When I was in graduate school I spent about a year studying Italian, and ended up falling in love with the language and culture. I consequently put Italy at the top of my Travel Bucket List (and my Before Turning 30 Bucket List!), and about eight months ago I finally got to make it happen. Here, I’m going to run through the logistics of my trip, my efforts to do it on the cheap, and some of my missteps that hopefully you can avoid. Andiamo!
WHEN TO GO: No matter what city you’re in much of your time will be spent outdoors, whether it’s walking from one site to another, exploring the ruins of a civilization past, or admiring the architecture of the country’s many duomos. It only makes sense, then, that the spring and summer months would be the most enjoyable time to go. It’s also the most expensive. Airfare for Italy – along with the rest of Europe – is a lot cheaper in the winter, its offseason. Was it cold? Most of the time. My travel buddy and I planned accordingly though, so we were well-equipped for the weather (except for the random rainstorm we got caught in one night in Florence and neither of us remembered to pack an umbrella!) I’d also add that as you go further south (e.g. Naples) the weather got mild enough that we didn’t need our coats.
AIRFARE: Since we booked for the winter (and for Christmas Day no less), our flights were significantly cheaper than what we might have paid in the spring or summer. The original price of my ticket (roundtrip St. Louis to Milan) was $905 through United Airlines, which is a few hundred less than what I would have paid for a summer ticket. I also happened to be booking with Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card, a no-annual fee credit card with a $100 credit bonus and a decent return of 1.5% cashback. I ended up redeeming my points towards this ticket: $174 worth, to be exact. Adjusted ticket price: $731. Not bad! I also want to note the arrival city. While Milan wasn’t high on my list of cities to visit, it was a significantly cheaper arrival city, compared to some of the other popular destinations like Rome or Florence. (Keep in mind, if flying to an uninteresting city is only going to save you a $100ish, the detour probably isn’t worth it, as you’ll have to pay for transport and/or lodging, which will offset your original savings.)
GETTING AROUND: Italy was at the top of my list; I wanted to see it all, but only if the price was right! Fortunately, Europe is fantastically efficient with getting you from Point A to Point B, whether it’s bus, metro, train or plane. Getting from one city to another, we mostly relied on trains, as Italy is a small country and most train rides would be no more than a couple of hours. We booked most of our tickets online with RailEurope.com, a U.S. company, about a month in advance. They do charge a reservation fee, but I personally think the convenience of booking all of your tickets at once in English and in dollars is worth the small fee. I’ve booked through them on two separate European trips now, and definitely recommend them! Now, we did book one flight in Italy – Naples to Venice – which in retrospect is Regret #1. The idea was to save some time, as Naples is south and Venice is all the way in the north, and a train ride would have been several hours; not to mention the airfare price was comparable to that of the train. BUT, considering all the time it took us to get to the airport, wait around, fly, arrive, get lost trying to figure out how to get off the freaking mainland, finally finding the correct bus that would take us to Venice, the bus ride itself, the walk to our hostel….the long train ride would have taken the same amount of time, and would have taken us directly to Venice (there is a long bridge that connects the mainland to the lagoon).
Within a given city, we didn’t rely on public transport too much. A little in Milan, a lot in Rome, a bit in Naples. Quite a bit in Venice. In Florence, since our hostel was a bit further from the city center and it was cold and rainy for part of our stay, we relied on cabs a few times. If you think you’re going to rely on public transport, and if you’re staying in the city for more than a couple of days, it’s usually the most economically efficient to invest in some kind of pass that’s offered by the city. For example, knowing that we were staying in Venice for three nights and that we needed to use the 7.50 euro single-fare vaporetto (water bus) to get around in Venice, we paid the 50ish euros for the 3 day pass and made plenty of use of the vaporetto system (we may have accidentally hopped on the wrong ones a couple of times. Wasted money if it weren’t for the pass!)
Ultimately, my best recommendation I can give regarding getting around is to walk whenever you can! Most cities in Italy can be easily enjoyed on foot. Just dress for the weather and wear some cobble-friendly flats!
WHERE TO STAY: No matter how old I get, I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow hostels. For those of you who are unfamiliar, hostels are essentially very basic, no-frills dorms, tailored towards young backpackers who are just looking for a place to sleep and shower. Now, before you write off hostels, let me add that there is a huge range in terms of amenities. Hostels offer shared dorms (several beds in one room – you pay maybe $15 a night for your one bed, but you’re sharing a room and bathroom with 5 other strangers); many hostels also offer private rooms with shared bathrooms (one room just for you, and/or your travel companions, but you share a bathroom in the hallway with other travelers), and at the highest end – private room, private bathroom, much like a typical motel/hotel. My suggestion is to do your research in advance: read up on the amenities offered (toiletries/towels provided? Breakfast included? Wi-Fi?), the location with respect to your sites of interest/transportation, and also make note of whether or not they’re cash only. And always look for reviews! You can find tons of info on hostels at hostelworld.com.
WHAT TO EAT: So, the plan was to eat cheap, maybe hit up grocery stores for the occasional meal, and/or split some meals so we could save some money and calories. Truth be told, in never really happened. I think part of it was because we were so freaking cold most of the time and just wanted to sit down in a warm restaurant, and we would walk so much (on average 3+ miles a day) and didn’t snack at all, that we were usually pretty hungry at each meal, so we never really split things either. That said, on past trips I have done the grocery store meals/meal-splitting with my travel buddies, and have also opted out of the higher end sit-down restaurants in favor of stands/smaller vendors, and I can definitely say that my wallet and stomach profited from it! Another way to save on food is to just bring some of your own with you! I’m not much of a breakfast person, and neither have any of my travel buddies, so I always pack some sort of nutrition/cereal/protein bars to cover breakfast. A box of Luna bars (chocolate peppermint stick is my favorite!) has always been my preference!
WHAT TO SEE: Think of the length of your stay, think of your budget, and plan out what to splurge on and what to skip. Planning in advance, I learned that gondola rides in Venice cost around 50 euros, and thusly crossed it off my list of experiences I needed to have! I also learned that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is in fact not that tall, and that the prospect of paying the 20-something euros to climb to the top of it wasn’t all that exciting. Still, I wanted to see the tower and explore the town, so the 6 euro one-way train ride from Florence was worth it. Suggestion: while planning, make a note of rates/hours/etc., as oftentimes there are random closures (“What do you mean everything’s closed for Christmas?! It’s December 26th!!”), or sometimes you’ll find discount/free days at some sites.
WHAT TO BUY: Control, control, control. Coming from the person with 6 drawers bursting with makeup. When it comes to souvenirs and such, believe me when I say you’ll find them everywhere, and if you don’t see an item you like at a price you like, either haggle and ask for a lower price (my travel buddy was SO much better at this than me!) or try again somewhere else. Also, keep in mind that while credit cards are used, Italy is still very much cash-only, or at least cash-preferential (my understanding is that Italian vendors pay a much higher merchant fee when processing credit card transactions compared to American vendors.) But don’t let that cramp your shopping, use it to your advantage: if a vendor makes a face when you brandish that Mastercard, you can usually coax a discount out of them for switching to cash. Shopping tip: If you have specific items in mind, whether for yourself or for others, make a checklist and keep track of what you’re buying/whose gifts you’ve bought. It’ll help you shop more responsibly and keep you from accidentally buying 5 Roman gladiator helmets (yes, travel buddy, I’m looking at you!)
EXCHANGING MONEY: So, here’s what we did: we brought some American cash with us (with the intention of using credit cards when we could), and changed a bit of that cash at the airport in Milan, since we needed some for transit to our hostel and for food. The obnoxious part: the exchange rate/commissions were insane, so we only changed a little and decided to change the rest of our cash elsewhere. Whenever possible, we pretty much used credit cards (we had the same ones too! Chase Sapphire Preferred – awesome 40,000 point bonus, by the way) – ones that had 0% transaction fees and chip technology, but there were plenty of times where we could only use cash. One other time we needed extra cash, we hit an ATM (know you bank’s fees/policies in advance), so that’s how we got by. Regret #2: What I wish we had done was changed some of our dollars to euros in the U.S., as we may have gotten a better exchange at a U.S. bank. I also wish we just relied on ATMs for the rest of our cash needs. Depending on your bank, withdrawing from an ATM gets you a better rate, compared to bureaus. Always exercise caution though, and avoid shady looking ATMs! (liked unlabeled ones in the middle of a street – try sticking to major Italian banks if you can.) I’m glad though about the credit card choice, as it was honestly the most convenient way to spend – if you get pickpocketed, your cash is gone, but you can always freeze a credit card, right?
I think I’ve covered most of the major points of my trip. Hope this helps if you’re planning a trip to Italy! If you’ve also been there, I’d love to hear about your experiences and any additional travel tips you might have for your fellow nomads! Grazie!