advertisement

The days when Italy was an idyllic, dirt-cheap destination for good food and countless treasures have passed, but there are still inexpensive ways to enjoy its wonders as well as its incomparable dolce vita. With some flexibility and advance planning, a moderate budget can go a long way. We're here to show you how to get your trip together and get on the road.

This is where you'll find money-saving hints, insider information, contacts, and expertise accumulated over the authors' innumerable fact-finding trips. You'll enjoy your trip even more knowing that you're getting the biggest bang for your buck, easily keeping your costs for accommodations (let's say breakfast is included), lunch, and dinner to as little as $90 per day. (We assume that two adults are traveling together and that, between the two of you, you have $180 to spend. Traveling alone has other pluses and drawbacks but usually turns out to be slightly more expensive, mostly due to the hotel factor.) The costs of transportation, activities, sightseeing, and entertainment are extra, but we have plenty of insider tips to save you money on those activities as well.

It's hard to go wrong in Italy and so easy to go right if you give some heed to the following tips.

When to Go

1. So the weather isn't always a perfect 75°F and the skies aren't always cloud free. But off-season Italy promises the biggest cuts in airfare, the beauty of popping up at small hotels (more discounted rates) without needing a reservation confirmed 3 months in advance, enjoying the blessed absence of lines at the museums, and finding the local people less harried and more accommodating.

  • May to June and September and October are the most pleasant months for touring Italy -- temperatures are usually mild and the hordes of tourists not so intense. But starting in mid-June, the summer rush really picks up, and from July to mid-September, the country teems with visitors.

    August (with July a close runner-up) is the worst month. Not only does it get uncomfortably hot, muggy, and crowded, but the entire country goes on vacation from at least August 15 to the end of the month -- and a good percentage of Italians take off the entire month, leaving the cities to the tourists. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops are closed -- except along the coast and on the islands, which is where most Italians head.

    From late October to Easter, most sights have shorter winter hours or close for renovation periods, many hotels and restaurants take a month or two off between November and February, beach destinations become padlocked ghost towns, and it can get much colder than you'd expect (it may even snow). The crowds thin remarkably, especially outside the Big Three tourist cities (Rome, Florence, and Venice).

    In mountain towns and ski resorts, high season is from mid-December through mid-March; low season is June, when many hotels are closed (which is a shame, for there's great hiking in the mountains during June's warmer days).

    High season on most airlines' routes to Italy usually stretches from June to the end of September plus Christmas/New Year's week. This is the most expensive and most crowded time to travel. Shoulder season is from the Easter season (usually late Mar or Apr) to May, late September to October, and December 15 to December 24. Low season is generally January 6 to mid-March, November 1 to December 14, and December 25 to March 31.

  • Weather

    It's warm all over Italy in summer, especially inland. The high temperatures (measured in degrees Celsius) begin in May (sometimes later for the Alps), often lasting until some time in late September. July and August can be impossible, which explains why life in the cities slows down considerably (and life in the coastline resorts comes alive). Few budget hotels have air-conditioning (and just a handful of hotels in all of Italy have discovered mosquito screens, so when you open the windows for some respite from the heat, you tend to invite dozens of tiny bloodsuckers in as well). The November rains kick off Venice's acque alte, when the lagoon backs up a few times each month, flooding the central city with .6 to 1.8m (2-6 ft.) of water (no joke).

    Winters in the north of Italy are cold, with rain and snow, and December through February can often be unpleasant unless you're skiing in Cortina. In the south, the weather is mild in the winter months, averaging 4°C and up (in the 40s F). Sicily's citrus and almond trees are already in bloom in February -- but nights can be cold, and Italian hotels' heating systems can be . . . frustrating. Purpose-built, modernized hotels in their own buildings often have independent heating/cooling systems you (or they) can control, but in older hotels and in small ones that take up only part of a building, the heat can often be turned on for the winter only on a pre-established date dictated by the local government and can be left on only during certain hours of the day (just one of the many lovely laws still hanging on from the Fascist era). Some of the cheapest hotels in Southern Italy and Sicily don't even have heating systems, so the rare cold snap can leave you shivering.

    For the most part, it's drier in Italy than in North America. Since the humidity is lower, high temperatures don't seem as bad; exceptions are cities known for their humidity factor, such as Florence and Venice. In Rome, Naples, and the south, temperatures can stay around 90°F (32°C) for days, but nights are most often comfortably cooler. It's important to remember that this is not a country as smitten by the notion of air-conditioning and central heating as, say, the United States. And remember that the inexpensive hotels we list in this book are often the very places that will remind you of the pros and cons of ancient stone palazzi built with about 1m (3-ft.) thick walls. Don't expect the comfort of the Ritz.

  • Holidays

    Offices and shops in Italy are closed on the following dates: January 1 (New Year's Day), January 6 (Epiphany, usually called La Befana after Italy's Christmas Witch, who used to bring the presents until Hollywood's version of Santa Claus moved the gift-giving to December 25 by popular kiddie demand, though a few presents are always held over for La Befana), Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, April 25 (Liberation Day), May 1 (Labor Day), August 15 (Assumption of the Virgin -- much of Italy takes its summer vacation Aug 15-30), November 1 (All Saints' Day), December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), December 25 (Christmas Day), and December 26 (Santo Stefano); most Italians' Christmas holidays last from December 24 though January 6.

    Closings are also observed in the following cities on feast days honoring their patron saints: Venice, April 25 (St. Mark); Florence, Genoa, and Turin, June 24 (St. John the Baptist); Rome, June 29 (Sts. Peter and Paul); Palermo, July 15 (St. Rosalia); Naples, September 19 (St. Gennaro); Bologna, October 4 (St. Petronio); Cagliari, October 30 (St. Saturnino); Trieste, November 3 (St. Giusto); Bari, December 6 (St. Nicola); and Milan, December 7 (St. Ambrose).

    Hot Tickets: For major events where tickets should be procured well before arriving on the spot, check with Global Tickets in the United States at tel. 800/223-6108 or www.globaltickets.com/GTS/INDEX.HTM. In Italy, call tel. 02-54271.

2. An enjoyable, affordable trip begins long before you leave home. Do your cyber homework: Surf the Internet and save. There are lots and lots of webpages and online services designed to clue you in on discounted airfares, accommodations, and car rentals.

3. Prefer the face-to-face help of a professional? No problem. Visit a reliable travel agency; they often have access to deals and packages you wouldn't find on your own. It doesn't cost you a thing, and there's no obligation to buy. It never hurts to ask.

Airfare and Packages

4. When calling the airlines directly, always ask for the lowest possible fare. Be flexible in your schedule -- flying on weekdays versus weekends, or even at a different time of day, can make a substantial difference. Find out the exact dates of the seasonal rates; these differ from airline to airline even though the destination stays the same. Some flights into or out of Rome versus Milan may differ in price. Don't forget to ask about discounts for seniors, students, or children.

5. Buy your ticket well in advance. Most airlines discount tickets are purchased 7, 14, or 21 days before the departure dates.

6. Or buy your ticket at the last minute -- something best recommended if you have a flexible schedule and are traveling off season when availability is more probable.

  • Surfing for Airfares

    The "big three" online travel agencies, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, and Orbitz.com, sell most of the air tickets bought on the Internet. (Canadian travelers should try www.expedia.ca and www.travelocity.ca; U.K. residents can go to www.expedia.co.uk and www.opodo.co.uk.) Each has different business deals with the airlines and may offer different fares on the same flights, so it's wise to shop around. Expedia and Travelocity will also send you e-mail notification when a cheap fare becomes available to your favorite destination. Of the smaller travel agency websites, SideStep (www.sidestep.com) has gotten the best reviews from Frommer's authors. It's a browser add-on (you have to download it) that "searches 140 sites at once," saving you the trouble of doing so independently, but it works only on PCs. Also check out Web-based www.cheapflights.com and new-aggregators-on-the-block www.kayak.com,www.mobissimo.com and www.qixo.com for major airline fares, consolidator offers, and other great deals.

    Also remember to check airline websites, especially those for Europe's 40-odd low-cost/no-frills carriers like easyJet (www.easyjet.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), whose fares are often misreported or simply missing from travel agency websites. You can find them all gathered at www.nofrillsair.com. Even with major airlines, you can often shave a few bucks from a fare by booking directly through the airline and avoiding a travel agency's transaction fee. But you'll get these discounts only by booking online: Most airlines now offer online-only fares that even their phone agents know nothing about. For the websites of airlines that fly to and from your destination, go to "Getting There," below.

    Great last-minute deals are available through free weekly e-mail services provided directly by the airlines. Most of these are announced on Tuesday or Wednesday and must be purchased online. Most are valid only for travel that weekend, but some can be booked weeks or months in advance. Sign up for weekly e-mail alerts at airline websites or check megasites that compile comprehensive lists of last-minute specials, such as Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com). For last-minute trips, Site59.com and Lastminutetravel.com in the U.S., and Lastminute.com in Europe often have better air-and-hotel package deals than the major-label sites. A website listing numerous bargain sites and airlines around the world is www.itravelnet.com.

    If you're willing to give up some control over your flight details, use an opaque fare service like Priceline (www.priceline.com; www.priceline.co.uk for Europeans) or Hotwire (www.hotwire.com). Both offer rock-bottom prices in exchange for travel on a "mystery airline" at a mysterious time of day, often with a mysterious change of planes en route. The mystery airlines are all major, well-known carriers -- and the possibility of being sent from Philadelphia to Chicago via Tampa is remote; the airlines' routing computers have gotten a lot better than they used to be. But your chances of getting a 6am or 11pm flight are pretty high. Hotwire tells you flight prices before you buy; Priceline usually has better deals than Hotwire, but you have to play their "name our price" game. If you're new at this, the helpful folks at BiddingForTravel (www.biddingfortravel.com) do a good job of demystifying Priceline's prices. Priceline and Hotwire are great for flights within North America and between the U.S. and Europe. But for flights to other parts of the world, consolidators will almost always beat their fares. Note: In 2004, Priceline added nonopaque service to its roster. You now have the option to pick exact flights, times, and airlines from a list of offers -- or opt to bid on opaque fares as before.

7. Be an educated traveler. Read the travel section of your local newspaper (especially weekend editions) for special promotional fares and discounts.

8. Check your newspaper for consolidators or wholesalers, once more frequently known as "bucket shops." These companies operate by alleviating blocks of unsold tickets from the major international airlines. It's still not a bad idea to check their records first with the Better Business Bureau, but most operate firmly aboveboard and offer substantial savings, particularly off season.

9. Check escorted trips and package deals. Escorted tours are structured group tours, with a group leader. They are ideal for those who prefer the security of traveling with a group and don't want to be bothered with the details. Even if you're not a groupie, the air and hotel savings alone make escorted tours worth considering; in fact, many trips are unstructured enough to let you split from the group and do your own thing. You might even wind up preferring the companionship of the others on board and the luxury of having every day's bothersome details prearranged. Air/hotel packages (often offered by the airlines themselves) also offer great savings, though hotels are sometimes on the outskirts of towns (hence the big discounts); check their locations first if this is important to you.

To see our suggestions for some of the best providers of escorted trips and package deals, go to www.frommers.com/articles/2606.html.

Getting Around

10. Domestic or one-way flights within Italy (or Europe) can be killers. The most distant flights within Italy (Venice to Palermo, for example) might be contenders for air travel, but opt for the train at a fraction of the cost, breaking up your travel times with overnight stops planned along the way. There is never a shortage of sights between any two points.

All major airports have rail or bus service to get you to and from downtown -- Rome and Pisa's convenient trains pull right into the airport itself. Taxis are expensive though tempting to jet-lagged travelers laden with luggage.

11. Which reminds us: Travel lightly! You'll never wear or need half of the stuff you're convinced you can't live without. The inconvenience you'll find at every turn is what you'll remember long after your trip! What you'll save on cabs, porters, and energy can be considerable. Never take more than you can carry single-handedly when running for a bus or train.

12. Train travel in Italy has improved immeasurably since the 1970s and 1980s. The newer Intercity trains are clean and efficient enough to make second-class travel a near first-class experience. The fancy, fast-paced EuroStar trains can cut speed, but is a 1-hour (or less) difference worth the extra cost?

13. Map out your strategy before you leave to see if a rail pass will save you or cost you money (you can find a list of the various Italian ones offered, as well as purchase them, at www.raileurope.com). On long international stretches of train travel, the former is usually true. Within Italy, buying second-class point-to-point tickets as you go may save you money. Most rail passes are cheapest when purchased at home before you leave.

14. Use public transportation in cities rather than taxis. It offers a peek into the daily lifestyles of the local residents. Most concentrated historical districts make sightseeing most enjoyable when done on foot; in the large cities like Rome or Milan, consider daily or weekly passes for unlimited travel on buses or subways.

Car Rentals

15. Call around to all the major car-rental agencies; promotional rates sometimes make the big boys the best. Make a reservation before you leave home, but make one last inquiry before getting on the plane to see if any new, lower rates have been introduced in the meantime. Making your reservation before you leave for Italy is almost always a guaranteed money saver.

16. Ask questions about waivers and insurance suggested and required by the rental agency, and then check with your credit card company to see what they offer before booking. Don't wind up paying for the same coverage twice or getting charged for extraneous coverage that is recommended but not obligatory.

17. Aim for the least expensive economy car category (unless you'll be driving long autostrada stretches when it will seem you're standing still as virtually every other vehicle zips by). If you're told an economy car is unavailable in an attempt to have you book the next most expensive model, call elsewhere. Know in advance that almost all rental cars in Italy are stick shift; booking an automatic transmission -- if any are available -- will hike the price considerably. Air-conditioning will also cost extra, so consider the weather you'll be encountering.

18. Book the weekly rates to save -- but keep in mind parking costs inside the cities. Booking a car for just a day or so sojourn in the country can be an expensive venture. But booking for a longer period, only to have the car sit in an expensive parking lot (almost all historic centers now ban car traffic entirely), makes little sense either. Weigh the variables to see what's most economical for you. If you plan to spend a week in a city and a week in t

19. Parking is a nightmare in Italy, and the police are serious about enforcing tow-away zones. Don't try to conserve parking-lot costs by parking on the streets if you're not sure what the street signs say (a red slashed circle filled in with blue means no parking; spaces painted with blue lines mean you have to pay, either at a meter or to a parking official; yellow lines mean handicapped parking; white lines mean you need a local permit, which, only if you're lucky, your hotel can supply). The cost of retrieving a towed car is only half as bad as the hassle of trying to find it and get it back without the incident ruining your entire trip.

20. If you decide to rent once you're already in Italy, check out the prices and then call a friend back home and ask him or her to book for you from there if the rates are less; they almost always are.

21. Always return your rental car full of gas, or the rental agency will charge you for it, usually at top euro. Don't have heart failure at the cost of gas (benzina) in Italy: It is some of Europe's most expensive. The cars get excellent mileage, however, and you won't have to fill up often.

22. The largest cities may have car-rental offices at both the airport and downtown. There is often an extra charge to pick up at one and drop off at another; using downtown branches is almost always cheaper. To pick up and drop off in two different cities is even worse. In two different countries -- better take the train.

Accommodations

23. If you're traveling during high season (roughly Easter through Sept or Oct), book early. You won't get any discounts, but you won't be forced to spend more by upgrading just to find a vacancy in town.

24. If the idea doesn't faze you, consider a less expensive room with a shared bathroom instead of an en suite private bathroom. Ask how many rooms will be sharing the bathroom -- sometimes it is as few as two; if the other room is vacant, the bathroom will be yours alone.

25. Many of the hotels listed in this book don't advertise seasonal rates, but some discount is usually offered during the slow periods. Always ask. The more nights you stay, the more you're likely to get a discount. The way you approach the subject is very important: A smile and a pretty-please upon check-in is always more successful than a hard-nosed demand. If it's a slow month and late afternoon, the advantage is yours.

26. Don't underestimate the power of Frommer's. Mention Frommer's Italy on $90 a Day in your faxed request or flash the book upon check-in to notify the hotel from whence you come. Most of the worthier hotels we list year after year are very appreciative of the volume and quality of travelers (that's you) that we bring to their establishments, and they're apt to do their best to accommodate you when and if possible.

27. Is your room so dismal you could just cry? Keep cool and polite, but voice your disappointment and ask if you can be shown another room. Be specific about what bothers you -- a different room might have a firmer mattress or brighter lighting that would better meet your needs. You might even get upgraded at no extra cost. Don't resort to drama and histrionics.

28. Single rooms in Italy can be downright minuscule. If you're traveling alone and it's off season, ask if the management might be so kind as to offer you a double room at a single occupancy rate. Many of them will if the rooms are available; always ask.

29. Before arranging your own parking, check first with your hotel. Hotels often have a standing deal with a nearby parking facility. In Venice, hotels will give you a voucher to present at the parking lots on the outskirts of town.

30. Breakfast. Is it included or not? Always ask, and ask if it is continental or buffet. If they expect you to pay 5€ ($5.75) per person (for example) for a prepackaged month-old cornetto (croissant) and cup of mediocre coffee, check out the charming outdoor cafe down the block instead. If the self-service, all-you-can-eat buffet of cold cuts, fresh rolls, juice, yogurt, and -- well, you get the drift -- is offered in a simpatico setting and will keep you going till dinner, dig in, enjoy yourself, and grab an apple for the road.

31. Never make telephone calls from your room if you can avoid it, especially long-distance ones. The service charge and taxes tagged on to the briefest call home will ruin the moment of enjoyment it brought. Use calling cards at public phones or arrange to have your family call you at designated hours. Or rent or buy a cellphone with global-roaming capabilities.

32. The "frigo bar" (minibar) is a mixed blessing. That Diet Coke (Coca Lite) and Toblerone candy bar can set you back an easy $10. Check the price list before giving in to hunger pangs, and know what you're about to eat -- it might not taste that good.

33. Each hotel's policy regarding children is different, so be specific regarding your kids' ages when you book: Generally speaking, children under 12 (sometimes 10) stay for free in the parents' room. Remember: There's no fudging the children's age with the obligatory presentation of the passport upon check-in.

  • Surfing for Hotels

    Shopping online for hotels is much easier in the U.S., Canada, and certain parts of Europe than it is in the rest of the world. If you try to book a Chinese hotel online, for instance, you'll probably overpay, but for Europe, the system is as svelte as is it in the U.S. However, note that most smaller hotels and B&Bs (especially outside the U.S.) don't show up on these booking engine websites at all -- a shame since, by and large, those smaller places tend to be the most charming and least expensive. In other words, it can be a good resource for booking a room in a four-star, multinational chain hotel, but not so good for that cheap local B&B or pensione.

    Of the "big three" sites, Expedia offers a long list of special deals and "virtual tours" or photos of available rooms so you can see what you're paying for (a feature that helps counter the claims that the best rooms are often held back from bargain-booking websites). Travelocity posts unvarnished customer reviews and ranks its properties according to the AAA rating system. Also reliable are Hotels.com and Quikbook.com. An excellent free program, TravelAxe (www.travelaxe.net), can help you search multiple hotel sites at once, even ones you may never have heard of -- and conveniently lists the total price of the room, including the taxes and service charges.

    Another booking site, Travelweb (www.travelweb.com), is partly owned by the hotels it represents (including the Hilton, Hyatt, and Starwood chains) and is therefore plugged directly into the hotels' reservations systems -- unlike independent online agencies, which have to fax or e-mail reservation requests to the hotel, a good portion of which get misplaced in the shuffle. More than once, travelers have arrived at the hotel only to be told that they have no reservation. To be fair, many of the major sites are undergoing improvements in service and ease of use, and Expedia will soon be able to plug directly into the reservations systems of many hotel chains -- none of which can be bad news for consumers. In the meantime, it's a good idea to get a confirmation number and make a printout of any online booking transaction.

    Another trick is to look at European-based sites such as www.eurocheapo.com, www.octopustravel.com and www.venere.com, which not offer hotel rooms but apartment rentals as well.

    In the opaque website category, Priceline and Hotwire are even better for hotels than for airfares; with both, you're allowed to pick the neighborhood and quality level of your hotel before offering up your money. Priceline's hotel product even covers Europe and Asia, though it's much better at getting five-star lodging for three-star prices than at finding anything at the bottom of the scale. On the downside, many hotels stick Priceline guests in their least desirable rooms. Be sure to go to the BiddingforTravel website before bidding on a hotel room on Priceline; it features a fairly up-to-date list of hotels that Priceline uses in major cities. For both Priceline and Hotwire, you pay upfront, and the fee is nonrefundable. Note: Some hotels do not provide loyalty program credits or points or other frequent-stay amenities when you book a room through opaque online services.

Eating

34. Take advantage of Italy's cornucopia of excellent bakeries and food stores, and make every lunch a picnic. Yes, you'll save more to spend on dinner, but you'll also wind up enjoying a four-star lunch in an opera-set piazza.

35. It's lunchtime and it's rainy or cold, or you just need to sit indoors for a while, but an expensive meal is out of your budget. Italy is slowly leaning toward the affordable quick lunch. Bars and cafes are serving informal lunches of pastas and salads as much to local merchants and workers as to cost-conscious travelers, usually for 6€ to 7€ ($6.90-$8.05) or less.

36. If you're running over your day's budget (sometimes it's hard to stay away from that Italian leather!), remember that this is the country that gave us pizza and wine. Find a pizzeria with outdoor seating, order a carafe of the house wine (vino della casa), and eat like a king (spend like a poor man). Save your three-course trattoria meal for a more solvent day.

37. Tourist menus (menu turistico) or fixed-price menus (menu a prezzo fisso) sound like a good deal and often are. But portions may be smaller, choices less varied or uninspired (expect the ubiquitous spaghetti with tomato sauce and roast chicken). Menus are usually posted in restaurant windows, so peruse your choices before entering and ordering.

38. If you aren't accustomed to eating so much but want to taste it all, order a mezza porzione (half portion) of pasta for your first course so you have room left for your second course -- and be charged accordingly. Most restaurants will gladly oblige.

39. The rule of thumb in this cafe society: Always expect to pay more at a table than at the bar, more at an outdoor table (consider it your cover charge for the free piazza-life entertainment). That said, don't expect to be rushed: For the cost of an iced tea or mineral water, you can sit and write postcards for hours and never overstay your welcome.

40. If you've been snacking all day and would be happy with just a good plate of pasta and not a full-blown repast, make sure you choose your restaurant well. You might anger some establishments if you occupy a table for a single-course dinner and not the full 9 yards. Casual, informal neighborhood joints won't give a second thought if you want to linger over a simple pasta, salad, and glass of wine.

House wines can be surprisingly good and inexpensive. Enjoying a good bottled wine will bring your bill up a notch, but hey, that's probably what you're visiting Italy for anyway. Stick with wines of the region, and experiment with some of the small-time, lesser-known (but not necessarily less sophisticated) wine producers of the area. If you're really strapped for cash, go with the mineral water, then stop off at a wine bar after dinner and choose one very special cru-by-the-glass in a convivial ambiente.

Sightseeing

41. Make a beeline for the Tourist Information Office to check out special events, free concerts, arts festivals, and so on, to maximize your (always too brief) stay in town. Some museums offer one evening a week free. Outdoor evening or church concerts are free, not infrequent, and lovely. Ask your hotel staff; they are often more helpful and informed than the tourism people.

For general information in your home country, try your local branch of the Italian Government Tourist Board (ENIT) or the ENIT-sponsored website www.enit.it. Each city and town lists its own websites for visitor information, and you can find plenty of other official links at the Italian Government Tourist Board's site, www.italiantourism.com. Some Frommer's readers have reported that the office isn't really that helpful.

Good general websites include In Italy On-line (www.initaly.com), with details on accommodations, tours, festivals, shopping, and more; the Italian Tourist Web Guide (www.itwg.com), with online hotel reservations and information on art and history; and Italy in a Flash (www.italyflash.com), offering hotel information, railway and airline schedules, the latest exchange rates, weather, and current news.

42. To get the most out of always-increasing museum admissions, see if you can buy tickets in advance to eliminate waiting in line. Always ask about senior and student discounts. Extended hours for summer months are often confirmed at the last minute (and, therefore, are not reflected in guidebooks) and are not widely publicized: If you're in the know, you might have Florence's Uffizi Galleries to yourself at 10 in the evening -- put a price on that! Speaking of which, many museums are often open for free 1 day a month (it'll be crowded but, well, free). You can find this info and more like it at www.europeforfree.com.

43. More and more cities are offering joint tickets or passes for both major and minor museums. You might be able to get admission to as many as 10 museums over an open period of time. But study which museums are included -- they are often obscure and esoteric collections that are of little interest or inconveniently located for the tourist on a tight schedule.

44. Free, do-it-yourself walking tours are a viable substitute for the expensive, escorted tours. But the latter are worth your while if your time in town is extremely limited and the sites are many. Before signing up for a half- or full-day tour, find out exactly which sites will be visited so you don't miss those of most interest to you.

45. Don't shortchange yourself on people-watching in Italy, the single great pastime that has been perfected here as an art form, and the best free entertainment you're bound to see anywhere. Pull up a cafe chair and settle in; to avoid any charge at all, a piazza bench will do fine.

  • Prime Sightseeing Hours

    One mistake many people make when scheduling their hopping from hill town to hill town is getting up early in the morning to travel to the next destination. Because many of Italy's sights are open only in the morning and almost all close for riposo (afternoon rest) from noonish to 3 or 4pm, this wastes valuable sightseeing time. I do my traveling just after noon, when everything is closing up. There's often a last train before riposo to wherever you're going or a country bus run (intended to shuttle schoolchildren home for lunch). If you're driving, you can enjoy great countryside vistas under the noonday sun.

Shopping

46. Before splurging on that fragile glassware from Venice or hand-painted ceramic platter from Deruta, consider the cost of shipping, which can double an otherwise respectable price. Do you really want to carry a package around for the rest of your trip? Some stores don't offer shipping at all, and doing the job yourself (buying packing supplies and so on) can be troublesome and time consuming. Insurance hikes the cost even further.

47. Pay by credit card as often as possible: The fewer transaction fees (incurred by ATMs or changing traveler's checks to cash) incurred, the more saved.

48. Alas, bargaining in Italy, once a theatrical and generally enjoyable part of every purchase, is fast becoming a dying animal. But if you're buying more than one item, paying by cash or traveler's checks, are in an open-air market, and/or have struck up a friendly banter with the merchant, give it a shot. The best time to test your talents is during the slow months, when the shop looks like it's hungry for business.

49. Don't forget to cash in on your value-added tax (VAT; IVA in Italy) if you qualify. Millions of dollars of unclaimed refunds are the result of forgetful or uninformed tourists.

Most purchases have a built-in IVA of 17.36%. Non-E.U. (European Union) citizens are entitled to a refund of this tax if they spend more than 154.94€ ($173; before tax) at any one store. To claim your refund, request an invoice from the cashier at the store and take it to the Customs office (dogana) at the airport to have it stamped before you leave. Note: If you're going to another E.U. country before flying home, have it stamped at the airport Customs office of the last E.U. country you'll be visiting (if you're flying home via Britain, for example, have your Italian invoices stamped in London).

Once back home, mail the stamped invoice back to the store within 90 days of the purchase, and they'll send you a refund check. Many shops are now part of the Tax Free for Tourists network. (Look for the sticker in the window.) Stores participating in this network issue a check along with your invoice at the time of purchase. After you have the invoice stamped at Customs, you can redeem the check for cash directly at the tax-free booth in the airport, or mail it back in the envelope provided within 60 days. For more info, check out www.globalrefund.com.

50. By now the world is a village. Be realistic about what you can and cannot find back home among the legion of made-in-Italy souvenirs you're dying to snatch up. Do you really want to spend a precious afternoon in Florence tracking down a pair of black leather gloves that are a dime a dozen at home, when your time could be far better spent gazing upon the wonder of Michelangelo's David?

Editor's Note: Do you have your own tips to suggest? Please, share them in our popular Message Boards covering Italy by clicking here.