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.
Second requirement: Validate the ticket on the bus. Sometimes the machines don't work, I know. But buses now usually have two: one in front, one in back. So, if one doesn't work, keep a smile on your face and get to the other. If they both don't work, relax. When ticket inspectors board (and they do so unannounced), you can show your ticket and point to the broken machines.
Don't underestimate how helpful public transport can be in cities such as Rome and Milan. An average cab ride is €8 ($11); and in traffic, a mile in a cab can cost you much more.
What about cabs?
Long story. Here's the short version. The average drop rate is €2.50, or $3. It depends on the city, obviously. What that means is that there's no such thing as a cab ride for under €6 or €7; usually they cost more. An average trip from the Vatican to the Coliseum in Rome will run €10 to €15, depending on traffic; that's already in the $20 range. Bear in mind that Italian cab culture is haphazard. Hailing a cab on the street is difficult. Empty cabs will whiz by and pay you no mind if that's the mood of the driver. You have two choices: find a cab stand (again, even that's not always obvious; cabs lined up under a "Taxi" sign is the obvious tip-off) or use your mobile phone to call one. Use ONLY white cabs. Expect exasperation. Major Rome numbers: 06-3570 and 06-6645. Major Milan numbers: 02-8585, 02-4040, and 02-6969. Major Florence numbers: 055-4242 and 055-4798.
What are your favorite guide books to Italy?
I see little difference. Frommer's, Fodor's, and so on, contain all the essentials. Lonely Planet has good British wit, which I like. Time Out city guides are similarly sassy. Michelin remains my old standby because it's a real guidebook about what to see, with little editorializing about restaurants (besides the awarding of stars) and to-the-point descriptions of monuments and sights. For a sense of how little things have changed, have a look at this, which my magazine published about the Baedeker Guides. (Click here.) It's a fascinating look at how the guide saw Rome in the 1930s.
What's your advice to single/solo travelers to Italy's major tourist destinations?
The single male can travel in Italy above radar, backpacking and exploring at will, taking in nightspots. In Rome and Florence, there are plenty of pizza spots and bars that serve sandwiches, which means that food won't strain the pocketbook. Even without knowing the language, you can purchase foodstuffs from an alimentari, or food goods store, all of it fresh. Or you can grab from supermarket shelves much as you would at home: it's all there. Hostels abound, as do inexpensive "bunk bed" lodgings in student hotels. (Use Google to search on "student hotels Italy".) Train travel isn't as cheap as it was in the Tom Ripley days, but most destinations run under €50 round-trip, or less than $70. If you have a pass, that cost drops further. The single female, unfortunately, faces a more uphill battle.
I recommend women travel in twos or groups. Women alone can face direct and indirect male approaches, which I wouldn't call harassment but might be seen as such by someone accustomed to the North American approach. So find friends if you can. Don't be afraid to befriend the owner of the pensione where you are staying, for example. Be prepared for the occasional benign flirtation. Walk straight. Smile and say no. Don't be rude. Just make it clear you want to be left alone. Dress casually but well. Wearing a sweaty T-shirt is not a good ad for self-esteem in Italy--at any level. Italian men may like women, all women, but they're also usually polite and respectful if they're made to understand limits. In general, women do not eat alone in Italy. That's changing, however, and you can grab a pizza or finger food in small neighborhood places (an enoteca is a wine bar) with ease. I repeat, you need to maintain distance and flexibility in equal measure.
Can you give tipping advice for restaurants, please?
Though it's true that service is included in most checks, remember that the average working-class income is less than $20,000 a year in Italy. Tipping on the total check is polite. It'll help enormously if you ever return. Five percent is fine, with 10 to 20 percent warranted in some circumstances. For example, when I go out for dinner alone and pay €20 for pizza and a quarter liter of wine, I usually leave €3 or €4, the change I have in hand.
If I take someone to dinner, and it comes to €60, I usually leave €5. If I stayed at that table with a friend one-to-one for four hours, say, I'll leave €10, out of respect for being left alone to idle and chat for hours. Italian owners generally don't force table turnover. They're not rushing you out. Honor that. If you're getting a glass of wine in a wine bar for €4 or €5, you can leave €1, for example. I think of the old adage: It's the thought that counts.
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