February 28


Transportation in Italy

By Rick

February 28, 2013

Southern Italian transportation
Maybe I should just walk…

A while back I posted an article where I mentioned the “sciopero,” or transportation strikes which occur almost bi-monthly here in Rome, effectively paralyzing the city for 24 hours at a time.  But perhaps my criticism was a bit unfair. The fact is public transportation in Italy works. Not always punctually and rarely efficiently, but it does work.

I point this out because in most U.S. cities public transportation barely exists. Sure, in the big metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco there are some good options.  But for at least 95% of the U.S. population, life without a car is either impossible or miserable. Which is too bad, because I’ve discovered that life without a car is truly joyous. I’m not kidding.  I don’t worry about maintenance, gas prices, traffic, auto insurance, accidents, or trying to find a place to park. Not to mention the huge expense of buying a car in the first place. And if I ever really need a car for a weekend trip or something, I just rent one for a couple of days.

transportation in Italy, metro, abbonamento mensile, metrebus
abbonamento mensile

Rome has two (and a half) metro lines and a third one under construction (projected to be completed in 2016). There are also trams, buses, and commuter trains. For €35 a month, you get unlimited use of all of these options. It might be the best bargain in Europe, especially when you consider that gasoline in Rome is almost $10.00 per gallon!

You can buy the monthly pass (abbonamento mesile) at any tobacco shop (tabaccaio) or newsstand (edicola), or at any of the train stations. Otherwise a one-trip ticket costs € 1.50 for 100 minutes of use, which can include one ride on the metro plus bus connections.  These can also be purchased at the above mentioned locations or from the vending machines around the train and metro stations.


Of course if you’re really brave and have very little regard for your personal safety, you can always get a scooter or a motorcycle. It looks tempting, because people on scooters seem to go everywhere and park anywhere they want.  But for someone who didn’t grow up in the streets of Rome (even if you know how to ride a motorbike quite well) this amounts to suicide by proxy. I can only advise against it. Or at least make sure that your life insurance policy is up to date.

“I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.” –Yogi Berra

My favorite mode of transportation in Italy is the fast trains. I’ve always loved train travel, I don’t know why. For one thing, it’s so much more relaxing than either driving or, God forbid, air travel.  I get mesmerized by watching the scenery go by or just writing in my journal. It’s like those family road trips as a kid when Dad did all the driving and my sister and I were free to beat the shit out of each other—I mean, play quietly—in the backseat.

Now mind you, I’m talking about the high-speed trains and not the other types of trains. The high-speed trains include the ES (Eurostar) or the Frecce (designated on the Trenitalia web site as Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, and Frecciabianca). There is also the new Italo brand, which offers fast service in 9 major cities. For example you can go from Turin to Sorrento in just over 6 hours. In Rome, note that the Italo trains now stop at two stations: Tiburtina, AND at Termini.

transportation in Italy, regional train, rome,
Cattle Car to Marino

The other types of trains are the InterCity trains and the Regional trains.  The InterCity are not a bad option if you’re just traveling from city to city—for example, from Rome to Orvieto or something like that.  However I’d be cautious about the Regional trains, which often double as cattle cars in low season (no warning given).

In October of 2011 we had made plans to go to Marino for the day to enjoy the Sagra del Vino (Wine Festival). We bought our ticket at the station from an automatic machine.  No problem.  But when we found our train at the far end of Termini station, we discovered that it had been “slightly” oversold.  This is an actual photo:

So unfortunately, we didn’t go to Marino that day, and we also lost the money for the train tickets.  We tried to get a refund, but all we received was a laugh in the face.

For longer trips, there are times when a low-cost airline seems like a time and money saver.  However, you really need to consider this option carefully.  A couple years ago we took a trip to Venice for a long weekend and it turned out that the cost of the plane was actually about 25% less than the train.

At first glance, the plane was also faster; one hour versus three and a half.  But this is misleading since you have to travel to the airport (45 minutes for us), get to airport early for security checks (1 hour), wait for your plane (ours was 1 hour late), and then get from the Venice airport to the city center (another 45 minutes).  By contrast, the train takes you from city center to city center and so when you add up the total travel time, it would have actually taken about an hour less by train—and with a lot less stress.  I won’t make that mistake again.

So take my advice, let go of your car dependency (there are 12-step programs available) and check out the Train Tickets and Schedules. It’s cheaper, more relaxing, and if you’re traveling with a sibling, you can relive those carefree days of your youth when Dad would threaten to “pull the car over and give you something to cry about.”

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • When I was in Rome, I got a taxi back to the airport and the taxi driver crashed into the back of someone! He then hopped out, unleashed his fury upon the poor person in front, who in turn unleashed her fury back. They then jumped back into their cars and drove any madly. I was left covering my eyes and listening to this man wear in Italian for half an hour. No insurance companies were exchanged and no further implications, I am not sure, now, if this is actually the better way of doing things!

    • Holly, you touched on something that I sort of avoided in my article–the (in)famous Roman taxi drivers! The scene that you described doesn’t surprise me in the least. I always hold my breath when I’m forced to get into a taxi. They are considered aggressive drivers in a city where aggressive driving is the standard. And they also have a reputation of being dishonest, although I think that this has been somewhat exaggerated. Still, crazy cab drivers aside, I maintain that the public transportation in general works better in Italy than in 95% of the US. I spent most of my life in Florida and I couldn’t even tell you what a bus or a passenger train looks like, where they stop, or how to buy a ticket.
      Thanks for your comment and for bringing up that important point–passengers beware when you step into a Roman taxi! Ciao!

  • You forgot to mention the option of a bicycle, which more and more Romans are adopting (thankfully). Movements such as Salvaiciclisti are fighting hard for cyclists rights in a car dominated city.

    The other huge plus of arriving in Venice by train, is of course the view as you exit the station. That I shall never forget.

    • Hi Sean, thanks for mentioning the bike option. To be honest, I’d be happy to ride a bike, but as it is in Rome right now, I don’t feel safe. I’ve seen too many ugly accidents–as you say, it’s a car dominated city. And the bike sharing program right now is joke. The bikes are all destroyed (if you can find one) and the stations are only in the very tourist center. I totally support the need for more bike lanes and a bike friendly environment in general and I’m glad that there’s an organization fighting for the change.
      And yes, ahhh…that first look at Venice as you exit Santa Lucia! Unforgettable!

  • What sweet memories I have of August 2011 visiting The Eternal City, riding buses, running to catch trains and walking in lieu of other transportation!! Being one of a few passsengers on a bus and having a “senior citizen” yelling at me in Italian (I am also “senior) to give her my seat was classic!! Sitting at Termini sipping an expresso while waiting for a train to Orvieto realizing suddently that the train was “cancelled” and rushing to make another connection will always be memorable with Italian travel…..

    • Never a dull moment when traveling in Italy! We miss too much when we’re sealed inside of our cars. Sometimes this is a good thing, of course, but always less interesting!

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