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Italy remains a top destination choice for U.S. travelers, and spring marks the beginning of the high tourism season with a combination of pilgrimage tourists visiting Rome for Easter (hundreds of thousands of devotees attend the Easter weekend masses in St. Peter's Square annually) and regular tourists who choose springtime to take advantage of mild weather and clear skies.

I am biased when it comes to Italy, having lived there for a year, studied there and returned as often as was humanly possible over the past twenty years. Each time I return, there is more to discover and learn even in the cities I know as well as the one in where I was born. Even with all the history and antiquity that underlies Italy, there is a sense of modernism and innovation. Where else do you see two thousand year old columns gracing the entry of a funky new high tech bar or state of the art electric buses squeezing down streets that were designed for Roman sandaled feet and horses?

I won't sugar coat it, traveling to Italy in the spring can be costly, both in terms of your airfare and your accommodation. But don't despair -- every euro spent is an investment in your cultural educational and each meal is like eating food for the very first time. Plus there are affordable options out there, if you know where to look.

One suggestion is to spend minimal time in the traditional tourism cities -- Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa, especially if you have visited them before. Italy has so many magnificent cities and smaller towns that are waiting to be explored -- like the Greek stronghold city of Syracuse in Sicily, the mural-filled city of Orgosolo in Sardinia, the Medieval towers of Bologna, the majesty of Trento, spiritual Assisi or the remoteness of the island of Elba. Rather than get trampled by busloads of tourists in Pompeii, try Herculaneum, the volcano-destroyed site on the other side of Mt Vesuvius that is equally as fascinating and accessible. Instead of Lake Como, try Lake Garda or Lake Orta and vacation like the Italians do. My strongest suggestion would be to do your research, read about each region of the country and try to get off the beaten path somewhat.

Tourcrafters (tel. 800/621-2259; www.tourcrafters.com) can help you down that road less traveled with two northern Italy packages available for travel from now until May 31, 2006. Their five-day "Italian Riviera in Primavera" package starts at $799 and includes round-trip air from New York to Milan, five-days' car rental, accommodations at the four-star Hotel Europa in Rapallo or the Hotel Continental in Santa Margherita Ligure, daily breakfast and hotel service charges and taxes. Have the freedom (and the wheels) to visit quaint villages and ports along the Ligurian coastline including Portofino and Cinque Terre. Hotel upgrades are available, as are extra days (which I am sure you want once you arrive). To enjoy this package from Boston add $30, $60 from Washington, D.C., $135 from Miami, $169 from Chicago, and $175 from Los Angeles, San Jose or San Francisco.

Their "Taste of Bologna" package is priced from $929 per person for departures on May 11, 18 and 25, 2006. It includes round-trip airfare from New York to Bologna, round-trip airport transfers, three-nights' stay at a four-star Bologna Hotel (The Orologio, Commercianti, Novecento or Corona D'Oro), an aperitif at the Duca d'Amalfi, dinner & jazz show at Cantine Bentivoglio, a Bologna bus tour, entrance to the Downtown Historical Museum, bicycle rental, guided tour of the Bologna crafters shops, buffet breakfast daily and hotel service charges and taxes. If three nights are not enough, add on an extension package like the "Tuscan Countryside and Cinque Terre" which gives you four- nights with breakfast at Villa Tenuta la Bandita, located in Sassetta in Northern Tuscany (less than eight miles from the Mediterranean sea) and four-days car rental. Close to Pisa and Florence but also less than two hours away from the Cinque Terre the Villa is the perfect location to visit this beautiful area of Italy. This add-on is priced at $309 per person. The "Umbria Countryside" extension package is priced at $389 and includes four-days car rental, one-night in Bologna and three-nights at Relais Villa Valenti with breakfast daily. The Villa is located in the small antique village of San Venanzo in Umbria, a few miles from Todi. From here it is a short drive to some of the most beautiful cities of the region including Orvieto, Spoleto, Perugia, Montefalco, Deruta, and Assisi.

Foreign Independent Tours (tel. 800/248-3487; www.fittours.com) has several budget-minded combos to Italy. You can spend a week at the Arco Naturale Country House, once a 16th century Friar's convent and now an elegant vacation residence located outside Siena, only an hour's drive from Florence and Perugia. The package includes round-trip airfare on Alitalia from Boston or Philadelphia to Rome, fuel surcharge, six-nights at Arco Naturale Country House in Cetona, near Siena, breakfast daily, two days of cooking classes, a wine tour at the Podere Case al Vento and a 10-percent discount at the hotel restaurant and a nearby spa. You will probably want to have a car to get around the area, and they can help arrange rental for you for a week for approximately $235 that includes unlimited mileage. Prices start at $1,279 per person for departures between now and May 19 or $1,399 for departures from May 20 to 31, 2006. June packages are priced from $1,599.

Or stay at the Bellevue Syrene, built on the foundations of an 2nd-Century villa overlooking the Bay of Naples on the Amalfi Coast with a special package that includes round-trip airfare on Alitalia from Boston or Philadelphia to Rome or Naples, fuel Surcharge, six-night at the Bellevue Syrene, Sorrento (most rooms with balcony overlooking the sea), breakfast daily, a full-day tour of Pompeii, a full-day tour of the Amalfi Coast, a half-day tour of the countryside including cheese factory stop and tastings and access to the hotel's pool, gym, Roman bath, and private beach. This package is priced from $2,199 for departures from now until May 31, 2006. June trips are priced from $2,329.

Tour Vacations To Go (tel. 800/680-2858; www.tourvacationstogo.com) has a vast selection of tours to Italy for all ages, budgets and desires. The Globus "Best of Southern Italy 2006" is an 11-day tour that includes round-trip airfare from New York, airport transfers, nine-nights' deluxe accommodations, breakfast daily, six dinners, an extensive sightseeing itinerary and entrance fees. Visit Rome (the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel), Capri, Sorrento, Taormina, Syracuse, Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples, The Roman Villa of Casale at Piazza Armerina, Selinunte, Palermo, Monreale and the village of Mondello. For the April 20, 2006 departure, this grand tour is priced at $2,206 per person based on double occupancy (or $1,749 for land-only). The May 4 and May 11, 2006 departures go up significantly in prices to $2,984 or $1,899 land-only. June rates peak at $3,323.

The Cosmos "Best of Italy" tour is a 14-day budget vacation that includes round-trip airfare from New York, 12-nights' accommodations (Pineta Palace in Rome, Hotel Europa near Florence, the Simplon or Splendid Hotel in Baveno, Hotel Poppi in Mira near Venice, Holiday Inn Express in Foligno and the Reginella or the Revage in St Agata near Sorrento), local guides for city sightseeing in Rome, Florence, Venice and Pompeii; the services of a professional tour director, touring by private first-class air-conditioned motorcoach, canal transfer boat in Venice, boat transfer to Capri,12-buffet breakfasts and four-dinners. Tour highlights are visits to Pisa, Santa Margherita, Lake Maggiore, Milan, Sirmione, Verona, Ravenna, Assisi, Sorrento, Capri, the Tuscan countryside, Italian Riviera, Italian Lake District and Bay of Naples. This package is priced from $2,160 for the April 20 or 27, 2006 departure ($1,390 land-only) or $2,306 for departures on May 1, 8, 15 and 22, 2006 ($140 land-only). Summer rates peak at $2,667 ($1,440 land-only).

If you have limited time and want to stick to the main cities and a budget, Gate1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) has a 10-day independent "Italy by Rail" package from $1,599 per person based on double share. For this price you get airfare from New York to Venice and return to New York from Rome (or from Washington, D.C.), airline fuel surcharges, eight-nights accommodation (two in Venice at the Olimpia Hotel, three in Florence at Meridiana or Delle Nazioni Hotel and three in Rome at the Portamaggiore Hotel), arrival and departure transfers, train transportation between cities with reserved seats and breakfast daily. This price is valid for departures on April 23 and 30 and May 7, 14 and 21. May 28 and June 4, 11 and 18 departures are priced from $1,999. Add approximately $8 from Boston, $26 from Chicago, $67 from Dallas and $136 from Los Angeles.

For an independent approach, 1800 Fly Europe (tel. 800/359-3876; www.1800flyeurope.com) has "Spring Rome Fly-Drive" packages that give you a low price for midweek departures from now until May 28, 2006 including round-trip airfare and a car rental to suit your specific needs. You can choose size three- or seven-day rental terms. Sample airfare and rental rates on an economy car include:

  • New York: $489 (3-days) or $583 (7-days)
  • Boston: $519 or $611
  • Washington, D.C.: $547 or $640
  • Miami/Chicago: $593 or $685
  • Atlanta: $615 or $708

Travelocity (tel. 888/872-8356; www.travelocity.com) has round-trip airfares to Rome from New York during May and June (midweek departures) from $564 on United Airlines & Austrian Airlines, $565 on British Airways and $575 on TAP Air Portugal or Czech Airways. Taxes are additional.

Talk with fellow Frommer's readers on our Italy Message Boards today.