There are two rail companies for intercity travel in Italy. Trenitalia is the national system that runs both regional and high-speed routes. ItaloTreno is a recent private competitor offering service on two high speed lines (Venice-Florence-Rome and Turin-Milan-Florence- Rome-Naples-Salerno). If traveling between cities, the train will be easier, cheaper, and faster than the alternatives of driving and even flying.

There are a few basic types of train service:

High speed trains include connections between the most popular tourist cities. These lines reach speeds up to 300 km/h and do not make many, if any, intermediate stops. Trenitalia names theirs frecce ("arrow"), with variations like Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, etc. The differences between these are minor and simply connote the different trains for different lines. All of ItaloTreno's trains are the high-speed lines. Reservations are required for all high-speed trains, including for rail-pass holders (see below). Both Trenitalia and ItaloTreno publish discount fares in advance; these are generally nonrefundable and come with prohibitions or restrictions on changes, but they are much cheaper: e.g. Rome-Venice at a sale fare of €29 or €49 vs. standard fare of €80. (See Booking Online, below)

Regional trains connect provincial cities and smaller towns to the major cities and have more intermediate stops. These are slower and less plush but can be a good way to experience the sights of rural and provincial Italy. Regionale veloce (fast regional) trains work the same way but have fewer intermediate stops. Neither allow for seat reservations or require advance booking. In fact, there is no price or convenience advantage to advance purchase (in any case, available online only up to 7 days before date of travel). Rail pass users can ride these trains without supplemental charges. If using a train ticket purchased at the station, be absolutely sure to validate the ticket before boarding (see below).

Intercity trains are a category somewhere in between. They connect cities with more intermediate stops than high-speed trains and fewer than a regional or even regionale veloce train. Sometimes they duplicate the high-speed routes, but more slowly (Rome-Florence-Venice), and sometimes they connect cities not serviced by high-speed lines. These require reservation/advance purchase, but the fare difference is often not as stark as on the high-speed trains.

The difference between first and second class varies by train type. For a visual comparison, see Man in Seat 61's descriptions. 2nd class is perfectly comfortable for many (most?) travelers, but it's a matter of personal preference and budget. Adult raipasses generally default to 1st class service and is priced accordingly.

Booking tickets online

Buying tickets online in advance can save a lot of money. However, note that these cheaper tickets are not easily changed, if changeable at all, so if you miss your train, you lose the cost of your ticket. Pay attention to the cancellation and change terms for the tickets before purchasing. 

Only a finite number of sale-fare seats are set aside, and as these get booked up the price goes up. For popular routes and times, the cheapest tickets can sell out in the matter of days, even hours. Schedules and tickets are released 120 in advance with the major exception of a twice-yearly schedule change, early in June and December: Italy's rail system is slow to release the schedules and it may seriously shorten the advance purchase window. There are some references to €9 fares in the TA forums. While some €9 fares may still be out there for some routes, many of the Super Economy tickets have been running higher lately, €19 and even €29. It's still a bargain for a high-speed train going that distance.

Online purchase will give you an e-ticket you can print out. Just board the train, find your seats, and give the conductor your booking information when he/she comes round. 

The ItaloTreno website is user-friendly and gets few complaints on TA forums.

The Trenitalia website can be terrifically helpful, or terribly confusing. It's the major reference for researching schedules even if you are not buying a ticket. (For regional trains, choose a date over the next week; schedules can change, but one can get a good idea of times, cost, and frequency of service.) Here are some of the quirks:

- The Italian version of the site defaults to a Frecce search only, so to search for other trains you need to select "Tutti i treni". The English version searches both. 

- The search fields require you to enter stations, not simply cities. And it requires the Italian names: Torino, Milano, Firenze, Venezia, Roma, Napoli, etc.  It will default to the major stations. Centrale refers of course to central stations, and other major central stations are: Venezia S. Lucia (Venezia Mestre is on the mainland), Firenze S.M. Novella, and Roma Termini (Tiburtina is used by Italo Treno services).

- The date must be entered in the format DD MM YYYY, and the time of travel must be set in the "Hour" field (it defaults to the local time on your computer).

- It is not necessary to register with Trenitalia but registration allows you to more easily retrieve reservations and to make changes to tickets (Economy and Full fares only).

There are occasional problems with credit card purchase from overseas. Be sure to call your credit card company  before your purchase on Trenitalia's website to let them know that you are making a foreign purchase by Internet.  Otherwise your purchase may be denied.  Once you select your tickets and choose your credit card option, you may be asked to sign up for another service called Verified by Visa if you want to use your Visa card.  This is not much extra effort, but be prepared to respond and take note of another password that is required for this service.  Multiple purchases of tickets may require multiple calls to your credit card company, as they sometimes deny the second or third purchase so you have to call again.  Sometimes the customer service area will stay on the line with you to authorize each purchase as it is submitted.

If a credit card is repeatedly rejected by the Trenitalia web site, ItaliaRail is an option. People from outside Italy can buy Trenitalia tickets at the Trenitalia price (including the discounts for advance purchase) through www.italiarail.com. These are e-tickets, so there is no charge for delivery, and the prices in $USD, $CAD or £GBP are very close to Trenitalia's prices in €. Buying through this site provides a way of getting the advance purchase discounts available on Trenitalia's site without the markup of RailEurope. One can pay in local currency without needing to contact one's credit card company. There is a transaction fee (US$5 or equivalent), but they sometimes waive that for readers of TA forums or Man in Seat 61 websites, so it's worth mentioning them.

Validating Tickets

Visitors are often caught unawares by train and transport systems requiring validation. Tickets bought in Italy for Regionale trains are not marked for any particular time or train and become valid only when time-stamped at a validation machine. Without this validation, train operators assume the rider is trying to fare dodge, since the ticket could be reused. So validation is absolutely essential before boarding, and there are small boxes in the station or near the platform: Seat 61 has a picture. After being time-stamped, the ticket is valid for the amount of time shown on the ticket.

Glossary

  • treno = train
  • partenza = departures
  • arrivo = arrivals
  • in ritardo = late/delayed
  • la stazione ferroviale = rail station
  • binario = platform
  • ovest/est = west/east, sometimes used for platform numbers
  • convalidare = to validate ticket
  • vagone/carozza = rail car/wagon
  • biglietti = tickets

Is there a Railpass to get for Italy?

In general, rail passes are a lousy option for Italy. Their main selling point, the flexibility of walking up a train and hopping on, doesn't apply to the high speed and intercity trains that require reservations. (And these are the trains tourists often use.) These seat reservations are not cheap at €10 a person. Advance purchase tickets will always be cheaper than a pass, and even for walk-up fares, you'll want to make sure your per-day cost for the pass is less than the walk-up fare + €10. There may be a few travelers for whom that's the case, but most travelers are better served with point-to-point tickets.

Further reference

For details of facilities available, and the layout, at the larger stations...

http://www.grandistazioni.it/cms/v/in...
or
http://preview.tinyurl.com/679cw86

The Man in Seat 61 is a comprehensive site on rail travel and has a good section on Italy.

TA member GAC has some informative posts on train travel. For instance this one on when a regional train between Rome and Florence is a good idea.

TA member Sydnenick has a page on booking Italian train tickets online: http://www.nickbooth.id.au/Tips/Italy...