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I encountered the following two sentences in my Italian Rosetta Stone program:

Vanno a cavallo sulla spiaggia.

Va in bicicletta sulla spiaggia.

However, I can't understand why the former uses a while the latter uses in in preposition. Both use andare and express what to ride in to andare in spiaggia.

Is there any explicit criterion on when to use in vs a in andare?

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As with all prepositions, there won't always be hard and fast rules for why you use one over the other. Both in and a can be used to refer to a means of doing something. Your example, andare a cavallo vs andare in bicicletta, reveals the following general rules:

You often use in with means of transportation dealing with vehicles:

e.g. andare in macchina, in treno, in aereo, in pullman

However, there are also cases where you employ a for means of transportation that is animate:

e.g. andare a piedi, andare a cavallo

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  • Thanks. Then do I have to memorize all the pairs of the nouns and its prepositions? Or are there also cases where you use a for words like macchina, treno, or aereo and in for piedi, barca a vela, or cavallo? – Blaszard Jun 20 '15 at 20:47
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    @Gardecolo Beware! You say andare in barca a vela. I suppose gbutters's example only referred to the a in barca a vela. – DaG Jun 20 '15 at 20:54
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    Apparently, you say in with vehicles (in macchina, in barca, in treno) and a with “animal” transportation (a piedi, a cavallo, a dorso d'asino). – DaG Jun 20 '15 at 20:56
  • @DaG Ah, that's plausible. Thanks for the clarification. – Blaszard Jun 20 '15 at 20:57
  • I edited the response to reflect your comments. Thanks @DaG. – gbutters Jun 20 '15 at 21:35

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