With so much natural beauty, so many ancient ruins and cultural treasures, and all that extraordinary food, it’s little wonder Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations on the planet.
Here are some ways to enjoy the bounty without breaking the bank.
(The Duomo of Milan | Credit: Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock)
Getting There for Less
Consider where you touch down. Fares to and from Italy’s two main international air hubs, Milan and Rome, can vary greatly, with Rome flights often being much more expensive. Mid-May round-trip fares for a New York–Rome nonstop flight can run about $1,500, compared to $850 for the New York–Milan trip. Even if Rome is more convenient for your plans, you might consider flying into Milan and hopping on a train.
Pick your season. In recent searches, that $1,500 New York–Rome fare in May goes down to $850 in October and drops to $700 in January. And it’s not just airfares that vary by season. A three-star hotel in Rome might cost $150 per night in August, when many Italians leave the cities to head to the mountains and beaches, and go up to $250 per night in the cooler autumn months, which are more pleasant for sightseeing.
Be flexible with your travel days. Traditionally, flights on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are less expensive than flights on other days, while Friday through Monday are the most expensive days to fly. When checking out airfares, use the “flexible dates” feature that many airline booking engines offer to find the lowest fares.
Think small. Some of the least-expensive Italy-bound flights are on easyJet, Ryanair, and other budget carriers that fly into Venice, Bologna, Pisa, Naples, Palermo, and other smaller cities. It might be worth your while to shop for a low transatlantic fare to an airport outside Italy and continue onto one of those airports from there.
(Grand Canal in Venice, Italy | Credit: CrackerClips Stock Media / Shutterstock)
Getting Around on the Cheap
Hop on a train or bus to get to and from the airport. Airports in Milan, Rome, Pisa, Bologna, and elsewhere are connected to city centers by trains and often buses as well. Prices are a fraction of cab fares, and the trip is often just as fast.
Leave the driving to others. Car rental with full insurance will average at least $500 a week (more for a car with automatic transmission), plus fuel (about $7.50 a gallon), tolls, and parking. Depending on the number of people in your traveling party, getting around by train and bus might be a lot less expensive and will also enhance your travel experience.
If you decide to drive, request a rental car that runs on diesel. Diesel is usually less expensive than regular unleaded gas, sometimes by as much as almost 40 cents a gallon. You will also be making less of an environmental impact—while no auto emissions are good for the environment, diesel engines produce fewer harmful emissions than gasoline engines do. Meanwhile, diesel is available at almost all gas stations in Italy.
Take the slow train. Train travel in Italy is a relative bargain, all the more so if you forgo the high-speed trains for slower intercity and regional service. For example, traveling from Milan to Bologna on high-speed Frecciarossa service costs about $60 and takes a little over an hour, while the same trip on an intercity train can take only an hour longer and costs half the price. Go to Trenitalia.com, enter where you want to go and when, and you’ll see a choice of slow and fast trains and the range of prices.
Check out the deals on Trenitalia, too. Italy’s national rail system offers all sorts of deals, including discounts for families and couples traveling together, as well as special fares for same-day round-trip journeys and Saturday departures with Sunday returns. Discounts are usually available only on certain trains and all sorts of other provisions apply, but research the possibilities at Trenitalia's website.
Get a transit card. If you plan on using public transit, daily or multiday transit passes usually save money over buying single tickets. Rome's €7 24-hour pass, for example, lets you hop on and off buses, metros, and trams for a full day, sparing you from paying €1.50 for each ride. To beat the steep €9.50 one-way fare on a Venetian vaporetto, purchase the €25 ACTV Venezia Daily Pass for unlimited trips—or, if you're staying in Venice longer, the 2-, 3-, or 7-day pass for an even deeper discount.
(Botticelli's The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy | Credit: canbedone / Shutterstock)
Saving on Attractions
Get a city card. Passes available in many Italian cities and towns offer savings on attraction admissions, public transport, and often shops and restaurants, too. Plus, many cards allow you to go to the front of the line at museums and other attractions. Just make sure the pass includes the sights you want to visit and do the math to make sure the price you pay will actually add up to a savings. To find what passes might be available where you want to go, simply do an internet search for “city pass + [the name of the city]."
Take a free tour. In many Italian cities, guides share their knowledge and local pride in free walking tours focused on the destination's history and architecture. You’ll probably feel your guide earns every penny of the tip you should hand over at the end of the walk. Find a large selection of tours at FreeTour.com.
Try to be around on the first Sunday of the month. That’s when entrance to many museums and other sights is free. In Florence, that includes two must-sees, the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery (home of Michelangelo’s David). In Rome, the Colosseum, Forum, and Hadrian’s Villa are all free to visit on the first Sunday of the month.
Take the kids to a museum. Museum admission is usually half the full price and sometimes free for kids under 18 and almost always free for kids ages 5 and younger. That makes a family museum visit an economical outing. (Note, however, that senior rates often do not apply to visitors from outside the European Union.)
(Monks in Assisi, Italy | Credit: tanialerro.art / Shutterstock)
Finding Affordable Lodging
Location, location, location. Staying outside a city center can be a lot easier on the wallet. In Florence, that might be Pistoia, Prato, Montecatini Terme, or other outlying Tuscan towns that are not only less expensive but have plenty to offer in their own right. In Rome, check out neighborhoods such as Flaminio, Testaccio, and San Lorenzo that have ample bus and metro connections.
If you’re traveling with a group, book a family room. Many Italian hotels have family rooms furnished with multiple beds and couches and even chairs that fold out into extra beds. Rates are often not much more than they would be for a double.
Stay for the long run. Many hotels offer discounts for longer stays, often for periods of a week or more but sometimes even for several days. If a hotel doesn’t advertise special rates for long stays, don’t be shy about asking.
Look into a package deal. Airlines, travel consolidators, and even Costco sell airfare-and-hotel packages, and sometimes the savings extend to rental cars, too. Shop wisely, though, to make sure your costs really will be less with a package and ask the right questions to ensure you’ll get the travel experience you want—e.g., Are the flights convenient? Are the hotels comfortable and well-situated? Are there hidden costs?
Bargain for a better rate. In the off-season (January through mid-April in most places) hotels are often not fully booked, and you may be able to bargain for a better rate. Keep in mind that you have two advantages: 1.) An empty room generates no income, and 2.) when you book directly, the hotel is saving the commission it would otherwise have to pay to an internet booking engine.
Live like a monk. Many convents and monasteries take in guests, offering basic tourist facilities (often with shared baths) at a reasonable price. There is often a curfew, however, and while you won’t have to take a vow of silence, loud music and unruly behavior are unwelcome. Peruse the offerings at MonasteryStays.com.
Rent an apartment. You’ll forgo hotel services, but you’ll get more space for your money, along with the savings that come with having a kitchen. Airbnb and Vrbo are loaded with listings for Italy, though the effects short-term rentals have had on housing availability and affordability have understandably caused tensions with some residents. Smaller, more localized agencies include Cross Pollinate and Cities Reference.
(Arancini in Palermo, Sicily | Credit: Radiokafka / Shutterstock)
Eating Well for Less
Don’t eat in restaurants for every meal. Appealing as an Italian meal can be, there’s no need to sit down for the full experience more than once a day. Street food in most Italian cities can stand in for lunch or a light supper, and you won’t feel like you’re missing out—as anyone can tell you after eating pizza in Naples, arancini in Palermo, trapizzino (stuffed pizza dough) in Rome, or tripe sandwiches in Florence.
Have a drink at the end of the day. Italy is an especially good place to enjoy a cocktail, because aperitivi often come with cicchetti, little sandwiches and other snacks that can be a meal in themselves.
Stock the fridge. Many hotel rooms are equipped with a minibar filled with expensive drinks. Set them aside to make room for bottled water and soda, which are much less expensive in supermarkets than they are at bars, restaurants, and refreshment stands.
Don’t opt for a hotel rate with included breakfast. Many hotels tack on as much as €15 or €20 per person for breakfast, so opt for a room-only rate when you can. Come morning, step into a bar and start the day the way Italians do—with coffee and a cornetto.
Order the so-called “tourist menu.” Many restaurants, especially in tourist areas, offer prix fixe meals that might include pasta, a soup, a main course, and dessert, and often a glass of wine and water. You probably won’t have much choice, but you’ll usually get a decent, basic meal for a good price.
Hit the market. The supermarket, that is. Conad, Coop, and other grocery chains have outlets in the historic centers of big cities, and not only are the stores handy for grabbing a snack, sandwich, or premade meal, but the prices are easy on the wallet, too.
Taking Care with Currency and Credit Cards
Pay attention to the credit and debit cards you use. Before leaving home, check with your bank to see what International Service Assessment (ISA) charges and other transaction fees you’ll incur when using your card; then ask about getting a card with the lowest fees for international transactions. Also ask about a debit card that does not charge extra fees when withdrawing from a foreign ATM.
Don’t convert. When withdrawing funds at an ATM or using your card to pay for a meal or purchases, you’ll often be prompted to choose if you want the charge to go through in U.S. dollars or in euros. Always choose euros, since banks and merchants add a hefty commission for the conversion service.
Lower your taxes. If you purchase an item for €120 or more, you may be able to get part of the VAT (Valued Added Tax) back. You can apply the tax rebate to multiple items, provided each one costs at least €120 and is on a separate receipt. With VAT on most goods at 22%, the savings can add up. Shops displaying “Tax-Free for Tourists” or Global Blue signs participate in the scheme, which provides a tax refund as you leave the country in the form of cash, check, or charge-card credit, issued by airport offices. Visit the Global Blue website for more information.
Longtime Frommer's contributor Stephen Brewer is a coauthor of Frommer's Italy, available in paperback and e-book versions.