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.
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.
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.
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.
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.