Italy is one of the world’s top travel destinations for several good reasons: its natural beauty is stunning, its culture is rich and its history dates back to the days of the Roman empire. Each year, millions of tourists flock to cities like Rome, Venice and Florence to see the sights and to soak up the atmosphere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any visitor who’ll tell you that they got less than what they hoped for in their trip to this wonderful southern European nation.
But just like any other tourist destination, Italy can break your budget if you’re not careful. Hasty flight and accommodation bookings, flying over during the peak seasons, not knowing exactly where to eat and shopping in high-end districts can all run the receipt totals way beyond what you originally planned for.
If you’re touring Italy for the first time, we’ve got some easy tips to keep your spending under control. Follow each one of them and you should have a grand time without necessarily putting yourself in the red. Here we go:
Book Everything Early
The cliché says the early bird catches the worm. In the travel industry, the early-booking tourist saves a lot of money. From your plane tickets, hotel rooms and tickets to attractions, making your reservation months in advance spares you from jacked up pricing and hassles.
Airfare tends to be much cheaper when you book 45 days or more ahead of your departure date. You’ll also be able to choose your seat. Whether you prefer to be near the window or by the aisle, you’ll do a lot better when most of the seats aren’t taken yet.
The same principle applies to hotels and villas. Making your reservation early usually fetches you more relaxed rates. You’ll also have a better chance of booking lower-priced rooms (which get taken the fastest) and you’ll have more leeway in choosing the floor and view that you prefer. If you work for a large, multinational corporation that has operations in Italy, you can check for corporate rates to ease the costs a little bit more in major hotels.
Avoid the Summer and the Winter
The timing of your Italian tour also plays a role in how much you’ll have to spend. Plane tickets and hotel rooms are priced a lot higher during the summer and the winter than they are in the spring or fall. School is out for most countries in the summertime, giving families the opportunity to travel together. In November and December, Italy can get pretty crowded as native Italians come home for Christmas and devout Christians make the trip to the Vatican City’s festivities.
Alongside the tourism surge, hotels also have to use more energy for heating and cooling. Italian summers can be very hot while winters can be downright freezing. As hotels experience seasonal highs in power bills, they pass on the costs to guests in the form of rate hikes.
The bottom line? Avoid traveling to Italy in the summer or close to Christmas and New Year. April, May, September and October are the months when commodities are at their cheapest. This can mean several hundred dollars’ worth of savings for an individual and thousands for larger groups.
Look Beyond Hotels in the City
The location, the name and the caliber of your accommodations will dictate the kind of rates they charge. Centrally located hotels in major cities such as Rome, Florence and Milan can be very costly. Look at hotels and villas that are outside cities (but close to them) if you want cheaper but equally comfortable places to stay. If you’re visiting places like Tuscany, you may want to consider farms and estates that accommodate tourists. Yep, these are essentially working agricultural centers with rustic housing that are rented off to travelers. These establishments are marginally cheaper, very cozy and they allow you to experience the beauty of the Italian countryside in an up-close and personal way.
Once you’re in Italy, you’ll need a means to get around the cities and travel from one locale to another. The cheapest (and sometimes the fastest) way to do this is with public transport.
Italy’s public transport system has improved steadily throughout the years. Its railway system has expanded and there are now two train companies to choose from: the Trenitalia and the Italo. The Trenitalia is the older, state-run line while the Italo is the newer, privately-run train system. The Trenitalia is a good travel option but the Italo is a cut above. The latter has more modern features, it runs faster, it’s generally more comfortable and it enjoys the novelty of being started by the chairman of Ferrari. Italian trains can take you from one major city to another in just a few hours.
If you fancy driving and you like the convenience of having a car, then rental cars are the way to go. Just be warned that most cars in Italy are right-hand driven and in manual transmission and speedometers use kilometers instead of miles. Also, parking in Italy can be a test of patience, so be ready to find and pay for a secure parking spot.
As in any other big cities around the world, hailing a cab means having to pay some serious money for getting from point A to point B.Make this your last resort if you’re trying to save cash.
Savings in Numbers
The Internet has spawned a nice phenomenon in consumerism: group buying. Essentially, some travel service providers, hotels and other services provide big discounts to people who make purchases in large groups. If you have the time and the drive for it, look at Groupon and other sites for deals. Just be aware that killer deals disappear quickly, so when you see one that you like, read the terms carefully and make the purchase right away.
Some Italy travel sites also offer group tour configurations for people who are traveling with family and friends. Service providers are often more generous with discounts when tourists take on deals like these.
Avoid Calling Home from Your Hotel Room
If you’re planning to make calls to the US while you’re in Italy, your hotel’s phone may be your worst option. Charges are notoriously expensive, so find alternatives for communication if you can.
Bringing along a smartphone is always a good idea. Italy’s Internet infrastructure is pretty good and it’s not hard to find a hotel with WiFi web access. Skype, FaceTime or Viber are your best friends when trying to call abroad while you’re in Italy.
Delicious but Inexpensive Food Exists in Italy
Italy is renowned the world over for its excellent cuisine. After all, this is the birthplace of such global food icons as pizza, pasta and gelato. But before you go out on a limb and try everything that looks and smells good, check the prices. Make sure that you won’t want to faint when you see the grand total on your bill.
Thankfully, dining in Italy can be inexpensive yet very satisfying. Knowing a few things that the locals do can save you a substantial amount of money by the time it’s all said and done. Following these four points and you should be just fine:
• Make sure that your accommodations include breakfast. If they don’t, make sure you go to the market the day before to buy bread, drinks, cheese and fruits.
• Save the bulk of your food budget for lunches. Most mid-level to upscale restaurants have Menu de Giorno, which is a 3-course set meal that packs a lot of value within a reasonable price. Fill up at noontime and you shouldn’t be too hungry by the time dinner comes. Dinner is always the most expensive meal of the day, so eating light at night will help conserve your funds.
• Pizza and gelato are your best friends. Served in just about every town in the country, these national favorites are cheap, filling and oh-so-yummy. Look for pizza a taglia, which is Italian for pizza by the slice. When ordering gelato, start off with the smallest helping. In Italy, small gelato servings are usually enough for the average American adult.
• Stand Up in Coffee Shops and Bars. Whether you’re drinking coffee or alcoholic beverages, it’s usually a safer option to remain standing. Bars and coffee shops tend to charge extra for people who want extra comfort, so use those legs and save some more money.
• Look for Enoteche. These are local wine bars that also serve dinner that’s cheaper than what you’ll find in most restaurants. They also open earlier, so they make sense for travelers who are exhausted after a day of sightseeing.
See the Free Sights
There’s a lot of ways to see the country’s main attractions without splurging. Start with the free ones such as artwork by Caravaggio and Michelangelo in Rome. In Tuscany, you’ll find Brunelleschi architecture and Giotto frescoes. If you want to see Titian and Tintoretto, you’ll have to make the trip to Venice.
Free tourist spots are not limited to art. The Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps in Rome are open 24 hours a day and you can marvel at them all you want without spending a single euro. For another architectural marvel, head to St. Mark’s square where you’ll find the Basilica, the Doges. If you’re going to the Vatican City, you’ll discover that most attractions can be experienced without any payment whatsoever.
Take Advantage of Combined Tickets
Italy has mastered the art and business of accommodating tourists. One of the country’s great innovations is having unified ticketing that brings its attractions and public transport system together. Essentially, a combined ticket allows you to use public transport at the time of its validity and it grants the holder access to a set number of sites out of several choices. Here are the ones you shouldn’t miss:
• The Roma Pass – As mentioned above, this ticket will give you rides across Rome’s public transport systems and it grants you entry to two museums or archaeological sites of your choice. One of its coolest features is having a dedicated line for people who want to enter the Coliseum. Succeeding ticket purchases will be discounted, translating into more savings.
• Campania ArteCard – This is basically the RomanPass for Naples. Like the RomanPass, it gives you rides in public vehicles and it gives you entry to two museums that you want to visit.
• FirenzeCard – Heading to Florence? Get this card. It’s the Florentine answer to the two combined tickets mentioned above. Like the RomanPass and the Campania ArteCard, you’ll get public transportation and entry to two of 60 wondrous churches and museums.
• Venice Connected – This one isn’t a combined ticket, but it’s a website where you can purchase tickets for the city’s famous water bus as well as its other destinations. Buying in advance may save you more money.
If you’re in Italy during the months of January and July, you’ll want to look for the word Saldi when shopping. This is the word for “sale” in Italian, so check out the stores that display the term on their doors and windows. You’ll be amazed at the discounts that you can get even on high-end brands that cost an arm and a leg in the US.
Okay, that’s just about all the money-saving tips for an Italian tour that we can muster in one blog post. Keep these in mind and try to keep your compulsive buying urges down – your bank account will be safe. Until then, have a great trip and have as much fun as you can. Ciao!
About the Author
Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She’s a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients. For more on Priscila and her work, connect with her on Google+.