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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And Buses.–Transportation in Italy

I love planning a trip (sometimes, I suspect, more than actually taking the trip) but I hate figuring out the trasportation logistics.  Scrolling down lists of flight times, wading through bus and train schedules, highlighting routes on maps the size of my kitchen table–the whole thing manages to be both tedious and stressful at the same time.  Even the thought of writing a blog post about it was daunting, which is why when someone offered to do it for me, I jumped at the chance.

By someone, of course, I don’t mean just anyone…I mean crack travel writer Jessica Spiegel of WhyGo Italy and BootsnAll (see her bio below.  To hear her dulcet tones, tune in to the weekly Eye on Italy podcast.), whom I am very honored to welcome as my very first blog guest.  (FYI: How do you know a crack writer?  By the fact she sends you an article pre-formatted into bullet points.  Something that mere mortals like myself haven’t yet figured out how to do.  On my own blog. )

A huge thanks to Jessica for this wonderfully informative post:

You probably know what Italy looks like on a map – that boot shape is hard to miss – but even if you’re a geography buff you may not be familiar with just how far apart the cities you’ll be visiting are, or how long it takes to get between them. This kind of unfamiliarity can lead to problems when you’re already trying to pack too much into a relatively short trip, because you’re more likely to make the mistake of not leaving enough time to get from place to place and still enjoy each spot you visit.

Each city in Italy has a variety of transportation methods within that urban and suburban area, and I encourage you to investigate the local public transport either before you leave home or at the tourist information office when you arrive in a new place. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about the larger question of getting around Italy as a whole. This is the part where many travelers make assumptions that lead to trip frustration, and no one wants that. You’ll find a brief overview of the four major ways to get around Italy listed below, with links to additional resources under each one.

Taking the Train in Italy

Even if you’re not old enough to have personally backpacked around Europe with a Eurail Pass in your youth, you’ve heard the stories. Europe – including Italy – is criss-crossed by a network of train lines that make getting just about anywhere easy-peasy. There’s even a new set of higher-speed trains in Italy that connect some of the bigger cities in stunningly short times. But don’t go into an Italy trip assuming that (a) every city has a train station or (b) the train is always the best option.

While most cities in Italy do have train stations, in some cases it’s either faster or more efficient to take a bus (as is the case for a trip from Florence to Siena) or even fly. And just because there’s a rail line between two cities doesn’t mean it’s going to be a quick day-trip (see the journey times from Rome to Venice for proof). Also, that high-speed train may sound perfect until you see the price of a ticket.

If you, like me, love the romance of trains and want to take them as much as is prudent in Italy, then be sure you check the Trenitalia site for schedules and ticket prices so you know just how much of your day (not to mention your travel budget) will be eaten up by sitting on a train. There’s much to be said for romance, but efficiency can’t be overlooked when you’ve only got a couple weeks of vacation time to work with.

A few resources to peruse when planning train travel around Italy:

Flying in Italy

With the increase in the number of budget airlines throughout Europe, flying from city to city within Italy poses a real threat to the country’s train network. You can’t always count on a €30 one-way air ticket, but if you time it right and easyJet or Ryanair is having a sale then you’d be crazy to pay several times that price for a train ticket.

Of course, for some journeys it won’t ever make sense to fly rather than stick to ground transportation. Sure, Pisa and Florence both have airports, but should you fly between them? Not unless you’re a pro soccer player or a rockstar of some kind. For that trip from Milan to Naples, however, you might want to check both the high-speed train and your flight options to see what suits you best.

When browsing the potential flights connecting cities in Italy, be sure to keep in mind that it’s not just the flying time that you need to factor into your day. It’s also the time required to get to and from the airports (many big airports are quite a distance from the city center), the extra hour or more you’ll need to arrive at the airport before your flight, and the expense of transport to and from the airports as well.

A few resources to peruse when planning flights around Italy:

Taking the Bus in Italy

If you’re coming from a country that has a nationwide bus network – like Greyhound in the United States – then you might be surprised to learn that Italy operates things a bit differently: bus travel in Italy is primarily regional.

There are a few bus companies that operate inter-regional lines (when the regions border one another) and some that connect major cities in different parts of the country. For the most part, however, traveling by bus is best suited to trips where you’re staying within one region and one or both of the towns you’re visiting doesn’t have train service. In some cases, even if both towns have train service the bus is still a more convenient option (such as getting between Florence and Siena, for instance). If your trip includes at least one small town without a train station and you don’t have a car, the bus should be your first line of defense.

It should be said that if you’re doing a grander tour of Europe there are bus companies that cross borders and will get you from country to country – but despite the fact that these companies have routes like Paris to Rome, they don’t really sell tickets for just the Milan to Rome portion of that trip. Look into the cross-Europe bus companies for long-distance country-to-country journeys, but not for most long-distance trips within Italy.

A few resources to peruse when planning bus travel around Italy:

Driving in Italy

There are people who love to drive, people who hate to drive, and the vast expanse in between – people who, like me, are perfectly capable of driving but don’t mind at all if someone else wants to take the wheel. In Italy, these divisions are pushed further by unfamiliar roads, signs in a language you don’t know, and drivers who seem to be certifiably insane at times.

Still, there are some places in Italy that can only be accessed by a car – and if you’re determined to get off the so-called beaten track, then you’ll need your own four wheels to do it. You don’t need to pass a special test to drive in Italy as a tourist (thank goodness), but you do need to get an international driver’s license before you leave home (they’re $15 at AAA, whether you’re a member or not) and you’ll want to have a basic understanding of the driving laws and what the road signs mean.

You can try to get a good driving map before you leave home, but chances are that you’ll have better luck getting a far more detailed driving map for the regions (or even sub-regions) you’re visiting once you’re there. Some of the best driving maps I’ve ever seen were in the Chianti region of Tuscany, available for sale at a shop or two in each town, and they even included the famous strade bianche – the gravelly roads used mainly for service vehicles.

A few resources to peruse when planning to drive around Italy:

About the Author:
Jessica Spiegel is the Italy travel guide writer for BootsnAll, the indie travel guide. She’s partway through the paperwork process to make a permanent move to Italy, she’s a fan of a good marocchino, she’s annoyed by the fact that the Italian word for “female writer” is such a tongue-twister, and she doesn’t feel like a day in Italy is complete without at least a couple scoops of gelato.

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