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Italy Q&A: Seeing Italy on a Budget

Here’s another of my Italy Q&A posts. Melanie asks:

My hubby and I would love to spend some time in Italy. Are we going to have to sell our first born in order to do it, or are there some inexpensive places to stay?

Italy is certainly an expensive place in which to travel, Melanie – especially right now, with the strength of the euro! But if you’ve got your heart set on it there are certainly things you can do to stretch your travel budget (and that don’t involve selling your offspring). Of course, if you were to swap your dreams of traveling in Italy for dreams of traveling in Chile, for instance, the whole proposition would cost you much, much less. If it’s got to be Italy, however (and I totally understand that!), then let’s look at some ways to keep from spending your entire life savings on your trip.

  • Go in the low season. The most touristy cities in Italy don’t really have an “off” season to speak of – they’re essentially year-round tourist attractions. But there is certainly a “low” season when everything will be a little cheaper. February is, from what I hear, the least busy month for the people who run hotels/hostels, so that’s when the prices will be most soft. March is probably also a good month to look at for lower prices, although this year Easter came early so the prices at the end of March went up in a way they normally don’t until April. In the low season, not only is your accommodation going to cost less, but you are more apt to find cheap airline tickets to Italy as well. Bookmark a few websites that offer updated prices on Italy airfare and check them a few times a week so you can get an idea of whether the prices are trending up or down.
  • Sleep cheap. Hostels (“ostelli” in Italian) are probably your best bet in most cities for sleeping cheap, and most hostels these days have a limited number of private rooms (from singles up to triples or quads, depending on how many are in your travel group) which give you a little more of your own space while still letting you take advantage of the social atmosphere of a hostel – not to mention the lower prices. Unfortunately, honest-to-goodness hostels are something of a rarity in even Italy’s most popular cities. Still, if you plan (and book) ahead, you can get a bed in a dorm or a private room in a hostel without any trouble. One city where you’re going to have to plan to spend a bit more on accommodation (and not assume you’re getting any more service or luxury for that money) is Venice – the city has only one actual hostel, and your other accommodation options in Venice are more expensive than you’ll think they should be, especially when they still call themselves budget hotels.
  • Have picnics. If you’re lucky enough to be staying in a place that includes breakfast in the price of the room (something I recommend – even if the breakfast isn’t very good, it’s something in your stomach first thing in the morning, and they’re charging you for it whether you eat it or not!), then you’ve got two meals each day to sort out for yourself. I don’t think this is something you need to do every day, unless you want to, but a good way to have a fun cultural experience while also eating on the cheap is to make a picnic lunch. This is most fun when you can avoid the actual brick-and-mortar Italian supermarket and instead find a local street market (ask at your hotel/hostel or at the tourist information office for the location and days of such markets) from which you can buy a selection of fruits, cheese, bread, and sausage for a lovely picnic – but even finding a small shop in which to grab a few items isn’t a bad thing, either. A couple things you’ll need to know: first, at most fruit/vegetable stands/shops, you don’t touch the merchandise until you’ve paid for it – you tell them how much (in kilos) you want and they bag it for you; and second – many public piazzas in Italy have rules that forbid sitting on the nearby steps and eating, so be sure you know before you start lunching or you may be asked to get up and move along. [Further reading: How to Shop in Italian Markets]
  • Investigate combo passes. Many cities, especially the most touristed ones, have passes which tourists can buy that combine several sights (some even include public transportation). If you’re planning to visit all (or most) of the sights on that pass, you’ll probably save a few euro by getting the combo pass rather than buying individual tickets. Do the math and see for yourself what the price difference would be. And then when you’re going to buy a pass, do it at one of the less popular sights – the lines will inevitably be shorter. [Further reading: Discount Cards & Passes in Italy]
  • Travel by train. Unless your entire itinerary consists of tiny towns that don’t have train stations, you’ll be best served by traveling the country by train. Italy trains is relatively inexpensive to use, and sometimes it doesn’t even make financial sense to get an Italy rail pass instead of buying individual tickets (unless you’re taking lots of high-speed or overnight trains, which are more expensive). Travel by 2nd class (it’s perfectly nice, and it’s all non-smoking now) and you’ll save even more money. Do pay attention to the kinds of trains you’re riding, though, as some of them require reservations (which cost a little extra). Any ticket agent will be able to tell you the price differences between the classes and the different kinds/speeds of trains.
  • See the free sights. Yes, the biggest sights in Italy almost all have an entry fee attached to them. And yet every city has a few things you can enjoy without paying a single centesimo. In some places, the best free sight might be just wandering around the city itself (Venice). In others, it might be a noteworthy church (St. Peter’s in Vatican City). If you mix in enough of the free attractions with the ones you’re paying for, you’ll fill up your days without completely emptying your wallet. [Further reading: Free Things to Do in Italy]

The bottom line is that being an educated and informed traveler will help you immensely in your quest to save money on a vacation in Italy (or anywhere on earth, for that matter), so you’re doing the right thing by asking questions! If you have any other questions about planning an Italy trip, please let me know. Also, be sure to check out these other great tips for stretching the weak dollar in Europe, and if any other readers have money-saving tips to share, please leave a comment below!