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Italy – 21 travel tips you need to know for the ultimate vacation

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Stolen backpack? Check.

Fined? Yep.

Credit cards denied? Of course!

After 3 trips to Italy, we have lived it all. We seem to have ample ‘learning opportunities’ with each adventure. However, that does not stop us from wanting to visit again – we just need to be smarter!

Learn from us – use these Italy travel tips to your benefit, so you don’t end up repeating the same mistakes.

Italy Travel Tips – Packing and Travel

Do not travel to Italy in July or August

If you must go in summer, pick June. Most of the kids are still in school. Plus, it is not yet the peak temperature of July/August. Walking around is hot and sweaty. If you take public transportation as we do, busses are not air-conditioned.

Pack light

I know you hear this all the time, but there is a reason. Elevators and escalators are not the norms. Stair climbing is. That means, when you exit the Metro, you are lugging suitcases up several flights of stairs. Trust me, this isn’t fun nor is it easy, especially in the heat!

Rolling suitcases over cobblestones is also just as hard as it sounds, but it’s going to happen. Picture it all together now: You are hot, sweating, and lugging two 40lb suitcases up from the metro stop before walking to your hotel across nothing but cobblestones. Welcome to Italy!

Pack with flexibility in mind. On our honeymoon, I interchanged black, gray and white all the time. Throw in a couple of scarves and you can update your look even further.

Validate / Validate / Validate

Is that clear? LOL. Often, after buying your train, bus or ferry ticket, you need to validate it. These validation machines are either on the waiting platforms (mostly trains and ferries) or inside your transportation mode.

If you do not validate, you are breaking the law and subject to fines. Hefty fines!

I have seen numerous people on trains not validate their ticket before boarding. I’m sure some of this is just plain ignorance while other times it’s fraud. When the conductor comes around and doesn’t see a validation, you are immediately fined. If you protest, they will ask for your passport and call the police.

Weigh your options. Always carry enough cash because your fine will be double if you cannot pay immediately.

Pay First

Never assume you can pay onboard. That’s just not how it works. Be verbal and ASK or accept the consequences.

In Venice, we boarded a ferry from a small, unmanned station that did not have ticket machines. We assumed (wrongly!) they would come around on board to collect money. We learned the hard way that we should have gone up to the captain immediately upon boarding and paid him. When they found out we didn’t have tickets, we were immediately fined €80 EACH. I can’t remember if they fined us for Little K or not, for some reason I don’t think they did. It’s a memory I hate thinking about.

Italy travel tips - Venice and its canals - travel by boat
Venice is beautiful by boat – just make sure you pay first

Don’t rent a car in the big cities

It would have to be one of the biggest mistakes to make. You do not want to drive amongst a sea of cars inches apart, honking their horns, mopeds speeding past you, with no rhyme or reason for traffic laws. It’s a mess. It’s even scary crossing the street while walking. If you can avoid renting a car, you are better off.

Have hotel directions

Whether printed or on a phone, make sure you know where you are going once you get off the train (or plane, bus, ferry, etc). However, even though we had printed directions every single time, we still got lost. Prepare for this. My best advice is to use the GPS on your phone even though it may cost money depending on where you live.

For our Milan trip, I had directions to our hotel printed out. However, we must not have exited the subway in the same spot my directions started. We wandered aimlessly until we turned on my husbands’ phone (our plan charges us $10 per day to use the phone internationally, plus a per minute charge). Of course, our hotel was only 1 block from where we standing, but knowing street names did not help us in this case.

In addition, on our honeymoon in Sorrento (stunning place to visit – check out these great things to do in Sorrento), we knew we had to catch a bus to our hotel from somewhere in the downtown area.  We had just come from our overnight flight into Rome, taken the train several hours south to Sorrento and we were starving. Apparently, I am told I get very cranky when I am hungry. We argued about not finding the bus and eventually decided to stop in a restaurant, luggage and all.  After that, we made the wise decision to try and ask someone for directions and they were able to point us to the area where our hotel bus stop was.

You would think we would have learned by now. This tip still somehow alludes us.  Maybe next time…

Take the high-speed train

While more expensive than an inter-city train, Europe flies by the US (pun intended!) in its high-speed train travel. The fastest can reach 250mph connecting Rome and Milan in under 3 hours.

If you are city-hopping through Italy, the train is the fastest and easiest way to go. Some trains require ‘reservations’ in addition to a ticket. Research your specific train to verify if one is required (the high-speed ones definitely do). This is more important if tickets are purchased online. A kiosk agent will tell you if a reservation is required if purchasing at the train station.

Pack walking shoes

This is not the time to be taking any 3-inch heels. You will undoubtedly be walking over cobblestones and need something sturdy. In addition, you will be walking. A lot. Maybe in the most unexpected places too. We took an unplanned bus ride down the Amalfi coast and decided to visit Positano, one of the best beaches on the Amalfi coast.

It was absolutely stunning, but the town is built onto a hill! This means that if you plan to visit the beach, you need to walk down the stairs. And then what goes down, must come up! I remember being exhausted because every single turn led us up (or down) the path of more steps. You definitely need something comfortable that you can walk in all day – every day.

Positano beach and town on the hillside
Bring your walking shoes to climb these streets!

Italy Travel Trips – Safety and security

Look out for gypsies

Yes! They really do exist. And they will try to scam you. Remember the luggage you are hauling up steps? An old lady on the steps outside the train station begged me for money, while at the same time, a young girl hovered by my bags. My husband saw this from behind and yelled at them to go away.

You always need to be aware of your surroundings and your belongings. The more you carry with you, the more you are apt to have something go missing. They know the large Italian cities are brimming with tourists, so they lurk in popular sites.

Secure backpacks and purses to something heavy

You need to detract thieves. They run rampant in all the large Italian cities. When sitting at a restaurant or anywhere, do not place a bag next to you or on the floor. It needs to be attached to something.

Theft is very common. These thieves are sneaky and proficient. Protect your belongings at all times.

On our same Italy trip where we were fined, two days later in Milan my husband’s backpack was stolen from right next to us. Look at the picture below and notice the backpack on the chair to the right. Somehow, someone was able to lift the backpack right off the chair without us knowing.

We do believe the waiter was in on it and the thief stole it when we were facing the other direction talking to the waiter. The restaurant manager didn’t do anything, the police didn’t do anything. It’s common and it happens A LOT.

Italy travel tips - don't put backpack on seat next to you unless you want it stolen
This is the backpack 10 minutes before it was stolen. Right there next to us…

Don’t let it happen to you.

We recently found the Pacsafe backpack and will use it on our next trip. It has security hooks and smart zippers. The security hooks allow you to fasten it to a secure fixture while the smart zippers attach to the security hook preventing someone from opening them.

We only had guidebooks and jackets in it, so it could have been worse. Now, I will only use a cross-body bag and never take it off while we are out, not even at a restaurant while my husband uses the Pacsafe.

Pacsafe backpack locked to a chair
Our new Pacsafe backpack locked to chair


Make multiple copies of passports

Do this just in case something happens to your original passport. Leave a copy at home with someone you can contact as well as carry a copy with you, but in a different place than the original.

This will help prove who you are to an embassy should you lose your passport.

Italy Travel Tips – Money

Wear a money belt

Wear one either around your neck or your waist. My husband has the waist money belt one while I have the neck strap. We wear them under our clothes. Yes, this does mean that sometimes I have to go into a bathroom to get money out discreetly.

Since these are hidden from view and not on display, your money is more protected.

Take multiple credit/debit cards

Not all cards work in Europe. The EU operates on chip and pin technology whereas the US is chip and signature. Most businesses will take US credit cards and not ask you for a pin, but train stations are notorious for flat out declining your card. Yes, it happens to us every time we are in Europe.

Carry a backup card with you just in case your first one is declined. I like to overcompensate by taking 2 credit cards and 2 debit cards. Verify the cards don’t impose foreign transaction fees.

Debit cards can also be prepaid cards that you get from your bank, not the local drug store (the fine print on some of those say they only work in the US). This way, you know exactly how much money you have loaded.

Use ATMs to get cash

Instead of paying a currency conversion fee at a money exchange store, use your debit card in an ATM to receive cash in the local currency. This is by far the easiest way to convert your money. Some ATMs will ask you if you want to do Dynamic Currency Conversion. Always check ‘no’ because you just want local currency.

Italy requires cash in more places than in other EU countries. Be sure you carry enough on you for things such as trains, taxis, street vendors and small mom and pop shops that don’t accept credit.

Italy Travel Tips – Sightseeing

Pre-book sold out attractions

While most of Italy’s attractions can be seen after waiting in line, there are few that definitely sell out. If you want guaranteed access to the following sites, please reserve ahead of time. You can either book directly or enjoy them through a tour.

If you are in Rome, there are are plenty of things to do in Rome at night. Check out several of these for a fantastic time. In addition, visiting Milan with kids is fun and rewarding (and you can blame all the gelato on the kids).

Skip the line

No one wants to wait in line for hours on a vacation, so why not pay a little extra for ‘Skip the Line’ tickets purchased ahead of time. Most of the following sites could have a couple hour wait just to get in, depending on the time of year. Save yourself some time by moving to the front. Again, either book directly or with a tour.

Use a guide book

If you enjoy walking tours, guide books can be a great friend. Personally, we enjoy using Rick Steve’s books. He always lists walking tours and we have done more than one of them. In fact, we were following his walking tour of Pompei when we found another couple with the exact same book also following his tour.  While we don’t use them for lodging, we do plan what to see by how highly he rates an attraction.

An array of European guide books by Rick Steves
Maybe I have a little addiction to Rick Steve’s Guidebooks


Italy Travel Tips – Restaurants

Drink while standing

In Italy, coffee is cheaper if you stand at the bar or take it to go. If you plan on sitting and occupying a table, expect to pay double or triple. It’s fine if you do, just note the extra expense.

Often, bars may show two columns of prices. ‘Banco’ is the price if you stand with your drink while ‘tavolo’ is the price if you sit.

Pay first, then take your receipt to the bar to get your coffee (caffè in Italian is actually expresso). A Caffè Americano is an Americanized coffee of espresso with hot water.

Pay the cover charge

Don’t be surprised to see the word ‘coperto’ on your restaurant bill or on the menu. It’s a cover charge for sitting there, usually, it’s per person. Sometimes, it’s not obvious until you receive your bill. It’s just how things are done and it’s up to visitors to abide by Italian law and customs.

Remember there is no tipping unless you want to round up to the nearest Euro.

Hold the bread!

You may see the words ‘pane e coperto’ written on your bill. This is the expense for the bread brought to your table. Don’t expect anything for free.

Calculate the price of fish or beef

Menus list price as price (in Euros) per etto (€ xx per etto where etto = 100 grams). So, if your fresh caught fish is 400 grams, multiply appropriately. On our honeymoon, my husband ‘accidentally’ had a $40 piece of fish!

Summary

Wow – there you have it! I couldn’t stop coming up with travel tips for Italy. I’m sure there are plenty more we haven’t encountered yet, or maybe we have and I’ve tucked it away as a distant memory. Don’t let anything scare you away from seeing Italy. It truly is a remarkable country. Just be vigilant – as you should be in any large city.

Enjoy your trip!

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What other Italy travel tips can you share in the comments? I would love to hear them!

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Man rowing black gondola under a bridge in a narrow Venice canal


30 Comments

  1. Great article! Italy is on my bucket list. I will definitely be coming back to this if I ever get there! Thanks for all the tips!

  2. Wow this was SOOOOO helpful and such a joy to read! I am traveling to Italy for the first time in May and learned so much from this!

  3. Thanks for all the great tips. It really stinks that you got your backpack stolen and that you had to pay an extra fee for not getting your ferry ticket from the captian when you first got on the ferry.

  4. Wow! So many great tips! I love that you put a story with most of them explaining how you learned it the hard way! Makes it much easier to remember!

  5. Yep, you have lived it all — fined, backpack stolen, credit cards denied. The school of hard knocks. But now you can write a good advice post, based on personal experience. 😉 We have long used Pacsafe bags, but even they are not foolproof. The best advice is to stay alert to your surroundings, on all sides, at all times. Always keep an arm or leg through straps on backpacks and a hand on luggage — always. In any country in Europe, validate those tickets BEFORE getting on board. Be sure your ATM card is not also charging you foreign transaction fees. There are a number of banks now that have ATM cards that are good for travel. We use Schwab bank as it also refunds any ATM fee the bank might charge … bonus! Oh, and copies of all your important documents, as well as all the items you have in your luggage and backpack should be kept digitally — in the cloud, and on your phone.

    1. Oh I’m so glad you mentioned you use a Pacsafe bag! Yes, we will be more diligent in the future – it takes these hard lessons learned though to change how you act. And we always thought we were doing things correctly before! So much to learn…

  6. Thanks for sharing all travel tips to know before traveling to Italy. It is very sad that during ferry tour in Venice you were fined for not punching the tickets. I think they should have considered the case. Anyway you had alerted us which is very good tip.

    1. I know, we didn’t do it on purpose! I guess it’s just one of those things you need to know (which is why I included it as a tip!). Thanks for reading!

  7. It sounds like you have had a lot of experience to learn from. What a honeymoon! That security pack seems like a good idea. We had our credit card stolen in Cancun recently. I think the gas station attended took the card and replaced it with a look alike. Then over the next two days they charged up over $800 of groceries. My card kept getting denied but I didn’t think to check the name until we got the call from fraud prevention about the charges. Point being, I think there is a chance your waiter was in on the scam.

    1. Ugh! Sorry to hear about your credit card! Come to think of it, the last 2 times we have been to Mexico, we had fraud charges on our bills too. There is so much to be vigilant about when traveling!

  8. It must’ve been such an annoying experience, having your backpack stolen despite being at a restaurant already. Lucky for you only guidebooks and jackets were inside. 🙂 Nevertheless, great travel tips. This are all applicable really to other trips in another country or city. 🙂

    1. Yes, we learned a valuable lesson! I just never thought someone could steal something right in front of us. We are headed back to Europe this summer and will do some things differently. It’s always a learning experience! 🙂

  9. I had the subscription box hiding half of the post all the time so it was hard to read the post. I also could not see half of what I was writing as a comment. I would have wanted to learn about all the 21 tips!

    1. Ahhh! Thank you for letting me know. I actually thought I removed that code last month. I tried it in incognito mode and it didn’t appear for now. Thanks again!

  10. Great tips, many of which I think are applicable anywhere you travel in the world. We visited Italy at the start of our backpacking trip and its a great place to start as it’s a lot easier than many other countries to get around/ get cash etc and so much safer too but that is often where we’re at our most vulnerable I suppose as we don’t expect it as much. Though for pick pockets Western Europe is notoriously bad!! We always use the app maps.me for getting around, its an offline map you just have to download the country or region beforehand when you have wifi, mark off your accommodation before hand. We actually used the local slower trains because of the huge difference in price, but it depends how much time you have I guess and yes the validating is always important, it’s quite common on public transport around Europe and can catch you out very easily.

    1. Okay, I am going to look into maps.me. We are headed back to Europe this summer. It would certainly help if the map was offline because when we used our data, we had to pay $10 each day. Thank you for the tip!

  11. I think “have hotel directions” is a must in old cities, as well as restaurant directions and such. I admire hotel websites that have written directions, not just a location on a map. You’ll arrive, your GPS will say you’re there, and you look around and, what? Sometimes you need to know that you must go through the alley next to the bakery and around the car park and exit the northeast side, otherwise you’ll never see it. Good tip.

    1. Thanks, Tom! Sometimes, we have what I think are good directions and we still can’t find the place! You are correct – in these old cities, it’s difficult because there are alleys and so many narrow streets. Patience is a must too!

  12. Great travel Tips!! I really liked the packing light and money belt ones. Italy is one of my Top 5 bucket list destinations. I have read lots of articles on Italy and nowhere I found these useful tips. So, thank you for that.

    1. Aww! Thank you! I am so glad you found these tips useful 🙂 I hope you do go to Italy and cross it off your bucket list – there are so many amazing things to see.

  13. I am returning to Italy this spring so thanks for the great reminders.
    Validating tickets – such a big deal and pane e coperto! They make me smile! Love navigating the tricks of foreign countries!

    1. Have a great time in Italy! It’s hard to keep all the different country customs in check. Hope some of these helped you.

  14. Don’t expect anything for free – love that! I just returned from Italy and thankfully didn’t have to fall into some of these mini traps, but definitely had to validate tickets everywhere we went. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Hi Yara – Thanks for reading! Unfortunately, we learned the hard way.. glad you didn’t experience most of these!

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