I hope these tips are useful for future adventures in Italy and beyond.
Take a Smart Phone:
Wifi is still not that dependable in Italy, so a smart phone comes in handy for emails and even as a GPS. There are not as many wifi cafés in Italy and even when wifi is offered, the service is sketchy. The most dependable wifi is often in the hotels.
A phone is also helpful for making last minute reservations or changing them.
Phones: The cheapest way to go is to take an unlocked phone and purchase a SIM card in Europe or online. T-Mobile will unlock your phone for free if you have a contract with them.
The iPhone can be unlocked if you are using AT&T. Verizon uses a different type of SIM.
You can order a SIM card or even an unlocked phone through Telestial
(http://www.telestial.com/). There’s no contract. You simply add more minutes from any phone store or Tabach that sells you company’s service. I used TIM.
Always have Kleenex with you. Bathrooms often don’t provide toilet paper.
Public restrooms have Signori and Signore–Signori is for men & Signore is for women—watch for those final letters!
Explore the neighborhoods just outside the city center for better deals and more interesting restaurants, coffee bars, bakeries and grocery stores. Even in the big cities, like Paris and Rome, you can get a short distance from the tourist areas and find great food with a much better price tag.
Learn how to use the local busses. They are convenient—and a cheap way to see the sights. You often have an opportunity to meet the locals, who are often very helpful.
Bus tickets are sold at the corner Tabaccheria stores.
When buying metro tickets, look for other options besides a single ticket. If you buy a ten ticket packet, you save a bit more (and you can share between two people).
When traveling by train, consider taking second class. If you’re traveling light, it’s a good savings and the seats are fine. There is overhead storage or you can even fit suitcases between two rows to keep them close to you.
Learn how to buy train tickets from the machines. You can select English and follow the prompts easily. Make sure you have Euros and that the machine accepts cash. Some machines are for credi cards only and often our American credit cards don’t work.
Always take second class trains for shorter trips. The fares are better and the trains are just ﬁne.
Be aware of the different train options. A Regionale will stop at all of the smaller towns and take longer. Eurostar is the fast train for longer trips.
Be aware of the major holidays for the country you visit. This could affect the availability of trains. For instance, Labor Day is May 1 in Italy and France, so it’s a busy travel period for a few days.
Check your local newspaper or ask at your hotel about possible strikes. In Europe, strikes are usually announced ahead of time.
Pick a coffee bar that you like and then go there every morning. Once you return to a bar, you are considered a “regular” and there are a few perks. The barista knows what you want, there’s no charge to sit down and you might even get the latest town news. A good barista can be a great resource and helpful new friend.
If you like to order cappuccino, it’s not correct to have one after 10:30 a.m. However, the Italians in most big cities won’t even wince if you order one after the sacred time. You can get by with a macchiato if you still need some milk.
Try Italian fast food. Look for a Pizza a Taglia (by the slice), Tavola Calda, Salumeria, Casalingua or Panini spot. They all provide excellent homemade food for a bargain. Find a piazza close by and you’re set.
Try the food at train stations, highway rest stops and airports. Unlike the US, Italy and France offer decent food at all of these venues and the espresso will be great.
Try the house wine. You can get some excellent wines in most Italian and French restaurants. They also offer the choice of a quarter liter, half liter or full liter.
Save money and calories by having your main meal for lunch. You are usually out and about anyway. Then, have dinner during the Happy Hour, which is usually from 5-8 p.m. In Italy, the bars often have a wide selection of delicious snacks that come free with your drinks. If you return to the same bar each evening, you may even get a larger platter! If you’ve had a large lunch, this is a convenient way to have a light dinner.
You can order one dish or several— you not have to order every course. However, help out your waiter by telling him or her which one to bring ﬁrst. The usual order is this: L’antipasto (which can be shared), Il Primo (usually a pasta), Il Secondo (usually meat or ﬁsh), L’insalata or Il Contorni (salad or vegetable side dish), Il Dolce (dessert is served by itself—not with coffee or tea), espresso or tea is served last.
At Museums, always ask if there is a special price for seniors. In Italy, they often give discounts when you ask. Some people ask if you’re from a European Union country, and then the discount doesn’t apply. However, in Italy, they don’t seem to care as much.
Also, ask about tickets for more than one museum. Often, there is an optional ticket for several museums in the area, which can be a nice savings.
Always visit the local tourist ofﬁce (TI). They usually have great maps and you can ﬁnd out about more current events. Each TI is different, but often, you can get good information. The smaller, special art exhibits in a local Palazzo are often great—and a lot less crowded than the main museums.
Check book stores or the corner newspaper seller for a small paper that provides information about local events for the current month. Most large and mid-sized towns have them. Italy has many free or low cost concerts that are excellent.
Hotels are given star ratings to help travelers make their decisions. We opt for 3 stars because they are moderate in price and have ensuite bathrooms. A two star hotel may also have a private bath. You can always ask.
Staying in one place for at least a week can save you on lodging costs and stress. Italy has the agriturismo (farm stay) system http://www.agriturismo.it/en/. You can often get a deluxe lodging for a great price. However, the minimum stay is often one week—unless it’s the off season.
Vacation by Owner (VBO.com), airbnb.com and homeaway.com all offer weekly (or more) rentals. The properties vary, as do the hosts. We’ve had the best luck with VBO and Airbnb.
Not everyone ﬁnds learning a language as fun and interesting as I do. But if you do, these online resources helped me. The BBC has an excellent and free website http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/. I also like http://www.italianpod101.com/, but it charges a fee. There are also many free podcasts available.
Community colleges often offer short courses in language for travelers. This is a great way to at least learn how to pronounce a few important greetings such as, “Buon Giorno” and more. Learning how some letters vary in sound from our English can really help when asking directions to a city or piazza. You also meet fellow travelers who are happy to share information and resources.
Internet Resources for Travel
Here are some good sites for travel tips. However, I am relying more and more on my favorite blogs. You can see a list on the right, under Italy Travel.
NY Times Frugal Traveler: http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com
Slow Travel: http://www.slowtrav.com
A community of travelers who stay longer in one place and share their travel stories and advice.
Rick Steve’s: http://www.ricksteves.com
Check out the “Plan your Trip” section for great info.
Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com
This site has lots of reviews, but anyone can submit, even me!