The lines from Marseille Saint-Charles to Milan Centrale is one of the most important routes to quickly travel from western to eastern Europe or reverse. Since December 2014 there is a new direct connection between these two cities, operated by Thello. Especially for travellers who do not use Interrail or Eurail this direct connection is very attractive, also due to its competitive advance fares.
However, when you are travelling with a rail pass (Interrail or Eurail), you should skip the Thello due to its high reservation fees and instead travel by using connections with TER (Train Express Régional) and IC (Intercity), changing trains at Nice Ville and Ventimiglia.
The trains from Marseille (France) to Milan (Italy)
The Thello leaves Marseille Saint Charles every day at 1530 to reach Milano Centrale at 2229. In the opposite direction the train leaves Milan at 1520 and arrives at Marseille at 2229. In addition to the train pair from/to Marseille there are also two train pairs operating between Nice and Milan (departure from Nice at 0809 and 1409, from Milan at 0705 and 1110).
The interesting and scenic route takes you along the Mediterranean Sea with intermediate stops at Toulon, Les Arcs-Draguignan, Saint-Raphael-Valescure, Cannes, Antibes, Nice-Ville, Monaco, Menton, Ventimiglia, San Remo, Imperia P. Maurizio, Diano Marina, Alassio, Albenga, Finale Ligure, Savona, Genoa, Voghera and Pavia.
The Thello trains usually consist of seven 2nd class coaches (red livery) and two 1st class coaches (green livery), including a small bistro in one of the 2nd class coaches. The coaches are air-conditioned, all seats have tables, reading lights and electric plugs. Toilets are separated by sex.
The bistro offers a range of hot and cold drinks, snacks, sandwiches, salads and warm dishes. In my opinion, the quality and prices are absolutely ok. Some price examples:
Mineral water (0,5l), coffee, tea: EUR 1,50
Soft drinks (0,33l), fruit juice (0,2l): EUR 3
Snacks: EUR 1,50 - EUR 3
Sandwiches, salads: EUR 4,50 - EUR 5
Pasta: EUR 9
There are also some menu offers available:
Breakfast including coffee and croissant: EUR 2,50 (with juice EUR 5)
Sandwich with soft drink: EUR 6; salad with wine EUR 8
Lasange with soft drin: EUR 10 (with wine EUR 12)
The TER trains from Marseille Saint Charles to Nice Ville usually consist of comfortable "Corail" coaches used for long distance services. However, there are no bistro facilities available. There are several connections each day which take about two and a half hours.
In Nice you have to change to another TER train that will take you to the Italian border of Ventimiglia. These TER trains are double-deck trains for local traffic and not as comfortable as the Corail trains from Marseille to Nice - anyway, you will be busy enjoyed the beautiful scenery.
Finally you have to change again at Ventimiglia to take a domestic Italian IC to Milan. A reservation (3€) is not required but recommended. Overall, these connections will take about eight and a half hours - about one and a half hour longer than compared to the direct Thello train. However, as no reservations are required this is the way to go if you are travelling with a rail pass.
Tickets and Fares
Tickets for all trains are available online at Trainline, ACPrail and Thello. Tickets for the TER and IC trains operated by SNCF and Trenitalia are available at all stations in France and Italy. Tickets for Thello trains are also available at the Thello boutiques at Paris Gare de Lyon (Mon - Sat 1000 - 1950, Sun 1300 - 1950) and Nice Ville (daily 0745 - 1200 and 1330 - 2015). At most other stations where Thello train call you will also find ticket machines to buy your ticket. Additional service personal is available at Marseille St Charles daily from 1430 - 1530 on track A. Pre booking time for Thello trains is four months prior to departure.
The standard fare for Thello from Marseille to Milan is 70 EUR in 2nd class, 70 EUR in 1st class. From Nice to Marseille you pay 45 EUR/60 EUR. In addition to the standard fare ("Flexi") which you can refund up to the departure time there are two other fare categories available which are cheaper than Flexi:
Go: Refund of 50% possible up to 24 hours prior to departure
Smart: No refund/exchange. Cheapest fares are 30 EUR/45 EUR form Marseille, 15 EUR/30 EUR from Nice to Milan.
Travellers with Interrail/Eurail (which has to be valid for at least France or Italy) get a reduction of 25% on the Flexi fares. This means that you do not have to use a travel day if you are travelling with a Flexi Pass unless you use other trains on that day. The fare for Marseille - Milan with the reduction is 53 EUR in 2nd class, 68 EUR in 1st class.
Due to the rather high prices Interrail/Eurail traveller usually will be better off by using the regular trains instead of the Thello as you can save quite a lot of money, although the journey will take a bit longer. Also, there are so many interesting cities and villages along the way that you should consider making a few stops in between anyway.