Italy is meant to be savored. Whenever we take a trip to a part of Italy where we've never been before, we make a list of everything we want to see in, say, two weeks. Then we mercilessly cut the list in half. The country simply cannot be, refuses to be, hurried. Thus, if you plan to see Florence, Venice, and Rome in two weeks, you're just not going to have a good time doing it. This is a piece of advice we have given first-time travelers on dozens of occasions, and we believe that almost everyone has utterly ignored us. But nearly everyone comes back and tells us that of all the pieces of unasked-for advice we offered, this is the one they should have followed.
We surely encourage you to take your cell phone to Italy. Nevertheless, we do lend to all our guests an Italian cell phone with unlimited free incoming calls. It's very easy to top-up and you can then call any number also internationally.
If you bring your own, just be certain that it will work in Italy. Not all US cell phones work in Europe. The two systems are different, but more and more phones allow you to switch from one system to the other, and more and more of our guests are bringing their own cell phones to Europe with them.
If you are planning to travel around, and/or if you travel to Italy frequently, consider purchasing an Italian cell phone, though.
Nowdays, basic cell phones, without too many functions or internet, cost next to nothing: there is no monthly fee; you just buy a replenishable card and make the calls you want. This is definitely the easiest and cheapest solution for you.
You could also rent a cell phone in the US to bring to Italy, but we do advise against going this route: it's just complicated and expensive.
Finally, if you use a cell phone, be sure you understand how to use it. In particular, understand how to retrieve messages in the event the phone is set up with voicemail. We can’t tell you how many times missed appointments have occurred because of this. This is one reason we go back to our initial recommendation: bring your own: It’s the one with which you’re the most familiar.
As far as we are concerned, travelers checks are a thing of the past. ATM cards are universally usable, in almost any locality, however small. ATM machines (which Italians call Bancomat) are omnipresent.
Credit cards are a different matter. Many owners of small businesses (including us, for that matter) dont want to deal with the paperwork involved in credit cards. Nor do they want to pay the bank service charges. If you go to Gucci or to any fancy restaurant, or even middle-of-the-road restaurant or supermarket or gas station, your credit card is going to be accepted. Some cards are more widely accepted than others. But if you go into a mom-and-pop trattoria or osteria, or into a neighborhood grocery store or clothing store, the likelihood is that they either dont or wont take your credit card, even if the cards symbol is displayed. You should determine whether a place is going to accept payment by credit card before you order in a neighborhood restaurant.
Buying a Ticket. Should you buy a ticket in the US through a travel agent? No. You can easily obtain tickets without any surcharges when you are in Italy itself, even just before departure. Youll find easy-to-use ticket-dispensing machines in the lobby of any train station, and all credit cards are now accepted. You can get either first- or second-class, and you can reserve your seat in smoking or non-smoking on the faster trains.
You can, however, also buy and print tickets plus check current train schedules in advance by using the Italian rail systems excellent website, www.trenitalia.com.
Validating Your Ticket. Whether you have the ticket in hand or not, together with a seat reservation, your ticket is not valid unless and until you validate it BEFORE getting on the train youre taking. There are little machines at the head of virtually every train platform which stamp your ticket with the date and time. If you forget to do this, you will be fined by the train conductor, whether you claim ignorance or say you dont speak Italian. If you find youve gotten onto the train without validating your ticket and remember it before the conductor comes around to check, you should immediately seek him/her out, in the hope of demonstrating your uprightness and of avoiding the fine.
Luggage and Porters. A porter is now virtually impossible to find in any Italian train station. Youre basically on your own. On the other hand, there are lots of free luggage carts you can use to wheel your luggage right up to the door of your carriage. Difficulty lifting your bags into the train? Italians are extremely helpful people, and you should just ask some young, strong-looking Italian passenger to help you. And dont offer money.
In smaller stations, one huge problem is getting from the station building out to the particular platform from which your train is leaving. Unless your train is leaving from the platform immediately outside the station (Platform 1, usually), you will almost certainly have to take a staircase down under the platforms and another staircase back up to your designated platform. This is a huge pain, and elevators are almost nonexistent If you have difficulty with your bags, the answer is to ask for help from a bystander. Forget a porter.
First or Second Class? When we were young, we traveled in second class. Then, when we got older and more spoiled, we only traveled in first class. Now, were back to second class. Why? Too many Americans in first class, for one thing. But for another thing, theres hardly any difference between the two except the price. You should have a seat reservation in any case.
If you’re flying on a nonstop flight direct from Rome to the US, then our advice is arriving 2 hours in advance. Not more than that. Not 3 hours and not 4 hours. Check-in at Rome and elsewhere in Italy is extremely efficient, far moreso than at airports in the US, and there is absolutely no need to arrive, as far as we are concerned, more than 2 hours ahead of time.
Flying back via London or Frankfurt or Paris or Amsterdam or elsewhere? This is not considered an intercontinental flight even if you’re continuing on to the US. Nevertheless, with the restrictions incurred after 9/11, we strongly advice to always arrive two hours in advance, not less, unless you are flying to an Italian airport on a national route.
It would be wonderful, except for the fact that youre not going to make that connection; and we dont care if you have only carry-on bags. Youre not going to make it. Period. We dont care what the airline tells you. And when (not if) you dont make it, it isnt automatic that youre going to be put onto the next flight. Instead, youll be put on the next available flight, and that may not be literally for 2 or 3 days, especially when were talking about cattle-car-full flights in summertime.
London is the worst. First of all, please NEVER accept an itinerary which involves a change of airports in London. If you must do so, then leave at least 4 and preferably 5 hours between flights. If you need to connect between Gatwick and Heathrow, our advice is to take the subway between Heathrow and Victoria Station, and then the Gatwick Express train between Victoria and Gatwick; you simply never know what the traffic is going to be like on that crazy bus connecting Heathrow and Gatwick directly.
Even for connections within the same airport, Gatwick or Heathrow, our advice for London now is to leave at least 3 hours between flights. Coming into London, you must clear customs there and then take a bus from one terminal to another. The customs lines are interminable, and sometimes so are the lines waiting for the interterminal bus. For security reasons, you are not allowed simply to walk from one terminal to the other. Ticket agents selling you connections in London will insist that that 90-minute connection is legal, but we would refuse it and insist on taking the next flight after. We used to hate long layovers. Now, we eagerly seek them out because we know (a) that we will make the connection; and more importantly (b) that our luggage will make the connection.
Paris is the second-worst; try to leave at least 2 hours between flights. Amsterdam, Munich, and Frankfurt are better.
Youre flying from the West Coast of the US and youd like to avoid JFK at all costs as your connecting point? Our advice is that there are airports far worse than JFK these days: Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and London among them. Weve actually found JFK to do a good job.
This is a complicated and ever-changing situation. First, lets talk about strikes affecting air transport. Usually, intercontinental flights are guaranteed, and you should have no trouble getting to Italy from the US. (This, of course, says nothing about possible strikes on US or other carriers.) IntraEuropean and Italian domestic flights have no such guarantees. If youre flying in to Milan and on to Naples, and theres an Alitalia strike on the day of your arrival, youre going to have to face the fact that youre not going to make it to Naples that day, not by plane, at least. Sometimes strikes last just a few hours; sometimes for an entire day, very rarely longer than a day.
What to do in the case just mentioned? You need to get to Naples that day. Youve got basically two choices: rent a car or take the train.
What if theres a general strike? Italy has had several general strikes lately. This means that everyone stops working. On the relatively rare occasions when this happens, youre going to have to deal with a difficult situation, as it may be difficult to get anywhere. In the scenario described above, youre almost certainly going to have to spend the night in Milan (and try to find a cab to get you there).
Will we give you your money back for nights in a rental missed because of a strike? No, we wont. These are the risks of travel, and your trip cancellation insurance policy should cover you; you should ask them if such risks are covered. If they arent, then buy a different policy.
If you are church enthusiasts, you should remember that only the most famous churches stay open all day. Most open very early, 6:00 or 7:00 a.m., then close between 12:00 noon and 4:00 p.m., and reopen until 7:00 p.m. or so. Many do not reopen in the afternoon at all, and quite a few open only for morning mass, around 7:00 a.m. Some rather famous churches are permanently locked. If you have your heart set on seeing one of these, you should by all means inquire in the neighborhood for the keeper of the keys. Do the same thing if the church is "in restauro" -- the two cruelest words in the Italian language. Find the keykeeper and beg him or (more usually) her to let you in.
One of the most disappointing features of Italian churches is the lighting. Often, famous works of art simply cannot be seen. We carry both flashlight and binoculars for better viewing. Another essential is a pocketful of 20- and 50-eurocents and 1-euro coins to operate the timed lighting machines in the churches.
First of all, you will need a good map. At the same time, the bookshelf in the apartment is filled with maps and guide books left there by our previous guests. Eventually, get all your informations down, just print a few notes and then borrow one of the maps or guide books from the flat.
If you prefer to have your own travel books and maps, you should look at The Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, perhaps the best travel bookstore in the States, which also happens to have a fantastic mail-order catalog and website which cover not only Italy but also the USA and the entire rest of the world!
If you're staying in the countryside in one place for a week or two at a stretch, the Michelin map of Italy is not sufficiently detailed. You need a large-scale map (1:250,000 or less) of the particular region you're exploring. The best are the Touring Club Italiano maps of Italy by region, or their clone put out by Kummerly-Frey; another good series is put out by Agostini.
There are also hiking maps at an even more detailed scale. You can get some of these through Book Passage. There’s more variety at this level in local bookstores in Italy.
For the cities, the best maps in our opinion are the Falk maps. These maps are in a sort of booklet form and have slits in them so that on a windy day you aren't forced to open the map up fully to find where you're going. Best of all, there is a complete street index at the back. Falk puts out maps of Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence, and Naples.
For our money, the very best guidebooks for sights are still the Michelin Green Guides. There are now volumes for Italy as a whole, as well as individual volumes for Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Rome, and Sicily. The Blue Guides to Northern Italy, Southern Italy, Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, Rome, Florence, and Venice are less than exciting but the most thorough of all. For unstuffiness, the Let's Go guide to Italy is one of our oldest favorites. Finally, for Rome, Anya Shetterly's Romewalks, now unfortunately out of print, revealed parts of a city in which we thought we knew everything.