Getting around Italy by plane

How to get around in Italy using low-cost air tickets

The days of high plane fares are over, my friends, as are the days of having to spend 15 hours on a train just to cross a country cheaply.

Thanks to no-frills airlines and low cost carriers (such as easyJet, blu-express, Air One, and Ryan Air)—the advent of which has forced Alitalia and Meridiana to lower their own fares to compete—you can often now hop a plane across Italy for less than it costs to take the train while at the same time save dozens of hours on travel.

Cheaper, easier, faster—what more could you want?

When using airfare within Italy makes sense

Add 2.5 hrs. (and €25) to all air travel calculations

When considering how long traveling by air will actually take always add at least 2.5 or 3 hours to the length of the flight.

This is to account for:

  • Travel between downtown and the airport (30–40 min. on either end)
  • The requirement to arrive at the airport 60 min. prior to departure (personally, I aim for 90 min., just to be safe)
  • An extra 30-min. just-in-case cushion (to account for traffic, long lines, or just missing an airport shuttle and having to wait for the next).

So why the extra €25? That's to get you to and from the airport on either end—assuming you use the fastest public transport, which tends to run €10–€15. (Taxis will cost much, much more; conversely, by taking slow local buses, you can often whittle that total down to €4–€15).

I wouldn't fly from Rome to Milan. Makes no sense.

The train only takes 3 hr. and costs from €59.

However, to cross longer distances within Italy, a plane—once unthought-of due to the expense—is not the better option.

Planes are also by far the best option to get to Italy's major islands—like Sicily and Sardegna.

A few samples:

Rome to Palermo

  • By train: 11–12 hr., from €69 ($89).
  • By plane: 1 hr., from €40 ($52).

Rome to Sardegna

  • By train & ferry: 8.5–13 hr., from €46 ($60).
  • By plane: 1 hr., from €23 ($30).

Venice to Bari

  • By train: 7.5–8 hr., from €83 ($108).
  • By plane: 1.5 hr., from €19 ($25).

Milan to Naples

  • By train: 4.5–5 hr., from €49 ($63).
  • By plane: 1.5 hr., from €33 ($43).

It's no contest—even when you add the obligatory 2.5 extra hours to the air travel equation (see the box above to the right).

For close calls, the train is the better call

That time consideration (the extra 2.5 hours ) does make that Milan-Naples route one more of a toss-up.

On the one hand, by plane it would be a bit faster and potentially somewhat cheaper (yes, even taking the extra cost of airport transfers in at both ends; there's actually only a single 6am train at that €49 price; most trains on that route cost €59–€95).

On the other hand, train travel is so much more relaxing that air travel—and you only have to get on the train in the center of one city then off in the center of another, rather than taking a shuttle or taxi out to the airport, do the whole check-in/security rigmarole, fly, collect bags, then take another shuttle or taxi downtown.

Hopscotch across Italy

Since low-cost carriers often link smaller vacation destinations, you can use cheap flights to cobble together an itinerary. An example:

Once on a Sardegna trip, I flew from Rome to Cagliari (at Sardegna's southern tip), rented a car to spend my week exploring the island slowly making my way north, then flew out of Alghero (on the island's northern tip) to nearby Pisa to continue my trip.

I spent about 4 hr. total on travel (fly time and airport transfers—which were briefer since I was driving between two of them), and €80 on airfares.

Dead easy. Way faster and cheaper than using the old trains-and-ferries system, which would have taken me 22 hr. and cost €98 total.

Beware excess fees

Some low-cost carriers can offer such rock-bottom tickets because they impose draconian fees—Ryanair is notorious for this (and its staff are downright surly, so I try to avoid them if there is another option).

Beware of fees for on-line check-in and seat assignments—and especially beware of strict limits on luggage weight (both for checked bags and carryons) with obscenely high fees for going over. (Many people report Ryanair bag fees doubling or even tripling the cost of that too-good-to-be-true fare).

Still that's all just caveat emptor. Read the fine print, know what you're getting into, and you won't be in for a nasty shock at the check-on counter.

Also: pack light!

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