This article covers the practical skills of Italian travel: how to get tourist information, pay for things, sight see efficiently, find good-value accommodations, eat affordably but well, use technology wisely, and get between destinations smoothly. To round out your knowledge, check out “Resources from Rick Steves.” For more information on these topics, see www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips.
Before your trip, scan the website of the Italian national tourist office (www.italia.it) for a wealth of travel information. If you have a specific question, try contacting one of their US offices (New York: Tel. 212/245-5618, [email protected]; Chicago: Tel. 312/644-9335, [email protected]; Los Angeles: Tel. 310/820-1898, [email protected]).
In Italy, a good first stop in every town is generally the tourist information office (abbreviated TI in this book). Be aware that TIs are in business to help you enjoy spending money in their town. While this corrupts much of their advice—and you can get plenty of information online—I still make a point to swing by to confirm sightseeing plans, pick up a city map, and get information on public transit, walking tours, special events, and nightlife. Prepare a list of questions and a proposed plan to double-check. While Italian TIs are about half as helpful as those in other countries, their information is twice as important.
Some TIs have information on the entire country or at least the region, so try to pick up maps and printed information for destinations you’ll be visiting later in your trip.
Be wary of travel agencies or special information services that masquerade as TIs but serve fancy hotels and tour companies. They’re in the business of selling things you don’t need.
Emergency and Medical Help: In Italy, dial 113 for English-speaking police help. To summon an ambulance, call 118. If you get sick, do as the locals do and go to a pharmacist for advice. Or ask at your hotel for help—they’ll know the nearest medical and emergency services.
Theft or Loss: To replace a passport, you’ll need to go in person to an embassy. If your credit and debit cards disappear, cancel and replace them. File a police report, either on the spot or within a day or two; you’ll need it to submit an insurance claim for lost or stolen rail passes or travel gear, and it can help with replacing your passport or credit and debit cards. For more information, see www.ricksteves.com/help.
Avoiding Theft and Scams: Although violent crime is rare in Italy, petty theft is rampant in large cities. With sweet-talking con artists meeting you at the station, well-dressed pickpockets on buses, and thieving gangs of children roving ancient sites, tourists face a gauntlet of rip-offs. Although it’s not as bad as it was a few years ago, and pickpockets don’t want to hurt you—they usually just want your money and gadgets—green or sloppy tourists will be scammed.
Thieves strike when you’re distracted. Don’t trust kind strangers. Keep nothing important in your pockets. Be on guard while boarding and leaving buses and subways. Thieves jam up the door, then stop and turn while others crowd and push from behind. You’ll find less crowding and commotion—and less risk—on the end cars of a subway rather than the middle cars. The sneakiest thieves pretend to be well-dressed businessmen or tourists wearing fanny packs and toting cameras and even Rick Steves guidebooks.
Scams abound. When paying for something, be aware of how much cash you’re handing over, demand clear and itemized bills, and count your change. Don’t give your wallet to self-proclaimed “police” who stop you on the street, warn you about counterfeit (or drug) money, and ask to see your cash. If a bank machine eats your ATM card, check for a thin plastic insert with a tongue hanging out (thieves use these devices to extract cards).
Watch out for fast-fingered moms with babies and groups of children picking the pockets and handbags of naive tourists. Pickpockets troll tourist crowds around major sights and at train and Metro stations. Watch them target tourists who are overloaded with bags or distracted with their smartphones. Kids look like beggars and hold up newspapers or cardboard signs to confuse their victims. They scram like stray cats if you’re on to them.
This all sounds intimidating, and perhaps I’m overstating the dangers. Don’t be scared—just be aware and be smart, and you’ll be fine.
Time Zones: Italy, like most of continental Europe, is generally six/nine hours ahead of the East/West Coasts of the US. The exceptions are the beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time: Europe “springs forward” the last Sunday in March (two weeks after most of North America), and “falls back” the last Sunday in October (one week before North America). For a handy online time converter, see www.timeanddate.com/worldclock.
Business Hours: Traditionally, Italy used the siesta plan, with people generally working from about 9:00 to 13:00 and from 15:30 or 16:00 to 19:00 or 19:30, Monday through Saturday. But siesta hours are no longer required by law, so many shops stay open through lunch or later into the evening, especially larger stores in tourist areas. Shops in small towns and villages are more likely to close during lunch. Stores are usually closed on Sunday, and often on Monday. Many shops close for a couple of weeks around August 15. Banking hours are generally Monday through Friday 8:30 to 13:30 and 15:30 to 16:30, but can vary wildly.
Saturdays are virtually weekdays, with earlier closing hours. Sundays have the same pros and cons as they do for travelers in the US: Sightseeing attractions are generally open, while banks and many shops are closed, public transportation options are fewer (for example, no bus service to or from the smaller towns), and there’s no rush hour. Friday and Saturday evenings are lively; Sunday evenings are quiet.
Watt’s Up? Europe’s electrical system is 220 volts, instead of North America’s 110 volts. Most newer electronics (such as laptops, battery chargers, and hair dryers) convert automatically, so you won’t need a converter, but you will need an adapter plug with two round prongs, sold inexpensively at travel stores in the US. Sockets in Italy (and Switzerland) only accept plugs with slimmer prongs: Don’t buy an adapter with the thicker (“Schuko” style) prongs—it won’t work. Avoid bringing older appliances that don’t automatically convert voltage; instead, buy a cheap replacement in Europe.
Discounts: Discounts for sights are generally not listed in this book. However, many sights offer discounts or free admission for youths (up to age 18), students (with proper identification cards, www.isic.org), families, seniors (loosely defined as retirees or those willing to call themselves a senior), and groups of 10 or more. Always ask. Italy’s national museums generally offer free admission to children under 18, but some discounts are available only for citizens of the European Union (EU).
Tobacco Shops: Known as tabacchi (often indicated with a big T sign), these shops are ubiquitous across Italy as handy places to pay for street parking and to buy postage or tickets for city buses and subways.
Online Translation Tips: Google’s Chrome browser instantly translates websites. You can also paste text or the URL of a foreign website into the translation window at Translate.google.com. The Google Translate app converts spoken English into most European languages (and vice versa) and can also translate text it “reads” with your smartphone’s camera.
Here’s my basic strategy for using money in Italy:
• Upon arrival, head for a cash machine (ATM) at the airport and load up on local currency, using a debit card with low international transaction fees.
• Withdraw large amounts at each transaction (to limit fees) and keep your cash safe in a money belt.
• Pay for most items with cash.
• Pay for larger purchases with a credit card with low (or no) international fees.
PLASTIC VERSUS CASH
Although credit cards are widely accepted in Europe, day-to-day spending is generally more cash-based than in the US. I find cash is the easiest—and sometimes only—way to pay for cheap food, bus fare, taxis, tips, and local guides. Some businesses (especially smaller ones, such as B&Bs and mom-and-pop cafés and shops) may charge you extra for using a credit card—or might not accept credit cards at all. Having cash on hand helps you out of a jam if your card randomly doesn’t work.
I use my credit card to book hotel reservations, to buy advance tickets for events or sights, and to cover major expenses (such as car rentals or plane tickets). It can also be smart to use plastic near the end of your trip, to avoid another visit to the ATM.
WHAT TO BRING
I pack the following and keep it all safe in my money belt.
Debit Card: Use this at ATMs to withdraw local cash.
Credit Card: Use this to pay for larger items (at hotels, larger shops and restaurants, travel agencies, car-rental agencies, and so on).
Backup Card: Some travelers carry a third card (debit or credit; ideally from a different bank), in case one gets lost, demagnetized, eaten by a temperamental machine, or simply doesn’t work.
US Dollars: I carry $100-200 US dollars as a backup. While you won’t use it for day-to-day purchases, American cash in your money belt comes in handy for emergencies, such as if your ATM card stops working.
What NOT to Bring: Resist the urge to buy euros before your trip or you’ll pay the price in bad stateside exchange rates. Wait until you arrive to withdraw money. I’ve yet to see a European airport that didn’t have plenty of ATMs.
BEFORE YOU GO
Use this pretrip checklist.
Know your cards. Debit cards from any major US bank will work in any standard European bank’s ATM (ideally, use a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo). As for credit cards, Visa and MasterCard are universal, American Express is less common, and Discover is unknown in Europe.
Know your PIN. Make sure you know the numeric, four-digit PIN for all of your cards, both debit and credit. Request it if you don’t have one and allow time to receive the information by mail.
All credit and debit cards now have chips that authenticate and secure transactions. Europeans insert their chip cards into the payment machine slot, then enter a PIN. American cards should work in most transactions without a PIN—but may not work at self-service machines at train stations, toll booths, gas pumps, or parking lots. I’ve been inconvenienced a few times by self-service payment machines in Europe that wouldn’t accept my card, but it’s never caused me serious trouble.
If you’re concerned, a few banks offer a chip-and-PIN card that works in almost all payment machines, including those from Andrews Federal Credit Union (www.andrewsfcu.org) and the State Department Federal Credit Union (www.sdfcu.org).
Report your travel dates. Let your bank know that you’ll be using your debit and credit cards in Europe, and when and where you’re headed.
Adjust your ATM withdrawal limit. Find out how much you can take out daily and ask for a higher daily withdrawal limit if you want to get more cash at once. Note that European ATMs will withdraw funds only from checking accounts; you’re unlikely to have access to your savings account.
Ask about fees. For any purchase or withdrawal made with a card, you may be charged a currency conversion fee (1-3 percent), a Visa or MasterCard international transaction fee (1 percent), and—for debit cards—a $2-5 transaction fee each time you use a foreign ATM (some US banks partner with European banks, allowing you to use those ATMs with no fees—ask).
If you’re getting a bad deal, consider getting a new debit or credit card. Reputable no-fee cards include those from Capital One, as well as Charles Schwab debit cards. Most credit unions and some airline loyalty cards have low-to-no international transaction fees.
Here’s what you can typically expect:
Entering: Be warned that you may not be allowed to enter if you arrive less than 30 to 60 minutes before closing time. And guards start ushering people out well before the actual closing time, so don’t save the best for last.
Some important sights have a security check, where you must open your bag or send it through a metal detector. Some sights require you to check daypacks and coats. (If you’d rather not check your daypack, try carrying it tucked under your arm like a purse as you enter.)
Photography: If the museum’s photo policy isn’t clearly posted, ask a guard. Generally, taking photos without a flash or tripod is allowed. Some sights ban selfie sticks; others ban photos altogether.
Temporary Exhibits: Museums may show special exhibits in addition to their permanent collection. Some exhibits are included in the entry price, while others come at an extra cost (which you may have to pay even if you don’t want to see the exhibit).
Expect Changes: Artwork can be on tour, on loan, out sick, or shifted at the whim of the curator. Pick up a floor plan as you enter, and ask the museum staff if you can’t find a particular item. Say the title or artist’s name, or point to the photograph in this book and ask, “Dov’è?” (doh-VEH, meaning “Where is?”).
Audioguides and Apps: Many sights rent audioguides, which generally offer excellent recorded descriptions in English. If you bring your own earbuds, you can enjoy better sound. To save money, bring a Y-jack and share one audioguide with your travel partner. Museums and sights often offer free apps that you can download to your mobile device (check their websites). And, I’ve produced free, downloadable audio tours for some of Italy’s major sights, including those in Venice, Florence, Milan, Rome, Assisi, Naples, and Pompeii; look for the in this book. For more on my audio tours.
Dates for Artwork: It helps to know the terms. Art historians and Italians refer to the great Florentine centuries by dropping a thousand years. The Trecento (300s), Quattrocento (400s), and Cinquecento (500s) were the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s. The Novecento (900s) means modern art (the 1900s). In Italian museums, art is dated with sec for secolo (century, often indicated with Roman numerals), A.C. (avanti Cristo, or B.C), and D.C. (dopo Cristo, or A.D.). OK?
Services: Important sights may have an on-site café or cafeteria (usually a handy place to rejuvenate during a long visit). The WCs at sights are free and generally clean.
Before Leaving: At the gift shop, scan the postcard rack or thumb through a guidebook to be sure you haven’t overlooked something that you’d like to see.
Every sight or museum offers more than what is covered in this book. Use the information in this book as an introduction—not the final word.