Types of Trains
One of the best things about taking the train in Italy – and, really, almost anywhere – is the opportunity to look at pretty scenery as you travel from one place to another. In some parts of Italy, however, there are scenic train routes that are specifically designed to be tourist attractions rather than simply modes of transportation.
Most scenic trains in Italy are operated by private companies, not Trenitalia, and they aren't intended to be transportation – in fact, most are basically circular routes, returning you to your starting point by either train or bus. Because these train trips are all about the view, cars with wrap-around windows are common.
Perhaps the most popular scenic train route in Italy is the Bernina Express, which connects Tirano in Italy to St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. Along the way you'll see mountain peaks covered in snow, alpine lakes, and gorgeous valleys. Another beautiful route on the Italy-Switzerland border is through the Centovalli (“Hundred Valleys”), connecting Locarno and Domodossola. Both of these are included on Eurail passes, or you can purchase individual tickets.
There are also historic trains running on scenic routes in Italy, including some with steam engines and antique train cars. These, more than any other trains, do an excellent job of reminding us why we think of train travel as romantic to begin with.
Until 2012, there was really only one big dog in the Italian rail travel game. Now, with the introduction of Italo train service by the private company called Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori.
NTV began operation in April of 2012, and offers only high-speed train service – Italo's trains run at speeds up to 190 MPH (300 km/h). Italo trains have three classes of service, called Smart (roughly akin to second class), Prima (first class), and Club (premier first class), although all levels come with leather seats and free WiFi. Prima and Club class also come with free drinks and snacks, and Club class passengers get a personal touch-screen entertainment system at each seat.
Italo trains serve Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Salerno (with a few smaller points in between), but they don't always use the same train stations that Trenitalia uses.
A night train, or overnight train, is just that - a train that departs Point A in the late evening and arrives at Point B in the early morning.
Given the rise of budget airlines and high-speed trains in Europe, traveling by overnight train might seem a bit antiquated. For some destinations, however, taking an overnight train can be a cost-effective way to travel—especially since it includes what you would normally be spending on a hotel room.
Overnight trains often have regular seating, but for maximum comfort we recommend booking either a couchette or a sleeper compartment. These come in different variations, depending on how many bunks you need and whether you want an entire compartment to yourself, and sometimes come in both first- and second-class options.
Sleeper compartments are usually the nicer option—some of them even come with en-suite wash basins and private bathrooms. Couchettes tend to be the most economical choice, with 4-6 bunks per compartment, but are not always segregated by gender. Bed linens, blankets, and towels are provided in almost all sleeper and couchette compartments.
Unless you're traveling alone and booking an entire compartment for yourself, there will typically be regular train seats in the cabin when you board. These can be made into another bunk for sleeping.
Trenitalia and a private French rail company combined forces to create Thello (pronounced tell-OH), which operates overnight long-haul trains between Paris and Venice, with six stops in between. It is mandatory to travel with the appropiate international travel documentation a board this train.
Thello trains depart from Paris at 7:59pm and arrive the following day in Venice at 9:35am. Other stops in Italy are Milan (6am), Brescia (7:10am), Verona (7:54am), Vicenza (8:43am), and Padova (9:06am). In the other direction, Thello trains leave Venice at 7:20pm and arrive in Paris the following day at 9:30am.
There are both couchette compartments and sleeper cabins on Thello trains. Couchettes come in either 4-bunk or 6-bunk options, and sleeper cabins have 1-3 beds. The sleeper cabins are slightly more comfortable, with an en-suite wash basin and a bit more privacy. Couchettes are typically shared with other passengers, unless you're traveling with a larger group.
Each Thello train has a restaurant car, which all passengers are welcome to use, and of course you can have a DIY picnic in your compartment with French or Italian picnic supplies you bring along.
Trenord is the company that resulted from a merger between the state-run Trenitalia and a rail company in the Lombardy region. Trenord trains serve primarily destinations in Lombardy – including Milan's Malpensa Airport.
Most of Trenord's train routes are regional lines, connecting cities and towns throughout Lombardy, but the company also manages a dozen suburban lines of essentially commuter trains in the metropolitan area around Milan and the Malpensa Express trains that connect Milan with the main airport.
Trenord serves cities such as Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lecco, Pavia, and Milan, and even goes so far as Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna and Verona in the Veneto. These regional trains – the R lines – run from 6am until midnight every 1-2 hours.
In the Milan metropolitan area, Trenord's suburban trains – the S lines – connect suburbs such as Rho, Novara, Varese, and Lodi with central Milan. These trains run from 6am until midnight every half-hour.
The Malpensa Express connects Milan's Malpensa Airport with two train stations in the city center – Centrale and Cadorna. The travel time is roughly a half-hour to Cadorna and 45 minutes to Centrale.
InterCity trains were among Trenitalia's faster trains until the Frecce trains came along. They still connect more destinations than the Frecce or Italo high-speed trains, so they can be either an economical option (they're usually less expensive than the high-speed trains) or the only option.
InterCity (IC) trains travel at speeds of up to 100-125 MPH (160-200 km/h), and there are first and second class cars. While reservations for IC trains are required, if you purchase a ticket online or at the train station the reservation is included automatically. Rail passholders, however, are not required to have a seat reservation before boarding IC trains, though seat reservations can be purchased in advance.
There are currently 86 daily InterCity connections throughout Italy, reaching more than 200 stations.
EuroCity (EC) trains only operate across international borders. Those are similar to Italy's InterCity trains, but while InterCity trains only operate within Italy, EuroCity trains connect city to city at international level.
All EC trains must meet a certain level of service, including air conditioning in all cars and a dining car on every train. There are first and second class cars, and some amenities are only available in first class (such as power outlets at each seat). Speeds on EC trains vary, but they must all travel at least 56 MPH (90 km/h), except in special circumstances when the landscape demands slower speeds for safety.
EuroCity trains connect cities all over Europe, including Milan and Venice.
While high-speed trains are usually the best choice for getting around Italy, not every city is served by Trenitalia's AV trains or Italo. Most cities and towns in Italy are served by what are called “regional” trains, which are slower and often older trains.
There are a few different names for regional trains in Italy, including Regionale (abbreviated with an R on train schedules), InteRegionale (IR), Diretto (D), and Espresso (E). Don't be fooled by words that look like “direct” or “express,” either – those don't necessarily mean the train trips are any faster than the Regionale trains.
These trains tend to stop at every single station between two larger cities. Despite the fact that all of these are fairly slow-moving, there is an option known as the Regionale Veloce, or “fast regional train,” which makes fewer stops between two destinations.
Regional trains may not be the fastest option, but they're often the least expensive – and in many places they're the only game in town. It's also important to note that most regional trains only have second-class cars, require no reservations, and may or may not be air-conditioned.
The word "frecce" means "arrow" in Italian, and Trenitalia's Frecce trains are its fastest line of high-speed trains.
Today's high-speed trains may not sound like they've got the same romance as what we imagine 19th century European train travel had, but there's no denying the benefits of modern technology on the Italian rail infrastructure. The country's high-speed trains connect Italy's major cities, with even more routes under construction and in the planning stages.
Trenitalia's high-speed Frecce trains are also called Alta Velocità (AV), and are broken down into three categories: Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”), Frecciargento (“Silver Arrow”), and Frecciabianca (“White Arrow”). Frecciarossa trains are the fastest of these, reaching speeds of up to 190 MPH (300 km/h). Italo's high-speed trains are even faster, operating at speeds up to 220 MPH (360 km/h).
The AV train network connects Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Salerno. Italo's network, which operates on a different set of rail lines, connects Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Salerno. These routes make it possible to consider day trips from Milan to Rome or Rome to Naples despite the great distances. Italy's high-speed trains help evoke the 19th century romance of rail travel, albeit at 21st century speeds.
There are several types of trains in Italy, from high-speed and luxury trains to the so-called "milk run" trains that connect small towns. The type of train you take in Italy can depend on where you're going, how much time you have, and what your budget is.
Trenitalia, Italy's state-run rail network, operates most of Italy's high-speed trains. They are sleek and efficient, with relatively inexpensive ticket prices if purchased in advance. High-speed trains always require reservations and usually cost more than slow trains, but they're much more efficient if you're short on time.
Regional trains in Italy are slower, but serve a much wider network of cities and smaller towns throughout Italy. Many don't require reservations, and some have only second-class cars. Regional trains may be your only option if you're traveling through rural parts of Italy. They take longer, but are sometimes the cheapest option.
Other types of trains in Italy include overnight trains for long-haul trips and privately-run scenic trains that are excellent options for sightseeing day trips.
Find out more about all the different trains in Italy
The largest train operator in Italy is Trenitalia, which is a division of the Italian government. The company has been in existence since 1905, and the train network throughout Italy has been steadily growing and improving – it's by far the easiest and most cost-effective way to get around the country.
The fastest trains operated by Trenitalia are the Alta Velocità (AV) series, called – in descending order of speed – the Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”), Frecciargente (“Silver Arrow”), and Frecciabianca (“White Arrow”). These only connect a short list of Italian cities, however – Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Salerno. The Frecciarossa trains can reach speeds of up to 190 MPH (300 km/h). Reservations are required on AV trains.
InterCity trains are the next-fastest option, running at up to 125 MPH (200 km/h), and connecting mid-sized cities and towns across long distances as well as the biggest cities served by the AV trains. Reservations are also required on InterCity trains.
The slowest Trenitalia trains fall under the category of “regional” trains, and go by names like “Regionale,” “Diretto,” and “Espresso.” These are intended to serve every last small town with a train station, and they typically stop at every single station between two larger cities. If you're in a hurry, this isn't the best news – but if you're headed to a more remote part of Italy, this may be your only option.