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Getting Around Italy: Planes, Trains, Cars and Vespas

italy vespa scooterA key part of planning your Italian vacation is deciding how you are going to get to Italy and, even more importantly, how you are going to get around. The way you travel will color your daily experiences of Italy. Trains can be one of the most affordable options. Renting a car will help you see Italy from an entirely different perspective -- you might even welcome getting lost on some stunning country roads. Italy has an enormous coastline, which means that traveling by boat is another option. If you're looking for the quintessential Italian mode of transportation, you might just do as the Italians do and hop on a Vespa!

Flying to and Around Italy
Chances are you are going to arrive in Italy on a plane. If you're flying directly from the United States, you will likely land in Milan or Rome (though there are a few nonstop flights to Venice and Pisa). If you're changing planes in Europe or flying from within the continent, you can take advantage of numerous smaller airlines, particularly budget carriers that fly from major European cities. A great resource for finding these flights is WhichBudget.com.

The country of Italy covers more than 116,000 square miles, and two of its 20 regions are islands -- Sardinia and Sicily -- so for travel from the very north to the south, and vice versa, flying within Italy will save you significant time over taking the train. Alitalia is Italy's major airline. Other airlines for domestic flights include: Meridiana, Air Dolomiti, Air One and Blu-express.

Europe Flight Deals

Renting a Car in Italy
One of the biggest questions travelers to Italy have is, "Should I rent a car?"

If you will only be visiting Italian cities (large and small), you simply don't need to rent a car. Most cities have excellent public transportation, and Italy's train system will get you between cities. Parking rules in most Italian cities are confusing, and parking at hotels can cost up to 40 euros a night. But if you're headed to a more rural area such as Tuscany, you will see more if you rent a car. Be sure to bring along (or rent) a good GPS.

You also need to take into account your fear level when renting a car in Italy. Driving here can be a bit more stressful than back home. Fellow drivers are fast and aggressive on the autostrada (highway) and navigating narrow medieval streets can be a challenge. If you are a fearful driver back home, you probably don't want to drive in Italy.

Italy isn't the cheapest place to rent a car. Insurance is mandatory and included in the cost of the rental. If you only drive an automatic transmission, you will be paying significantly more than if you are able to rent a manual car, which is far more common here. Gas is also an expense, as it is two to three times the cost of gas in the U.S. But if you're traveling with multiple people, renting a car in Italy can make economic sense and help you see more of the country than you would otherwise.

If you are stopped by the Italian police while driving, you may be asked to show an International Driving Permit, which you can get through AAA in the U.S. (Be sure to have your regular license with you too). This is a fairly new requirement in the last few years. For more on the IDP, see International Car Rental Tips.

Italy by Train
Italy's excellent national train system is the most popular way for tourists to get around the country. The national train company is online at Trenitalia.com, where you can look up schedules and purchase tickets. It makes sense to prebook your tickets if you're traveling in the summer, over a holiday or on a weekend -- or if you simply cannot be flexible.

If you're traveling between Italy's major cities, you will most likely be taking the Eurostar, which travels in comfort and speed between Italy's main train stations. There are two classes of service, and even second class is very nice.

Italo, Italy's high-speed train, is a recent entry on the local transportation scene. It travels up to 216 miles per hour. The interiors of the train are even more impressive than Eurostar, offering free Wi-Fi and a cinema car. There are special lounges for Italo customers at each train station. Find out more online at ItaloTreno.it.

If you're traveling between a large city and an outlying town, you will likely be on an InterCity (IC), InterRegionale (IR), Regionale (R) or Diretto (D) train. Many of these trains only have one class and don't have air-conditioning.

Various Eurail passes are accepted on Italian trains, including the dedicated Italy Rail Pass, but unless you are traveling extremely long distances, it typically makes more sense economically to buy point-to-point tickets. You can price out your options at RailEurope.com.

No matter which train you are traveling on in Italy, remember that you must validate (or punch) your ticket in the yellow box at the end of the train track before getting on the train.

European Train Tips

Italy by Boat
Italy has more than 4,000 miles of coastline, some major lakes and islands, as well as an entire city -- Venice -- on the water, so boat travel may just be a part of your Italian vacation. Italians are well known for their seafaring ways; after all, Christopher Columbus was a native of Genoa, in northern Italy.

If you are traveling to Italy's two largest islands -- Sardinia and Sicily -- you can reach them by overnight ferry or a several-hour hydrofoil from the mainland. This is a popular alternative to flying. On the Amalfi Coast, there are numerous ferries and hydrofoils running from mainland towns and cities (Naples, Positano, Amalfi, Sorrento) to the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. Here are some of Italy's largest ferry companies and their routes:

Caremar: Naples and Amalfi Coast to Pontine Islands, Capri, Ischia, Procida
Moby: Mainland Italy to Elba, Corsica and Sardinia
Saremar: Mainland Italy to Sardinia, around Sardinia
Siremar: Mainland Italy to Sicily, around Sicily
SNAV: Mainland Italy to Sardinia, Sicily, Aeolian Islands
Tirrenia: One of the biggest ferry companies, routes all over Italy

When you're in Venice, the vaporetto is the boat equivalent of a public bus. If you are staying in Venice for a few days, it is best to buy a pass so you can hop on and hop off while seeing the sights. Find out more at VeniceConnected.com Don't confuse these larger vessels with the private water taxis available for hire.

Our Favorite Venice Hotels

Italy on a Vespa
If the scene in the movie "Roman Holiday" in which Audrey Hepburn travels the Eternal City on a Vespa resonates with you, have you ever thought about doing the same? This just might be the ultimate Italian experience. Unless you have plenty of guts, you might not want to take your first Vespa ride on a busy Roman street, but side streets or out in the countryside will work just fine.

Some of the major car rental companies, including Auto Europe, rent these quintessential Italian scooters. There are also many local companies who rent Vespas; just do a Web search for the particular city or region where you will be. There are even organized Vespa tours -- you also search for these online or check Viator.com, which compiles day trips throughout Italy.

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    --written by Kathy McCabe, DreamofItaly.com
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