My wanderlust is incurable so it comes out to be an expensive hobby. Fortunately in this day and age, there are many resources at your fingertips that make traveling easier and cheaper for the general population. The process for my recent Italy itinerary can be applied to any destination or trip.
First of all, it has proven to be more convenient to loosely plan out my itinerary first, especially for a big international trip like Italy. For this, I like to use Google Drive spreadsheets (which basically works the same as Excel). You can invite collaborators to edit or add comments and recommendations, as well as share your itinerary with friends. There’s also a free Google Drive mobile app that let’s you access your document offline which comes in handy when you don’t have wifi or cellular data. Google Maps helps when you want a visual tracking tool of your trip. You can also import data from your Google spreadsheet into your map. I usually start planning out at least a month ahead of my departure date. You’ll need this time to figure out where you want to go on a map, how to spend your time, and where you want to stay the night.
My trip to Italy was made possible thanks to The Flight Deal. On Feb 27, 2014, the discount travel site published a fare for a round-trip flight from DFW to FCO for $542 on American Airlines (US Airways). Normally, you’d be paying at least $800 on up. Just two weeks prior, I found a deal to St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) for $292 on the same site (again, at least $900 on average). It works the same as Kayak.com, but offers real time announcements in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, and an e-newsletter. There are many other cities you can fly out from to take advantage of these domestic and international sale fares. The key is being ready to book with your card as soon as they are announced because they will sell out quick. Usually the booking happens through the fare of the airline’s own site or an Orbitz link provided. You’ll generally have to be flexible with dates (some deals have to be flown within two weeks, but some let you book a year ahead) and possibly a stop or two. The site’s motto is “Book first, ask questions later.” You will save hundreds of dollars using this free and resourceful site.
If you are looking for an alternative to hotel chains and hostels, I would go with Airbnb. You have your choice of booking a single room, apartment, or entire house. It’s safe, and the hosts and listings must go through a verification process. For the more adventurous types, you can even stay on private boats, tree houses, and airstreams! The options are endless, creative and fun. Most importantly, I’ve found these listings to be more affordable than the hotels located in the cities I wanted to visit. In Rome, I found an Airbnb listing right in the heart of the city in Trastevere for less than $75 a night. The room was just like a hotel room with my own private bathroom, and the host provided breakfast every morning. There was a free tram steps away from my front door which took me straight to the main attractions. In Florence, I stayed in a luxurious home with antique Italian furniture, and the view from the balcony of my Vernazza apartment couldn’t be beat. All included wifi. You get more of an authentic taste of local life and culture this way as opposed to your predictable Hilton, and not to mention all the cool native people and friends you easily meet along the way.
Booking Attractions & Tours
I like to do my own thing when it comes to exploration, but for the sake of time and distance on a multi-stop destination vacation, it is sometimes smarter to book your museum ticket or tour ahead. For example, you will definitely want to prepay for your tickets to the Uffizi and Accademia Gallery in Florence online before you get there, unless you enjoy waiting hours in line. You’ll only have to pick up your tickets at the box office. The same goes for the Vatican and Sistine Chapel. I highly recommend booking the earliest morning tour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica before it opens to the main public so you can beat the waves of tourists and lines. It is much quieter, and you can comfortably enjoy the ambience and art without bumping elbows with strangers. I like to use Viator because you’ll often find the best deals at a great value. Sometimes, you can book just 24 hours ahead if a tour isn’t completely filled up. I did this on my second day in Rome because of more time than I originally estimated, and I chose a day tour of Capri. The only thing I didn’t book ahead of time was the entrance to Palatine Hill (Roman Forum) and the Colosseum. Thanks to the tip from my Rome Airbnb host, the secret is to buy your entrance passes to both at the Palatine Hill’s main entrance, not at the Colosseum. The line is much shorter and quicker.
The City Maps 2 Go Pro app is a life saver. Download it before you go, and add your cities, train stations, and points of interest along the way when you have wifi or data. The GPS component works even when your phone is “offline” (no data roaming), so it essentially works like Google Maps without the step by step directions written out for you and costing you a fortune. The app notifies you of your location with a blue dot, and depending on where you move and turn, it will lead you to your designated “Pins”. You can assign categorized colors for your pins that represent restaurants, airports, train stations, hotels, streets, and shops. I used it often to pin places I passed by and wanted to come back to later. The Ulmon Rome map even lists tram and bus stops. Without this app, I would have surely gotten lost in places like Venice and Florence.
As mentioned before, another app you’ll want to consider is Google Drive. You can access your Google documents offline, anytime. If you plan to book through Airbnb, Viator, or Italo you’ll want their mobile apps too. Instagram has been my first choice for sharing my travel photography. I like to post my photos on the go, and it has been the best app for that purpose in my opinion. VSCOcam is my iPhone’s Photoshop. GlobeConvert helped me convert price-tags when I was trying to decide if it was worth buying that pizza for 15 Euros. Speaking of money, it’s a given you should have your bank’s mobile app to keep track of your purchases. Always put a password lock on your phone and make sure you have Find My iPhone turned on if you’re an iPhone user just in case you lose it or someone steals it.
I learned through experience and friends that exchanging currency at an airport or popular train station is a rip off. You will save money by buying your foreign currency while you’re still in the U.S. The exchange rate you’ll get at your local bank is far better than any deal the others will give you (Bank of America has a calculator and form where you can order yours). If you run out while overseas, use any trustworthy ATM at a bank or establishment to withdraw cash. Any international transaction ATM fees will still be cheaper than the cost of exchanging your currency at the airport or foreign bank.
One of the best things you can do is apply for a travel rewards credit card that offers no foreign transaction fees or restrictions. AMEX, Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, and Citi are some banks that offer chip-and-PIN cards that work overseas. I used my travel credit card everywhere. There are some places I ran into that only took cash (small vendors, small towns, and small purchases), but that was only about 30% of my transactions. In total, I only spent about $300 in cash, and the rest was charged. The rule of thumb is to use your credit card in the most touristic places (as they’ll likely have card readers) and for purchases larger than $20. Use cash for small purchases and in remote, less touristy places.
Also, remember to always charge your credit card in the currency of the country you are in, so if they ask you if you want to charge your card in U.S. dollars or Euros, you will want to tell them Euros. You’ll avoid the conversion fees most banks charge.
There will be two main types of trains you will take while in Italy: Trenitalia and Italo. Trenitalia is easy to navigate and there are ticket machines in every station where you can book a trip with cash or credit card. For some reason, my bank’s travel card didn’t work in these machines (they always asked for a PIN which my card doesn’t require), so I had to use my debit card. Just remember you always have to validate your train ticket before you get on. These machines are green and grey in color, and you simply slide your ticket in the slot provided and it will stamp it with the current date for you. This is how the Italians regulate the train system. If you don’t validate it, they will assume you are trying to take advantage of a free ride and give you a hefty fine. If you can’t figure it out, just wait ten minutes and watch what others do.
If you already know what day and about what time you want to take a long distance train (ex: from Rome to Florence, Milan, Venice, vice versa etc.) then your best bet is Italo. I like to compare this train service to Virgin Airlines — it’s very sleek, fast, clean, and modern with device outlets on your seats and free wifi. You can also book your seats ahead of time in the U.S. before your trip, or at the main train stations in Italy. You can’t book Trenitalia while you’re in the U.S., but you really wouldn’t want to. There are plenty of these trains running every 15 minutes to every hour depending on the destination.
In Rome, there is a free Tram system that will save you time and save your feet (here’s a bigger map). I used this baby everyday in the city. It drops you off at most of the main attractions, and it runs every day from 5am — 11pm.
Many tourists don’t know this, but the locals don’t pay to ride on the buses. I was in Rome, so I did what the Romans did. The bus stops are easy to read and find — just look for the large signs that lists the bus stop’s name and all the bus lines that come through. If you plan on spending a good deal of time in Rome, you will eventually take the bus at one point, and these are your top bus lines and stops you should remember:
- Bus 81 takes you to the Vatican
- Bus 85 takes you to Termini Station / Corso / Cola di Rienzo
- Bus 64 takes you to St. Pietro
- Bus H takes you to Termini and Piazza Venezia
- Bus stop Piazza Venezia
- Bus stop Argentina
- Bus stop Termini
- Bus stop Trastevere
- Bus stop Cola di Rienzo
- Bus stop Corso
- Bus stop Colosseo
- Bus stop S. Giovanni
Other quick tips to keep in mind:
- service is included in your bill — tipping is optional
- iMessages on iPhones and Macs are free between users, so you can connect with family and friends back at home — just make sure they come in blue (green texts mean you / they are using cellular data = $$$)
- the more willing you try to speak their language, the more willing they’ll be to help you
- never leave any of your belongings unattended — even if it’s right by your feet or in a chair across from you
- if you are a woman traveling solo and out at a bar or social event, be careful who you accept a drink from — some Italian men will take it as an invitation for more than just drinks
- let the people off the train and bus first before you get on (common sense commonly overlooked by tourists)
- put the camera down and just let it sink in
Without further ado, here’s my customized Italy itinerary. There are probably better ways to rearrange these destinations, but it worked perfectly for me, and I chose adventure over relaxation.
Day 1 — I arrived in Rome at 10am, checked in my Airbnb in Trastevere, and had my first Italian lunch and cappuccino at the Campo Dei Fiori. Spent the afternoon to explore the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona, and visited the Trevi fountain at night which is a whole other experience than seeing it in daylight.
Day 2 — I visited the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatino Hill after sleeping in and catching up on jetlag. After having lunch at an awesome salumeria, I booked my Capri day tour in the afternoon and spent the evening with dinner in the Piazza Navona.
Day 3 — The Capri & Naples day tour with Green Line Tours started bright and early at 7am. I took the wrong bus going the opposite direction I wanted to go, and barely made it to my tour’s meeting spot near Termini on time. It took about three hours for our bus to arrive in Naples from where we boarded a ship that brought us to Capri. The famous Blue Grotto can be toured for an extra 28 euros, and even though it is beautiful and an experience to try, it’s not worth the price to only spend about 10 minutes inside the cave. There was another tour group with us on the bus going to Pompeii, and it was a tough choice between that and Capri, but I regret nothing. When in Capri, you must take the Mount Solaro chair lift.
Day 4 — I left Rome in the morning to catch my Italo train to Florence from the Roma Ostiense station (best way to get there is by bus). It took about two hours to arrive at Firenze Santa Maria Novella station. After checking in with my Airbnb, I toured the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (aka Florence Cathedral) and crossed the Ponte Vecchio bridge to walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo and the Rose Garden where the roses were in bloom (they only happen one month out of a whole year). You’ll have the best view of Florence from up here.
Day 5 — A travel friend I made in Zurich last year met me in Florence to do a road trip to Sabbioneta, Verona, and Bologna. As you may know, Sabbioneta is where “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” took place according to Shakespeare, and Verona is where the two star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet met. These two little places were surprisingly pleasant and quaint, but most of Sabbioneta was closed since we went on a Monday (note to travelers: most tourist attractions and museums in Italy are closed on Mondays), and Verona ended up being one of my favorite cities in Italy. I only wanted to visit Bologna for the food. By the way, you have not lived until you bite into a Florentine cherry tomato. You will taste nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Day 6 — Visiting three cities in a one day road trip was pretty ambitious, so it turned out nice to have the Uffizi & Accademia galleries planned for the next day. In the evening, we decided to drive 45 minutes out to Siena for dinner.
Day 7 — Cinque Terre was the next stop on my Italy tour. I decided to stay only one night in Vernazza, but quickly regretted not staying longer. I highly recommend at least two to three nights in this paradise pocket so you can really absorb all that it has to offer. In the past few years, it has been a top destination for tourists, thanks to the invention of the internet and Buzzfeed. It will be a bigger bang for your buck if you invest in the Cinque Terre card as it will be cheaper than just taking the train in between towns independently. You can conveniently buy them at any of the train stations traveling through Cinque Terre. Monterosso is the most touristy of the five towns, Levanto being the quietest and most northern town, Manarola is where you take the postcard pictures of the different colored houses on the cliffs, and Vernazza is the “jewel of Cinque Terre”. I even saw a documentary film crew shooting scenes with a camera and drone the morning of my departure.
Day 8 — I was sad to leave Cinque Terre (even though it was saturated with tourists), and boarded another Italo train from Florence to Venice. I have to say Venice was the hardest city to navigate out of everywhere I had been. My old college friend who lives in Italy met me on this leg (it was his first time to Venice as well) and he even got lost among the maze of canals and streets! The Ulmon app helped when his Google Maps couldn’t get a location on us. My Airbnb hostess was an elderly, sweet woman who spoke no English. I knew ahead of time that this would have been an obstacle, but thankfully my friend did all the translating for us. The accommodation was conveniently located next to a major waterbus stop and about a fifteen minute walk to Piazza San Marco. By the way, plan to spend at least 50 euros per person if you want to take a gondola. If you’d rather travel like the locals, get a Venice Pass which is about 35 euros for 72 hours of unlimited use on all waterbuses and land buses. I bought mine right outside the Venezia Santa Lucia train station. Otherwise, you’ll be paying hefty prices each and every time you ride a water taxi or vaporetto.
Day 9 — We spent half of the day on waterbuses to tour the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello. Murano is known for its glass blowers and wonderful glass art, while Burano is famous for handwoven lace and fabric. Torcello boasts Venice’s oldest Byzantine church. Personally, Burano was my favorite because of the beautiful colors of the tightly packed buildings.
Day 10 — We explored more of Venice on our last day: the Biennale, Lido, Piazza San Marco, and the shopping streets along the Rialto. For dinner, we tried the black ravioli at 6342 A Le Tole which was recommended to us by our hostess, and which I highly recommend as well.
Day 11 — I spent all day traveling back to Rome where I would depart back to the U.S. From Venice to Florence, it took me about three hours by Italo train, and then another two to Rome. There is a train from Venice to Rome without the stop in Florence, but I wanted to spend a little more time there. I arrived around 5pm by taxi from Roma Ostiense to check in my Airbnb right by the Vatican. To put things into perspective, a 15 minute taxi ride cost me about 20 euros. I’m telling you, it’s way cheaper to take the bus, tram, or just walk. I was just worn out from traveling and too lazy to take my own cheap advice.
Day 12 — I had previously booked a 7:30am tour of the Sistine Chapel before it opened to the general public, and I had to really struggle to wake up at 6am to get ready and walk to the tour’s meeting point. However, I’m glad I did it. Trust me, it’s worth getting the early access tour. By the time I came out of the Vatican, I saw a line that stretched for miles around the walls of the city. I can only guestimate that the average wait was at least two to three hours. There were even “scalpers” outside selling passes to “skip the line”. I spent the remainder of my afternoon touring Prati and S. Giovanni by bus and foot. Obviously, I had to do my last minute souvenir shopping as well.
Day 13 — My last day in Italy! Sleeping in didn’t happen as much as I had liked, but I was happy to leave early enough to arrive back in Dallas by dinner. If you are flexible with which train station you depart from, you can actually save more money going from the Roma Ostiense Station to FCO (Fiumicino Airport) compared to leaving from Termini Station or elsewhere. Just do your due diligence with the train schedules, and you can save yourself time and money. All it takes to be a savvy traveler is planning, research, alertness, common sense, and a little comparison shopping. Happy and safe travels wherever you decide to go!