You’re going to Italy! Hooray!
Okay, now wait a minute. How exactly are you getting there, and when you arrive, how will you get around? If you think traveling in Italy is as easy as hopping in a rental car… well, it’s time to read this guide! Come with me as I walk you through Italy’s transportation system; it might be a little different from the way we do things in the US, but it’s not that hard!
Naturally, the first thing you’ll need to do is book your flight into Italy. You’ll discover almost immediately that there are very few direct flights into Italy. Most go through London, Paris, or another major European city. It’s annoying, but the split flight presents you with another option.
Instead of booking the entire flight at once, consider booking just the flight to London on a major airline. You can spend a night or two in the city (hooray!) or leave immediately, but you’d book the second leg of your flight on a European airline like Ryanair or Easyjet. These airlines have fantastic travel discounts for Italy and fly frequently into smaller airports, closer to your destination. You can also fly “open jaw:” into one airport and out of another. On a recent trip I flew from London into Parma, spent a week in Tuscany, and then made my way down the coast to fly out of Naples. Not all roads lead to Rome!
Be cautious of money traps, however. You may get cheap flights to Italy, but you could pay the difference in incidental costs like shuttling from one London airport to another – there are three! Many discount airlines also keep prices low by charging for checked baggage, so take a good look at their website before booking.
If, however, your time is more valuable than money, go with the simple one-booking flight.
The most convenient form of long-distance transportation in Italy is the train. If you’ll be visiting more than one location within the country, don’t try to drive or fly. You can get to most major and many minor destinations by train in one or two stops. Check timetables and buy tickets on Raileurope.com.
Be aware that this is a two-tier system. There is a base charge for the ticket itself, and then an optional additional charge for a seat reservation – available only on some particular trains. If you’re traveling in the middle of summer, or if you have a very specific schedule, I would recommend buying the reservation on top of the ticket. Otherwise, no reservation is necessary. Some routes don’t even have the option.
If you’ll be using the train for three days or more out of your trip, consider buying the Trenitalia Pass, which you can use as many times as you want for three days out of a given sixty-day period. (You can also add on travel days if you need more.) This pass acts like an unlimited ticket, but any reservations you make will still be at an extra cost.
The biggest question regarding transportation in Italy is no doubt “Should I rent a car?” Fortunately, 98% of travelers will find their answer in this one simple rule: If you’re staying in a city – do not rent a car!
Italian cities are very compact and pedestrian-friendly… which renders them almost impossible to navigate by car. Large portions of Rome and Florence are even off-limits to private transportation. Finding parking is also more trouble than it’s worth, so don’t even bother. If you’re basing your trip out of Florence, Rome, Venice (good luck with a car there!), or another major Italian city, renting a car is pointless. For day trips, use local busses, trains, and taxi services.
If, however, you are staying in the countryside or in a Tuscan hill town, the answer is yes, do rent a car! You’ll want one in these rural areas to get groceries and explore.
The one exception here is compact coastal areas like the Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast. These regions are composed of tiny towns connected by narrow, winding roads – a terrifying drive if you’re not highly experienced. Here you may want to use local busses and ferries to get from one town to the next.
The final mode of Italian transportation is the public bus. It’s possible to get schedules on the internet before you go, but frankly I wouldn’t try. The best way to handle Italian bus systems is to simply wing it. If you’re in a city or a coastal area, odds are there will be a stop nearby. Purchase your tickets ahead of time at local tobacco shops, then relax and have fun figuring out the schedule. Get friendly with locals waiting at the stop – odds are, even if the sign is totally unreadable, they can tell you which bus will get you where you want to go… even if the only Italian word you know is “Duomo!”
A Final Note…
After all of these Italian transportation options, I thought I’d end by reminding you of the one form of transportation that never goes out of style: your own two feet! Whether you use a train, plane, or automobile to get to your destination in Italy, once you arrive there’s simply nothing like meandering around. Shop in an outdoor market… Admire ancient architecture… Stroll through town on a moonlit night… Italians are walkers, and they’ll inspire you to become one too.