Italian Train Tickets vs. Train Reservations and How to Tell What You Want

Logic may try to convince that a train ticket and a reservation are the same thing. However, in Italy you can’t confuse logic with reality. They are two distinct things. Sometimes you only need one or both. By the end of this section, you will understand how to do that. I also hope that you’ll see the logic behind keeping reservations and tickets separate.

Let’s start with the basics:

    • Train Ticket (biglietto). When you purchase a train ticket to Italy, you are granted the right of travel between the cities indicated on the ticket for the time that the ticket is valid. You cannot attach train tickets to specific dates, times or trains. You have paid the price for transport on a specific route but not more.
  • Train Reservation (prenotazione). When you book a train reservation to Italy, you are granted the right of travel at a particular time and place, as well as in a certain seat in a particular train car. However, you have not purchased the right to travel between the end and start points – this is paid for by your ticket.

For every train journey you take in Italy, you will need to purchase a ticket. It is not necessary to purchase a reservation for each trip. You may not need them for every trip.

Here’s the short version:

    • Certain trains only require a ticket.
    • Certain trains require both a ticket or a reservation.
  • Reservations are not required for trains.

Italy Train Tickets

Get your tickets from ItaliaRail before you leave. This US-based company partners with Trenitalia in order to provide real-time connectivity to the Italian rail reservation systems. This allows you to get the lowest fares and the most current availability without needing to translate your itinerary into English. ItaliaRail offers online customer support and most tickets can be downloaded instantly.

Italy Explained is an ItaliaRail affiliate partner. This means that if I refer you to ItalyRail for tickets, I will get a small commission. It doesn’t cost anything extra. We appreciate your support.

Wait, what? Why sell tickets if you don’t have reservations?

This is a valid question. There are several answers.

Not all trains require reservations. This is why it’s important to keep them separate. To save some euros, travelers who are on a tight budget (like many Italians traveling by train within their country) can purchase tickets without making reservations. You run the risk that the train may be full so you might have to stand. However, if you don’t want to do this, it could be a good option if you have a small suitcase or a shorter trip.

You can purchase train tickets in bulk, so to speak. They are valid for a few months. This is why tickets must be validated (time-and-date-stamped) in a machine before you board a train. You can buy multiple tickets for one journey so that you don’t have a long wait at the ticket counter if you take a trip between two cities. Although it’s true that visitors are more likely to benefit from this feature, it is still their train system.

OK, reservations and tickets are two different things. It’s absurd, but it’s fine. How do I find out what I need to purchase?

Although you can always ask the ticket agent at a station ticket window for information about which train you should take, I am going to assume that you are doing your research before you leave and maybe even purchasing tickets to Italy. You can find information on train schedules to determine if reservations are required. There are also times when they may not be required but it’s worth looking into.

You’ll notice an “R” symbol next the trains that require reservations when you look at an Italian train schedule online or in a station. (It’s not a coincidence that “reservation” in Italian is pronounced “reservation”.

Close-up of an Italian train schedule printed in a booklet (the blue R on the ES train’s box indicates that you need reservations). – By rjp (creative Commons)

It is safe to assume that reservations are required for the following trains:

    • High-speed trains such as the Alta Velocita and Eurostar, as well as Italo
    • Overnight trains, including sleeping berths
    • Trains that travel from Italy to other countries or vice versa
  • Long-distance trains in Italy

It’s also a good idea to make reservations for other trains in Italy, even if it is not required. These include:

    • Popular tourist routes during high season (roughly May to September) include trips between Rome and Florence; trips from Venice to the Cinque Terre and trips from Milan to and from Milan.
  • Popular routes for locals on Italian holiday weekends, though some may not allow reservations such as trips from major cities and to the nearest beach or lake town

Booking your reservation ahead of time is a good idea in the case of the first. You won’t have to wait in long lines at stations for your train, or worse, miss it altogether because it was already full.

While you might not be celebrating the same holiday as the Italians, it is worth being aware of any happening during your trip. The train you plan to take could be packed with locals heading to the coast or countryside for a long weekend escape. You can ensure that you have a place by making a reservation well in advance.

What happens if I have a railpass? Isn’t this a way to avoid problems on trains?

It’s not exactly, but it can make train travel easier for some.

Rail passes can be used in place of train tickets. If you travel on trains that do not require reservations, you don’t need to purchase anything.

You don’t need reservations to travel on a train. This can be done at your home or at the station in Italy. I’ll discuss rail passes in another article.

You should remember that your rail passes do not include your reservations.

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