Friday, October 02, 2015

Italy Itinerary and Travel Tips

We settled on a loose itinerary for our trip relatively quickly: three nights in Rome, three nights in the Naples area (including Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast), and four nights in Florence. But before we could have fun in Italy, we had to take care of a thousand details, from passports to child care (praise the Lord for awesome grandparents!) to train tickets to comfy shoes. We booked everything ourselves, which means I spent countless hours reading reviews, shopping online, perusing guidebooks and studying maps. Today I’m settling into my “31 Days of Italy” series by sharing some resources and advice I found helpful—some specific to Italy, some applicable to all travelers.

Language Learning
I’ve been a language geek as long as I can remember, so I definitely wanted to try and pick up a little Italian before we left. The Duolingo app was a fun way to learn some basics. I only wish I’d started six months sooner! Even though I wasn’t anywhere near even proficient enough for basic conversation, I had learned enough to get a sense of how the language worked and be able to guess at the gist of signs or written instructions. Italian is way easier to learn to speak than other languages, because the pronunciation follows rigid rules. And because Italian isn’t spoken anywhere but in Italy, the Italians recognize that foreigners don’t really have a reason to learn it (unlike more widely spoken Spanish or French, for example). So they tend to be gracious with people who attempt to speak it when visiting.

I would have loved to be fluent, but I had to rely on Google Translate a lot, be willing to look/sound stupid, and give thanks that most Italians speak English far better than I speak Italian. Still, it was fun to try, and one of my favorite things was when people would say “Brava!’ when I understood a word or managed to produce an appropriate phrase. (You definitely need the Google Translate app, by the way--it is crazy amazing and helpful!)

Keeping in Touch Back Home
With little kids back home, being able to communicate internationally was critical for us. My understanding is that AT&T will provide cellular service internationally, but we use Ting (and, incidentally, we spoke with AT&T users in Italy who said their service was awful). So we contacted Ting to unlock our phones for international use, and then we bought SIM cards from Lycamobile once we arrived in Italy. We had a bit of trouble finding a place that sold them (the train station was supposed to have them, but we couldn’t locate any vendors), and getting service switched over took up more time than we anticipated, but in the end it was well worth the hassle. For roughly €40, we had 2GB of data and the ability to make calls from one of the phones. This gave us new Italian phone numbers, so calling the U.S. would have been expensive (and it would have been expensive for our families to call us), but with free wifi at all the places we stayed, it was easy to use FaceTime or Skype to talk with the boys.

For frequent communication with my mom, I used WhatsApp, which enabled us to send messages and photos back and forth, but using data/wifi instead of texting. This was a great way to keep in touch. I’m so thankful to be traveling in the age of technology that makes being away from your kids so much more manageable!

Portable Battery
No way could my iPhone battery stand up to the heavy usage of photos, maps, texting back home, looking up restaurant reviews, and listening to audioguides for an entire day. Buying a portable battery for recharging while we were out was essential. This one worked really well.

Airfare and Train Tickets
A few months before we bought our plane tickets, I ran across this article with tips on getting the best fares. Following some of these (searching incognito; using Google Flights and Skyscanner rather than Expedia) enabled us to find cheaper tickets than our travel agent could come up with.

Between cities, we traveled via high-speed train. This was a comfortable and convenient (and quick!) way to travel and worked out really well. We bought our tickets ahead of time and spent only $128 total on tickets from Rome to Naples and from Naples to Florence.

City Passes
Each of the cities we visited—Rome, Naples, and Florence—has a city pass, where you buy one card and get free or reduced admission to most major sights plus free access to public transportation.

The Firenze Card is the best, but also the most expensive: €72 gets you admission to every major museum and attraction for 72 hours, and you will thank yourself every time you bypass the long line and walk through a priority entrance for cardholders. The most popular museums require specific time reservations, but not if you have the Firenze Card, so it was really nice not to have to decide ahead of time when we wanted to visit the Uffizi or the Accademia (we ended up changing our planned times to visit both). It’s also supposed to get you free wifi citywide, but that was pretty spotty. One thing to note: if you plan a day trip out of Florence, you’ll want to make sure that doesn’t fall into the middle of your 72 hours. We booked our Chianti tour on Monday because many of the museums are closed on Mondays, but then our cards expired in the early afternoon on our last day, and we would easily have had time to use them for one or two more sights.

The Roma Pass and the Campania (Naples/Pompeii area) Artecard are cheaper, but the benefits aren’t as great. They say that the first two sights are free and the rest are 50% off, but in reality, some of the major sites (Pompeii, for example) still charge you a reduced rate even if it’s one of your first two. So it was more like “reduced admission and skip the line” for the sights, plus the convenience using the card for mass transit. I don’t honestly know if these two cards really saved us much money, but they definitely saved us hassle and waiting in lines.

Travel Planning Websites 
Reid's Italy provided a great starting point for coming up with an itinerary. He has helpful posts that lay out exactly what he would do (down to the restaurants) with two and a half days in Rome, or three days in Florence, or whatever. He also has tons of other recommendations I used and learned a lot from.

Viator has every kind of tour you can imagine—private, small group, within-the-city, day-trip-out-of-the-city. (If I were going on a cruise, I would book my excursions through them, as I have heard that cruise lines lose money on your room and make it back through exorbitant markup on the excursions, among other things.) We booked our Taste of Chianti wine and food tasting tour through Viator and can’t say enough about how great it was.

Napoli Unplugged was helpful for our time in the south, especially in looking up transportation information.

Italylogue was also a wealth of information on all kinds of topics.

Trip Advisor proved very informative both in its reviews and in the forums where fellow travelers give advice to common questions. It was through this site that I found out about the tour guide who led our Amalfi Coast hike, and we loved her.

Pack Light
We didn't go quite as radical as Rick Steves requires, but still, I was proud of how light we traveled. I have never packed so little, and we really could have packed less. This is all the luggage we took for two people for ten days in Italy: large suitcase, small carry-on, backpack for a computer, and my purse/camera bag.

Washing out clothes in the sink was a pain, but not as much of a pain as lugging a suitcase up to a fourth-floor walkup (our B&B in Florence), or dragging it for a kilometer on cobblestones, or pushing another carryon through a crowded train station and onto the metro at rush hour. Even with getting sweaty every day and not being able to wear clothes twice like I anticipated (it was around 90*F every day in Rome and Naples), I still didn’t really need quite as many clothes as I took. I would definitely recommend following this tip, though, which I didn’t and regretted: buy a Chinese jumprope and use it as a clothesline. We had a little trouble finding space to hang wet clothes.

Logistics aside, now the fun starts. Tomorrow: Rome, starting with "I've discovered Airbnb and I'm never going back"!  

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