Jim and I used to travel together a lot, but somehow after our 2012 trip to China and our road trip to Canada in 2016 we haven’t gone further than Flagstaff, which is only 3 hours away by car. We were planning a trip to Italy for 2020, but … well, a lot of people’s travel plans got canceled in 2020.
Italy’s special to Jim because his father’s family came from Cortina d’Ampezzo, up in the Dolomite Mountains (that’s Cortina in the picture, taken from the top of the Funivia Faloria cable car ride). Seeing Cortina was the main point of the trip, but if you’re going all the way to Italy for the first time, you can’t skip the Colosseum, and if you’re going all the way to Rome you might as well make a stop in Florence. And Venice was a given, being the handiest big airport to Cortina.
We had a fabulous time. I took 526 pictures and I could regale you for hours with stories of what we did, what we saw, and who we met.
This isn’t a travelogue but just a compendium of tips. I hope you’ll find some of these ideas useful, next time you’re headed off to Europe.
- Rick Steves is the best. I have to start there. We’ve been watching his shows on PBS for years, and his books are a gold mine of accurate, up to date information. Where else can you find out where the ATM is in the Prague train station? I love his travel philosophy and appreciate the encouragement, the sense of “you can do this” that his books convey. For this trip, we used his big fat Italy book and our Venice, Florence, and Rome stays were at places he recommended.
- Consider who you’re traveling with. I went to Italy in 2015 with a friend, and we were on the go constantly, hiking through the Cinque Terre, visiting churches and markets, and spending hours in museums. It was a great trip, but Jim would have been miserable if we’d tried to keep up that pace. For the most part, we planned one major activity a day, returned to the hotel for an afternoon nap, and went exploring on foot before a leisurely dinner. Jim’s more interested in people than sights, so we spent lots of time just chatting with people we met along the way.
- Sign up for an international phone plan. We’re on Verizon, and they had 3 options: an $88-a-month plan, a $10-a-day plan, and the default pay-per-usage. We signed my phone up for the monthly plan and Jim’s for the daily plan, figuring we’d be together most of the time and would only need his occasionally. We used mine constantly to get directions, opening times, and so on. The only time we really needed his phone was our first night in Florence. I’d had a stomach ailment and couldn’t face going out to dinner, so he went out on his own. After dark, everything looked different, and he couldn’t find his way back to the hotel. In hindsight, we might have been better off with pay-per-usage on his phone, but it gave us some peace of mind knowing we could use his phone if something happened to mine.
- Get some Euro notes for tips. The books tell you to just round up the bill if you’ve had great service, but if you’re paying by credit card, the machine won’t give you that option. You may also want to tip your tour guide, as we did after our tour at the Vatican. You might want 5s, 10s, and 20s.
- Consider applying for Global Entry. The airports in Europe (London, Venice, and Rome) were a delight compared to our experience coming home via Charlotte, North Carolina. In Europe, passport checks were automated—you’d put your passport on a scanner and then look into a camera, then a gate would open and you’d be all clear—but here in the U.S., we ended up in a snaking line of several hundred people waiting to see one of three agents, and then had to go through the most rigorous TSA screening I’ve encountered in years. Global Entry would have eased both processes. It costs $100 and requires a personal interview and background check, but it’s good for five years.
- Pockets and money belt. I felt ridiculous every time I had to dig out my credit card or passport, but I used one of those under-clothes money belts. There really are pickpockets, and a confused tourist trying to get their bearings in an unfamiliar place is an easy target. A couple at one of our hotels had a backpack containing passports and phone as well as cash and credit cards stolen—luckily they were able to use Find My iPhone to track it to a trashcan, and only the cards and money were missing, but imagine what a disaster that could have been. For things I needed constantly, like my phone, paper map, and a few Euros, pockets were the way to go. I brought two pairs of pants, one with pockets and one without, and never wore the pocketless pair. In cooler weather, a jacket or vest with pockets would have worked. On days when I carried my day pack, I kept it tucked under my arm or in crowded places wore it in front.
- Medicine bag. I’m susceptible to stomach ailments so I always travel with Immodium, which was a lifesaver the day we took a 2 1/2 hour bus from Cortina to Venice followed by a 2 hour train to Florence. Not sure what I ate the day before, but I woke up sick in the middle of the night before that travel. I’ve also had a couple of past vacations partially ruined by catching a cold, so I always bring some Advil Cold and Sinus, which helped Jim get through the long trip home after he picked up a bug somewhere. I also bring Aleve, which I take proactively on days with a lot of walking so my arthritis doesn’t slow me down; Advil PM, in case I need help resetting my sleep schedule; and bandaids, which were handy after Jim tripped over a doorway and scraped his arm.
- Portable phone charger. My phone got a workout every day, between the maps and the camera. At the end of our Vatican tour, I was at 3% battery and we still needed to find our way back to the hotel. Next time I’ll try to find a smaller, lighter version. The one I have supposedly will charge the phone twice before the charger needs to be recharged, but I didn’t need that much.
- No voltage converter needed this trip. We just got a little pack of plug adapters and that was fine, since our phones and the iPad are all capable of using the higher European voltage. I didn’t bring a hair dryer, and Jim’s electric shaver lasted the whole trip (he brought a stick razor along as backup).
- Plane meals. I’m vegetarian, so I need to request special meals on the flight. You can only do this between 30 days and 24 hours in advance of the trip, so I couldn’t do it when I made the reservations. Set a calendar reminder. Also, be clear about which passenger needs the special meal: on the flight over, both of us got the vegetable curry. Side note: although the airline asks for details about your diet, it appears they prepare one generic meal that covers vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, and all other restrictions. It always makes me a little sad when I don’t get dessert.
- Get a PIN for your credit card. Some ticket machines require a PIN for a card transaction, meaning I had to use my debit card a couple of times on this trip. I called my credit card company and learned it would take two weeks to get a PIN, which had to be mailed to my house. I had a credit card PIN in the past, but that card was compromised and replaced years ago and it never occurred to me to request a PIN for the new one.
- WhatsApp. This is the app many people in Europe use instead of text messages. Our Venice hotel had told us about this so I downloaded the app at home and had good luck with it in Venice. Apparently I didn’t go all the way through the registration process, though, and when I got to Florence the app didn’t work anymore, meaning we had to use an awkward workaround of sending messages and information via Booking.com. I was unable to get it to work for the rest of the trip.
- Book activities in advance. As it turns out, September is the busiest month in Italy. I knew Rome would be a zoo and booked our Colosseum and Vatican tours in June, but wasn’t expecting the crowds in Venice and Florence. A few days in advance I took a look at the museum hours and discovered the Uffizi and Accademia in Florence were sold out, and the Doge’s Palace in Venice was getting close. I was able to get us in by booking tours in Florence, and I snagged the last couple of early entries at the Doge’s Palace.
- Paper maps: still the best. Google Maps worked fine on my phone and got us where we needed to go, especially in Venice, so I’m grateful for that, but when you’re frazzled and feeling a bit lost, nothing beats a paper map. Street names are legible, landmarks don’t disappear in favor of a shoe store or a Starbucks, and you don’t have the illusion of certainty that the blue arrow and dotted line provide as you wander off to take the longer alternate route. It probably would have been a good idea to practice in my home town so I’d be more comfortable switching views and using all the app’s features.
- Italy-specific tips, mostly about transportation.
- Vatican tour—We took the EuropeOdyssey.com skip-the-line semi-private tour, which cost about $190 for both of us. Well worth it! It was just us and another couple with the guide, and we did literally skip all the lines and go straight into both the Vatican Museums and the Basilica. The lines to get into those places are hundreds of people long; they get 25,000 visitors a day. Bonus, the guide took us to places where nobody else seems to go, like the underground garage where all the popemobiles going back to horse-and-carriage days are displayed.
- The ATVO bus—Cortina d’Ampezzo is in the Dolomites, and the guidebooks have it on all kinds of driving tours of the region. We weren’t driving, but we discovered this bus service (we bought our tickets through GetYourGuide.com) which for about $20 apiece took us in comfort from the Venice bus station to Cortina. I’m a nervous passenger on mountain roads but this trip wasn’t scary at all.
- The train—We’d bought Frecciarossa (fast train) tickets from Trenitalia for travel between Venice and Florence and then from Florence to Rome. The Frecciarossa trains are fast and comfortable, with assigned seats, table service and snacks. When we went to the Florence station for the trip to Rome, though, there was no 15:45 Frecciarossa. Instead, there was a 15:45 regional train to Rome. The customer service line was long and we’d have missed the train if we waited for help, so we went ahead and hopped on the slow train. No amenities, and it took more than twice as long, but it got us there, and we had a nice conversation with a local teenager who was getting off a few stops down the line. I guess the lesson here is be flexible.
- Stairs—So many stairs! We don’t have stairs at home, and although we both do a lot of walking, it’s pretty much all flat. Some places, like the Colosseum and the Doge’s Palace, had elevators available for elderly visitors and other people with mobility challenges. They offered them to Jim, who’s a bit older than me, and we took advantage of the offers a couple of times. Next time we’ll hit the stairstepper at the gym before we go.
- Taxi service—We only took a taxi once, from the train station in Rome. We carefully heeded the warnings to only use the official white taxis and although the ride itself was terrifying (Roman drivers go as fast as they can and treat traffic signs and lights more as suggestions than rules), we got to the hotel safely and for only a bit more than we’d have spent if we’d taken the Metro. For the ride to the airport we used the hotel’s car service which was a nice, luxurious end to our trip.
- Rome’s Metro—Jim’s habit of talking to everyone he meets paid off more than once on this trip, as it did with our Metro plans. When we were planning how to get to the Vatican, a fellow tourist at the hotel pointed out that if we went to the San Sebastian station instead of the Colosseum station, we’d be able to get on a train that went directly to the Vatican with no changes. The two stations were about the same distance from our hotel.