Is it possible to experience the culture and cuisine of Italy on a budget?
Every year thousands of Australians are lured by the history of Rome, the architecture of Venice and the art of Florence. And then there’s the fabulous food. But is it possible to experience the culture and cuisine of Italy on a budget?
The key to keeping costs down is planning. Timing your trip and booking ahead can save thousands of dollars. I find that the best and cheapest months to visit are May and October, when you can avoid the extreme heat of summer and the long museum and gallery queues. September is the next best option, but it is becoming increasingly crowded.
Cash is still very popular in Italy, but if you want to avoid carrying too much money consider using a prepaid travel money card. Compare the fees and exchange rates of banks and other providers on the Canstar and Mozo websites before purchasing. Some credit cards, such as the 28 Degrees Mastercard, have no currency conversion fees, no international ATM withdrawal fees and no annual fees.
It pays to book accommodation well in advance. Check out the best deals on websites such as Booking.com and Agoda. Many hotels and pensiones on these sites allow cancellation without charge up to a number of days before arrival and most accept credit or travel money cards when checking out rather than cash. Airbnb is another option, but watch for additional cleaning and other costs as well as conditions such as full pre-payment or cash only on arrival.
Where possible I choose accommodation with cooking facilities so that I can save by eating in occasionally. Many Italian supermarkets sell quality cheap wine and excellent bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables. Markets, such as the Sant’Ambrogio in Florence or the one at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, offer outstanding regional produce.
Food is a highlight in Italy and you wouldn't want to miss out on the best local cuisine and customs. In Tuscany, for example, there’s a fine tradition of serving finger food with any pre-dinner drinks (aperitivo). But be aware that sitting down to have that morning coffee and croissant can cost more than twice the stand-up price, so always ask about any cover charge. Some guidebook research on the best-priced restaurants will also pay off. I avoid restaurants close to major attractions, as these are always more expensive.
Hiring a car in advance can save money, but driving in the centre of major Italian cities is a hassle and parking is a nightmare. Trains and buses are the way to go. But before purchasing a Eurail or Italy rail pass, keep in mind that they only cover trips between major cities. You’ll have to pay extra to get to smaller regional destinations such as Siena and Pisa. Apps for Trainline and Trenit will give your itinerary some flexibility and will reveal the cheapest trains, times and tickets. If you choose to travel second class on intercity bullet trains, you'll save even more. There is also a free app for the Rome metro.
Many of the pleasures of travelling in Italy are free. I spend days simply walking around Rome, Florence and Venice admiring the architecture and absorbing the atmosphere. In visits to Rome, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, along with visiting most churches and the produce and flea markets will cost nothing. Chill out in the expansive Villa Borghese Gardens. For a cheap but fascinating day away from the tourist traps, catch the Rome metro to Testaccio district and visit the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, then wander through the elegant Protestant Cemetery nearby, where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried.
A quick online search will reveal similar free attractions and activities in Florence and Venice. Make your smart phone work for you, as there are free iPhone and Android apps with useful information for all major Italian cities. Two of the best are Triposo and Tripadvisor city guides. Another valuable tip is to book entry to museums and galleries directly by phone instead of using ticketing websites. It’s cheaper and you won’t have to queue.
Lastly, while travel insurance is a must, remember to take your Medicare card, as Italy has a reciprocal arrangement with Australia for basic medical cover.
John's recent trip to Italy was self-funded. Follow John on Instagram at john.maddocks and Twitter @zentipede
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