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.
What's the best way to exchange dollars for euros?
I'd have at least €100 (about $130) in hand before leaving the U.S. (if you have a family of five, then triple that). You need an "emergency fund" always. The rest you can get through bank and credit cards at ATM machines (often labeled Bancomat) throughout the country. Most also take Amex. Credit card withdrawals reflect the current exchange rate, in addition to any fee your bank demands. Hotels can and do "cheat" on exchange rates. Use bank machines or pay bills directly with plastic. Do not exchange dollars for euros at hotels. They'll hit you with commissions. The same is true with corner exchange outlets (cambio). Some tack on 8 to 12 percent. These figures are always higher than the ATM rates.
What are some overlooked steps, or precautions, Americans should take when renting an apartment for a week in Italy?
Be careful of charges added to the bill. Be sure to ask what the total bill covers. Ensure you know ahead of time what happens if, for example, you move a cot into the apartment. Will they say, "Oh, that's four people instead of three, so you must pay more"?
Be sure to ask questions ahead of time. There's no excuse for not knowing what you're getting into if you book many months in advance. Too many people are surprised not by additional charges but by real charges they just didn't think to ask about before arriving. Cut anxiety by covering the bases. Remember: There are NO stupid questions. More and more Italians are comfortable in elementary English (or better), so if you ask for an English-speaker they're likely to find one at the risk of losing your business. Or if you speak another language, French or Spanish, say, ask if there might be someone who speaks that language present.
What's the best way to plan train travel around Italy?
The English version of Trenitalia's website is still an excellent resource. It gets complicated only when you're dealing with cities that have more than one major station (Rome has three, Naples two). I still consider the site a more reliable travel index than information picked up from a hotel or a travel agency in passing. Trenitalia at least maintains up-to-date timetables.
What are common mistakes American tourists make when traveling by rail in Italy?
Buying a ticket isn't enough. You need to validate it in one of the yellow machines in the station (the larger the station, the more there are). If you fail to validate the ticket, an unpleasant conductor can fine you for not having bought a ticket at all. Also, avoid purchasing tickets on the train. They can run as much as 20 percent more. In many major stations, such as in Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice, there are no automated ticket machines with touch screens in English, French, Italian, and Spanish. They're logical and easy to use, if they work, of course. Finally, if you intend to purchase a ticket in line at a major station, give yourself at least one hour before the departure time. In high season, the lines (such as they are) can be long, and line-cutting is common.
Do you have advice about picking an Italian culinary vacation?
These kinds of vacations are like picking a personal physician. They won't work without some kind of personalized, intimate contact. Since you can't visit them ahead of time, I recommend you pick three outfits, e-mail each one, and see who responds. Personal attention is essential. Then, I'd set aside a time to call them and chat with the cook or a representative; calling rates from the U.S. to Italy are now low, and some people have Skype. Most cooking vacations are mom-and-pop outfits, either Italians who speak English or American and British expats who have lived in Italy for decades. Don't be afraid to investigate. Your enemy is passivity. Have a look at at Epiculinary.com and Cooking-Vacations.com, but remember that there's no way to know what's right for you without getting in touch directly.
What is your advice on planning a trip during truffle season in northern Italy in the fall?
Unfortunately, there's no truffle site as such. I'd highly recommend having a look at the international version of the Slow Food website. and getting in touch with that organization. It has a U.S. office (listed on the Web). Other resources include Bellini Travel and Urbani. The latter is the major Italian exporter of truffles in the United States.