General Notes for Traveling to Italy
Preparing to Travel to Italy
Planning a vacation to any place is a complex process but organizing a trip to another country involves a tremendous amount of research and anticipation of what different circumstances you will encounter. The best resource for that information is other travelers who have already made the trip you're planning. That is the reasoning behind me writing the trip reports for the various cities in Italy. That said, many of our observations applied to more than one city, or to visiting Italy in general. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation.
Rather than duplicate various comments in the Venice, Florence and Rome trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general observations and traveler tips below.
Travel Tips For Before Your Travel to Italy
Our Itinerary - The single best thing we did for our travel in Italy was to set up a thorough, well planned itinerary far in advance of our departure. Three months before we left, we knew every major tourist attraction we wanted to see and what days we would see each site. We even knew the order of travel attractions each day, and in some cases, the exact time we'd go to an attraction. You think I exaggerate? Take a look at the itinerary application I set up. The application included hours, fees and addresses for each attraction, location and a map for each attraction (in Rome only) and notes that helped us prioritize the various sites. Particularly in Rome, we organized our sites geographically on a day-by-day basis and this worked out extremely well.
If you haven't already read the travel tips page, do so now. I explain in great detail why it's so advantageous for you to set up an itinerary like this.
You might object to this approach as too structured. That's fine - schedule things for only half a day each day, and leave the other half of each day open for "random touristing." You can still save money and time, while maintaining the flexibility to wander or discover. This also gives you fallback times in case weather interferes with visiting one of your scheduled attractions.
As you can see by our itinerary, we left almost no flex time in our schedule. That wasn't because we didn't want flex time; we just had so many places we wanted to see that we filled up every day. On our more recent vacation in Washington DC we used the half-structured / half-flexible approach and liked that quite a bit.
Buying Train Tickets in Advance - We bought tickets in advance for the trains. We ordered them online from two different websites (see list of websites below) and had them delivered to us. Most people suggest against this on the discussion forums. I'm glad we did - the trains we rode were full as far as I could see. I don't think we would have been able to find three seats together if we'd waited to buy until the day of travel. At the train stations there were long lines at the ticket counter as well. They do have machines for buying tickets; I have no experience with those. I'd rather do my waiting in line and ordering things at home.
We bought our train tickets online so when we got to the station we could go directly to the train. We didn't have to take time the day before to go someplace and buy tickets, or risk doing them the same day we wanted to travel. We paid more for the tickets than we would have at the train stations but the benefits were worth the price for us.
Our tickets from The Rail Experts (railconnection.com) were delivered without a hitch. When I ordered from Raileurope.com the price on our order was $164. They charged us that amount and sent us an order confirmation. Then, a day or two later they called to say the price on their site was wrong and hit me up for an additional $50, which seemed sleazy to me. That little after-the-fact price hike made their price higher than The Rail Experts, but they already had some of my money so I felt stuck. I won't order from Raileurope.com again.
Buying Tickets to Sites in Advance - I touched on this above, but it's so important that I'll expand on it here.
I see a lot of people on the Rick Steves forum telling others not to buy many of their tickets in advance. We bought as much as we could in advance and I'm happy we did.
Some places, you need tickets in advance, like the Uffizi, the Accademia (Florence), The Secret Tour at Doge's Palace and the Borghese Gallery. If you don't have reservations for these places, you'll either wait for hours or not get in. Some places didn't need reservations at all. The Bargello and the Medici Chapel had no lines to enter at all. Of course, we didn't know they'd be that way - all we knew was that we had reservations and would be able to walk right in, regardless how many other people were waiting.
And as far as waiting in line, I bet we didn't spend more than an hour the entire trip waiting to enter all the sites combined. Think about that - we visited more than 50 tourist attractions and spent less than an hour waiting in line. That's why we were able to accomplish so much and see so many sites during our trip.
Websites - We bought tickets from several websites, including:
- http://www.railconnection.com/ - rail tickets, Venice to Florence
- http://www.b-ticket.com/b-ticket/Uffizi/default.aspx - Florence museum tickets (Uffizi, Bargello, Medici Chapel, Accademia)
- tickitaly.com - Borghese Gallery
- angeltoursrome.com - Vatican and Forum / Coliseum Tours
- http://www.museiciviciveneziani.it/frame.asp?pid=595&z=2&tit=biglietti - Secret Tour of Doge's Palace
- http://www.venetoinside.com/default.aspx?PAGINA=2452&PID=7 - St. Marks
- http://www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm - rail tickets, Florence to Rome* - see notes above on buying rail tickets in advance regarding this website.
Researching Before the Trip - We started planning our trip six months before we left. In that time we checked out and watched every DVD and VHS on Italy that our library had. We bought several books, from historical references to coffee table books. I bought the Rick Steves books for all three cities and I imagine I read each one of them six times or more. We watched shows by Rick Steves, Rudy Maxa and Samantha Brown, not just on Italy but on travel in general. (We bought Rick Steves Italy DVD and watched it several times.) We also watched shows on Michelangelo, the Medici Family, the history of Rome, Roman architecture and engineering . . . We researched the heck out of this trip.
That sounds like a ton of work, and it was. (Fun work, though.) What we believed - and found to be true - is that we would have a much better appreciation for what we would see and would remember far more of our trip if we had a basic knowledge of history, art, etc. in the area. All that preparation made me appreciate the difference between the Davids by Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini, for example. I really enjoyed seeing Donatello's Mary Magdalene sculpture because I understood what he was trying to capture with it; if I hadn't, I don't think I would have liked that piece. I looked for specific pieces at various museums because I knew they were the more famous and popular pieces. We all enjoyed the sites more because we had an understanding of their backgrounds. The more time you devote to preparing yourself educationally for the trip, the better you will appreciate what you're seeing. Go to your library and you can get books, videos and DVDs for free. Watch the History Channel, Travel Channel and Discovery Channel; they have shows on Rome all the time. Buy travel DVDs on Ebay, and then sell them on Ebay when you get back.
Flying With Iberia Airlines - We booked four flights on Iberia Airlines. Three of the four flights were significantly delayed due to mechanical problems. A 75% failure rate did not instill me with confidence. On one flight we sat in the plane and watched out the window as they repaired an engine, then we taxied out to the runway. Was I nervous on that takeoff? Ohhhhh yeah.
We had over five hours of delay on our flights. The employees communicated poorly about the various delays, sometimes lying to us about how long delays would be. Our flight from New York to Madrid was an hour and a half late. We had to make a mad dash from one end of the airport to the other to catch our next flight to Venice, which we reached only two minutes before scheduled departure. (And naturally, the flight to Venice was the only one that left on time for us.) Our flight from Rome to Madrid arrived two hours late; imagine a plane full of 200 people - mostly Europeans who don't typically want to wait in line anyway - all crashing the exits at the same time because they're trying to make connections. Have you seen the running of the bulls in Spain? I have - it took place on that damn plane. We had a couple teenage girls almost get into a fight with a woman right behind us. It was absolute chaos. We got to the next flight and there was a mob at the gate. Iberia doesn't seat people by rows so everyone was trying to cram themselves ahead of everyone else to get on to the plane. More chaos, all completely unnecessary.
Each time we flew into Madrid, we had to make a long trek across the airport to reach our next flight. I'm talking about going up several floors of a ramp, down a half-mile walkway, down an elevator, onto a train that goes to another building, up another elevator, through Customs, through security AGAIN, and then the entire length of a very long concourse.
They did do a good job of getting our luggage on the right planes, no small task considering how short our connections were due to our delays. But that's the only positive thing I can say about Iberia.
I even bragged on Rick Steve's forum about getting good rates through Iberia; I now understand why they were so cheap. It's run by sadists who want to lure you in. I have flown my last flight on Iberia.
Travel Tips For While You Are Traveling In Italy
Grocery Shopping - We saved a fortune by buying food at grocery stores and eating in our apartment. We bought lunch meats, cheeses, breads, breakfast pastries, munchies, sodas . . . all for a quarter of what it would have cost to eat at restaurants. Note that we didn't buy anything that needed cooking so it didn't become a matter of us spending unnecessary time at the apartment cooking.
Also, Italian stores often charge for shopping bags. This is true all over Italy. You have to estimate how many you'll need and they charge a small amount for them. You can bring bags with you, which is probably what they want you to do.
Apartments - I have reviewed each apartment we stayed at in the notes for the respective cities. We are not like Samantha Brown - we don't like staying in horribly overpriced hotels because they have a nifty paint job in the lobby or a fancy decor in the rooms. Our priorities are much more lowbrow. We want value and comfort in our lodging, and we found that renting apartments offered us both of those. We were very glad that we stayed in apartments over hotels. We had more room to relax. We had kitchens and refrigerators and (in two of three places) a microwave. We had a living room. In Florence and Venice we had incredible views that few hotels could match. In Venice we had Internet access. And we paid far LESS than we would have spent for decent hotel rooms, while enjoying major savings for food. You give up some convenience by using apartments. You don't have a desk clerk to give you a wake-up call. You don't have someone to make your reservations for you, or serve a continental breakfast to you in the morning. I was happy to give up those conveniences for lots of space, refrigerators and big cash savings in rent and food costs.
Pickpockets - I saw no one that I even suspected of being a pickpocket the entire trip. No tag teams of thieves, no packs of kids hassling tourists, nothing. That said, you should still assume that you will encounter pickpockets on your trip and use good sense and precautions to protect your property and money.
AT&T Wireless - We set up my cell phone - a latest generation RAZR - with the international plan where we paid a monthly fee and got reduced per-minute rates. We kept my wife's cell phone - a comparable RAZR - without the plan, knowing that its per-minute rate would be higher but planning NOT to use it. We get to Italy, and guess which phone doesn't work with local calls? Yep. The phone with the international plan was almost useless in Italy. The one with higher per-minute charges worked just fine. Fancy that! Don't expect your cell phone to work in Italy. If communications are important, have an independent backup phone.
Street Vendors - These guys sell everything. Tripods, desk lights, bags, umbrellas, hats, flying toys, paper weights, T-shirts . . . they'd put a price tag on their own mothers if they thought they could sell them. Get used to brushing them off a lot.
Train Travel - If you have a lot of luggage, train travel is not easy, particularly if you're getting on or off the train at an intermediate stop - they don't sit for long at all. I didn't have any choice - I had a suitcase, my camera bag and other supplies that were necessary for my trip. So I had to deal with the difficulties of luggage and the trains.
You put the larger suitcases between the seats and the smaller cases overhead. They have compartments by the doors for larger suitcases but those were always packed by the time we got there. It's just a tough situation. I don't think there's anything they could do about it - just the reality of train travel you have to deal with. Get to the train a few minutes early and try to be the first one on your car so you can get the best spaces for your luggage.
That was my only beef with the trains. Otherwise they ran on time (unlike Iberia airlines) and were quiet and comfortable. Once we got going, they were terrific.
Ugly Americans? I saw hundreds of tourists in Italy, and I can't say that I saw one "ugly American." I saw a lot of Americans being friendly and polite, trying to fumble through Italian when speaking to locals - and then looking surprised when locals bumped through them or cut in line. Honestly, I don't ever want to hear about ugly Americans again. What I witnessed made me very proud of Americans, and surprisingly disappointed in Italians.
I'm glad I took the following items to Italy:
- Cash - This is a hotly contested question on the discussion forums. How much cash should you travel with? Most people carry less than I chose to carry. If you don't have cash with you, you have to use ATM machines, which have a daily limit. I prefer to have several hundred euros in cash on me, in case there's a problem with my account or I stumble across a major purchase I want to make. If you rent apartments, you will probably have to pay by cash when you check in. In that case, you MUST take a good amount of currency with you. If you need $1200 or more for the apartment when you arrive in Italy, your daily ATM limits will interfere with your ability to pull out that amount. At the very least, you'll use up all your euros for the apartment and won't have any left to use for shopping for a day or two. I understand that many people don't like carrying large amounts of cash. I'm a pretty big guy and typically people don't mess with me, and I like having the hard currency on me. This really is a personal question for each traveler to answer for him or herself.
- Rick Steves guidebooks - These books were our bibles for each city. I'd keep the Rick Steves book for the city we were visiting in my camera bag and we referenced it many times each day. I left my Rome Rick Steves guide in a church in Rome. The first bookstore I could find, I went in and bought another copy. Rick Steves says it very well - these are $30 instruction manuals for $5000 trips. They save you time, money, frustration. They steer you towards great places to eat and visit. They're the biggest bargain a traveler will find. And I don't think anyone does Italian guidebooks better than Rick Steves. Other books are good; Rick Steves' books are awesome.
- Rick Steves Money belt - The money belt worked perfectly for me. I felt much more secure knowing that my cash and personal documents were more protected than they would be in my pocket. Now I didn't actually use Rick Steve's money belt - he probably wouldn't have given it to me, even if I'd asked. I did buy one from his website though, and it worked extremely well. You can probably find good money belts elsewhere. Just make sure that you don't get one with metal clips that might develop rust that gets on your clothes or set off security machines.
- Outlet adapters - I bought four of these from Rick Steves website and we used them constantly. Of course, we had a lot more electronics than most folks had, but still, taking a few along is smart. Note that some places had three prong outlets where these adapters didn't work, but fortunately the apartments had their adapters for those outlets. If you are forced to buy an adapter in Italy, look first at the supermarkets. We saw them for sale there.
- Umbrellas - We bought cheapo $4 umbrellas at Wal-Mart right before we left, and they lasted about two weeks (just long enough for the trip) before they broke down. We just tossed them before we came back. Even if it doesn't rain these are good for blocking the sun as you walk around.
- Ipod - I didn't use it much in Italy but it was a godsend on the flights over and back. A book was also helpful. If you're flying on Iberia Airlines, a bible and a priest to administer last rites would also be appropriate.
Stuff that didn't work for me:
- Rick Steves audio tours - I just couldn't get myself lined up with the audio tours, they just didn't work for me. Especially with the sea of people I continuously found myself in. These may work for others but they weren't for me. I probably should have kept trying though - they have terrific information in them.
- Rick Steves wallet - This little pouch looks like a mini pipe tobacco pouch, very convenient for carrying around. Unfortunately, the top zipper broke the first time I zipped the thing shut and the side zipper broke shortly thereafter. I still used it but wasn't comfortable that it wouldn't zip shut. Very poor quality.
- Rick Steves alarm clock - the alarm has all the volume of a mouse's burp. This thing wouldn't wake me from a daydream, let alone a deep sleep. It was helpful as an easy-to-see clock on the night stand, but it was worthless as an alarm clock. Rick, carry a clock that will actually wake people up!!!!
Camera Information for Your Italy Vacation
Our Cameras - Most of my comments on our cameras and camera bags can be found on the What Camera Equipment Do We Use? page.
What Lenses Should I use? Almost all my shots were taken with the 17mm - 55mm kit lens that came with my DSLR and a Canon 10-24mm ultra-wide angle lens. Probably 90% of my shots used those two lenses. Of the remaining 10%, almost all were taken with a Canon 28-135mm IS lens. I shot a very few pictures with my 70-300mm IS lens and if I were doing it again, I wouldn't bother to take this one. Most of the subjects were large - buildings, piazzas, etc. etc. Your style of shooting may be different from mine, but I just didn't find that many distant or tiny subjects to shoot on the trip to Italy. I bet I didn't take 10 photos with that long lens, and it's pretty heavy to haul around all over the place. If you don't mind the weight and you like longer shots, by all means take it though. That's really a matter of your personal style and what you like to shoot.
Italy Trip Reports
Italy trip report (general notes) - Many of our observations applied to more than one city, or to visiting Italy in general. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation. Rather than duplicate those comments in the Venice, Florence and Rome trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general comments here.
Venice Italy trip report - We spent four days in Venice. One of those days was devoted to a day trip to the Dolomites Mountains. Another day was spent touring the Venice Lagoon. Read this trip report to learn about our apartment, the restaurants we dined at, where to buy awesome Venice masks, and more. Want to know the WORST time of day to take a gondola ride? Read the Venice trip report to find out.
Florence Italy trip report - We spent three days in Florence, not including travel days. We stayed in Florence all three days, wandering the city to enjoy all the tourist sites. In this trip report I break down the various tourist attractions in Florence, review our apartment and offer restaurant reviews. If you're going anywhere near Florence, you HAVE to read the review of Il Latini restaurant.
Rome Italy trip report - As with Florence, we stayed within the city limits all five days we were in Rome. (You think there's enough to do for five days in Rome? LOL) In this trip report I discuss the various tourist sites, provide extensive discussion on the tour of the Vatican, review the apartment and various restaurants. The difference between Angels Tours and Angels and Demons Tours is huge. Read the trip report to understand why. And wait until you hear about this awesome little mom and pop trattoria near the Vatican . . .
Italy Travel Photographs
After you've read the trip reports, be sure to check out the Italy Travel Photos to see all the great tourist sites and get excited about your trip!
Please help me get more visitors to Family Travel Photos.com!