14 Top Questions About Italy, Answered
The editor of the Rome-based The American answers questions about Italy that were submitted from BudgetTravel.com readers.
Winner was unable to answer the more than 200 questions that readers asked him during the hour-long chat. So, we've brought him back for an encore, to answer the most common questions from our readers.
How can I find the best-priced tickets to Italy?
I've been traveling back and forth since the late 1960s, when Belgrade was a famous stopover to get to Rome. (You'd fly to Belgrade and double back to Rome on JAT, the Yugoslav airline.) Now, I'd try Iberia, the Spanish carrier, through Madrid. British Airways often has good deals through London. Another newer option (interesting, in fact) is booking a supercheap round-trip to London, and then separately booking a London-Rome (or Paris) flight on Ryanair or EasyJet, the European budget carriers. [Note: These discount carriers depart from a London airport, Stansted, that is different from the airports used by most transatlantic flights to England: Heathrow and Gatwick. If you're attempting this two-part strategy, you will need to allow for an adequate layover. Otherwise, you will not have enough time to travel between these airports by taxi or coach bus.]
There's no magic wand. I've seen United advertise a $685 round-trip ticket (nonstop to Rome) from Dulles, Washington, only to see that fare go up by $400 in an hour. Italy is a hot ticket. Be creative. Get something inexpensive to any European capital, then look into local budget carriers. A friend found a $300 flight to London, then paid ¿50 (about $68) to fly Ryanair to Rome; his total was under $400.
What are the must-see destinations on a seven-day trip for a first-time visitor?
An impossibly subjective question, but here goes: Arrive in Rome and spend three days there. Then, travel by train south to Naples to see the Amalfi coast, which you can do by car, train, or bus. After that go back to Naples and take a train to Venice (seven hours). Rome and Venice represent strikingly different sides of Italian urban life and are must-see destinations. The Amalfi coast (Positano, Sorrento, Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri) gives you a beautiful sense of Italy's shoreline. A week may seem like a good chunk of time, but it's not. Limit your choices. Of course, Florence and Tuscany are inviting, but not enough to try to do everything and leave exhausted. You need flavor. Flavor means one or two dishes, not 10.
How many destinations should I try to pack in on my city trips?
The joy of Italy is its back streets, small artisans' shops, and laundry hanging from lines strung building-to-building. While it's natural while in Rome to want to see the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, and all the basilicas, in a short stay you risk shortchanging yourself. Try the less-is-more formula. Go to the Vatican but then walk toward the Palatine hill, where--near the Knights of Malta--you'll find a beautiful garden (a feral-cat shelter) and the famous tiny keyhole that frames St. Peter's Basilica. In Florence, have a picnic in the Boboli Gardens. In Venice, go to the Jewish Ghetto. Walk, walk, walk. Don't make exaggerated checklists. Discover the cities old-style, with a map in hand. Tourism is not a race. Be Italian. Enjoy yourself, eat well, relax. It's a vacation, not an aptitude test graded on how many sights you see.
Italian public transportation still confuses me. Can you offer some hints?
It's simple, really. You must buy barcode tickets ahead of time. Must. They cost €1 each and are valid for 75 minutes. The problem is where to find them. No one, not even Italians, has a magic answer. There are a few ticket vending machines, but many are broken. It's mostly potluck: News kiosks and tobacco (tabbachi) shops are your best bets—not hotels. Tobacco stores are distinctive because the have a protruding sign with a "T" over the doorway. They're also ubiquitous. The trick is asking, asking, asking: "Biglietti (pronounced beel yet ti) autobus (pronounced auto-boos)" should be your phonetic mantra. Many will shake their heads. When you do find an outlet, buy 10 or 20 tickets (if you're spending a week in a city). They are not transferable between cities. (Meaning: Rome tickets are for Rome.)