European Trains in Spain and Italy
When planning our recent trip through Europe we researched a variety of methods to get from city to city. The first method that came to mind was rail. Trains in Europe are supposed to be everything they are not in the U.S. Cheap, fast and plentiful. While they were indeed plentiful we quickly found out that they are not the cheapest option, and might just be a wash in terms of speed. In most cases the flight option was cheaper (Madrid to Barcelona was about 100€ less per person!). We booked a couple of short inter-Europe flights (link to articles) but also booked three trips using rail for both the the experience and for some variety.
The best resource for researching was rome2rio!
We did some research on various travel sites and ended up using RailEurope for the train bookings. Many articles out there mentioned difficulties with the rail companies individual websites, issues with using credit cards etc. RailEurope is a company based in New York. Their website works a lot like orbitz or travelocity, searching many different carriers for a route, then allowing you to book through their system directly. The three train trips were Madrid to Barcelona, Monaco (Ventimiglia) to Venice and Venice to Rome.
Madrid Atchoa to Barcelona Sants
Renfe AVE #3091
This was a true highspeed train. While more expensive (160$ each) than the flights (75$ each), this train took only 2.5 hours and ran at 300km/hr. The train station was right near the city center, walking distance from our hotel (Westin Palace article) at around 1.5km. The train station was fairly easy to navigate. We had read that highspeed trains all left from the floor 1 (upstairs) however we did see some leaving from the ground floor. So check the screens for your train information! Boarding was similar to an airplane with a gate and gate agent.
The Renfe train was fairly new, with the line opening in 2006. We had first class seats which were spacious. The second class seats seemed fine as well. The train made a couple of stops, and the Spanish country side was more interesting to watch than other reviews had made it seem with occasional castles/forts and other historical buildings. The car was fairly full, with the majority of people going to Barcelona or the end of the line further up the coast.
We arrived at Barcelona Sants, which as a much more well worn. It reminded me more of Penn station in New York, heavily used and a bit dirty. It seemed to be in less touristy area, and the overall surrounding area was a little less maintained than the more popular areas of the city where we ended up staying. I would not recommend walking from the station to the Passeig de Gràcia area unless the weather is cool. The map said 1.6 miles, but it was quite a hike with a bag in tow.
tip: Sants has pay bathrooms! Use the train before you arrive!
Regional train from Monaco to Ventimiglia
We opted to take the short regional train to Ventimiglia Italy to catch our main train to Milan. There are self service kiosks in the Monaco station where you can purchase your ticket. Unfortunately, these kiosks are only in French, and have a rather unintuitive wheel to navigate the options on screen. We ended up being able to get our tickets however it took some guesswork.
Tip: Absolutely validate your ticket after buying it! There is a small terminal before you leave the ticketing / waiting area that you must insert the ticket into. It will scan it and print a time stamp on it. Without this, you may be fined up to 50€!
The regional train was nothing spectacular, and took about. 15-20 minutes to reach Ventimiglia. We purchased first class tickets, however I'm not sure what the difference really was. In the end it was about 6€ each for the tickets.
Ventimiglia to Milan C.L.E.
InterCity is a variation of italirail. We had our PNR code which was the only bit of information we received for this booking. The instructions were provided from RailEurope to use the code at a self service kiosk to print the tickets. We ran into an issue where the kiosk wanted a CP code, which we did not have. We ended up going to the ticketing counter, and had the agent there print the tickets. RailEurope did include a warning about this, however it was a bit lost in all the information they sent over.
The train itself was a standard commuter train, with six seats to a compartment. We did not get to select our seats, which was a bit of a negative as my traveling companion and I were seated in the middle seats, opposite each other. The other travelers were similarly situated, so it would be safe to assume if you are traveling as a pair, you will be seated opposite one another.
The train departed at 10:52 and was due to arrive in Milan at 2:50pm. The trip spent the first 2.5 hours or so along the Italian coast, stopping fairly regularly. The train had a longer stop in Genoa, where the direction reversed. The stopover was about 20 minutes, so quite a bit longer than the other stops. The last hour and a half was inland, and made much fewer stops. The train picked up speed as well. We ended up being about 12 minutes late into Milan, since we only had a 15 minute transfer time for our next train, this lead to a bit of concern! We were waiting at the door when we pulled in, scouting for our next train. Leaping off the moment the doors would ope and running full speed through the terminal, we made our connection with about 2 minutes to spare.
Milan C.L.E. to Venice S.L.
The Frecciabianca train is a 'highspeed' train from Italrail which runs on standard tracks. The top speed was quite a bit less than other trains, but it made fewer stops. The train was much louder than our Renfe train in Spain, but since it was running on standard tracks that was expected. This train had complimentary beverage and snacks, similar to a standard airplane (the drink was about a shot of coffee, or a shot of water). Overall this ride was fairly quick and direct. Much more enjoyable than the commuter trains, but my least favorite of our 'highspeed' trains.
Venice S.L. to Rome Tiburtina
When booking this leg of the trip I did quite a bit of research on the train options. In the end I chose Italo because it left from Venice SL instead of the station on the mainland. The downside was that I could only book the ticket to Rome Tiburtina, not the termini station which is downtown. We figured it was a shorter trip in Rome than in Venice, and opted for that routing. Many resources I read said there wasn't much of a difference between Italo trains and (Italrail?) however I found the Italo highspeed train to be much more enjoyable than the Frecciabianca. We had a bit of an issue with our electronic tickets though. RailEurope provided a PNR code for this leg, but only on the website (never received it in an email). Several weeks before traveling, I noticed the code and wrote it down on our travel plan. A few days before leaving, I was double checking our information and noticed that PNR had changed, and we had seating assignments now. I added that to the travel plan, but kept the older number just in case.
When boarding our train another family had our seating assignment! We talked to the conductor, and found out that the newer code was not finalized, and therefore invalid. This meant it was prebooked but not paid for. We were told we could possibly buy the ticket on the train if there was space. I pulled out the second number, and it happened to be correct, this number was nowhere to be found on the RailEurope itinerary, or emails so it was sheer luck I had seen it, and kept it. While on the train, we noticed it went directly to Termini, which was much more convenient and walking distance to the Rome Times Hotel. We decided we would try and stay on to Termini if possible.
The train ride to Rome was about 3 hours and made only a few stops. This train was more akin to our Renfe train, and averaged about. 250 km/hr. The ride was smooth and the train had free wifi on board which worked pretty well. There was beverage service on this train as well, and the serving sized were a bit more generous. Which the train didn't have a dining or cafeteria car, there was a set of vending machines in our car that had coffee, drinks and snacks that were not terribly overpriced.
In the end we were able to stay in the train through to Rome Termini, but I would recommend caution if trying to do this. I'm not 100% sure they would approve of this, although no one appeared to get on at Tiburtina, you never know. This train also arrived about 10 minutes late to Rome.
tip: if you are taking a train in Italy, assume the train will be 10-15 minutes late when planning connection times!
Rome to FCO
For transit options between Rome's FCO airport and the city center, the direct rail trip on the 'Leonardo Express' is a simple option. For 14€ each, you get a nonstop train which runs every half hour. The trip takes about 30 ,injures and drops you off a bit of a hike fro. The terminals, so be sure you leave plenty of time to get to you flight. The tickets can be bought up to 60 days in advance from the self service kiosks. A key important item here - absolutely validate your ticket after purchase! The validation allows you to use your ticket for any train departing within 90 minutes of the date stamp. Without validation, you can be subjected to a 50€ per person fine, so use the kiosks! There's a picture of the device on this article.