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.

By Christopher Winner, Monday, Jun 11, 2007, 5:34 AM

Christopher Winner

Christopher Winner, editor of the Rome-based The American (TheAmericanMag.com), recently answered your questions on planning a trip to Italy in this live chat.

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.)

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.

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.