Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

How not to let public transportation ruin your holiday in Florence

I’m not famous for much, but one thing people recognize in me is my particular hate for the public transportation system in Florence, Italy. My daily misadventures on the bus have led to the creation of a special hashtag for the bus company, and people often ask me to regale them with further tales of delays, stinky companions and more. My route from home to work that takes 13 minutes by Vespa often takes an hour or more on the bus, requiring extreme patience every day.

In the digital realm, I seem to attract complaints about bad bus experiences from upset tourists who receive fines and then find my article “how to take the bus in Florence and not get a fine“. I wrote this article back in 2010 to try to help visitors, but of course they tend to look up this information after the fact, not before they make costly mistakes.

Bus number 17 in piazza della repubblica | Photo Stephen Rees

Bus number 17 in piazza della repubblica | Photo Stephen Rees

Recently I’ve received more than one statement from visitors to Florence who have been abused by bus controllers and who have declared that they will never again visit Florence and have told all their friends not to either. This saddens me very much, because Florence is a beautiful city, with much art and culture to offer:

“The really bad thing was not to pay the 100 Euros. We had enough money not to be disturbed by that 100 Euros. The bad thing was that the officer was a so disgusting woman – I mean her behavior was so disgusting, as she was shouting, making a parade, speaking only Italian except two or three English words. I am 64 year old, my wife is 58, she was about 28. We never, never will go back to Florence. Never ever… And I will suggest to my colleagues not to go there either.”
–writes Peter from Hungary (comment on blog post)

“We had heavy luggage and my mother who’s in her 70’s needed to sit. The bus got crowded so quickly and started moving instantly after we boarded the bus that we were almost going to fall. So we put down the chairs in the handicap section just to gain our balance back. Meanwhile there are 3 people standing in front of us and my daughter asks a man a question about the location of our hotel. He asks if we have our ticket which we gave him thinking he was the person who would validate our ticket. All of a sudden he starts writing a ticket but I’m thinking that he’s writing down info for us on how to get to our location. They were standing right in front of the machine to stamp our tickets but we couldn’t see it until they moved and told us to get off the bus. They were being extremely inconsiderate.”
–says Helene from Canada (via private message)

“My wife and I bought tickets for the bus but we thought all you had to do is tap them against the reader rather than insert them into the machine. The instructions were not clear, the bus was very full. 2 inspectors came on board and marched us off the bus, gave us 2 tickets of 50 Euros and expected payment on the spot, when we said we did not have money to pay at the time they ordered us to use the ATM across the road… After much discussion for half an hour about giving us the tickets to pay later, they refused so we walked away and they followed us for 4 blocks until we went into the tourists office and through the whole thing they screamed abuse at us, we felt so ashamed an intimidated. We will never ever go to Florence again… I shared my story with all my friends, colleagues and family who said they would never go there either.”
–comments Frank on my blog

In all cases, the tourists in question had purchased bus tickets but had not yet stamped or “validated” them in the machines. Others have written me with stories about how it was too crowded to get to the machine. I frequently witness this in person as well, even more so now that they have removed the machine at the back of the bus, leaving only one at the front. Sometimes the staff disbursing fines have been nice, and the people accepting them have been polite. Sometimes, unfortunately, there are disgruntled bus workers who are methodically attempting to ruin the tourist economy through bad communication.

Main point: wherever you go in the world, it’s your responsibility to find out how to use public transportation or any other systems that will impact you and the people around you. Unfortunately, in Florence, there is not signage in major tourist areas explaining the bus system, in clear English, as there should be. The only way you will find out is to read about it beforehand in your guidebook or in a blog post like this one.

Where to get a bus ticket

You can buy a bus ticket at tabacchi stores indicated by a T, that often have an orange ATAF symbol in the window – many bars and newspaper kiosks sell tickets. You can get single (€1.20) or multiple trip paper tickets. There are also electronic tickets with an RFID chip in them for a minimum of 10 trips.

Tickets are available for a surcharge (€2) on the bus by asking the driver, but attention: the driver may be out of tickets, or may be unable to provide change. If they cannot sell you a ticket, this unfortunately does not count as good enough, and you should get off the bus.

Finally, if you have an Italian cell phone, you can send an SMS and get a bus ticket. It costs €1,50. Send a text that says just “ATAF” to 4880105.

Remember, it’s your responsibility to get a ticket. If you don’t have one, or you don’t validate it, you cannot complain if you get a fine!

How to properly “validate” the ticket so you do not get a fine

You are also responsible for validating or stamping the ticket. The verb in Italian is “validare”.

The new bus ticket validation machine at the front of the bus

The new bus ticket validation machine at the front of the bus

If you have a paper ticket, you must insert it into the machine at the FRONT of the bus (they have recently removed the ones at the back). If you get on at the center or back, you must make your way to the machine no matter how life threateningly impossible this is. It is totally acceptable to ask people to help by holding up the ticket and making the motion of shoving it into a hole (“timbrare” – to stamp). People will pass the ticket along until someone stamps it and will pass it back to you. Make sure you look at the ticket and can see the hour properly stamped on it. It is not enough to just stick it in the machine, you have to be able to see the writing, otherwise you are liable to get a fine for not stamping it.

If you purchase a ticket by sms, you need to do this before you board the bus. This means that during the potentially interminable wait at the bus stop, even if it might show up god knows when, you need to do it before getting on. If there is a controller the moment you step on and you haven’t done it yet, you get a fine. Furthermore, like the stamping, you need to make sure that you get the sms receipt back from the system that says you have a valid ticket. If you don’t get the sms back, it’s like you didn’t buy it.

With the electronic “carta agile” you need to hold the card up to the machine and wait til it beeps feedback. On the screen it will say “corsa scalata”.

Make sure you use the right method for your ticket type. Frank, in his comment above, had a paper ticket but thought it was an electronic one, and that’s how he ended up with a fine.

How to plan your bus trip

The center of Florence is small, so hopefully you won’t need to use the bus at all. But if you have mobility problems, or if you want to visit neighbouring Fiesole, you’ll need to take an ATAF bus. To figure out which one to take and how long it should take, use maps.google.com and insert your dates as well as travel times, choosing the public transportation option on the map. This is more efficient than the ATAF website or app.

To find out what time the bus is scheduled to come, or where it should go, while at the bus stop, it’s a bit more complex. Each bus number should have the timetable posted, and at the top there is a line with dots to represent the stops, and an arrow to represent the direction of travel. If you’re not familiar with the stop names, it’s hard to know if this bus is going where you need to go. Regular riders are always happy to help indicate your stop, and may also help you find the right bus while waiting. Below the stop list, there is a list of times the bus should arrive, though consider that these are quite approximate since the bus depends on traffic which is often really bad in the city.

What to do if you get a bus fine

Hopefully if you’ve followed the instructions, you won’t get a fine! But unfortunately many people will still find out too late, or end up in ridiculous circumstances beyond control. Unfortunately, there is really nothing you can do: if you don’t have a validated ticket, no matter what the circumstance, you will get a fine. Controllers tend to make sure tourists pay it right away on the spot, because they know you won’t pay at all if they let you out of their sight. Many people ask me if they will be banned from entering the country if they don’t pay. Probably not, but these days it’s unlikely that you’ll get away from the bus stop without paying up anyway. Even if you are sure you are right and unable to communicate with the bus controllers, there is little you can do. Patiently asking to speak to the police may be an option.

Technically, you may contest fines (“fare ricorso”) in writing, however, if you challenge the fine and are still “found guilty” (and by what method, I do not know), you will pay a higher fine than the original 50 euros per person. If you don’t pay at all, or if you challenge and lose, the fine goes up to €240.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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This blog post is part of a (technically monthly) series of articles on a shared topic written by a lovely group of female bloggers who call themselves the Italy Roundtable. This month we’ve chosen my favourite beef, public transportation! Please check out their informative and fun articles as well:

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

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  • HECTHOREX

    First of all anyone who has been thru the absurd arrogance of these “controlori” should denounce their behaviour to the local police as well as newpaper and tv in the home countries. Its illegal under EU law to insult, manhandle or in any way threaten tourista and a EUROPEAN wide knock on the door of local politicians and administrators is always a very good thing…especially under election times.

    http://www.italia.it/en/useful-info/rights-for-tourists/assertion-of-rights.html
    The European Strasbourg Register 1994

  • Paula

    OMG it sounds terrible for some of these tourists! We stayed in Florence for a week and did not take a bus anywhere because the best thing about that city is that you can walk everywhere!
    When we arrived and left we took a taxi from the train station with our luggage, to our B and B which was 2 kilometres from Ponte Vecchio. For 10 euros why would you bother with a bus!
    Also by walking everywhere you discover so many different hidden gems, for example on our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo we found the rose garden which was so beautiful.

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ georgette

    I know those screaming bus controllers first hand. I’ll never forget getting a ticket once for not being able to validate because of how crowded the bus was. It’s annoying because the info really should be in dual-languages and there should be a level of compassion for those who might not understand the (often confusing) rules. Great post Alex, I’m going to add it to my 23 travel hacks post.

  • Laura

    Very helpful information, Alexandra! Great to be a part of the Italy Roundtable group. Taking the bus on the Amalfi Coast has many of the same rules and challenges for visitors. I so wish there more information was readily available in different languages. But since it’s not these types of blog posts are very useful for travelers to understand in advance!

  • M Goodall

    this is the best post I have read regarding buses in Florence. And I am sure to re-read this again before I visit Florence. I did however do my research before traveling last yer and we purchased tickets and had them stamped etc, the lovely bus driver was most helpful and put up with our poor attempts to speak Italian, replying in his best English when we checked we were on the right bus and he reminded us of our stop, we also asked how to get a bus back and he indicated the stop for our return trip. we had fun on the return journey with the locals as we headed back to florence and all in all was a fun diversion out of the city centre that we totally enjoyed. I had no idea others had experienced such trauma and to say you would never return to a city over one rude encounter seems naive and ridiculous. Florence has so much to offer if you just relax into it and go with the flow of the city. It is my favourite place on earth so far and I can’t wait to visit again, where I intend to take more buses.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thank you! It’s great to hear a GOOD story for once – people usually share the horrible stories, but few take the time to report back on the good!

  • http://www.calabriatheotheritaly.com/ KareninCalabria

    Excellent bus information and very important for visitors to Florence and Italy, but I must say that from the statements of those abused by the controllers, it really sounds as though there needs to be a bit more instruction with regard to public relation skills. My experience is that it runs very hot and cold in these situations. But in any case, it has a real impact on tourism. Of course we know that there are many people who ride buses hovering next to the little machines and only validate when they see a controller, but a foreign couple in their 60s would generally not be that sort of rider.
    I’ve spent a lot of time in Calabria where the controllers were usually very courteous and allowed older people or those clearly without visible means to keep riding. The only time I saw a scene was when the riders themselves made it.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Dear Karen,
    I couldn’t agree more, and wish that the bus company could read your comment. Unfortunately I fear that training their controllers is the last thing on their mind, after training their drivers and having enough money to run the service. Surely lack of public funds would be their answer, though seriously all it takes is a handy one page guide that starts with “don’t shout at the clients for any reason.” !!
    I also think it’s not a very desired job: lately the newspaper has reported various cases of “abuse” of the controllers, including one being repeatedly hit with an umbrella by a woman who refused to accept a fine.
    Let’s hope Florence can reach the standards of respect that exist in Calabria!
    Alexandra

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