Even an Italian-American named Capo needs some help before embarking on a first Italy trip. You’ll want to read these travel tips for first time visitors before heading out to see the European wonders of Venice, Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Pompeii, Milan, Sardinia, Lake Como, Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast.
Read This Before Your First Italy Trip
With a last name like Capo, you would think I would have traveled to Italy, my father’s homeland, many times in my life. “Ma no!” This was my first trip to the Mediterranean. I didn’t want to just visit Naples. My good friend, Lisa Wernick, ad I planned a 17-day Italy tour. In all, we covered nine cities.
Italy was amazing and the food fantastic. Along the way, we picked up plenty of useful travel tips that can make your first Italy trip that much more enjoyable.
1) Make Copies!
Whenever you travel internationally, always make copies of everything you have in your wallet, especially a colored copy of your passport – if you lose it, it’s that much easier if you have your number and a copy on you. All hotels ask you to show your passports as you check in, and in some cases they insist on holding onto your passport till you check out.
2) Get Global Entry
If you plan on doing a lot of international travel and you are a U.S. citizen, apply for Global Entry. It makes life so much easier when you return from Europe or any other foreign country. Once you get pre-approval you will be asked to go in for an interview. I did mine at JFK airport. They will ask you further questions, photograph and fingerprint you. The cost is $100 for five years. And it’s well worth it if you travel internationally more than a few times because when you come back into the United States you do NOT have to wait on the customs line. You simply head to the Global Entry kiosk, answer the security questions, let the machine take your photo and your fingerprints. The computer does its magic and if your face recognition and fingerprints match what they have on file, you are through customs in about 5 minutes.
3) Hotels Are Different
A few things to know about hotels in Italy:
- Like many hotels in Europe, the rooms, beds and baths are smaller.
- Nowhere in Italy was I able to find a washcloth. The hotels just don’t have them. So if you like to scrub yourself in the shower or bath, bring your own washcloth (BYOWC).
- Most hotels insist you leave your room key with them and not take it out on your excursions. So remember to lock your stuff up in the room safe.
- The voltage is different so you have to bring a converter, but unless your hairdryer or iron curler is pretty up to date it will burn out fast. (Mine did!) Luckily they had hairdryers in most of the rooms.
4) Bathrooms Aren’t Free
As you are perusing the fascinating cobblestone streets of Italy it is inevitable that you will have to stop to go to the bathroom. Well you’d better bring some spare Euros. The public bathrooms charge 1.50E per visit. Also be prepared that most toilets do not have toilet seats and many of them are only about 8 to12 inches off the ground, so start practicing your squats now.
Read More: Risking Arrest to Pee in Italy
5) Cover Thyself
St. Peter Basilica at the Vatican isn’t the only gorgeous church in Italy. The country is filled with them! They weren’t all painted by Michelangelo, but they’re still beautiful. You can practically get blessed at any corner. But here’s the catch: To pay your respects you have to be properly dressed. That means your shoulders and your knees must be covered. They take this seriously – you will not be allowed in the church if either of these parts of you are exposed. You don’t want to be waiting on line to see the Sistine Chapel only to find out your attire prevents you from getting in. Besides, the last thing you want to do is get some saint angry at you when you come to pay your respects.
Some churches will sell you paper “dresses” you can wear over your clothes. But it’s much easier to just plan ahead and dress accordingly. Where capri pants, not shorts. And bring a scarf or shawl to wrap over your shoulders while you’re inside the church.
6) Water Is Free (and Yummy)
It’s simple: You will walk a lot in Italy. And if you walk a lot, you will get thirsty. You can buy bottled water, carry a camelback like I did, or you can drink from the fountains you’ll find in the public squares from Sicily to Siena. Yes, the fountain water is drinkable. And it’s cool, refreshing and free.
You can use the public fountains to refill your water bottle, or drink from them like a regular water fountain. Just hold the end of the downward pointing faucet and the water backs up to a little top sprocket. The water coming out of that will shoot up and you can just drink it like a regular water fountain. Now mind you, I’m not talking about the big fountains with the statues in the middle. I’m talking about the cement fountains that you will find on the sidewalks of Italy. Also in the restaurants, always specify whether you want natural water or water with gas (sparkling water).
7) Don’t Get Ripped Off by Fake Taxis
Just like any city, you can get ripped off it you do not know the difference between a gypsy cab and a legit one. The legit ones have meters and are white. Their fee will start at different rates depending on how far they came to get you. The gypsy drivers will have taxi licenses and even act insulted if you question if they are cab drivers… BUT they will charge you whatever rate they can swindle you out of. (How do I know this? Well Lisa and I, the so called Savvy New Yorkers paid 20 E for a 10E ride!!!) We were so embarrassed at how we let our guard down, that when another taxi driver (this time with a meter) wanted to charge us 1E extra per suitcase we thought we were being ripped off again and argued with him, only to find out, that is standard procedure.
8) Tipping Isn’t Expected
It is not common to tip in Italy. But being an American I am used to tipping. Word of caution, check before you go into a place. Some places will list on the menu that they charge a cover charge (usually a few euroes per person). This is just a fee, not for music or anything else, just for sitting down and eating. The tipping norm there is to just round up the bill. So if it’s 2.80Euro, you leave 3 Euro. By the way, they charge you for bread that you bring to the table without asking. However it’s delicious, like all the other food we ate in Italy, so we didn’t mind.
9) Know the Rules of the Tourist Attractions
Whether you want to visit the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican museums, the Uffizi or any other famous Italian attraction, make sure you know the deal.
We took a bus for a day trip to Mt. Vesuvius. Turns out that fee was just to get to the parking lot of the mountain. We had to pay another fee to climb the mountain. (They do offer a free walking stick to help you along the way. Take it!)
In Capri, it was the same type of deal. You pay one fee to take a ferry boat to get to the Island. Then for another fee, a second smaller boat that takes you to the Grotto. Then a third smaller boat (more like a canoe) takes you INSIDE the grotto. (The boats kept getting smaller and smaller, and one point I thought they were going to send a dingy! ) It was totally worth it, but you must have exact change for the canoe, because they don’t have change.
Last example is Pisa. It was one fee to take the bus to get to the tower. It’s another fee (that needs to be prearranged) to climb the tower. The entrance tickets to climb are timed (like a lot of popular exhibits in Italy) so if you do not have advanced tickets and you are with a tour, you might not be able to climb in the allotted time before you have to get back on the bus. So ask in advance, what your tour/fee covers.
10) Learn How to Save on Espresso
Italians take their espresso seriously. If you go into a local pastry shop, order espresso, stand and drink it, they can only charge you a certain amount (it was 1.50 E max when I visited in 2014). If you sit and drink it, however, all bets are off. They can charge you up several times that amount. (I learned this fact from the Roman Food Tour, a company started by Joshua Elledge, his wife Francesca and his partner Henry. Highly recommend them in Rome. Say Fran sent ya.)
11) Italians Go on Strike. Deal with It.
The Italians will strike at the drop of a cannoli. We were warned when we worked Pompeii into our trip, that they might just close the scavi. But not to worry, the Italians will tell you what time the strike will be over. Sure enough on one of the Fridays we were there, they put a note up, “We are striking from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Come back at 11.” If you are on a tight schedule and plan to visit Pompeii or any other major site, just keep this in mind and leave a little extra time in case this happens.
12) Get an International Driving Permit
For one portion of our trip from Sorrento to Matera we decided to rent a car. So I applied through AAA for an international driving permit. It was easy. I just went to the AAA office and brought a photo and copy of my license I paid the fee ($20) and you are in. Allow 4-6 weeks for the permit to arrive in the mail. The international driving permit is good for one year. You tell them when to start the clock ticking. The permit gives you legal driving privileges in 150 countries, including Switzerland and France if you plan a visit to Northern Italy and want to take a side trip over the Alps to visit other European countries.
Now as far as arrangements for car rental, if you ONLY drive an automatic, rent in advance. Most car rental places in Italy only have ONE automatic car and the rest are stick shifts. Since I don’t drive a stick, I needed to make sure they had the car I needed put aside in advance.
Once you get your car and your map you could just head on your merry way. But I suggest either downloading directions to your own GPS for that country or renting their GPS system called the NEVERLOST for a few euros a day. In my case I also printed out Google map directions in advance, and Lisa printed out a visual of the roads. (This is in case our GPS or Neverlost had a nervous breakdown.)
We also made ourselves familiar with the road signs.
Lastly, I love my Italian pisans, but they have no regard for the rules of the road. Double yellow lines mean nothing to them, and going 100 mph is the grandma speed. So be prepared on the road to be considered the sloth. Also keep change with you as there are toll roads just like in the U.S. And remember, their streets are a lot smaller than those in the U.S. so naturally their cars are a lot smaller, so pack light because there is NOT a lot of room for luggage.
13) Prepare to Beat the Heat
Hair band, hat, sunscreen. It gets hot in the day, so in your bag always carry a hair band (I carry mine on my wrist) a hat, sunscreen and a refillable water bottle.
14) Take the Metro
These are the local trains in the major cities. They are much cheaper than taxis and the system is easy to use. If you have trouble figuring out where to go, look for a fellow passenger who is 25 or younger. Chances are they speak English and will be happy to guide you.
15) Beware the Pick Pockets
While I personally was not robbed in Italy, many people warned us that the tourist centers like Verona, Lake Como, Bologna and especially Naples are havens for pick pockets. I carried a knapsack and made sure the opening was toward me. Many just carried their knapsack in the front. Many travel agents won’t even go to Naples because it is so well known in that circle that pickpocketing is very high. Many suggested not to wear jewelry.
16) Get Your Euros at Home
Hotels tend to offer the worst exchange rate. Airports are a close second. Order your money in advance from your home bank. You can bring American Express Travelers checks but a lot of places don’t take them. If you are planning on using your ATM card, check with your bank to find out your maximum daily allowance and the exchange rate your bank charges. Lots of small businesses in Europe do not take credit cards. Cash is king there, so bring plenty or figure out how to get more once you arrive.
17) Bring the Right Credit Card
If you plan to use your credit cards abroad, tell your credit card company in advance. But more importantly ask if your credit card has a fee. Usually credit cards charge at 3% fee for international transaction. Whenever possible, bring only credit cards that do not charge exchange rates. In addition, be sure to alert your bank and credit card company in advance that you are traveling and the days you plan to be there, otherwise the company could put a hold on your card while they confirm the purchases are really yours.
18) Buy Travel Insurance
Lisa and I checked bought travel insurance for our trip. The chances are slight you may ever use it and better safe than sorry. We almost had to use it, however, since the French Airport was on strike 5 days before we left and no planes were allowed in their air space. Of course our connecting flight was in Paris, so we had a panic there for a few minutes, but luckily if the strike had not ended we would have been covered. TravelingMom recommends Allianz Travel Insurance.
19) Pack an Emergency First Aid Kit
While the last thing you want to do is get sick while away on vacation, it happens. So if you have medicines you use or homeopathic things you like, bring them.
Prior to the trip, I had sprained my ankle. So I traveled with arnica, tiger balm, Traumeel, ankle brace, and some other herbal medicine. I also brought a back brace, aloe, ace bandage, vitamin C, and aspirin. Over the course of the 17 days, I wound up using all of them. A friend pulled her back, I started to get a sore throat and nipped it in the bud with vitamin C. Granted our room smelled like a pharmacy but I was able to climb and walk all over the place.
20) Check with Your Cell Phone Carrier
Before you travel, call your cell phone provider and ask them for their best deal on phone calls and texts in the country you plan to visit. If that is too much, consider buying a calling card once you arrive at your destination. Generally, you’ll save money if you keep your cellular data turned off and only use wifi services like Skype or Facetime to connect with the folks back home. One lady I met accidentally ran up her phone bill to $2400 without realizing the cost. Each text message was 50 cents outgoing and 15 cents incoming. Sending photos and videos are expensive if you don’t know how to use your phone when you’re away.
If you enjoyed these tips let me know. Have a safe trip, and enjoy every ounce of it. Remember you only live once, at least that you know, so live life to the fullest and be in the “Here” and “Now” when you do.