Italy – 21 travel tips you need to know for the ultimate vacation
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Stolen backpack? Check.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Milan – The Last Supper
- Rome – Galleria Borghese
- Pisa – The Leaning Tower – can only be booked 20 days in advance
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.
- Rome – The Colosseum
- Rome – The Vatican Museums
- Florence – Uffizi Galleries
- Florence – Michelangelo’s David at The Accademia
Use a guidebook
If you enjoy walking tours, guidebooks 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.
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!
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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Christine is a mother, wife and travel fanatic. She loves to plan trips, especially using points and miles. Disney is her passion while vacations in Europe have her wanting to move there. To continue reading, click more about me.