Saturday, July 31, 2010

Italy travel tips: what we learned

After approximately a week and a half in three of Italy's major tourist cities -- Rome, Florence and Venice -- we made quite a few observations and realizations to share with you before moving on to Spain.

  • In all three of our Italian hotel rooms there was a cord hanging in the shower. It was only at our Florence hotel that this cord was actually labeled, and it said do not pull unless for an emergency. That's helpful! In both Rome and Venice those cords were not labeled, and there's nothing that might tip you off to the fact that it's for emergencies only, like, say, a giant exclamation mark or bright red paint. So, don't pull the cord.
  • All three hotels required us to keep our hotel key inside a key slot next to the inside of our door while we were in the room. This serves the purpose of 1) turning on the electricity (clever earth-friendly measure, European hotels!) and 2) turning on a little LED outside your room alerting maids to the fact that you're in the room and they therefore shouldn't disturb you. This is a great system, assuming the LED is functioning, and if it's not, your maid might walk in on you. We know this from experience.

  • Validate your train tickets! When you travel on Tren Italia, as you approach the deck you'll see yellow boxes hanging on the columns. Slide your ticket into one of these to validate it. You need to do this as a "just in case" measure to avoid having to pay a potential fine.
  • There are automated ticket machines in Italian train stations, and in Rome we tried using several of them because they allow you to select among several languages. After selecting English, everything was going great, until the final step where a giant paragraph of writing comes up in Italian. This system is somewhat baffling, causing us to cancel the transaction for fear that we were about to do something we didn't want to do thanks to that giant paragraph of Italian writing. So, we found it was better to stand in line.
  • We also found it easier to buy our train tickets for our next destination when we arrived at each train station. So, we bought our tickets to Florence one day in advance when we were already traveling through the Rome train station on the metro, and we bought our tickets to Venice when we arrived in Florence. With a ticket in hand in advance we felt better and knew we had seats.
  • At the Venice airport, where we ended our time in Italy to fly to Barcelona, we arrived nearly two hours early, which was about one and a half hours too early. We had to wait for our ticket desk to even show up on the board (they change frequently and do not have employees working at them at all times). When we finally saw which ticket booth to go to after we'd been there for well over an hour, we then had to stand in a long line to get our tickets and deposit our luggage. European flights judge carry-on luggage by weight, not by size, so our carry-on luggage (that was our only luggage) that was suitable in America was not suitable in Europe. Only then could we go through security and get a quick lunch while we waited for our slightly delayed flight. I had never flown between two European countries, so this more laid-back system was a little surprising.

Food and drink
  • Remember, there's no free water at restaurants, and you won't get ice, and you won't get free refills of anything.
  • There are, though, lots of always-running public water fountains with potable water. The water is almost always cold and pretty good, so it's a great place to fill up your water bottle.
  • We got into a habit of seeking out Italian grocery stores each day between 2 and 4 p.m. when we were ready for an afternoon recharge. Our eating schedule went something like this: big breakfast, afternoon snack, big dinner. Rather than succumbing to the over-priced food vendors on the street, we could find drinks and snacks for one-third the cost at grocery stores. We especially enjoyed Lemon Soda (that's the official, proper name).
For some reason Matt got an entire loaf of olive bread at a grocery store in Lido, right outside Venice. And, that bottle of San Pelligrino Limonata is quite delicious but also available in America.
Everyone will know you're American, and everyone in Rome, Florence and Venice will speak English to you. So, try as you might with your little Italian phrase book and minimal Italian skills, it won't really matter, but I still think of your attempt as a nice gesture. An alternative to this is to speak Spanish in Italy, as Matt did on a couple occasions, and he was understood. Thank goodness for romance languages!
Now, let's fly to Spain, land in Barcelona and get ready to eat a ton of tapas!


  1. I'm enjoying reading all of your trip posts. Since you only went with carry-ons, would you mind doing a post about packing so lightly? That would be awesome since I can't even do that for a long weekend trip!

  2. Of course! I was planning to do a post about packing, so I'm glad to know that at least one person will be interested in it :) Thanks for reading!