Italy Planning: Tickets & Transport

closeup of the front fender of a red ferrari

Once we had the itinerary worked out for our Italy trip in July, we had to decide how we’d be getting around and what activities, if any, to book in advance.

Seeing the sights

I love exploring on my own, following my own interests at my own pace, and usually that’s what I do. But, once in a while I’ll spring for a local  guided tour. They can be expensive, but a good guide can enrich your experiences and expose you to things you would never have discovered on your own. In a place as big and busy as Rome, they can also help bypass line-ups. That will be especially important for our peak season visit. Here are some experiences we’ll book:

  • The Complete Vatican Tour with Walks of Italy will get us skip-the-line access in a small group (maximum 14). The Vatican will be a zoo, but if any company can bring maximum sanity to the experience, I’m pretty sure this one will be it. They focus on slowing things down and deep understanding. One of the co-founders is a historian. They like to take walks. If we like it, we may sign up for more of their walks for other parts of our trip. Note on visiting the Vatican: the museums are closed Sundays and St. Peter’s is sometimes closed Wednesday mornings for a papal audience.
  • Just try reading about Eating Italy’s Taste of Testaccio Food Tour without salivating. We’ll get 12 tastings at 9 stops in a vibrant foodie neighbourhood. We’ll become experts at finding the best gelato, pasta and street food. Yum. They also offer cooking classes, which may just tempt us once we’re there.

closeup of the facade of the Colosseum in Rome

The Colosseum and Forum are another set of sites worth thinking about in advance. Apparently the lineups can be brutal, especially in peak season. While I don’t think we’ll book a guided tour, here are some bits of advice we’ll follow, collected from the resources I mentioned in my previous Italy planning post:

  • Buy tickets online in advance from CoopCulture. Although there’s no escaping the security line for anyone, this  will let us skip the ticket buying line.
  • Pick the day carefully. Both sites are open 7 days a week, but weekends are busiest. The first Sunday of each month is free for Europeans, students & journalists. There are no advance tickets or tours on these days, so there is no way to skip lines. In my opinion, the hassle isn’t worth the savings. Avoid!
  • Go early – arrive just before the gates open at 8:30 to get a slight edge on the crowds. First in gets the best unspoiled views and photos. Arriving early will also mean beating the mid day heat, important in summer, since there is very little shade at the sites.
  • Go back at night to see the Colosseum when it’s lit up.

[Post-trip update: Read about how it all turned out on our Vatican and Colosseum visits, and our Rome food tour.]

Getting around

The big transportation question: ride the rails or drive the Autostrade in the land of Lamborghini & Ferrari? Here are some of the pros and cons of each:

Rental CarTrain
Cost• Compact, standard transmission cars are affordable; large vehicles and/or automatic transmissions are expensive • Agencies may pressure you to buy expensive insurance, some of which you may need if not covered by your own policy or credit card • Fuel is expensive and parking & tolls can add up quickly • May be extra charges to pick up / drop off in different cities • Need an International Drivers Permit (must buy at home before leaving – approx. $25)• Affordable if booking well in advance and willing to commit to a non-refundable/non-changeable ticket • Individual tickets may be a better value than passes • Total ticket costs can add up quickly if more than 2 people in your group
Convenience• Come and go as you please on your own schedule • Drive right up to your hotel – no dragging luggage • Subject to schedules, which are frequent between major cities, but less so for smaller towns
Efficiency• Efficient network of highways • Subject to traffic congestion, especially in cities• High speed trains on major routes are super efficient; regional and local trains can be slow
Stress Factor• Aggressive Italian drivers, poorly marked streets, restricted traffic zones, limited parking and unfamiliar signs can be stressful • Not impacted by labour strikes • Need to decipher schedules and drag your luggage to, from and through train stations • Subject to frequent labour strikes • Once onboard, sit back and relax
Fun Factor• Exhilarating for avid drivers• A unique experience providing opportunities to observe and/or interact with fellow passengers

Train, car or both?

If you have three or more people in your group, one of you is comfortable driving a standard, and you’re willing to settle for a compact vehicle, the cost of driving vs train tickets may be quite comparable. The best choice will depend on your itinerary, group size and zest for the open road (or lack thereof). In some cases, a blend of train and car travel might be the best approach.

For our trip, I was seriously considering renting a car for the Bologna segment. I even found a great inclusive rate through AutoEurope with no extra fee for dropping off in a different city. However, I thought back to my past European driving misadventures and chickened out. Cost-wise, it probably would have worked out around the same, but I decided that overall, train travel would be lower risk and stress. Now let’s just hope there’s not a massive strike in the middle of our trip!

car by the beach and a car in a field with a view of a town in the distance

one advantage of renting a car: go where you like

More on driving and renting cars in Italy

train at the platform in a station with arched windows above

More on train travel in Italy:

  • Rick Steves offers a good overview of train travel in Italy, including a handy map with an overview of cost and travel time between cities.
  • For even more detail, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Train Travel in Italy by The Man in Seat 61
  • Trenitatlia is the country’s main, state-owned rail company. Their site is fairly easy to use, except you’ll need to know the Italian names for cities (eg: Venezia instead of Venice). You’ll also have to be careful about picking the right rail station within the bigger cities.
  • Italotreno is a newer, private company offering high speed service with sleek new trains on a smaller selection of routes. Their rates seem to be similar to Trenitatlia, but the frequency of service is less, and in some cities they don’t’ travel to the central station.

Buon viaggio,

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