The Extra Mile
Here's all the info you need to explore Italy by train
Sunday Times Travel editor Paul Ash says trains offer superior travel in every way. Use them to reach Rome, Milan, Sorrento, Naples and more
Q We are going to Italy in September. We will first fly to Rome and immediately take a train to Milan. Next destination is Naples followed by Sorrento and then back to Rome. We want to travel by train. What train system is the best? Is it Eurail or should we book a train ticket for each trip. Please advise. - Athol Weiderman
A. Firstly I must commend you for wanting to travel by rail on your trip to Italy. Trains offer superior travel in every way, especially in Europe with its efficient network of high-speed rail links.
Railway stations are usually in the centres of the cities and you don't have to worry about traffic or finding parking - or the unsettling experience of driving on the other side of the road. Budget flights may be cheap but, after factoring in travel to the airport, check-in, the flight and then travel from the airport at the other end, a one-hour flight can be a four- or five-hour torture-fest.And you can take you own food and drink on the trains.
Now, the money. While a Eurail pass allows flexibility to vary travel dates and routes, it may be overkill for the trains you wish to take.
Eurail is running special offers on single-country passes for Italy, but it's likely that buying single advance-purchase tickets will be cheaper. The cheapest Eurail passes allow fewer days of travel in any given month while the most expensive pass - currently €245 (R3,965) - allows eight days of rail travel.
The 570km trip to Milan is usually a straightforward three-hour journey aboard a high-speed Frecciarossa train - one of 80 such trains operated by Trenitalia between Rome and Milan daily (note that there are two stations in Rome - Roma Termini and Roma Tiburtina - and two in Milan, and that this can complicate fares and timings).A test booking for early September on the booking website Rail Europe turned up standard fares at €44.90 and €55.90, as well as a cheap fare of €36.30 but which involves an eight-hour journey and a change of trains.
On the Milan to Naples leg, Rail Europe turned up direct trains taking a little over four hours, with the lowest standard fare at €42.90 and an average fare of €54.90.
For the last leg from Naples to Rome, Rail Europe showed fares of around €19 to €46, with most fares at €24.90 for the one-hour journey. At standard fares, the three train rides will cost about €112, significantly less than the special-offer Eurail pass.
You can book these trains through Rail Europe or through Trenitalia - the state rail operator - itself. However, I found the Trenitalia website clunky and almost impossible to use. You could also try booking directly through ItaliaRail, a clean and user-friendly website which offers competitive fares.
From Naples to Sorrento, you have two options: the everyday narrow-gauge electric Circumvesuviana suburban train to Sorrento or the Campania Express - a tourist train run by the same operator as the Circumvesuviana and which stops at places such as Herculaneum and Pompeii on its way to Sorrento.
The Circumvesuviana is the more "real" experience. It's cheaper too - about €3.60 compared to €8 (€15 return) on the Campania Express. The pickpockets on the "real" train come free of charge.The Circumvesuviana trains run from Naples' Garibaldi station but it's probably better to catch them from the Porta Nolana terminus, where you'll get on before the crowds. Trains run roughly every 20 minutes - there's a timetable at eavsrl.it (click on the "translate" button when you open the web page) - while the Campania Express runs six times daily in each direction.
You can buy Circumvesuviana tickets at the station ticket offices but many travellers suggest buying tickets from local newsagents, where you won't have to queue. Trains get crowded at rush hour - this is a commuter service after all. The 47km journey takes just over an hour.
There are also ferries between Naples and Sorrento. If you're travelling with lots of luggage, this may be a more civilised option.
The fast boat - a hydrofoil - is operated by Alilauro and costs €13.10 per person, one way.
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