We completed our entire month-long trip through Italy without renting a car at all. While this would be nearly impossible in the US, it was quite easy in Italy, with the abundance of trains, buses, planes and ferries available to get around the country. I love Italy for this reason, regardless of anything we saw or did while we were there. I wish public transportation was this easy in the US!
While cars may be somewhat more efficient time-wise to travel between cities, they really are not practical inside the cities at all. Driving in the big cities, especially Rome, Naples and Catania (Sicily), is just plain hazardous to your health! Seriously, you could not pay me to drive in any of those places.
Additionally, many of the small towns severely restrict the number of cars allowed into the main city center or historical district, where all the good stuff is located. For example, if we had a car in Siena we would not have been able to do anything other than park it for four days, which probably would have cost a considerable amount.
As you plan your visit to Italy, think carefully before you rent a car and know your options when it comes to public transportation.
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Updated March 2018
Trains were our most-used method of transportation, by far. The train in Italy is very affordable and easy to use. Most of our train tickets were no more than about $20 each.
The Web site for TrenItalia is available in English and works pretty much just like an airline Web site – just enter where you are going from/to, the day, time, and the number of people and it brings up your departure and arrival times, transfers (train changes along the way) and cost.
We used the Web site to plan everything, but bought tickets at the station. There are automated ticket machines in most every train station. Only one station did not have one, in which case we bought tickets at the Tabacchi (tobacco shop/newsstand).
The machines are very easy to use, have several different language options, and generally accept both credit cards and cash. They work for short, regional trains and for long-distance “fast” trains (but city subways are different). Most of the stations also have a ticket counter if you prefer that, but the lines are generally quite long.
Validating Your Ticket
The one thing you have to be careful of when traveling by train in Italy is to make sure you validate the ticket. This is very important! All of the regional train tickets are open-ended, meaning you can use them anytime in the next 60 days, so you have to validate the ticket before getting on the train to indicate that you are using it.
Validating a ticket is an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, it is also easy to forget. The fine for not validating your ticket is about 40 Euros… on a ticket that generally is less than 10 Euros. Yes, it will be an expensive mistake if you get caught without a validated ticket! Thankfully, we did a lot of online research, knew to validate our tickets and never had any problems.
We did witness several travelers get “caught,” though. We talked to one girl who did not know the ticket had to be validated. Apparently, the conductor believed that she and her friend really did not know. These girls got away with paying only a 5 Euro fee since that was all the cash they had between the two of them.
We watched another girl get nailed with the full 40 Euro fine. She put up a good fight, but I am not completely convinced that she did not know the rules.
Validating your ticket is not difficult, but it is necessary. With all the other research you are doing to plan your trip, making sure you understand train tickets is a small extra step.
On our personal trip to Italy in 2013, we only took one long-distance bus, which was from Palermo to Catania, in Sicily. This ticket, across the island, cost us about $20 each, round trip. The bus was comfortable, though we definitely missed the extra space to move around that you get on a train.
When we traveled to Italy as chaperones for a school field trip in 2017, we traveled exclusively by charter bus. Obviously, this would not be the same as buying a ticket for a public bus, but it was a comfortable and convenient way to travel.
On both the mainland and in Sicily, the roads were well-maintained and easy to drive. Initially, I was concerned that traffic might slow us down, but it really didn’t. We did experience a few minor traffic delays, but nothing that was a problem.
While bus travel was not bad, I personally still prefer train travel. Perhaps some of that is because train travel is not wide-spread in the US, so there is some novelty and a bit of the “I can’t get this at home” feeling. Overall, though, I just felt that train travel was more comfortable and convenient.
As you probably have heard, you can typically find relatively cheap flights in Europe. We flew from Palermo (Sicily) to Venice on Ryan Air for about $75 each. Of course, inexpensive plane tickets always come at some other cost.
Our tickets only allowed one carry-on bag and there was a weight limit for that. I was so nervous about this that I even stuffed my tiny “purse,” which wasn’t much more than a wallet on a strap, into my backpack. We also were right at the size and weight limit on our bags. Fortunately, we did not have any problems and no one questioned our bags at all.
While the flight was comfortable enough, it was basically one endless sales pitch for various products. We did our best to ignore everything they were trying to sell and just enjoyed the relatively short flight.
When needing to travel a long distance, a flight is often a better option than a train, unless you just have the extra time.
Considering Italy is one long peninsula, a ferry is a great option for long or short distances. There are ferries that will take you between cities along the coast. We took a ferry from Salerno to Positano, which provided a great view of the coastline.
For long distances, an overnight ferry is a comfortable way to travel and not “lose” time. We took an overnight ferry from Naples to Sicily. Two tickets cost us about $150 total, which is not bad when you consider we did not have an additional cost for a hotel that night. The ferry was large, similar to a cruise ship, but with fewer amenities.
We were able to get food and drinks on board. The room was small but comfortable. All in all, the overnight trip on the ferry was MUCH better than the overnight train that we took from Prague to Krakow on a separate trip.
One note: we did have difficulty purchasing our ferry ticket online. I’m not sure exactly why, but we ended up having to go to the ferry terminal the day before to buy the ticket.
In Italy, we opted to fly rather than take a night train, for our one long-distance haul. Regardless of the price, the flight was much easier, especially considering we were leaving from Sicily.
Thus, we cannot speak for night trains in Italy, but we did take a couple of them in Eastern Europe. Overall, the night train was NOT a pleasant experience. While the cabins were reasonably comfortable, the overall train experience was not. It was either too hot, too cold, too noisy or too bumpy to really get any sleep.
Additionally, the night train did not save us any money. Two tickets cost us an average of $170 – certainly not as good of a deal as the ferry or airplane. And, that was in Eastern Europe, where prices are typically a little lower than in Italy.
For some reason, we were not able to get a two-bunk cabin for either trip. This meant that we were sharing with one or two other couples. Overall, that part wasn’t bad, but certainly not ideal.
While a night train can be a good option to travel while sleeping, for us it was not worth it. Again, the night train in Italy might be different from our experience, but it is not an experience that I would necessarily recommend.
Enough about public transportation; let’s talk about cars. As I said earlier, in the big cities, just the idea of driving a car puts me on the edge of a nervous breakdown! Here’s the deal: drivers will go anywhere their car they can fit. And it seems that the name of the game is to find the smallest “car” you can so that you can fit in as many places as possible!
I would estimate that two-seater SmartCars make up at least 30 percent of all cars. We saw a good number of cars even smaller than that – think two seats, but front/back, rather than side by side. And there are tons of motorcycles and scooters.
Again, cars will go anywhere they can fit. Generally, there are few, if any, lane markers, so everyone just squeezes in where they can. Nobody likes to be behind anybody, so everyone is trying to get around everyone.
Rome was bad, but I think Naples and Sicily were even worse. Words cannot even explain how crazy the drivers are. And if driving a car is bad enough, you also have to watch out for all the folks on scooters and motorcycles who will dart in between the cars (again, anywhere they can fit).
We were in a private vehicle in Sicily, when we did a tour to Mt. Etna. This is where we got a first-hand look at being in a car and the rules of the road from the driver’s perspective. I assure you, it was not appealing.
Also, everything we read online and in the guidebooks said something like this regarding Naples, “Green means go, go, go; yellow is just a novelty, and red is merely a suggestion.”
Exploring the Countryside
There are a couple of places where a car might have been nice… driving around Tuscany, Northern Italy, and Sicily, in particular. I definitely would not be afraid to drive across the “countryside” from one city to another. From our limited bus travel, we discovered that the roads were well-maintained and easy to travel.
The problem is that once you get where you are going, you probably won’t need the car at all. You can walk or use the local subway or bus in the big cities. The smaller cities are so small you can walk. And you probably can’t take a car “inside” anyway. For example, most towns in Tuscany would require you to leave the car on the outskirts of town. There is no need to pay for a car to just sit in a parking space for several days.
I think a car might have been useful in Northern Italy because the train stations were certainly more spaced out. Again, that is because of the terrain. Having a car there certainly would have given us more opportunity to see more of the area.
If you are going to rent a car, just carefully consider if it is worth the money for it to likely sit once you get to where you are going. Also, consider the fact that gas is very expensive, typically more than $6/gallon!
We’ve discussed long-distance transportation, so what about once you make it to a city? Most of our travel was by foot. Seriously, we walked almost everywhere! Of course, not everyone can do that, and it is not always practical, so we’ll explore some other options too.
Walking is a great, and FREE, way to get from one place to another! In Rome, we found crosswalks with pedestrian signals. Other places…maybe, maybe not.
If you want to cross the street and there isn’t a signal, at some point you just have to step out and trust that the folks who are coming will stop. We actually never had any problems with that, once we learned the deal. We learned to “follow the locals” when crossing the street. Drivers will stop for you, but typically not until you are actually in the street!
You do have to stay alert when walking though – remember those crazy drivers I mentioned earlier? Yep, you’ll be walking fairly close to them. Just stay alert and you should be fine.
Many of the smaller cities, such as Cortona, Venice or Riomaggiore, are so small that cars are not allowed. Thus, you definitely need to be prepared to walk if visiting any very small cities.
Subway or City Bus
A few of the bigger cities (Rome, Milan) do have a subway or metro. We found the Rome metro to be easy to navigate and use. You can get to all the major sites with the metro and a short walk, including the Vatican, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon.
Consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which will get you discounts on museums and includes unlimited metro, bus and tram rides for the duration of the pass.
In Florence, you will find a city bus, which we took a couple of times. Again, it was easy to use – just make sure you have change/small bills for the ticket. Many other smaller cities, such as Siena and Assisi have a city bus as well.
You will find taxis just about everywhere. We only took a cab a couple of times, when other options were not available. We did need a cab to get from the train station outside of Cortona into town.
Of course, if you prefer a taxi to a bus or subway, you will have that option just about anywhere.
Your choice for transportation will likely depend a lot on your budget, timeline and travel style. Budget travelers will likely lean towards train and bus travel. Those with limited time may opt for more flights to save on travel time.
Whatever you choose for your method of transportation, do your research ahead of time. Whether it is parking a car, validating a train ticket or buying tickets for the ferry, some things will be a little different from in the US.
But, if you do your homework ahead of time, whether it is online or in guidebooks, you shouldn’t have any problems. You can also ask your hotel or B&B about the best ways to get around when making reservations.
Overall, getting around is easy and should not be something that causes you stress!