The Italian Job
All the guidebooks and all of my friends who had been to Europe told me, just buy Italian train tickets once you get to Europe…unless you have specific trains and days you want to travel, then you should book in advance. We have a pretty tight schedule, 2 days in Venice, 2 days in Rome, 4 days in Paris and then 4 days in London before the conference and 3 days of the conference. I have hotels pre-booked at each location and it would throw everything off if I didn’t get the trains I want so I tried booking in advance.
First try was with the Trenitalia website. Their website comes in both Italian and English flavors, which is convenient. It is easy to search for trains; the fares are clearly stated and easy to understand what you’re booking with the pictures of the couchettes vs. beds. My first problem turned out to be that I was trying to book too early. Everything came up as not available and I freaked out thinking that all of the trains for the days I wanted were sold out. “Impossible!” my travel savvy friends declared. Some googling revealed that seats are not available for sale more than 60 days in advance.
I waited until 60 days in advance, hitting the reload button until it struck 12:01 am in Italy. I found my trains, one of which was available with an Amica fare (20% off for booking early), put them all in my cart, put in my credit card info and was declined. First step was calling the bank. They said they didn’t see the transaction as being denied and that no transactions had shown up on their end. After googling around I found out other people have the same problem and they suggested a variety of remedies. I tried them all. I am posting them here in case any of them work for you:
Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode: “Ticketless online reservations require online payment, but the site only accepts credit cards if you have set up a "3D" security system, such as Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode. Those plans require you to activate and use an additional password for all online purchases. Create a user ID before booking, then proceed through the booking quickly, as there is a time limit (15 minutes).”
I set up my MasterCard SecureCode and tried again, I actually got a little further this time. It requested my SecureCode password before denying my card. Called bank again, they still couldn’t see any denied transactions and to call MasterCard because that is where the hang up is. Called MasterCard and they said they can’t see any transactions and that I should call my bank. I repeated this dance about 6 times with different people. I finally intrigued someone at my bank enough that they checked into it for awhile. They called me back and said it must be a problem with the card I was using and that they would overnight me a new one. This also didn’t work. I did find that you can login to the SecureCode website and I could see all of the transactions as they went through, apparently my bank couldn’t see them though. At least I knew it wasn’t the Trenitalia website, the transactions were going somewhere.
Your middle initial: “Basically, in the Italian database there is not a separate field for your middle initial. While American credit cards all use the initial as an extra measure of security. I was able to immediately resolve this problem by calling my credit cards companies (American Express) and another debit card and having my middle initial removed.” I was quite hopeful when I found this anecdotal bit of internet advice, promptly called my bank, deleted my middle initial and tried again. No luck!
Browser Settings: “After four attempts using 3 different cards, I called MasterCard. They said it's not their problem - they could see that they hadn't blocked anything. So then I changed the browser Privacy settings (Tools, Internet Options, Privacy tab) to the next to lowest setting. I then went back and was able to complete 2 purchases with no problem. I hope this works for others because this is hugely frustrating and time-consuming. Good luck!” Tried this, didn’t work, but at least I didn’t get a virus trying.
Call them: “The TrenItalia Travel Help Center number is +39-06-6847 5475. (From the US, you would dial 00 11 39 06 6847 5475) Ask for an English speaking Operator and they will try and assist you. Here's the same info from the "Help" section of their website: http://www.trenitalia.com/en/area_clienti/call_center/index.html “ Um, this didn’t work for me because when I called it said that number works only for verified foreign numbers. I tried several times on Skype and even GULP on my home phone, no luck, guess Alaska is part of Italy.
Fax them: I faxed in a request with all of my details and asked them to call me back to book. No response.
Use another website: www.Italiarail.com or www.raileurope.com I tried both and they presumably work. They aren’t scams that steal your money, they just overcharge you. What should have been 250 Euro ($400 at the time) worth of tickets was coming out at almost $700.00. They don’t give you any discounts or Amica fares or anything, and then they charge you to mail your tickets to you. Also, their search engine doesn’t pull up all of the same trains as the Trenitalia website and I couldn’t get the exact itinerary I wanted. A last ditch solution, but I wasn’t giving up.
US Travel: Call a travel agent, they can book for you. I did so and got great service, they called Trenitalia directly (why can’t I find their number?) and got us tickets. However, for some reason they were also in the $700-$1,000 range. Insane! Plus side is that they hold tickets for free for 30 days so I held tickets while I kept trying to book.
I was about to succumb to paying $300 and justify it to myself as an hourly savings vs. continuing my fight against travel agents. Then I called American Express to ask them one last time if they knew why their card doesn’t work on the Trenitalia website and only Visa and Mastercard do. They didn’t know, but asked if I would like to be transferred to their travel department. “You have a travel department? Sure, what could it hurt?” Their travel department gave me the direct phone and e-mail address of the American Express travel office in Venice, our first stop. I e-mailed our ticket itineraries to them, they gave me the price quoted on the Trenitalia website, no fees, no booking charges, no commission, nothing. Sweet success! We will pick up our paper tickets at the St. Mark’s Square office of American Express Travel the first day of our trip. You can do this at locations all over Italy, including Rome as well. Just make sure you do it at the first location you’ll depart from by train. Our credit card has been charged, the customer service was excellent and I didn’t have to pay a dime more than I would have if I waited and bought them in Italy. In fact, I probably saved, because even after wrestling with this for 2 weeks there was still an Amica fare available.
We have tickets Venezia to Roma, Roma to Paris for two people in two beds for 250 Euro. Man, I don’t wish this hassle on anyone else, so I post this to the blogosphere in hopes that it may save someone else some hassle.