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Travel Tales Episode 22: Making the most of rail passes in Italy

Episode 22: Making the most of rail passes in Italy

Why the balance can tip in favour of travelling first class when using Eurail and InterRail passes in Italy; plus solving a mystery at Bologna station

| Last Updated: 3 months ago

This morning I had a spring in my step as I made my way back to Bologna’s main station, because my luggage had been left in the hotel, while I dedicated a day to experiencing the best aspects of using InterRail passes to travel with Trenitalia.

On the day’s agenda would be four iconic railway stations, including my first encounter with the part of Bologna Centrale used by high speed trains, plus I’d be speeding across the Italian landscape in the lap of luxury that is otherwise known as Business Class on the fabulous Frecciarossa 1000 trains!
My destination of the day was Sorrento, but despite having had time for a leisurely breakfast I’d still have time to take in Rome’s two main stations, Termini and Tiburtina, plus the main station in Naples.

A primary motive for the construction of high speed railways is meeting the needs of business travellers, because if railway companies can get the train travel down to under three hours, so that the train travel time between HQs between becomes quicker than flying, the train wins out, plus all of that three hours can be used for business.
But what can be forgotten is that high speed trains also open up new leisure travel opportunities.

Why first class rail passes can be a good choice in Italy

Before Bologna Centrale became a station call on Italy’s north-south high speed route, a day trip by train from the city to the likes of Rome and Naples wouldn’t have been an option, let alone be simple.
Now if you want to holiday in northern Italy, but also don’t want to miss out on seeing Pompeii while you’re in the country, you can tick it off.
Take the high speed trains between Bologna and Napoli and then the local trains between Napoli and Pompeii, which will drop you right by the entrance gate, and you can easily spend most of an afternoon wandering the ruins.

As I could be fairly flexible with my timings I could pick and choose my departures and for my first journey of the day I was looking for a train that saved time by not diverting off the direct route in order to call at the city centre stations in Florence and, or Rome, plus that train also had to be a Frecciarossa 1000 train.
A Frecciarossa 1000 train has arrived in the AV (high-speed) station

These beasts had appeared since my previous trip to Italy, so I was keen to see whether their interiors were as gorgeous as their exteriors.
I wasn’t disappointed.
One of the topics about rail travel that’s most keenly debated in the social media age is whether travelling First Class on trains justifies the costs, with ‘It doesn’t’ often carrying the argument.
But what those cases For and Against tend to overlook is that standards of First Class can have huge variations, depending on which train you will be travelling by and which company is operating it.
There are no universal rules, the differences can range from hardly any difference to the seating in 2nd class, to ‘complimentary’ three course restaurant style meals being served to First Class passengers in their seats.

And near the top of the ultimate First Class experience available on a train lists, are the Frecciarossa 1000s operated by Trenitalia.

Though making a comparison with other European high speed trains is a little unfair, because the Frecciarossa 1000, and the older but still fabulous Frecciarossa trains, mirror long-haul airlines by offering four classes of on-board accommodation instead of two.
So the ‘Premium’ coaches on those trains mirrors the Premium Economy seating in an airline cabin, but the ‘Business Class’ is akin to Club Class on airlines, so its two tiers above Standard Class.

Use 2nd class InterRail or Eurail Passes to travel around in Italy and you have to pay a €10 seat reservation fee for a seat in Standard Class on a Frecce train.
So it tends to be cited as evidence for the prosecution in rail passes can be a rip off arguments, but if you will be travelling on a Frecce train with a 1st class Eurail or InterRail pass, you pay the same reservation fee of €10, but your assigned seats will be in Business Class.
The Business Class seating saloon on a Frecciarossa 1000 train
This arrangement can be fantastic value for money, because of the savings to be made on a two hour plus journey on a 1st class journey by Frecce trains, the £10 supplement + the days use of the pass, will be typically more than €40 less than the cost of a Business Class ticket.
So if you’re thinking of using the types of Eurail and InterRail Pass that are valid only in Italy, or will taking multiple journeys by Frecce train on a multi-country itinerary, it can be worth doing some number crunching if you want to see whether a 1st or 2nd class pass will be better value for money.

Finding my first train of the day

But before I could feel like a VIP I had to board the train, having used the main entrance to Bologna Centrale on the city side of the station.
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I avoided the long queues snaking back from every ticket window, by obtaining my rail pass reservation from a ticket machine, so now had the number of the train I’d be taken on the reservation coupon.
I then found the train number on the departure board which told me that I need to head to binari 19 in order to board my train to Napoli, the excellent signage told me to head down from the booking hall into the passage way under the railway tracks.

Disconcertingly the number of the binari I needed to head to was higher than that of any bianro (platform/track) in the main station, but the sign told me to head on away from them.
This didn’t seem to make sense, but I didn’t know that there was another part of Bologna station that I’d yet to experience or even see.
I trusted the signs and found myself at the side of an underground road, used by cars and taxis to drop travellers off at the station, a location that had the aura of a shopping centre car park.
I didn’t want to take a taxi, I wanted to catch a train, but I couldn’t see any from here and was beginning to think I’d made a wrong turn.
Then I noticed that some people who had been dropped off by taxi were using an escalator heading downward, so I checked the signs by it and all became clearer, I needed to head in the same direction.

As I was conveyed downwards I was astonished by the gargantuan size of the room that I could now see below me and over to my left.
For I was now in what must be the world’s largest railway station waiting room, which spans most of the length of the AV station used by the high speed trains.
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What was also astonishing was how empty this space was, because it doesn’t serve a purpose, other than impressing by its scale.
If you take a taxi or drive to Bologna Cle in order to catch a high speed train, you can time your arrival so that you won’t have long to wait, so it’s not obvious who this area of the station is intended for.
If you will have time to kill between trains at Bologna Centrale, then having a drink or something to eat in the more beautiful areas of the older station, is a better means of idling than hanging around in the AV station
Though if you wanted to while the time away waiting for a train by playing a game of football or basketball then this could be your ideal station, all it needs is someone to put up some goals and mark out the playing areas.

For it seems as though when the AV extension to Bologna Centrale was planned, surprisingly little effort seems to have been given to how people will use it, but serious consideration was evidently given to how impressive the new station would look.
Perhaps architects aren’t regular users of trains, because this can be a common scenario.
London Bridge, St Pancras International, Antwerpen Centraal and Stockholm Centraal are other examples of spaces with a wow factor, but where many users of the station now have further to go when accessing the trains, than they did pre-makeovers.

Bologna Centrale is I suspect an example of compromise, because a more ideal scenario would have been to construct a passage way, with associated elevators and escalators, in order to provide a direct link between the AV station and the older station and all of the platforms housed within it.
Though in a station which already had three passage ways under the tracks, already capable of confusing first time users, the decision was evidently taken that the access to and from the high speed trains would be through the car drop off zone, regardless of whether the travellers would or wouldn’t be taking a taxi.
But as a result both the hoped for wow factor from using the AV station, and the needs of many travellers are somewhat flawed.
Because not only is the car drop off zone the grimmest area in Bologna Centrale, travellers who want to head to the city centre exit, or to change trains, are being routed the long way round.


Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.


This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.


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