Traveling in Italy on a budget used to be a breeze. When I first visited the country in 2001, the lira was still the currency, and I felt like I’d have to work pretty hard to spend a fortune on food and hotels. Even the trinkets I came home with were much less costly than I’d anticipated. The only thing I remember wanting that cost more than I was willing to spend was a giant ceramic urn, the kind that was once used for transporting olive oil. Of course, it also would never have fit in the overhead compartment, either.
Since Italy converted to the Euro, and since the dollar sucks against pretty much every other currency in the world, it’s become more of a luxury to visit Il Bel Paese, especially if you’re sticking to the “holy trinity” of Venice, Florence and Rome. Here are a few tips to enjoying the best of Italy without breaking the bank (and don’t forget to read up on how to save on airfare to Italy, too!):
- Eat where the locals do. This is especially important in the “big three” cities, or any other city that’s heavily touristed, as any restaurant that caters to tourists is likely to be charging more than they ought to be. In Venice, a city widely known for its bad food (why does it have to be good if people will keep visiting anyway?), you can still get a good and inexpensive meal if you wander away from the crowds and find the restaurants that only have Italian menus. Anywhere you go, in fact, if a restaurant’s menu is translated into three or four languages, walk the other way. Don’t speak the language? No problem – pick up a copy of The Hungry Traveler: Italy before you go and the menu decoder will serve you well.
- Order the house wine. You’d think you should order something fancy and expensive off the wine list at dinner, but the house wines (usually sold by the carafe in various sizes) are excellent and inexpensive. Most of the locals are drinking it, so why shouldn’t you?
- Stay in hostels in Italy or “off-the-grid” B&Bs. Hostels are a great way to save money and still be in the places you want to be. Often, they’re refurbished old stone buildings with more character than the local version of the Holiday Inn anyway. And when I say “off-the-grid” B&Bs I just mean that you’ll be paying them in cash, so they’re not reporting it for tax purposes, but you’re getting a better rate than you would if it were a registered hotel. I stayed in one of these B&Bs in Siena in 2001, and it was amazing – inside the city walls, frescoed ceilings, just a few “blocks” from the center square, and cheaper than any hotel I found in the “new” part of town (where we didn’t want to be, anyway). Sometimes these B&Bs will have websites you can find, other times you’ll find people waiting near the train station with signs – you’ve just got to be careful with the latter, as this technique is tailor-made to scam hapless tourists. You need to know the area well enough to know if where they’re saying their property is is where you want to be.
- Queue up early. In Florence especially there are reservations services you can take advantage of – for when you want to see the Uffizi and Accademia galleries – which will save you time, allowing you to bypass the sometimes hours-long line out front. These services, of course, cost extra. So if you’re intent on seeing the art treasures but don’t want to pay more than the entry fee, set your alarm for an early rise and get in line before the museums even open. You’ll get an early entry and you’ll save yourself a few bucks.
- Make sure your rental car is a diesel. If you’ve decided to rent a car (sometimes a cheaper option than trains in Italy if your travel party is large enough, and usually a good idea if you’re wanting to get more off the beaten path), you’ll save heaps of money by renting one that takes diesel. Diesel fuel is heavily subsidized by the government, so you’ll find it’s exponentially cheaper than the other stuff.
- Forgo a ride in the romantic Venice gondolas. In Venice, it’ll be hard to keep yourself from succumbing to the idea of drifting through the canals in your own beautiful gondola while the gondolieri around you sing “O sole mio…” But keep yourself on solid ground, at least in terms of the dream. Gondola rides in Venice are crazy expensive, and you’ll notice every gondola you see will be full of tourists. The locals take the boat equivalent of a bus, called a traghetto, everywhere and you should, too. If you’re really itching to get yourself into a real gondola, there are two ways to do this on the cheap. One is to get a large enough group together that the cost per person becomes reasonable. The other is to take one of the gondolas across the Grand Canal. There are only a few bridges across the Grand Canal, and at other points there are gondolas that run almost like ferries back and forth between the opposing banks. The rides may be short, but they’re also dirt cheap.
I hope these tips will help you achieve your Italian holiday dreams without going into debt. If you’ve got any money-saving tips to share, I’d love to hear them!
Photo by: Ian T. McFarland