Here are my personal recommendations and travel tips to help you explore Italy.
Phone & Internet Services
One of my favorite things about being on vacation is the power to disconnect. To me vacation is about relaxing and taking time away from your smart phone or mobile device. However, being connected is essential and the key to connectivity in Italy is to prepare in advance and know what you are getting into. Let’s walk through some of the essentials:
First of all, I suggest considering how much and how often you plan on using your phone. That will help determine if you require augmentation to your normal service or can get away with your current plan for emergency calls only. Either way, the first thing you want to do is call or visit your cell phone provider at least a month before travel and ask specifically if your phone and your plan is unlocked for international use, and if you will have the ability to make and receive calls and texts while in Italy. Then know the rates for both sending and receiving calls and texts from both American and foreign numbers while abroad.
My experience with the special "international" packages offered by cell phone companies is that they can be quite pricey and you don't usually end up using a fraction of the minutes or texts that you pay for with those. Use your best judgement regarding your needs and how much you foresee using, but the important thing is to be aware of the options and associated fees.
If you’re phone is unlocked for international use, then I suggest using it for “emergency” calls and texts, or on a limited basis if you need to call your hotel or send a quick text to your guide (or to me). You can then plan to rely on Wifi for your Internet access to do things like E-mail, Instagram, Skype, FaceTime or send iMessages. You should have Wifi in your accommodation, and it can be found more and more throughout restaurants and bars. It's not as widely available as in the U.S. just quite yet, but they are getting better. "Piano piano" as the Italians would say... slowly slowly.
International SIM cards and calling cards: There are options available to you in Italy that will work on unlocked phones (check with your carrier prior to travel to see if your phone is unlocked). I suggest visiting a Wind, TIM, Vodafone or 3 store once you arrive in Italy for these services. DO NOT under any circumstances purchase a calling card or off-brand sim card from the airport. In my experience, 99.9 percent of the time these are scams.
Dialing Italian Numbers from American Phones
Dial either “01139” or “+39” as the country code followed by the 10-digit number. For example, if an Italian number is +39 3338675309, to call or text from your American phone, you would either need to make the “+” sign by holding down 0 on your keypad, or replace the + with 011.
It should look like one of these: “+393338675309” or “011393338675309.”
You do not need the country code when dialing from an Italian phone. From an Italian phone, you would simply dial or text “3338675309.”
Google maps offers an option to save maps of certain cities and areas to access on your mobile device even when you're not connected to Wifi or Internet. I highly suggest downloading maps of each of the cities you will be visiting.
Here are the steps to save and access offline maps: https://support.google.com/maps/answer/6291838?hl=en
Money in Italy
Changing Money, Using Credit Cards, Traveling in a Cash-Based Society
Italy is very much a cash-based society operating on the Euro. Cash is king in Italy. It is revered everywhere, by everyone. Cash gets you where you need to go and often can get you a discount on anything from dinner to bottles of wine you pick up at the local cantina.
If people ask you if you need a receipt or if you can pay in cash, they will often offer you a discount on your purchase for the cash payment. All businesses or merchants will and should provide a receipt no matter what if you do require it, however. That being said, there are many places including shops, restaurants, hotels, etc that do accept credit cards, but not all.
Having cash in Euros upon arrival is a smart move for all travelers. This allows you to get trains, cabs, etc immediately upon arrival without having to search for an ATM or money exchange upon arrival. Both services, by the way, generally have very high fees especially at locations in airports and train stations.
I always change 400-500 USD into Euros at my local bank before I travel to Italy. Your local banks often have the lowest fees and best exchange rates. Be sure to look into this in advance as not all banks have euros on-hand. I’ve found the best exchange rates by reading online forums on the matter just by searching “best USD to EUR exchange rates in your city.”
After you arrive and are mobile on the ground in Italia, you can get cash by using the ATMs, or locally called “bancomat”. It’s also smart to check with your bank and know your daily withdraw limit before you travel. You might be able to raise your limit during your travel period if necessary. Use the ATMs connected to a bank, not the free-standing “cash machines” that you might find in a quick shop or gas station.
Almost all ATMs in Italy have menus available in English, and various withdraw amounts. Some banks don’t allow you to take more than 200-250 Euro out at a time, requiring visits to several ATMs or withdrawing from several cards at one time if you know you need more money for a guided tour or meal, for example.
It’s also important to understand your bank’s international withdraw fees before traveling. Many U.S. banks have a $5-10 fee each time you withdraw from an ATM in Europe. However, because Italy is a cash-based society and because your credit cards might charge an international transaction fee, withdrawing from ATMs still might be your best bet for cash while in Italy, especially as these fees are almost always guaranteed to be less than service charges and money exchange counters. I recommend avoid those unless you are absolutely in a pinch and that’s the only option around. I repeat - AVOID MONEY EXCHANGE BOOTHS.
When you travel back to the U.S. from Europe, try to time your ATMs withdraws appropriately and use all of your Euros while in Italy. If you do have some extra cash in your pocket as you go back to the States, I would exchange them for USD at your local bank, or just hold on to them until your next trip back to Europe.
Credit cards in Europe generally all have a chip. If you make a purchase by credit card in Italy, very few of the machines accept chip cards only, many will accept the swipe cards as well. There has been a lot of news and fuss over the chip cards recently, but it's pretty much a non-issue.
*Make sure to CALL YOUR CREDIT CARD COMPANY SEVERAL TIMES prior to your travel to remind them of your travel dates and destinations. Because of heightened security in recent years, it is important to remind them.
Also important to note is if your credit card charges you international transaction fees. These fees will be added to each purchase made on your credit card. This varies from card to card as to the fees and rates. It’s important to know before traveling.
Credit cards are generally accepted at hotels, restaurants and shops. If you’re hoping for points, this is a great way to collect some during your travels.
The first thing to know about dining out in Italy is the difference in meal times. Lunch is generally thought of from 1-3 PM, and dinner beginning around 7 PM, but possibly as early as 6 and as late as 10 PM depending on the region and season. Historically restaurants would close down between lunch and dinner leaving you stranded if you were hoping to eat at 5 or 6 PM. Now, restaurants are more aware of the tourist hours and some are opening earlier for both lunch and dinner to accommodate the demand. If you want to "eat like an Italian" and with other diners (not sitting alone in an empty restaurant), plan out snacks accordingly (gelato is never a bad way to stave off hunger for another hour or two) and eat at 1/1:30 PM for lunch, and dinner around 8/8:30 PM.
Reservations are usually a good idea. You can call or use an online service such as www.thefork.it or www.quandoo.it. Not all restaurants will have an online reservation option, but you can also usually find a good contact email and request a reservation that way. The best way to make a reservation is to hire me and I'll call them for you! The second best way is if you're already in the city and can stop by the day prior or earlier in the day, you should be safe.
The main thing to know about dining out in Italy is that because the wait staff does not depend on tips, they are not concerned with "flipping" tables and getting as many customers as possible in a night. No, they go the opposite way and often leave you at your table in peace and quiet allowing guests to enjoy their time and each other's company. If you need more water, more wine, if you need your check - you're going to have to get their attention and request it. It's not that they are being rude, rather they believe it is impolite to interrupt you or make you feel rushed.
On that same note, ordering is a little different as well. In Italy, it is common for each person to order their own antipasto, primo, secondo and dessert and eat it all in one sitting. Again, meals often take 2-3 hours around the table and are followed by a passeggiata, or walk, to digest. However, there is no rhyme or reason, and no wrong way to order at a restaurant. You can share dishes, you can only order a pasta, or only order a pizza - there is no wrong way. But feel free to "do as the Romans do" and go all out trying the house specialties.
*The Italian menu - antipasti are appetizers or starters. An antipasti della casa are often a mix of their specialties. Primi are first courses of pasta, rice or risotto, or soups. Secondi are main courses - usually meat or fish. Contorni are sides. Main dishes do not usually come with sides, they must be ordered separately. Salads are generally small side salads that come with the second dishes. If you want your salad in advance, you have to request that specially and they will probably look at you a little strangely. Dolci are desserts. Pizzas are usually served (and eaten) one per person and beer is the Italian drink of choice with a pizza. Doggy bags and taking things home is rare in Italy and many places will think you're crazy for asking. Again, the mealtime in Italy is meant to enjoy what you have in front of you. They are big on taking as long as you need at the table in order to finish what's on your plate.
The check - You have to flag down your waiter and ask for the check when you are ready. There is usually a cover charge of a few euros per person built into the check. Consider this the tip. Additional tipping is not required. If you feel as though you absolutely must leave something, anything from 2-5 euros is great. Never tip based on a percentage. Splitting of the check is not common in Italy, nor is having people pay with different cards or payment methods. Try to figure out the payment within your group, and hand your waiter all cash or one credit card.
Tipping is not required in Italy. Americans find this difficult to grasp and tend to feel guilty if they do not leave a gratuity. To those people I say, just get over it and embrace the culture, man! I never tip in restaurants. Ever. I never tip in cabs either. If I tip, it might be to a doorman or possibly to a private guide for a fantastic experience, but there's no rhyme or reason to this logic (or lack thereof). If you have a great experience and feel like you want to leave a little something, 3-5 Euros is a great tip at a restaurant; 1-2 Euros in a cab is nice; and 5-20 Euros for private guides is nice depending on the experience (private vs group etc). DO NOT leave a tip based on a percentage of the bill – you are absolutely over tipping.
To catch a taxi in Italy you must either find a cab stand or call/text to request service. Taxi stands are located throughout the cities and marked by an orange sign with "Taxi" written on it. To call, you generally need to speak Italian. In my experience, calling in English and trying to request service to a certain street name in Italian can be very confusing. I would either ask your hotel/restaurant/shop to call and request service for you, or use a texting service.
With texting services, you should text your exact current address to the phone number. You will receive a text back either confirming the service and saying in approximately how many minutes it will arrive, or saying that no taxis are available at this time. Example of current address: "Via Maggio 13" ...the street name is listed first followed by the number.
Taxi SMS services: In Rome: +39 3666730000 In Florence: +39 3346622550
Converters & Adapters
There are several types of outlets in Italy of various wattages and sizes. It’s best to have 1-2 of each kind of adapter and converter. Be sure to use the larger adapter and converter for your computer, phone, iPad, and hair tools. You can use the small black adapter for small items only otherwise you risk frying your appliances. There are both 2- and 3-pronged adapters and sockets in Italy so it’s nice to have a mix.
Taking the Train
When taking the train, try to arrive at the station at least 10-15 minutes prior to scheduled departure time. If you have a ticket for a specific date and time, you do not need to validate your ticket. If you have an open ticket, without a time and date, validate your ticket at the small green and white machines located at the end of the platform or on the station walls. You can either have a printed ticket or display the PDF version - it must have a bar code - directly from your mobile device.
To find your train, it’s important to search for the train number on the departures board. Some trains originate or end in cities beyond your city of departure or arrival, therefore the destination listed on the screen may not match your destination. Always match the train number.
If you are on a high-speed train, you will have a specific car and seat number. The car number will be indicated on the train platform and on the train doors. For regional trains, there are often no assigned cars or seats so be prepared to board a few minutes early in order to select your own seats on these trains.
How to read the departures board: from left to right
- "Treno" or train number: Match the 3-4 digit code to the train number on your ticket. A train number might read, Frecciarossa 9526, so you would look for the 9526 under Treno on the far left-hand side of the departures board
- "Destinazione" or destination: The destination listed on the board MIGHT NOT match your destination. For example, a train that originates in Naples with the destination of Milano Centrale listed on the board might also stop at Roma Termini or Firenze Santa Maria Novella. If one of these cities is YOUR destination, then you would get off at the appropriate stop. Usually each stop is announced on the train.
- "Orario" or hour: This is the scheduled departure time and should match the time listed on your ticket
- "Ritardo" or delay: This will tell you how many minutes late the train is running, i.e. 5' signifies that it is 5 running 5 minutes late. If this space is blank, it means your time is on time.
- "Informazioni" or information: The list of stops and arrival time at each stop prior to final destination; other train info
- "Binario" or platform: Displays the platform number for your train. This will often not be listed until 5-10 minutes prior to scheduled departure time.
Safety & Pickpockets
Italy is generally very safe, however pickpocketing can be an issue in high-density areas such as the train station, at crowded tourist sites, or on crowded busses or the metro. The easiest thing to do to avoid pickpockets is to not make yourself a target. Do not leave your wallet in your pocket. Do not let your purse hang idly open on your arm. Make sure zippers are zipped, pockets are closed, and money is hidden out of plain view. You should feel comfortable walking around Italy, but always be aware.
Passport & Copies
Of course your passport is a necessity for travel in Europe, but try to avoid carrying it as you are out exploring. Always leave your passport at your hotel (in a safe if possible) when out exploring the town. It's a good idea to keep an extra photocopy of your passport in your luggage, and also to take a photo of your passport to store on your mobile device in case anything should happen. In the event that something should happen to your passport during travel, contact the police and local consulate as soon as possible.
How to Pack
Try to always bring a range of comfortable clothing and shoes as your daytime adventures often consist of lots of walking. Watch out on those cobblestone streets! Layers are always good to have on hand as well as temperatures tend to dip down at night, plus many churches (especially the Vatican) require you to cover shoulders and knees before entering. The most important thing is to be comfortable.
Rome Fiumicino Airport (FCO): How To
Arriving at Roma Fiumicino (FCO)
International flights into Rome land, for the most part, in Terminal 3. This is where you will go through customs if this is your first stop into the European Union (first thing off the plane), and where you will pick up your bags (after customs). Baggage claim is large and clearly marked in both Italian and English indicators directing you to the correct carousel to collect your luggage. If you have nothing to declare, you then follow the signs towards the exit “Uscita” to meet your car, get a cab, or find the train to Roma Termini.
Drivers & Taxis (the way to go!)
If you are meeting a driver, they should be waiting immediately outside of baggage claim with your name on a card. There is a meeting point, where if you have trouble locating your driver, you can wait and hope to be promptly collected.
If you don’t have a driver, or plan on taking a taxi from the airport into the city, you can use the services provided by the drivers offering their services in the airport exit only if they are wearing a badge. This signifies that they are certified drivers and have a standard rate for driving into the city center. You can also find a taxi service immediately outside the airport exit, which will be marked clearly with a “Taxi” sign.
The standard fare from the Rome Airport to Rome City Center is 48 euros plus one euro per bag for one car.
*Note – You do not need to tip drivers in Italy. Drivers do not expect tips, and it is not customary to leave one. This also applies to most service industry professions including waiters and waitresses. If you feel you must leave a tip, generally a 2-5 euro tip is considered very generous.
Average travel time from the airport to the center of Rome is 40-60 min depending on traffic.
Train to Roma Termini
The train to Roma Termini from the airport is easy and convenient. Plus for those on a tighter budget, the price of a ticket on the non-stop train, the Leonardo da Vinci Express, is 14 euros per person.
To find the train, exit the terminal and find your way to Terminal 3 (T3). If you arrive at a different terminal, you can take the complimentary shuttle between terminals that runs every few minutes and can be found immediately outside of the terminal exits. The shuttle runs between T1, T3, and T5 (this is the terminal you will use for outbound flights to the U.S.).
At T3 you will see an overpass and a large sign indicating the way to the train station reading “To Trains”. Once you arrive in the small airport station, you will see several ticket booths and machines offering train tickets into Rome or other destinations. You can use any of the services, sometimes paying a small service fee for them to book and print the ticket for you. I prefer to use the Frecciarossa red and white self-service machines immediately in the entrance. The self service machines are easy to use with menus also in English, and with an easy credit card payment system (accepting cards even without the chip).
There are two types of trains into Rome. The fast, non-stop train is called the Leonardo da Vinci Express, which costs 14 euros per person each way and lasts 32 minutes. The slower train takes approximately 1 hour and stops at several of Rome’s other train stations along the way, such as Roma Trastevere and Roma Ostiense. This train might be more convenient for you if you’re staying in Trastevere. The cost is approximately 6 euros per person.
Take a car service or taxi directly between Rome Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and your accommodation. The service is quick, convenient, has a set rate, and takes you directly to your door. If you take the train, you will pay for the train ticket, a cab from Roma Termini to your accommodation, plus it adds stress and uses up more of your vacation time. Not to mention the cost ends up being only a few euros less than the car service or cab ride.
Departing from Roma Fiumicino
If you are departing from FCO from Rome, I recommend using a taxi or car service to arrive at the airport. Arriving two-three hours prior to departure is recommended. If you are heading to the U.S. using a U.S. airline such as American, US Airways, Delta, or United, your flight will depart from Terminal 5 (T5). The process is generally quick and painless, and hopefully an easy start on your journey home.
If you take the train from Roma Termini to the airport, you will arrive at Roma Fiumicino at Terminal 3. To get to Terminal 5 for the U.S. airlines, exit the train station and take the complimentary shuttle that runs from the T3 exit directly to the entrance at T5.
If you are arriving from another city for an early morning flight, it is usually recommended to stay the previous night at the Rome airport. Trains running from Florence, Milan and Naples generally do not run early enough to get you to the airport with enough time to check in for flights prior to 10:30 or 11 a.m. By staying at the Rome airport the night before, you eliminate (much of) the risk of missing your flight in the morning.
To stay at the Rome airport, take a train the previous evening and stay at one of the airport hotels. You can Google or use sites like Booking.com to find your hotel. The Hilton is located immediately at the airport with easy access to terminals. The Hilton Garden Inn, and several other hotels, are located 10-15 off property but sometimes provide shuttles to and from the airport. The Hilton Garden Inn, for example, provides a free shuttle that runs regularly from 5 a.m. until midnight. Not all off-property hotels provide complimentary shuttles. For many you have to pay.