I don’t claim to be a travel expert. While I have visited quite a few countries over the years, most of the trips have been with organized groups in which I had very little control over the planning portion of the trip. Other than a mission trip to England last fall (which requires a very different planning skill set), this trip to Italy was my first time planning an overseas trip by myself. I absolutely love planning, and I love travel, so it made for a fun combination. Also, Jeremy is pretty go-with-the-flow, so most of the planning was happily done by me. I dove into learning about the tips and tricks for Italy travel, and I also loved learning about the culture and history of every place we went before we got there. We also took our budget pretty seriously, and I feel like we were able to do things economically without sacrificing an amazing time. So, while there are many people with more experience in the field of travel planning, I thought I would share a few of the tips that we picked up before hand that made our trip smooth and amazing, and a few things we learned along the way.
1. Rick Steves
For European travel lovers, Rick Steves is no secret. He is the American travel guru for all things Europe, and we felt like we were in a club because everywhere we went, we saw Rick Steves’ travel books in the hands of tourists. We even bonded with other tourists over our Rick Steves recommendations. But, if you’re planning a trip to Europe, get a Rick Steves book. He has them for every country in Europe. His Italy travel book is the best selling travel book in the US, and I understand why. This book was invaluable, and he has done 30 years of research in finding the best places to stay and eat, and the best way to travel with the least amount of stress . We almost always chose Rick Steves recommended restaurants, and not one disappointed. We found hole in the wall sandwich places, incredible wood-fired pizza joints, and high class restaurants that we would have NEVER stumbled across on our own and that weren’t flooded with clueless tourists ordering pepperoni pizza and spaghetti with meatballs. Because of his tips, we figured out how to skip lines, how to get around on public transit, and were able to sift through the best things to do in each city. I’ve used other travel books for other trips, but I will never buy another brand again. He also has a TV show on PBS, and I watched episodes on YouTube of the places we were going. I consulted Rick Steves on everything from packing to pricing, and I know it helped our trip run more smoothly.
2. Get Off the Beaten Path
“80% of Venice is not touristy, and 80% of tourists will never know it.” – Rick Steves.
This is true everywhere we went. Tourists stick together in crowded masses with the street vendors, average food, and long lines. If you’re a smart tourist, you will get away from all of that. There are times we couldn’t avoid the masses, and those were my least favorite times. We absolutely loved exploring the paths less traveled on our own. There is so much more to Rome than just the Colosseum and Vatican City, and although those places are worth braving the crowds, we found such respite in the quietness of places like the Appian Way, quiet cafes, and evening strolls down moonlit streets.
3. Get out early, stay out late, and take a nap in between.
In the spirit of getting off the beaten path, we found that the crowds are the worst between about noon and 5pm almost everywhere. Day trippers and people coming off cruise ships have to concentrate their time in these hours, but if you’re staying in the city you have the advantage of enjoying things earlier and later. We had the best sight seeing experiences early in the morning and in the evenings, and we took naps almost every day. We stayed in very convenient locations everywhere we went which allowed us to come back in the heat of the day to take a nap. The locals do it, the businesses do it, and we did it. It gave us the energy to stay out late at night when the lights of the cities and towns create the most romantic moments imaginable.
A couple places that this served us well…we visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at around 7:45am (it opens at 7), and we only waited about 10 minutes in line at the most and enjoyed a nearly crowd-free visit. By the time we left at around 9:30, the line was about 7 times longer than when we got there, and we heard it gets even worse after 10am.
Also, we bought a night time Vatican Museum ticket. In between April and October, the Vatican Museum opens on Friday nights…but you have to have a reservation. We have heard the Vatican Museum can be brutally packed, but on a Friday night, we were able to leisurely enjoy it, and there was an evening Jazz concert in the courtyard. Winning!
4. Check your exchange rates and your check cards.
It’s important on a European trip to have both a credit/bank card that works internationally and to have access to cash. Most sit down restaurants, train ticket terminals, and larger tourist sights will take card, but many mom and pop stores and smaller tourist sights are cash only. A couple of our hotels were even cash only! I learned a couple things this time that I will do differently next time. First, our cash withdrawal exchange rate was worse than our credit card exchange rate. We didn’t realize this until about halfway through the trip. But, when we withdrew cash from our debit card, we were getting an exchange rate of 1.19 dollars per Euro (as set by the bank we were withdrawing from), and when we paid with our credit card, we were getting an exchange rate of 1.11 dollars per Euro. That 8 percent can make a difference on larger purchases. We paid for every hotel room in cash, even though we could have paid with card a couple times. Had I found out about the exchange rates in advance, I would have paid with card every chance we got and only used cash for smaller purchases and for the room in Vernazza that required cash. I assumed the exchange rates would be the same, but they weren’t. Good to know!
Also, we encountered a problem withdrawing money when my debit card chip stopped working, and Jeremy’s debit card had an 8 digit pin number. Most european banks won’t accept anything more than a 6 digit pin number to withdraw cash at their ATMs, and you can’t change a pin number over the phone! We desperately called our credit card and were able to work out a cash advance to pay for food and our hotel in small town Vernazza until we could get to a larger bank or international ATM in Rome. Next time, we will make sure we have a shorter pin number!
5. Find out what the locals eat.
Please please don’t go to Italy and only order American versions of Italian food. Even though Olive Garden serves lasagna and breadsticks, and you might think Papa Johns makes a mean stuffed crust pepperoni pizza, that does NOT mean that is what real Italians eat. It would be like going to Mexico and ordering a Taco Bell stuffed gordita (I haven’t eaten at Taco Bell in years…do they still serve that?). When in Venice or a coastal region, order regional seafood specialties. Our favorite pasta was squid ink pasta in the Cinque Terre. Sounds gross…tastes incredible. That’s the local and restaurant specialty, so that is what we tried. When in Rome, enjoy the rustic thin crust pizza with very simple seasonal ingredients or a fried zucchini flower or creamy risotto. We ate so many meals and still didn’t even scratch the surface of everything we wanted to try, but the best thing was going to a locally owned restaurant and trying what they recommended. Learn about the regions you’re visiting, and eat what the locals love.
6. Do what you want…not what everyone says you have to do.
Florence is a top destination in Italy, and we planned on spending an afternoon there in between locations. We were limited on time, but we were going to rush in and have lunch and explore. In our travels, we discovered the most stressful part is finding your bearings in a new city, so we decided last minute to skip Florence altogether. With more time, we would have gone, but we were letting the pressure to do Florence because it’s what you should do get to us, and we decided a more relaxed pace would serve us well.
We also planned on riding a gondola in Venice, but we realized gondolas only run in the busy tourist parts of Venice, and they cost about a hundred bucks, so we decided we would enjoy our time better by exploring the quiet streets for free than paying to ride on a crowded river in an expensive gondola, and we didn’t regret it.
If everyone says to tour the Colosseum, but you don’t care about it (It is pretty amazing, by the way), don’t tour the Colosseum! But if it’s something you’ve always dreamed of, do it no matter what! This is your trip, and you will know the best way to spend your own time. This may seem intuitive to most people, but I have a fear of missing out, so this was a good lesson to learn. I decided I would rather miss out on a tourist sight than on enjoying our time.
7. Download the right apps.
In our modern age of technology, there are some pretty great apps for your smart phone to make travel easier. Besides a handy translator app for reading menus and basic phrases, here are a couple we found useful.
I can’t tell you the number of times we said how grateful we were for this app! It has maps of cities all over the world, and you can pre-download them to your phone and use them without data! We didn’t have unlimited data in Europe, so without wi-fi, google maps would have been difficult. But this app has all the major cities, and it uses location services to track you. It kept us from getting lost many times!
Rick Steves Audio Europe
I already mentioned Rick Steves, but this app has audio tour guides to many of the major sights all over Europe. Rather than paying 7 euro for an audio guide to St. Mark’s Basilica or the Pantheon, just download the Rick Steves guide for free and bring your phone and headphones.
8. Backpack if you can.
Backpacking isn’t just for college students staying in hostels. We borrowed backpacking packs from friends, and we fell in love with this way of travel. We packed light, but after 10 days we still felt like we could have packed even lighter because there are things we didn’t even wear. We saw people struggling to bring massive suitcases onto trains and carting them up cobblestone staircases, and we would just look at each other and high five as we walked by with our hands free and all of our belongings strapped to our backs. With the waist belts on larger packs, they honestly don’t weight heavily on your back, but if you feel like you can’t carry a pack, at least narrow down to a carry-on sized suitcase. You honestly don’t need more than that. You can wash clothes, and you will be so glad you packed light.
9. Enjoy a quick bite…sometimes it’s better than a sit down meal.
Food in Italy doesn’t have to be expensive. We allowed ourselves a couple of splurge meals, and that was worth it for a fancy sit down dinner with waiters in black tie, but some of our best food experiences were cheap and fast. In the Cinque Terre, split a cone of fresh caught fried fish and vegetables for 7 euro or a sandwich on local Focaccia bread for 4 or 5 euro. We had some of the best pizza in Rome for around 7 euro for a whole pie. Local markets have incredible fresh fruit for a quick snack or breakfast. In Venice, the Cicchetti (like Tapas or finger foods) make for a quick and fun meal.
10. Buy train tickets as you go.
Part of the fun of travel is being flexible. We didn’t buy any train tickets before we left. We either purchased them online the night before we left a location or bought them at the kiosk at the station. Prices are consistent either way, and it allows for more freedom if you decide to leave a place earlier than expected or stay around longer!
11. Bring your own water bottle.
I don’t know about other European countries, but in Italy, there are fountains everywhere with fresh, clean drinking water. Every fountain looks like a piece of history; I’m not talking gross 1970s water fountains mounted to the wall. The only time we paid for water was at meals; we just brought our water bottles everywhere in refilled them in piazzas and at stone fountains. All that walking and heat will make you thirsty!
12. Stay in a central location
I’m sure not everyone would agree with me on this one, as central locations can be slightly more expensive than something a little further away from the action, but I was able to spend just a few euros more to stay in hotels and rooms that put us close to important sights, and it was worth every penny. We ran into a couple of girls (several times…our itineraries lined up) on a 27 day Europe trip who were (wisely) pinching pennies and stayed on the mainland in Venice (rather than on the island) and a bus ride away from a town in the Cinque Terre, and I know they had a very different experience than we did. We stayed in central locations everywhere we went, and it cut down on stress significantly as we could easily make it back to our hotel for a wardrobe change, a quick rest in the middle of a hot July day, or if we forgot something. I’m all about having a home base. In Rome we stayed in Monti, within walking distance of all the Ancient Rome sights, and after seeing how dismal their public transportation is, I was so glad we didn’t have to rely on it every time we needed to get back to our hotel!
Those are my quick tips! Anyone traveled to Europe recently? Any other tips and tricks?