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How to Ride Trains in Italy

A fellow passenger was struggling to put his luggage into the overhead bin on our train. The bin is adequate for airplane carry-on sized luggage. When you have a massive full size suitcase, or even a quite heavy smaller one, lifting it over your head on a shifting train is a dicey proposition. But we saw a few people attempt it.

Hubby had looked into “trani” before our trip and understood a few things.

“Here,” he called out to the struggling Aussie, “you just slide the suitcases between the seats like this, see?” And Hubby demonstrated.

“Oh!” exclaimed the tourist, “You’re a legend!”

And Hubby was.

Train seats are turned facing each other, creating a space between their backs that is exactly perfect for sliding your case between. The space keeps them from rolling around, unless a curve is taken a little too fast, then they all peek out from between seats, as if looking to make sure their owners are still close by.

Let’s take a moment to assume you are, and go over the finer points of riding a train in Italy.

If you are doing a little train-hopping in a single town, you won’t have luggage to lug. You may as well stand in the foyer and grab a handle. Once the train comes to a stop, you push the green button to open the doors. Sometimes, they open automatically. Don’t be that guy who stares at the door waiting for something to happen until a local leans over, pushes the button, and proceeds to lead a herd of buffalo over your head as payback for making them lose a precious two seconds of hustle time.

Perhaps the vicious rumor that Italian trains do not follow schedule has something to do with the restrained pandemonium. Perhaps it’s because the tourists don’t realize there are free bathrooms (aka toilettes, water closets, loo) on the train. Or perhaps you just have NO IDEA where you are going and all you have left is making good time.

If you are taking a train cross country, there is a definite plan of action.  You must get to the stazione early enough to find out whether your train is on time. Then you wait in a group huddle, watching the display until your train has a platform assigned to it. Once a number pops up, move through the gates – where they may or may not scan your ticket – and count platforms until you hit yours.

They hide trains, sometimes. Platforms 1 and 2 may have been moved around a corner or be three flights underground. They are funny, those staziones. You must be prepared at any moment to grab your suitcase by the scruff and haul it up steps and over gaps and around fellow cattle passengers. You have to want it. Get your bearings and keep an eye on that display because if, with two minutes to spare, your train decides to pull in to platform 3 instead of platform 7, you and everyone else who was standing at military attention on platform 7 will suddenly have to haul potatoes outta there.

Frantic people will stall in the stairwell, because while their feet got the message to run, their hands never actually grabbed their luggage by a handle. Don’t be that guy. Everyone is stacking up behind you and I will personally go gladiator and lift you and your effects up and out of that ant hill.

Turn onto your platform and stride purposefully down until you are standing beneath the car number assigned you on your ticket. If you are in a tiny town next to a train tunnel (and this works for the metro as well), you will feel the wind gusting ahead of the train first. Then you will see the headlight curve into view. Inch closer to the edge of the tracks, gripping your luggage and staring fiercely ahead. This indicates to others that you have every intention of – wait for it – boarding this train.

Wait for the train to pull up and stop right in your face.

Verify your car is actually the one in front of you and scramble aboard. Did you at least verify that this train is the right number? Does your ticket say “666” on it, but the train says “687” on it? While the Vatican approves this change up, you have two seconds to decide whether you are mass-boarding a train heading for Austria instead of Naples. The conductor waves you aboard, so you go.

And someone else has taken your window seats. And they are feigning death. You stare at your ticket wondering if you have enough gladiator left in you to argue, but the train begins to move, your luggage starts to roll down the aisle towards the snack car, and you just dive into a seat with a shrug.

Three hours next to a drooling tourist may seem a little tough. The other couple stares out the window and although Hubby sits facing you, your conversation will either be in mime or holler. Next time, order seats side-by-side. This is the moment you pop in those earbuds, relax, and listen to Rick Steves. Or maybe write a few lines in your journal:

“Dear Diary, Why must Hubby chat everyone up? He does it in restaurants, on trains, in lines, on duomos. He’s asking the trolley cart guy whether our train is on time when he should be buying crisps. We’ve missed lunch again. This time, specifically, the workers in charge of nothing else but feeding lunch to people on trains are striking. Striking. Here comes someone to check our tickets, finally.”

And this is as far as you go before you are leaning sideways, drooling in your sleep.

#onecasetorulethemall Maybe the red guy is just trying to help. Are you fast enough to catch a bullet train? Stampede. But act casual. Milan. Admire the stazione for a hot minute if you can. What do you mean, the train changed it’s mind? With a gust of hot air, your rippling shirt says the train is coming…. In a blur and a screeeeech, your train has arrived!
Published inTraveling


  1. Andrea

    Loved re-feeling the excitement and adventures of catching the Italian trains through this blog! My friend and I had more than a few close calls getting to the train platforms on time…but most of the time they were late anyways, so it worked out fine! 😉 ps-The Milan station is my fave, a place of dreams!

  2. Lynette Lange

    I have really been enjoying reading about your adventures in Italy. So much so, that yesterday I booked flights for my 6 year old grandson, a 12 year old family friend, and myself to Rome in January. The fare was only about $400 round trip! Dylan’s school is year-round, so he will be off-track. And since Vince’s sixth grade social studies includes learning about Roman history, his teachers and principal said he can miss a week of school. I plan to use your posts to help plan our own adventures. I want to take the train to Venice for a quick one-day trip. Maybe we’ll even devote another day to taking a train to Pompeii. This post will be valuable advice. I’ll never forget the time my daughter and I took a train to Rome from Florence for a one-day trip. Due to our haste and limited Italian, we boarded a train to Naples instead of Florence for the return trip. It was quite a nightmare trying to get back to our hotel in Florence in the middle of the night. I am looking forward to reading more about your special vacation!

    • Jolie

      Happy to be a bad influence anytime. 😉 Pompeii is doable as an all-day trip, but Venice is pretty far up there from Rome. You could still do it, but your 6-year-old will learn more about trains than Venice. Rome is so entertaining per square inch, I’d say get the kids a gelato and take turns playing Follow the Leader!

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