Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Ferries and Buses Too!): Getting Around in Italy

OK, so for this entry let's look at what I've learned about the various methods you may want to use to get around in Italy (at least when going from city to city -- I'll touch on what I've learned about getting around within your destination city another time).  I'm by no means an expert on this, but at least I can pass along a bit of research -- maybe it will help.

So, you've selected your flight to Italy, and your reserved your hotels too. Now it's time to figure out how you'll get from point A to point B while you're there.  Let's assume that you (like us) will actually be hitting a few different major areas of Italy while you're there.  In our case, we're starting in Rome, then heading south to Sorrento for a weekend, then up to Florence for a few days, followed by a return to Rome and then home. This naturally begs the question of how you'll travel between these destinations (God, I love it when they beg). Your choices are pretty typical:  car, bus, train, or plane.

I mean, you could also get a private driver, too.  Knock yourself out!  Options are plentiful.  I suppose you could rent a chariot drawn by burros if you really wanted to, but I wouldn't recommend it. 

Option 1: Renting a Car

So, cars.  Renting cars is actually pretty affordable -- notably less expensive than renting here in the US, actually.  However, you need to factor in a lot of other items before choosing to rent a car strictly based on cost/savings vs. other methods of transport. The number one thing is the cost of gasoline -- as of this writing, factoring in USD to Euro conversion, gas runs the equivalent of just under $9 a gallon.  Add in the cost of tolls (many of the major thoroughfares between cities are toll roads, and not cheap ones -- for example, the main road between Florence and Venice will run you about €15 one way) and it rapidly beceomes clear that you're not going to save any money by renting a car.  Now, that's not to say you should rent one.  If you enjoy driving, or are planning on spending a lot of time just exploring the countryside and you don't like being held to a strict schedule it might be perfect for you. And if you've been to Italy before and are looking to avoid the well-worn tourism path and get out to see the "real" Italy, you'll have little other choice. Be sure to also factor in that Italian drivers have a reputation for driving like complete friggin' lunatics, that driving into and out of major cities like Rome, Naples, or Florence will typically take you multiple hours due to traffic, and that parking can be very difficult to find and expensive.  Just be aware you'll need an International Driving Permit to rent over there -- you can get one from AAA.

What We Did

The only place we considered renting a car was in Sorrento, but given how brief our time there was going to be, and that we are planning on spending an entire day in Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius, the actual amount of time we would have been able to take advantage of having a car was minimal at best.  Plus the roads along the Amalfi Coast as considered  by many people to be some of the most dangerous/terrifying in the world.

Verdict: screw driving.  I'm on vacation and I really don't need that stress. Next!

Option 2: Buses

This one we really didn't give much thought at all (at least for going from city to city).  From what I've ascertained, chartered buses are primarily used by tourists for transfers from airports to smaller towns/cities and for guided tours to specific destinations or for sightseeing purposes. Could definitely be wrong.

What We Did

Never been a fan of riding on buses. This was never really an option we considered for transport around Italy.

Option 3: Hopping a Plane

There are lots of inter-city flights available that are (supposedly) pretty affordable.  Frankly we didn't research this much as we weren't traveling long enough distances to justify it.  I figured that once you factored in the time spent going to and from airports, getting through security, checking/retrieving luggage, boarding, taking off and landing you'd need to be saving a lot of time versus other method of transport to justify the choice.

What We Did

We crossed flights off our list of options pretty quickly.  If we were heading all the way up to Milan from Naples or Rome we might have considered it, but for the fairly short jaunts we were doing it just wasn't worth the cost or hassle.

Option 4: Trains! Glorious Trains!

OK, NOW we're talking!  When it comes to getting around Italy trains are clearly the preferred way to go.  You've got your very plush and modern high-speed rail connecting most of your major destinations, with older and slower regional trains connecting pretty much everything else. Tickets are quite affordable across the board, even for nice first class accommodations on the luxurious high-speed trains, and especially if you pre-book using one of the MINI discount fares. However, MINI fares have some frustrating restrictions -- more on that later.

When it comes to purchasing your fares there are a few ways to go.  You can get multi-day/multi-trip passes, or just purchase each leg of your journey individually.  If you have a fairly defined itinerary and don't plan on bouncing around too much it will probably be more cost effective to just book one way tickets between your various destinations.  Obviously this will require that you have pretty well-defined departure and arrival times to avoid having to change the tickets.

As of this month high-speed rail is now offered by two carriers instead of just one:  Trenitalia and Italo.  Italo is the new kid in town, so their trains will probably be slightly more modern and sexy.  Perhaps a bit more expensive as well, until competition really starts to kick in and they start putting out bargain fares.

The slower regional trains are prtty much everywhere, but we haven't researched them too much as we'll mostly be focusing on the cities we're staying in.  The only regional trains we'll be using are the Circumvesuviana (to get from Sorrento to Pompeii and back) and a Trenitalia Regionale Veloc (between Florence and Pisa).  Tickets for these can be purchased only 7 days in advance.  As far as I've been able to to tell, the main difference between first and second class on these trains is that only the first class cabins are air conditioned.  Could be wrong.

Tickets for the high-speed rail can be purchased 60 days in advance.  All seats on the high-speed rail (first and second class) are reserved -- first class seating is just a bit nicer -- more room, club seating, power outlets, etc. -- and includes a drink and snack.  These trains also feature air conditioning throughout and WiFi access (although it is currently in the testing phase and costs 1 cent to use.  ONE CENT. We'll see how well it works out ...).

What We Did

We reserved one way, first class tickets from Rome to Naples (closest destination to Sorrento), from Sorrento to Florence, and then from Florence back to Rome.  Many people feel that the additional cost of first class between Rome and Sorrento and Florence and Rome isn't worth it since second class is quite roomy, air conditioned, and the ride is less than two hours (first class about 2-3X second class, with MINI discounted fares coming in around €40 each for each of these routes) but we went ahead and splurged for the hell of it.  Paid in advance and got the discounted MINI fares, which saved us about 20-25% ...

... except for when we decided we needed to change one of our train reservations.  Original plan was to leave Rome for Naples around Noon but when we started going over our schedule we realized that would get us into Naples (and thus Sorrento) too late to meet a shuttle bus we needed to catch.  So, since I had read that Mini fares could be changed exactly one time, I figured no big whoop and went to change to an earlier arrival time (leaving at 10:00AM instead of Noon).

Yeah, not allowed.  With the MINI fare you're allowed one change, but it has to be to a LATER day AND time.  No changes to other trains that run the same day, or on any earlier days. So even though I was only trying to leave a couple of hours earlier there was no way to do so.  Only option was to cancel my tickets (at a 50% penalty) and rebook.  So, there went about $50 and all of our early booking savings!  Oh well, live and learn.

Getting to Sorrento: Train (Eww ...) or Ferry (Yay!)

So, once we had all our trains squared away, all that was left was figuring out how to get from Naples to Sorrento.  The most direct, but least appealing, way would be to take the Circumvesuviana railroad.  It's a regional rail that stops at all sorts of spots along the coast, Sorrento being among the last.  Crowded, fairly slow, no AC, and we'll be lugging luggage as well.  Not terribly appealing.

So, I started looking for alternatives, and it turns out there's a terrific high-speed hydrofoil ferry service that runs out of Mollo Beverello.  Not cheap (about €10 each, plus extra for baggage) but MUCH faster, nicer, and to top it off you get the view of the coastline and Vesuvius from the Bay of Naples the whole way. We'll need to grab a cab from the train station, but otherwise this looks to be a much nicer option.  The only frustrating point is that their website is a shambles, not functioning properly, and untranslated, so we can't seem to make any reservations in advance. I'm assured this will not present an issue by others who've done this before.  Hope they're right. Worst case, we just go and take the train.

Next time: Choosing your itinerary, aka The Death By A Thousand Cuts.

No comments: