We spent the past month abroad working in Italy. It’s hard to take a bad photo in that country, it’s a beautiful backdrop for shooting any kind of video, and it seems just about everyone I know is vacationing there this year. So instead of posting the hundreds of photos from our trip (which I’ll get to eventually), I thought I’d share some tips that we found invaluable while abroad. Some of these you might find from a Google search, but most are hard-learned lessons from living/touring four weeks throughout the country.
Before boarding the plane…
Exchanging money here in the States is widely encouraged. And I suppose it makes sense to have SOME euros in your pocket before landing in Italy. HOWEVER, as a Wells Fargo customer, the exchange rate they offer here is competitive but nowhere near what you’ll get out of a Bancomat abroad. We decided to get $500 in euros, and at least $30 of that went toward the bank. We had to pull an additional 100 euro out in Italy and only paid the $5 ATM fee to Wells Fargo. So…I recommend $100 tops before you board and get the rest while you’re there. Most major places accept Visa (hardly any accept American Express), so it’s worthwhile to investigate whether your card has any foreign exchange fees. If not, use that as often as possible!
If you plane to drive in Italy (I’ll get to that later on), invest in a Garmin if you don’t plan to use your U.S. phone service abroad. I found the plans that my company (Verizon) offered were fair enough, but they didn’t offer the data coverage I needed to use Google maps or Waze for a month driving through the country. Buy your Garmin at least a few weeks in advance because it takes them that long to get the right maps to you! Seriously. We bought it the night before and had to wait several days after landing in Italy before we got the download for the “updated” Italian maps. And then…proceed with caution. We coined the phrase #f***garmin to try to have a sense of humor about some of the situations Garmin landed us in while abroad. Oy!
Bring an empty tote bag in your luggage. If you plan to pack your suitcases full (which we did for a month abroad), chances are that your won’t have room (or weight allowances) to bring souvenirs and gifts home. We ended up buying a $20 tote at an outlet mall and checking an extra bag on our way home to get everything back.
Buy at least three to six plug adapters for 220V outlets made for Europe (note that the U.K uses different plugs so be careful when buying). Target sells them in packs of three for a good price.
Once you land…
Hopefully you booked your rental car in advance (I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to wing this when landing, but if that’s your plan, don’t). Check to see if your credit card offers rental car insurance and decline what they offer. I plan to submit a claim to my credit card company following an incident I plan to get to later on. We landed, got through customs and got our bags quicker than I estimated and had to wait until exactly 10am to pick up the car to avoid paying an extra 45 euros. So I guess the lesson here is to plan to pick up the car quickly after landing so they have it in their system as such and you don’t have to hang around the airport.
Driving. Ha…driving in Italy is just as bad as everyone says it is. Everyone cautions against doing it, but if you plan to travel the country for a month like we did, having a car really does make that a little more bearable than public transit. But proceed with caution. No one really obeys speed limits, caution signs or signals. They hardly ever drive in their lanes and regularly cruise the Autostrade at speeds of 100+ mph all while tailgating each other. If you’re not comfortable with that, stay in the right lane as much as possible unless you’re actively passing. I mean it. They say this in the U.S., and no one really abides by it. Try that in Italy. I dare you. 😉 Enjoy this video for a look at what it’s like to drive in many of the coastal Italian cities. This one was taken in Framura (right outside Cinque Terre). Driving Italian Coast
Have a navigator who can help you read the signs that have 10+ cities, streets listed on one sign while you have to make a decision at 80+ mph about right or left. Even the Garmin was useless in some situations because the signs were labeled differently from what Garmin said to do. You’ll likely make mistakes, so just allot extra travel time.
Be prepared to pay lots and lots of tolls. When you enter the Autostrade, take a ticket (you won’t have a Telepass) and then follow the signs for cash or credit card upon exiting however many hours later. In some cases, we had to pay upwards of $40 on our drive from Venice to Rome, for example.
If you plan to drive to cities like Florence, Rome, Bologna, Siena, etc. know that you can’t just drive through the center like major cities in the U.S. We knew this for a few cities but didn’t realize how many it extended to and got caught chasing a permit for two hours in Bologna to avoid a fine. Just park outside the city and walk or take transit in. If you happen to accidentally drive inside the city, they have cameras posted at the intersections, and your rental company will get the fine. I have no idea how much it is since we spent two hours chasing down the ONE office in Bologna that sells 24-hour permits for 6 euros (they call it a congestion fee). Thank god it was open (again, more to come on that).
When you get to your destination, parking is always fun. We found out the hard way that even though the pay station may be a ways away, blue lines ALWAYS mean paid parking. Fees range from 1-2 euro/hour and be prepared to have coins in hand because most don’t take anything else (and even if they did at one point, they don’t anymore). White lines mean free (libero) parking. You’ve struck gold. But hold on a second, most put 1-2 hour limits on that parking and require you to spin a cardboard parking “wheel” to align with the time that you parked there. If your rental didn’t come with one, you can likely find one at a nearby store or ask where to get it. If you don’t leave one visible or put the incorrect time, you will get ticketed.
…Which brings me to my next tip. When you get a parking ticket like we did for parking in blue lines, find a friendly Italian to translate for you. Turns out that if we paid it within five days of getting the ticket, the fine was only 28 euros instead of the posted 40. Where do you pay the ticket? The post office of all places. BUT, the post office we went to only took cash because we weren’t members of the local bank. So be prepared with cash.
Chances are you’re likely traveling during the summer, which happens to coincide with the Italian’s summers as well. For a country so reliant on tourism for their economy, it boggles my mind how they set their arbitrary hours during the summer. In the larger cities, most stay open throughout the day but are closed during a few hours on Sunday and Monday. If you’re in the country, they may be closed Saturday-Monday. Yep. And if you’re at the grocery store at say 12:50, you’ve got 10 minutes to shop before they literally turn off the lights and close until 15:00 or 16:00. Don’t get me started on bank hours. It’s like playing a game of cat and mouse, and I don’t think they actually want ANYONE to walk through those doors.
Back to our friend, Garmin. If you’re driving the Amalfi Coast (which is already a challenge), Garmin might try to re-route you from the main road that is super congested. DON’T just DON’T go down that street that already seems small and scary. It gets worse, and there aren’t any warnings about just how narrow those back roads get. The only way to get through them is on a bike (Vespa, scooter, motorcycle, etc.). Garmin took us down one of these streets and the next two hours trying to get ourselves out was easily the most tense of our entire month abroad. See the video below for our THIRD try down one of these winding “sidewalks” to find our way out of Amalfi. You’ll notice that the video stops when the front bumper scratched the side of the wall. There was no going forward. So we did the only thing we could. We reversed out of this narrow passageway for what seemed like 30+ minutes with centimeters of clearance on either side, no side mirrors or reverse camera. I have to give kudos to my boyfriend, the driver. I would have climbed out of the car and walked away. I’m sure that wasn’t his idea of fun, but we eventually made it out (no thanks to the oncoming mini cars from both directions and Italians screaming Italian at us).
Which leads me to the next tip. We made it out, but we had deep scratches on both the front passenger and rear left bumpers. Knowing that Italy rental car companies can be especially tough on these kinds of damages and that we were driving a nearly new car, we drove around for a few weeks like this and contemplated our options. A few times we tried to find auto body shops, but the address on Google maps never led us to the right spot. We finally stumbled upon a VW dealership who kindly referred us to an auto body shop in Siena (Bufertuto on Strada di Busseto 18). And here is the most shocking part of our trip: 1) we found the shop 2) the owner (Manuel) he referred us to was there 3) he spoke English 4) he offered to fix up the paint for us 5) he said it would take 10 minutes 6) he sent someone out that minute to start on the job 7) it actually look decent! 8) he charged us only 10 euros for the whole thing. We drove out of there back to Tuscany with our jaws permanently suspended below our mouths. In our three plus weeks in Italy, nothing had been easier and more affordable than that seemingly impossible task! Here is his info, if you find yourself needing the same service!
If you’re spending longer than a week abroad, it becomes financially difficult to activate your service abroad. The international plans from Verizon are okay for short-term use, but at about 30 days, it doesn’t make sense to use it there. Instead, we found a WIND store and purchased an Italian smartphone and plan for about 60-70 euros for the month. Seemed reasonable enough, and it would allow us to contact our hosts at the various AirBnB and Housetrip reservations we had made in advance. It wasn’t until a few days later that we ran into a problem. None of our texts were going through to recipients anymore… A few days later, we found a WIND store to remedy the situation. Apparently, you need a “credit” in your account to be able to use the calling plan. Even if you’re only calling Italian numbers, you need at least a few euros in the “bank” to be able to use the service. I don’t get it either. But we paid 2 euros, and it started working again. So if you do buy, make sure you understand what’s required to use the service. Otherwise, you’ll have paid for a phone you can’t use.
In addition to touring the country and drinking wine, we actually planned to get a fair amount of work done while in Italy. While most of our needs were basic email exchanges, there were times we needed to upload/download videos. Thankfully, our WiFi in Rome and Milan was exceptional. Unfortunately, that equated to only 4 nights of our stay in Italy. While all the other houses/condos promised WiFi, very few delivered reliable (even decent) speeds (see the screenshot of our speed test showing .20 mbps upload and .17 mbps upload). If you’re planning to rent a villa in Tuscany, don’t plan on having access to good Internet. The signal out there is miserable – weak at best! If you’re out there, your best bet is to find a café and make friends with the barista, but it’s likely you’ll be buying lots of espresso in exchange for Internet for a few hours!
All our condos had washing machines (one even boast a drying machine), so we packed for about 7-10 days worth of clothes. A word of caution about the washing machines abroad – they are high-efficiency machines that use very little water. This means that even the fastest cycle takes about 2 hours to wash. We learned this when we tried to decipher the washing machine we used while staying in Rome. We started our loads at about 9pm at night thinking we could get through two loads in about three hours. Wrong. We soon realized the first load was going to take 3 hours just to wa
sh! And the machine was locked, so we couldn’t take out our clothes and reset the machine. It’s unlikely you’ll find a drying machine. Most Italians hang their clothes outside. That also means if it rains for two weeks straight (as it did in the afternoon for part of our trip), you won’t be drying clothes outside (the fastest way).
While in Italy, you’ll most likely be spending a lot of time outdoors. It’s beautiful, and you’ll be drinking wine, eating and touring ancient ruins. If you’re like me, you’ll also be blowing, wiping and stuffing your nose with tissues. I have mild allergies in the States, but there’s something in Italy that made me feel like I had a cold for 3-4 weeks straight. I’m told people have allergic reactions to olive trees when they are producing fruit, and that may have been the culprit. I’ve never experienced allergies like this, and even my trusty Zyrtec only worked half the time. If you’re prone to allergies, I recommend bringing enough allergy meds for the duration of your trip. The Farmacia has some good stuff, but it doesn’t compare to what you’re used to in the States.
Italy was the trip of a lifetime. And it will be for you too! That said, it was welcome perspective about how well our country runs compared to the rest of the world. Italy boasts beautiful ruins, exceptional food and wine and breath-taking views. In the United States we offer most of the same things (except the ancient ruins), and what’s more is that we really have our shit together (I can’t say the same for the way that Italy operates…or doesn’t operate). I’m so thankful we made it back to the U.S. in time to celebrate July 4th!
Thanks for reading and happy travels
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