Practical Italy: 5 Things to Consider When Planning a Trip to Italy

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Before you know it, “travel season” will be upon us. Planning a trip to Italy? Before you book, make sure you take a look at these things to consider when planning a trip to Italy. Keep in mind that Italy doesn’t work like Canada or the US or England or really, like anywhere else, so the more thought you put into your trip, the better.

1. When are you planning on going? Your experience will differ depending on when you travel to Italy. I’d say anywhere between May – September would be considered high season. Prices of everything will be at their peak, lines will be longest, temperatures will be warmest, and beaches will be the most crowded, especially in August. For many things, it would be extremely wise to book ahead (everything from tickets to the Coliseum to hotel reservations) and pay the small booking fee that accompanies such things in Italy. Trust me, the few euros you spent booking your tickets is so worth it when you pass by all the poor schleps standing in line under the blazing Roman sun to get a glimpse at the Coliseum. With your pre-reserved tickets, you’ll breeze right by and into the Emperors’ playground senza problemi.

Looking for a calmer time? Try October or April, but be sure to avoid Easter.

Cinque Terre-10

The Cinque Terre beaches in August.

2. What are you planning on doing? Italy offers something for everyone, in my humble opinion. But I’d say it’s best (especially if you’re travelling in high season) to figure out exactly what you want to do and where you want to do it, in order to make sure you have the best Italian experience possible. I’m not saying jam-pack your trip full of things and run around with a never ending ‘To Do” list, but have an idea of what there is to see and where you can see it. Don’t go to Florence if you think you want Roman ruins, and don’t bother with the Cinque Terre if you’re looking for the Renaissance.

Then, if your top thing to do in Florence is “sample as much gelato as possible”, there’s no need for heavy planning, except for maybe mapping out a few gelaterie. But if you just have to get in to see the David, and walk the Vasari Corridor, and take a painting class, and visit Santa Croce, and catch a game of Calcio Fiorentino, you need to get your organizational skills out and do some planning.

Many things are closed on odd days of the week and can have interesting hours, reservation policies, dress codes, etc. Best to do your homework in advance, then there won’t be any surprises eating up your precious time in Florence.

The Boot

The Boot

One more piece of advice: Don’t go somewhere just because you’ve heard the name.  If you’ve heard of Pompeii but you don’t know (or care) what happened there, then don’t go! The Travel Gods will not thunder down upon you. This is your trip, and the only person you have to please is yourself. Who cares if all the guidebooks say to go there? If you don’t have any interest in a place, don’t waste your time and money on it.

Detto questo (that said), don’t forget to be open-minded too. 

3. How are you getting around? Oh, you’ll just rent a car in downtown Rome (horrible) and go for a toodle up to Tuscany (hilly) then drive over to Venice (islands), maybe through the Alps (scary roads) and swing ’round to the Cinque Terre (carless), zip down to the Amalfi Coast (horrifying roads) and land back in Rome, all in your little Fiat 500.

Will you? And it’ll go well for you?

No, it won’t.

Well, at least, probably not.


Italian cities and towns are home to many a Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or traffic limited zone. That means you, cruising around in your cinquecento, are going to be collecting a lot of traffic tickets for driving where you’re not allowed to drive. That’s one thing. And they chase you at home with those traffic tickets. (On a recent trip to France, I got two, so I should know!)

Now add the fact that most Italian cars are equipped with a manual transmission (you’ll probably pay a premium for an automatic), and are much smaller than our North American counterparts, and you’ve got a couple little speed bumps that you weren’t really counting on. I’ve seen families have to change their rental cars because all of their heaps of luggage doesn’t fit. People stall out in parking garages and roll down those rolling hills of Tuscany because they thought they could easily master driving a manual car in one go. And forget parking – it’s like an Olympic sport in Italy. You won’t get a spot close to where you need to be, and many hotels in city centres don’t have parking because of the blasted ZTL.

Loaded with luggage

Loaded with luggage

Solution? If you’re going from major city to major city, use the train. Italy is much better connected than Canada (and I assume the US) when it comes to trains, both high speed and milk run. They often come right into the centre of town (where you’ll likely be staying) and can be fairly comfortable. A car in any major city centre (and some smaller ones too) will only cause you extra headaches. I promise.

That said, there are some parts of Italy (the extreme south) that are just better visited with a car. I understand that. It will just take more planning on your part to make sure you don’t run into (m)any disasters.

La Stazione, Milano

La Stazione, Milano

4. How fast are you moving? My dear friend and I did a whirlwind 6-city-8-day trip around Italy a few years ago. Even though we were in our early twenties, hitting up beaches and taking the train, it was exhausting.

I advise you to take it easy and add in lots of leeway for things to go wrong (which they almost always do in Italy). Trains don’t run on time, reservation times are really just a suggestion, you will get lost in Siena’s labyrinthine streets and a disgruntled Venetian waiter will point you in the wrong direction when you’re lugging your suitcases around in the blazing July heat. (More about that later).

Travel guru Rick Steves always says to plan your trip as if you’re sure you’ll be back so as not to pack your schedule too tight. That way you can have the time you want to do some of the things you want (not all), but you’ll do them well and be satisfied with the experience. The last thing you want is to have a meltdown at a museum because the long line means you’re running 20 minutes behind your colour-coded schedule.

Additionally, try to minimize your one-night stops in places, and mix in easy days of staying in town with longer days of side-trips and excursions. Plan time just to walk around, nap (there’s no shame in it) or just lounge around reading a book and sipping prosecco. This is all part of the Italian experience too!

5. What’s your budget? I’m all for thrifty travel, but penny-pinching has its downsides too. High-rollin’ it all the way around The Boot might not be your best option, either. The moral of the story? Be realistic about your budget expectations. With the Internet, information about what pretty much everything costs is at your fingertips. Again, do your research so you won’t have too many surprises. You can find meals, accommodation, transportation and things to do in just about every price range, if you dig around a little.

A final word to the wise about money: If you’ve gone all the way to Italy, do the things you need to do (and therefore spend the money you need to spend) to enjoy it. It’d be mighty disappointing to want to climb the cupola of St. Peter’s in Rome but not do it because you think it costs too much.


True North Strong And Free

Happy Canada Day!

canadian mittens

This is the 5th Canada Day in my life that I’ve celebrated outside of our glorious country, but that doesn’t mean I’m feeling the national pride any less. I’m actually celebrating in one of the nations that helped give birth to Canada (France), so I feel slightly closer to home than I would in say, Zimbabwe. 

Here’s something you need to know about me: I’m terribly patriotic. I wrote an initial post entitled  True Patriot Love about the love and pride I feel for my country when I celebrated Canada Day in Italy a couple years ago. And while we all know that Italy holds a special place in my heart, let there be no doubt that this heart of mine is, and will always be, shaped like a maple leaf. 

bar canada

There are a million reasons to be proud to be Canadian, but I’d like to list a few things that come to mind when we talk about what makes me proud to be Canadian when I’m out in the world: 

1. Our reputation. The simple fact that we are Canadian makes us friends wherever we go. Our Canadian passports open more doors for us than, I’d say, almost any other passport in the world. 

canadian passport

2. Imitation. Someone terribly smart once said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So thank you to all those wannabe Canadians who slap a red maple leaf on their backpacks and luggage and try to pass themselves off as one of us in the world. We know how great our country is, and we’re glad you recognize it too. 

backpack patch

3. Our worldview. I know I’m talking generally here, but Canadians are some of the most open-minded people of the Western world, and in my opinion, it’s a wonderful thing. We’re not too closed in on ourselves, not too judgemental, not too egoistic, and sometimes we’re overly apologetic.  

And although I’ve found that a lot of people I meet abroad don’t really have a clear picture of what it means to be Canadian, and not of other “similar” nationalities, it doesn’t matter. Because when I say I’m Canadian or Canadese or Canadienne, without fail, a smile spreads across their lips. And mine too.  

 This post is dedicated to my Grandpa, a world-traveller-extraordinaire, who, even before it was in vogue, taught me to wear a maple leaf wherever I travel, and to always be proud of my country. Thanks, Gramps. 

That's Gramps and I, in Germany. Notice the Canadian hat he's sporting.

 Gramps and I, in Germany, July 2006. Notice the Canadian hat he’s sporting.

Practical Italy: …And How To Pack It

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"This is the sequel to my previous post Practical Italy: What to Pack… , so go check it out before you continue reading this one.

Ok, now that you’re up to speed on what to pack, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets about how to pack for your trip to Italy (or anywhere, really). I’d never try to convince you that I’m some sort of packing guru, but I have learned a few things over the years which have helped me with my travels.

Rule #1: If you can’t manage your luggage on your own, you can’t bring it. 

That means you, little girl with the suitcase that’s taller than you are. That means you, old lady with the dog carrier, two suitcases, three carry-ons, and oversized purse. That means you, kind sir, with the two backpacks (why do people think this is EVER a good idea?), the golf clubs, the briefcase, the rolly carry on and the suit bag.

Why am I so convinced that this is a good rule? Ve lo spiego subito! (I’ll explain it to you right away).

Lots of places in Italy don’t have elevators. Are you going to carry all your stuff up 5 flights of stairs to get to your hotel/hostel/relative’s house/b&b? Ahh, you’re going to make 5 separate trips, are you? Yes. Excellent plan. Leave half your luggage down on the street for someone to pick through while you’re heaving suitcase number 3 up the stairs. Good idea.

And who is going to help you get your luggage on the train? Many trains in Italy have steps to get into them. Nearly vertical steps, not gradually inclined steps. That’ll be nice to try to pull Fluffy’s dog carrier, your golf clubs and your 5 bags up there. Oh, the conductor will help you, will he? Ah yes, the disinterested guy who only pays attention to you when he’s giving you a fine for not validating your ticket before boarding the train? He’s going to take time out of his day to lug your stuff aboard? Well, that’s nice of him. (And highly unlikely).

And even if you somehow, by some miracle, manage to get everything on the train, who’s going to help you get it all back off in time for you to actually get off the train with it and not be stranded with half your luggage on the platform and the other half whizzing towards Unidentified Italian Hill Town #1573.

You think I’m exaggerating.

I might be.

But only slightly.

The fewer bags you have, the fewer things you have to keep safe from the fast-fingered ladri (thieves) and borseggiatori (pickpockets). Plus, it also means fewer things you have to remember to take with you while going places. The last thing you want to do is leave a piece of your luggage somewhere because you’ve just got too darn much of it to keep track of.

Rule #2: All liquids go in Ziploc bags. Always. 

Note: If my mom were writing this post, she’d say that everything goes in a Ziploc bag. Always. And while I always stick by Ziplocs for liquids and gels, having every bloody thing in your luggage in a separate Ziploc bag makes finding things a touch difficult. Why? Well, within your luggage, if all you can feel is plastic bags, you start pulling at random until you’ve undone your pro packing job and have a mess of Ziplocs all over. But, I digress…

Even liquids that are hardly liquids (gels, creams) go in Ziploc bags, or else they explode and go all over your most expensive shirt. Those are the only two choices of things that will happen if you pack liquids. Murphy’s Law of Travelling With Liquids says so. Liquids in breakable or pressurized canisters get two bags, just in case.

That said, I never carry many liquids across the ocean. I can get the shampoo, toothpaste, hair mousse, and nail polish remover that I want in Italy, and often in more travel-friendly sizes. That way, there’s no risk of explosion in the cargo hold and I save weight and space in my luggage on the flight and while I’m travelling around. I highly recommend doing this, unless you’re extremely picky about your brands of toiletries. Italy’s not a 3rd world country though, so brands like Pantene and Garnier and Herbal Essences are all findable here too.

Rule #3: Leave space in your luggage for souvenirs or be prepared to throw things out. 

You’re going to shop, right? So when you’re packing to come to Italy, be sure to leave a little room somewhere for the great purse you find at the Florentine leather market, or the fine Italian suit that you buy in Milano or the bottles of wine you can’t wait to share with your friends at home. (They go in plastic bags too, you know).

Rule #4: Split up your money. 

If you took a look at my Practical Italy post on Money, you’ll remember that I said cash is the easiest way to pay for things in Italy (and Europe in general). That said, do you want to be carrying thousands of Euros in cash on you at all times during your trip? No, didn’t think so. I would certainly be uneasy about it. But it does make sense if you bring a good bit of cash from home to get you started, having already converted it to Euros, of course. Some people choose to wear a money belt, which I certainly have done. But if money belts aren’t your style, I’d suggest splitting up your money and packing it in different spots. Some in your wallet, some rolled up in a pair of socks, some in the lining of your suitcase, some in your backpack, some in your suit bag, some in your bra (for the womenfolk) etc. Because, if you lose something or something gets stolen (carry-on, suitcase, etc.) you don’t want to lose all your money with it. Make sense? Sure it does…

Rule #5: Lock it up. 

Some people feel more comfortable locking their suitcases when the travel, especially when they fly. I feel the need to lock my bags most when I’m on the train. I don’t feel the need to do it so much when I fly, because the Transit Safety Authority (TSA) can open the locks to do random checks of your baggage.

Don’t be horrified, I’ve never found anything missing from my luggage but, it does present one small problem if things go awry. If you don’t use a TSA approved lock, they may cut it off. They may have a key that opens it. But if they handle it roughly, you might not be able to get it unlocked at the other end. I’m not kidding. It just happened to one of the students I escorted around Italy. We had to get the maintenance guy at the hotel to cut the thing off (it wasn’t TSA approved), but we couldn’t get ahold of him until a day later. Poor girl was without access to her stuff for more than 24 hours. Moral of the story: use TSA approved locks on all your baggage. 

Also, be sure to lock up your backpack if you’re intent on wearing it around. The thing that unnerves me most when travelling is the idea that I could be walking around with a loaded backpack and some thief could be rifling through it while it’s on my back.

Happy Packing!