American Express -- Offices are found in Rome at Piazza di Spagna 38 (tel. 06-67641), in Florence on Via Dante Alighieri 22 (tel. 055-50981), in Venice at San Marco 1471 (tel. 041-5200844), and in Milan at Via Larga 4 (tel. 02/721-041). See individual city listings.
ATMs -- The easiest and best way to get cash away from home -- the Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and your daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Banks that are members of the Global ATM Alliance charge no transaction fees for cash withdrawals at other Alliance member ATMs; these include Bank of America, Scotiabank (Canada, Caribbean, and Mexico), Barclays (U.K. and parts of Africa), and Deutsche Bank (Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy), and BNP Paribus (France).
Business Hours -- Regular business hours are generally Monday through Friday from 9am (sometimes 9:30am) to 1pm and 3:30 (sometimes 4pm) to 7 or 7:30pm. In July and August, offices might not open in the afternoon until 4:30 or 5pm. Banks are open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 1 or 1:30pm and 2 or 2:30 to 4pm, and are closed all day Saturday, Sunday, and national holidays. The riposo (midafternoon closing) is often observed in Rome, Naples, and most southern cities; however, in Milan and other northern and central cities, the custom has been abolished by some merchants. Most shops are closed on Sunday, except for certain tourist-oriented stores that are now permitted to remain open on Sunday during the high season. If you're in Italy in summer and the heat is intense, we suggest that you, too, learn the custom of the riposo.
Car Rentals -- The three major rental companies in Italy are Avis (tel. 800/331-1084; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/472-3325; www.budget.com), and Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com). U.S.-based companies specializing in European car rentals are Auto Europe (tel. 888/223-5555; www.autoeurope.com), Europe by Car (tel. 800/223-1516, or 212/581-3040 in New York; www.europebycar.com), and Kemwel Drive Europe (tel. 877/820-0668; www.kemwel.com).
Currency -- The euro became the official currency of Italy and 11 other participating countries on January 1, 1999. At the time of this writing, US$1 was worth approximately .68€. Inversely stated, 1€ was worth approximately US$1.45.
Driving Rules -- Drive on the right; pass on the left. Use your seat belts! Careless or reckless drivers face fines; serious violators could land themselves in prison!
Drugstores -- At every drugstore (farmacia) there's a list of those that are open at night and on Sunday.
Electricity -- The electricity in Italy varies considerably. It's usually alternating current (AC), varying from 42 to 50 cycles. The voltage can be anywhere from 115 to 220. It's recommended that any visitor carrying electrical appliances obtain a transformer. Most laptops and cellphone chargers are dual voltage, operating at either 100 volts or 200 volts. That means that only an adapter is required. Check the exact local current at the hotel where you're staying. Plugs have prongs that are round, not flat; therefore, an adapter plug is also needed.
Wherever you go, bring a connection kit of the right power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable -- or find out whether your hotel supplies them to guests.
Embassies & Consulates -- In case of an emergency, embassies have a 24-hour referral service.
The U.S. Embassy is in Rome at Via Vittorio Veneto 121 (tel. 06-46-741; fax 06-46-74-2244). U.S. consulates are in Florence, at Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 38 (tel. 055-266-951; fax 055-215-550), and in Milan, at Via Principe Amedeo 2-10 (tel. 02-29-03-51; fax 02-2903-5273). There's also a consulate in Naples on Piazza della Repubblica 1 (tel. 081-583-8111; fax 081-761-1804). The consulate in Genoa is at Via Dante 2 (tel. 010-58-44-92; fax 010-55-33-033). There is also a consulate in Palermo (Sicily) at Via Vaccarini 1 (tel. 091-305-857; fax 091-625-6026). For consulate hours, see individual city listings.
The Canadian Consulate and passport service is in Rome at Via Zara 30 (tel. 06-854441). The Canadian Embassy in Rome is at Via Salaria 243 (tel. 06-85444-2911; fax 06-445-982912). The Canadian Consulate in Naples is at Via Carducci 29 (tel. 081-401338; fax 081-410210).
The British Embassy is in Rome at Via XX Settembre 80 (tel. 06-422-00001; fax 06-42202334). The British Consulate in Florence is at Lungarno Corsini 2 (tel. 055-284-133; fax 055-219-112). The Consulate General in Naples is at Via Dei Mille 40 (tel. 081-4238-911; fax 081-422-434). In Milan, contact the office at Via San Paolo 7 (tel. 02-723-001; fax 02-869-2405).
The Australian Embassy is in Rome at Via Antonio Bosio 5 (tel. 06-852-721; fax 06-852-723-00). The Australian Consulate in Milan is at Via Borgogna 2 (tel. 02-77-70-41).
The New Zealand Embassy is in Rome at Via Zara 28 (tel. 06-441-7171; fax 06-440-2984). The Irish Embassy in Rome is at Piazza di Campitelli 3 (tel. 06-697-9121; fax 06-679-2354).
Emergencies -- Dial tel. 113 for ambulance, police, or fire. In case of a car breakdown, dial tel. 803-116 at the nearest telephone box; the nearest Automobile Club of Italy (ACI) will be notified to come to your aid.
Etiquette & Customs -- Some churches may require that you wear appropriate attire: Men need to wear long pants, and women must have their knees and shoulders covered in order to enter.
Hospitals -- For emergencies requiring an ambulance, call tel. 113.
Insurance -- For travel overseas, most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home.
As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you're traveling to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com; for general information on services, call the company's Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710).
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas.
Travelers from the U.K. should carry their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which replaced the E111 form as proof of entitlement to free/reduced cost medical treatment abroad (tel. 0845 606 2030; www.ehic.org.uk). Note, however, that the EHIC only covers "necessary medical treatment," and for repatriation costs, lost money, baggage, or cancellation, travel insurance from a reputable company should always be sought (www.travelinsuranceweb.com).
Travel Insurance: The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the cost of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information for prices from more than a dozen companies.
U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a wide range of providers for single- and multitrip policies.
Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain's Consumers' Association recommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct (tel. 0870/033-9988; www.columbusdirect.net).
Trip Cancellation Insurance: Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and State Department advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" cancellation coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages. For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com), Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com), Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com), and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
Language -- Italian, of course, is the language of the land, but English is generally understood at most attractions such as museums and at most hotels and restaurants that cater to visitors. Even if few staff members at a restaurant, for example, speak English, one person almost always does and can be summoned. As you travel in remote towns and villages, especially in the south, a Berlitz Italian phrase book is a handy accompaniment.
Legal Aid -- The consulate of your country is the place to turn for legal aid, although offices can't interfere in the Italian legal process. They can, however, inform you of your rights and provide a list of attorneys. You'll have to pay for the attorney out of your pocket -- there's no free legal assistance. If you're arrested for a drug offense, about all the consulate will do is notify a lawyer about your case and perhaps inform your family.
Liquor Laws -- Wine with meals has been a normal part of family life for hundreds of years in Italy. Children are exposed to wine at an early age, and consumption of alcohol isn't anything out of the ordinary. There's no legal drinking age for buying or ordering alcohol. Alcohol is sold day and night throughout the year because there's almost no restriction on the sale of wine or liquor in Italy.
Lost & Found -- Alert your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two. If you have lost your card, use the following numbers: Visa: tel. 800/819-014; MasterCard: tel. 800/870-866; Amex: tel. 06-7228-0848.
If you need emergency cash over the weekend when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com).
Mail -- Mail delivery in Italy is notoriously bad. Your family and friends back home might receive your postcards in 1 week, or it might take 2 weeks (or longer). Postcards, aerogrammes, and letters weighing up to 20 grams sent to the United States and Canada cost .85€ ($1.25); to the United Kingdom and Ireland, .65€ (94¢); and to Australia and New Zealand, 1.05€ ($1.50). You can buy stamps at all post offices and at tabacchi (tobacco) stores.
Measurements -- See www.onlineconversion.com for details on converting metric measurements to nonmetric equivalents.
Newspapers & Magazines -- In major cities, it's possible to find the International Herald Tribune or USA Today, as well as other English-language newspapers and magazines, including Time and Newsweek, at hotels and news kiosks. The Rome Daily American is published in English.
Police -- Dial tel. 113 for police emergency assistance in Italy.
Restrooms -- All airport and rail stations, of course, have restrooms, often with attendants who expect to be tipped. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, gas stations, and all hotels have facilities. Public toilets are found near many of the major sights. Usually they're designated as WC (water closet) or DONNE (women) and UOMINI (men). The most confusing designation is SIGNORI (gentlemen) and SIGNORE (ladies), so watch that final i and e! Many public toilets charge a small fee or employ an attendant who expects a tip. It's a good idea to carry some tissues in your pocket or purse -- they often come in handy.
Taxes -- As a member of the European Union, Italy imposes a value-added tax (called IVA in Italy) on most goods and services. The tax that most affects visitors is the one imposed on hotel rates, which ranges from 10% in first- and second-class hotels to 19% in deluxe hotels.
Non-E.U. (European Union) citizens are entitled to a refund of the IVA if they spend more than 155€ ($225) at any one store, before tax. 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 in (for example, if you're flying home via Britain, have your Italian invoices stamped in London). Once back home, mail the stamped invoice (keep a photocopy for your records) back to the original vendor within 90 days of the purchase. The vendor will, sooner or later, send you a refund of the tax that you paid at the time of your original purchase. Reputable stores view this as a matter of ordinary paperwork and are business-like about it. Less-honorable stores might lose your dossier. It pays to deal with established vendors on large purchases. You can also request that the refund be credited to the credit card with which you made the purchase; this is usually a faster procedure.
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 (in Rome, it's past Customs; in Milan's airports, the booth is inside the duty-free shop) or mail it back in the envelope provided within 60 days.
Time Zone -- In terms of standard time zones, Italy is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST) in the United States. Daylight saving time goes into effect in Italy each year from the end of March to the end of October.
Tipping -- This custom is practiced with flair in Italy -- many people depend on tips for their livelihoods.
In hotels, the service charge of 15% to 19% is already added to a bill. In addition, it's customary to tip the chambermaid .50€ (75¢) per day, the doorman (for calling a cab) .50€ (75¢), and the bellhop or porter 1.50€ to 1.95€ ($2.20-$2.85) for carrying your bags to your room. A concierge expects about 15% of his or her bill, as well as tips for extra services performed, which could include help with long-distance calls. In expensive hotels, these euro amounts are often doubled.
In restaurants and cafes, 15% is usually added to your bill to cover most charges. If you're not sure whether this has been done, ask, "È incluso il servizio?" (ay een-cloo-soh eel sair-vee-tsoh?). An additional tip isn't expected, but it's nice to leave the equivalent of an extra couple of dollars if you've been pleased with the service. Checkroom attendants expect .75€ ($1.10), and washroom attendants should get .50€ (75¢). Restaurants are required by law to give customers official receipts.
Taxi drivers expect at least 15% of the fare.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.