lack thereof) in different situations.
Lonely Planet also has a helpful rundown of train classes, costs, pass options and more. If you like their article, you’ll find tons of additional info in Lonely Planet's Italy travel guidebooks. They have dozens of books providing firsthand insights for a range of Italian cities and travel topics.
If you’re looking for more specifics on the trains themselves, the ultimate train-nerd headquarters Seat61.com has oodles of detail, plus photos.
How to Buy Tickets for Italian Trains
Whether you’re buying your ticket from the only marginally functional Trenitalia website or from a ticket window, it’s very important to at least know the names of your departure and destination cities in Italian. The English version of the website doesn’t even recognize “Naples” as a valid destination, for example—you’d need to use Napoli instead.
Here are a few important places for train travelers to know:
Firenze — Florence
Genova — Genoa
Milano — Milan
Napoli — Naples
Padova — Padua
Roma — Rome
Venezia — Venice
Wikipedia has an excellent full list of the Italian place names and their English equivalents.
The English translation of the Trenitali website can be funny and even befuddling, so if you read even passable Italian you might find it actually easier to use the Italian version.
There are also some third-party sellers of Italian train tickets that have better websites but may tack on fees: Italiarail.com, Loco2.com and Trainline.eu.
Buying your ticket in a station instead? Here are a few key words to know:
la biglietteria electronica — the electronic ticket machine
biglietto elettronico — e-ticket
biglietto cartaceo — paper ticket
sportello — ticket window
una lunga fila — a long line
il mio turno — my turn
When you get to the sportello you may very well find yourself facing someone who speaks little to no English. Below are the key phrases you’ll want to be able to understand and use. We’ve stitched them into an abbreviated dialogue so that you can see how they might be used in context.
Impiegato: Buongiorno, un biglietto per dove? — Employee: Good day, a ticket for where?
Io: Vorrei andare a Roma stasera, per favore. — Me: I’d like to go to Rome this evening, please.
Impiegato: Ci sono due partenze per stasera: una alle 17:00 e una alle 19:00. Quale preferisce? — Employee: There are two departures this evening; one at 5 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m. Which do you prefer?
Io: Preferisco la partenza delle 19:00. — Me: I prefer the departure at 7 p.m.
Impiegato: Anche ritorno? — Employee: And a return as well?
Io: No, solo andata per favore. Quanto costa? — Me: No, just one-way. How much is it?
Impiegato: Le costa 76,15. Carta di credito o contanti? — Employee: It costs you 76.15. Credit card or cash?
Io: Ho una carta di credito americana, funziona qua? — Me: I have an American credit card, does it work here?
Impiegato: Non so, possiamo provare. Quale circuito è? Mi faccia vedere. — Employee: I don’t know, we can test it out. What network is it on? Let me see it.
Io: Non si preoccupi, pago in contanti. — Me: Don’t worry, I’ll pay cash.
Impiegato: Ecco il suo biglietto, grazie! Buon viaggio! — Employee: Here’s your ticket, thanks! Have a great trip!
Io: E il resto? — Me: And the change?
Impiegato: Scusi, mi sono confuso! Ecco il suo resto. — Employee: Excuse me, I made a mistake. Here’s your change.
Io: OK, grazie. Un’informazione, per favore. In quale binario devo aspettare il mio treno? — Me: Okay thanks. A piece of information please. On which platform should I wait for my train?
Impiegato: Al numero 4. — Employee: Number 4.
Io: Grazie! — Me: Thanks!
Note that I keep careful track of my change and also that I take full advantage of any interaction with an employee to make sure I have every piece of information that I might need, as I don’t know how difficult it’ll be to find someone knowledgeable to talk to later. These are conscious strategies born of years riding trains around Europe.
The Italian You Need for Finding Your Train and Seat
Generally, getting to your seat is as simple as identifying the binario (platform), the carrozza (train car/coach) and posto (seat) displayed on your ticket, and matching them to those marked in real life. But it never hurts to ask questions, and practice your Italian while you’re at it.
You could do so like this, for example:
Io: Scusi, signore. Dov’è il mio treno? Sa darmi informazioni riguardo al treno per Roma? — Me: Excuse me, sir. Where is my train? Do you know how to give me information concerning my train for Rome?
Signore: Certo! Troverà il suo treno al binario numero 14. — Man: Of course! You will find your train on platform 14.
I might just ask someone again once I get to platform 14, in order to make extra sure.
Io: È questo il treno per Roma? — Me: Is this the train to Rome?
Signora: No! Il treno per Roma parte dall’altra stazione. Woman: No! The train for Rome leaves from the other station.
Io: Ok grazie. — Okay thanks.
Italians tend to be incredibly talkative and generous with their time and knowledge, even when the latter is lacking. So in a situation like asking for directions or information, I’ll frequently ask a number of people and then try average out the responses before deciding whose advice to believe.
Io: E signora, faccio un sondaggio. Secondo lei, è questo il treno per Roma? — Me: And ma’am, I’m doing a survey. In your opinion, is this the train for Rome?
Signora: Si, certo. Prendo questo treno ogni giorno. — Woman: Yes, of course it is. I take this train every day.
Key Phrases and Strategies for Riding Italian Trains
Chatting up Your Fellow Passengers
Once you’re actually on the train, don’t just shut up and look at the scenery! Chatting up Italians is part of the thrill. As with anywhere in the world, it’s common for people to open conversations with something incredibly inane.
Anche lei va a Roma? — Are you going to Rome?
But hey, that’s a nice confirmation as well that you finally got on the right train.
The example above is the formal way to say it to someone—if you’re youngish and talking to another youngish person, you might say “Anche tu vai a Roma?” and if you’re addressing two or more people, “Andate a Roma anche voi?”
They might respond:
Sì, vado spesso a Roma per lavoro. E tu? — Yes, I go to Rome often for work. And you? (Informal singular)
To which I’d say:
Sì, ho avuto la sfortuna di innamorarmi di una ragazza di là. — Yes, I had the misfortune to fall in love with a girl from there.
Talking with the Train Crew
If the ticket checker comes by, you’ll show your ticket. If you have an e-ticket, while you’re fumbling with your stupid phone and the horrible train app you can say:
Mostro il biglietto dal mio cellulare. — I’m showing the ticket from my mobile phone.
If you go to the bar, you can order an Italian espresso or whatever else you desire to eat or drink by saying the name of the thing plus per favore (please).
Un caffè, per favore. — An espresso, please.
Un panino, per favore. — A sandwich, please.
Getting off the Train
As usual, it can be useful to ask for information if you want to check that you’re getting off at the correct stop:
È questa la mia fermata? — Is this my stop?
If someone looks like they need help with bags or anything else, it’s wise to ask before reaching out to help, so that your gesture isn’t misinterpreted.
Vuole che l’aiuti? — Would you like me to help you?
Posso aiutarla con i bagagli? — Can I help you with your bags?
When you get off the train, you might once again ask for information.
Io: Siamo a Roma? — Me: Are we in Rome?
Signore: No, questa è Napoli! — Man: No, this is Naples!
This advice isn’t at all intended to make you fearful of Italian train travel, but simply prepared. Things usually don’t go completely wrong, and even when they do, go into it with an open mind and a smile and you’ll still have fun. Or at least learn some more great Italian.
Mose Hayward blogs on the rails throughout Europe, writing up his problems with Trenitalia bookings and other adventures.