Tag: Cruise

Lacing a Shoestring Through the Boot – Gladiator Style

Lacing a Shoestring Through the Boot – Gladiator Style

Italy!  A dream destination for so many. The land of romantics. The home of gelato! The birthplace of pizza.  Who doesn’t want to go there?

It was on my bucket list for a long time but I never seriously thought I would have the opportunity to go. Hopping the pond and actually traveling overseas seemed unattainable to this mother of 6 in a single-income family.  Until one day last winter when my oldest daughter announced, “Mom, I’ve decided to go to Italy this summer . . . and I’m taking you with me!”  If I had had false teeth, they would have fallen out for sure!

Astounding! I’m blessed beyond measure.  My four adult kids work and make their own money.  None are rich, but they are good savers.  Saving and budgeting are key when you want to travel.  Right up there next to planning, which we commenced immediately, in order to figure out how to make the trip work on minimal funds and still see and do all that we wanted. Along the way, we decided to take my youngest daughter as well. This is how we stretched our budget to manage a three week whirlwind trip for three through Italy.

Italy in a Nutshell

Italy is not huge, but its full!  Full of places to see, things to do, foods to try, people and customs to acquaint oneself with.  Its about the same square mileage as the state of Arizona in the U. S..  It sounded do-able.  But where to start and where to end? Summer was our only option, while we all had time off, though Italy is hot in the middle of summer! We researched options, read reviews of various cities and attractions, scoured other people’s travel blogs, and quickly realized one needs a couple years to fully explore this beautiful country!  But three weeks was our maximum and we narrowed down our choices of what to pack in, choosing several of the most famous destinations, including the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Naples, Rome, Assisi, Florence, Pisa, CinqueTerre, Venice and Milan.  As you can see, that itinerary traversed most of the length of Italy, and zigzagged a bit from side to side like the lacings on a Gladiator style sandal.

Yet we barely scratched the surface of Italy, which is very diverse from top to bottom and side to side.  Of the twenty regions of Italy, several are very famous for various reasons of their own.  The Amalfi Coast, with the beautiful town of Positano, is famous for its “all things lemon” theme, its sunny beaches and warm Mediterranean waters for swimming in, and its tourist-catering shops which wind along the narrow roads criss-crossing and switch-backing up and down the steep hill sides. Tuscany in central Italy is famous for its wine-producing orchards, wonderful art by famous sculptors and artists, beautiful hill towns surrounded by miles of agricultural land, and fantastic foods from neighboring farms and villas.  Naples is well known for its art, opera and theater, while also seemingly just a stone’s throw from Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, as well as a gateway to exploring the Islands off the coast of southeastern Italy. Rome is where antiquity meets modern day, and history begs to come alive at the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and so much more.  Venice is . . . well, just Venice!  What more can one say? It is a world unto itself, a must see when visiting Italy, a destination no one should miss.  Northern Italy is home to beautiful lakes and the southern side of the Alps.  In short, Italy is a breathtakingly beautiful country and its people are friendly and as diverse as its regions. There is so much to see and do, it simply cannot all be taken in with just one visit.

Methods to Our Madness

Knowing we needed to be very budget conscious, we began by researching flights and keeping watch on prices through Skyscanner and Expedia.  We received updates on prices in our email, and tracked them.  When we figured they were as low as could be expected, we purchased. Not knowing what to expect prices to do I had phoned a couple Travel Agencies to pick the brains of those more experienced.  Surprisingly there were some who did not mind sharing some info in spite of knowing up front I was not likely to go through their agency.  There are times when a Travel Agency can save you money, particularly on Cruises, without costing you much, but for budget traveling, their fees are just too much.  If you can do the research yourself and plan your own itinerary, lodging, and travel, you are far better off doing so for free, rather than paying someone else to do it. If on the other hand, you just want someone else to do all the leg work and figure it out for you, then go that route, but do so with your eyes wide open, knowing it will cost you more.

Travel Agencies do not work with alternative lodgings like Airbnb, Bed and Breakfasts, Convents, Couchsurfing, etc..  If they make your arrangements, you will stay in hotels. For many, this is a great option and usually the hotels are close to the attractions.  However, there are other great options, many which can save you quite a lot of money.  We researched lodging options for each place on our itinerary, beginning with hotels, Hostels, Airbnb’s and even Convents and Monasteries, which rent out rooms for temporary lodging, much like hostels do. (I hadn’t heard of Couchsurfing at the time, but apparently they can connect you with people whose homes you would stay in, where you get to know the Italian people and their families.)  We found of all the options, that Airbnb’s were our least expensive options for each city we stayed in. That may not necessarily be so for everyone, however, because there are many variables to take into account. Do the research, and plan accordingly. 

Our Airbnb hosts and hostesses were awesome.  I was able to look at reviews and make informed and careful decisions about each one before booking, and once each location was booked, I received excellent welcomes and feedback from them all, including directions to each of the homes from whatever mode of transportation by which we would be arriving. Most of them provided coffee and rolls and sometimes yogurt for our breakfasts, which further saved us money, since it was one more meal which we wouldn’t have to pay to eat out.  Some also had stoves and small kitchens stocked with dishes, tableware, and pans so we could (and sometimes did) choose to purchase food from a local grocery store and do our own cooking. Those meals were especially economical and allowed us more freedom and diversity in what we ate.

Mistakes We May Have Made

One thing we did not take into account and ought to have, was that many of the Airbnb’s were further away from attractions and meant we had to take one or more forms of local transportation each day to go see the sights and then return to our lodging.  This expense ought to be weighed in light of any savings which may be gained by the lower lodging costs of an Airbnb or other alternate lodging.  The vast majority of our bus and tram rides cost 1.50 euros per person, each way.  In Rome we needed to take both a bus ride and a tram ride each way, so the daily transportation cost was higher than we expected.  Our overall transportation costs for the trip amounted to between $4 and $5 per person per day for buses and trams that merely took us to and from area attractions and our Airbnb’s.  Be sure to figure that in to your vacation fund.  It took us by surprise. And while figuring in the added expense, be sure to take into account the time needed for such travel.  It was easily an extra half hour both coming and going each day, especially in Rome.

Recommendations –  These Worked For Us

I highly recommend Airbnb’s. They are a great way to experience the culture and meet the people of any area you are visiting, and the hosts are generally very friendly and helpful.  Be sure to read the reviews carefully so you know up front what the variables are and whether it is a good fit for you and your travel companions. The hosts and hostesses generally tell a good bit about their place on the site, so you can tell in advance if it will accommodate everyone in your travel party, whether there is a private or shared bathroom, whether pets are allowed, if there are cleaning fees involved, etc.  Read each site carefully and then read the reviews to see what others have said about both the location, and the host or hostess.  Every place we stayed in was quite different and accommodated our needs while being diverse.  We were least comfortable in the one location where we were sharing a bathroom, but it never was a problem, security seemed fine, and our hosts were great.

We often decided to buy a simple light lunch at a local store or shop, and saved the bulk of our food budget for dinners.  Since Pizzerias are on just about every corner or street, like Starbucks and other coffee shops or stands are here in the Pacific Northwest, it made for easy dinners that were pretty economical when we wanted to go that route.  Pizzas in Italy are much less expensive than here in America, and it was easy to stretch our dollars (or rather our euros) by eating Pizzas for dinner often.  That enabled us to save towards a few more costly dinners along the way, eaten at higher end restaurants.  Those meals were lovely and made our food experiences in Italy much more enjoyable and memorable.  Italian Restaurants usually offer Appetizers, First Course, Second Course (or multiple second courses) and Dessert.  There is often a cover charge that includes the use of the table, dishes, tableware, etc., but there is usually not a need to tip as we do in America.  For a couple courses and sometimes a dessert and beverages for three of us we would pay between 50 and 100 euros total.  The exchange rate from euros to dollars was about 1 euro to $1.12, so we would pay around $58 to $112 for the three of us for a nice dinner. As I write this, the exchange rate is 1 euro to $1.18. Be sure to check the rate before you go as it can change daily.

Side Note

[On a side note, if you plan to exchange money ahead of time, your best bet is to get it at AAA if you have a membership with them.  Most banks either do not offer euro exchange, or have a hefty fee involved if you do not bank with them.  If you bank with Wells Fargo you are on easy street, as they are the source of euros even for AAA. Unfortunately there is the same fee to exchange the euros back for dollars when you return, and AAA will not do it all.  You may want to exchange them at a bank in Italy before returning home.]

Food Fun

We also had fun trying some of the street cuisine and food from local shops.  Eating Italian food in Italy is part of the fun of being there, so make sure to set some money aside for the experiences when they arise.  We had tasty caramel filled Churros from a street vendor in Rome, Amsterdam Fries (new to us, though not Italian and not terribly different from our French Fries) from a local shop, and Canoli from a Caffe near our Airbnb. And of course we sampled delicious freshly made gelatos in every town we visited.  The best by far were from a little place in Sant Agnello, south of Pompeii. But when the flavors are freshly made, dreamed up by the local shops and made on the premises, it is always good!  In Positano, it goes without saying that you must try lemon sorbet, lemon slush, or any other frozen lemony treat.  It is the Lemon Capital of the World, I think. All told, we probably spent about $20 per person, per day, which included a light lunch, dinner and treats, with occasional breakfasts when they were not included at the Airbnb. This is light to middle of the road as far as food expenses, and the amount was derived by adding up total food costs, and then dividing by how many days we were there, by how many people. You can do it for less, but you will miss out on the enjoyment and experience of truly Italian cuisine and culture by cutting back too drastically. Look for other ways to save so you can loosen your pocketbook a little in the food department.

Canoli and a Cappuchino

Though travel from city to city and within the cities was one of our larger expenses, it was more because of the necessity to travel so many times than because of the amount of each ticket.  We traveled in some form or another every single day, either on buses, trams, metro or trains.  From the Naples airport we took a bus to Sant Agnello; a train to Pompeii and back to Sant Agnello, a train to Positano and back, a train to Naples, then down to Paestum and back, another to Rome, one to Assisi, one to Florence, another to Pisa, then another to La Spezia, two trains the day we went from La Spezia to Venice, then finally a train from Venice to Milan.  And that was not including the buses, trams and metro within the cities. If you go to Italy and just pick a couple cities to visit, you will actually save money over trying to stuff a ton of cities and destinations into your visit, as we did. Those kinds of savings might even make it worth your while to go back some day to visit some other area.

Train Travel

Local Intercity and Regional trains save you money if you are willing to go a little slower and get to know the landscape along the way.  The super fast trains whisk you from one location to another in what seems like just the blink of an eye.  At least if you are on the slower trains as we were, the time it took for one of the fast trains to pass us by was not much more than a blink of an eye! One way to save money is to search train travel before you leave.  Watch the prices over a few days and then lock in at a good price by buying the tickets in advance.  Be sure to get them for every person traveling with you, and then print your tickets in case your smart phone has any glitches on the day of the train ride. They do check your tickets, but not til after you get on and are under way, and may not hesitate to force you to get off at a stop along the way if you don’t have your tickets with you.  Train tickets purchased in advance save money, but also lock you into particular times, so account for time needed to get to and from the station and arrive in plenty of time to catch it.

View from the train

Train stations do not tell which platform your train will be on until 20 minutes before departure, but don’t assume that’s when you should arrive.  There may be upwards of 2 dozen platforms or more at a single train station, and a mile of walking in between getting off one train and onto another. Be prepared for a long walk and a short layover by being at the door to exit the train with your luggage before it stops, then hop off and walk as fast as you can to the next one.  This may include going down under the station through a lower level of corridors then back up to another platform, or it may entail walking the distance of the train length, along the cross section where all the noses of the trains are, then back the length of another train, essentially in a big U shape. Pay attention to which coach you are in if your ticket tells.  You will be asked to move if you are in the wrong one.  If it says 2nd class, which is less expensive than 1st class, (though it essentially looks the same, but is closer to the front of the train) be sure you are in one that says 2nd class.  It entails more walking, but saves you money.  We never missed any trains, and I am slow, but it helped that my daughters often grabbed my luggage and ran ahead, then stood in the doorways til I got there, and I walked as fast as I could with the help of my walking stick. Gotta love those walking sticks! They saved my bacon several times!

Subscribe here for more posts about Italy! In the interim, what would you like to know about travel in Italy? Do you plan to go soon? Have you already gone and have your own tips?  I would love to hear from you.  Don’t let life go by without traveling somewhere, sometime.  You can do it- one step at a time.