Saturday, June 02, 2012

Obtaining / Spending Cash in Italy, and The Death by a Thousand Cuts

So, tomorrow is the day.  Flight leaves at 11:45AM, layover in Charlotte, NC for a few hours, then overnight to Italy.  Landing in Rome at 9:30AM-ish local time, then meeting our private car service to transfer us to our hotel, and then ...

... well, and then ITALY, and then.

Wow.  Neat.

-=-

OK, there's one last pre-trip topic I wanted to cover in the interest of sharing and caring, and that's Cash Money baby. Moolah. Dinero. Greenbacks. How much to bring, how to obtain more when you're there, and so forth. This was actually a pretty involved research topic, but I'll try to summarize rather than belabor.

OK, let's start with the basics.  As we've covered previously, Italy is not cheap.  In general, you'll find the cost of goods, services, food, lodging, etc. is relatively high versus may tourist destinations. Making matters worse, though, is the annoying fact that Italy is on the Euro, while we are on (relatively weaker, historically) dollar.  So, not only do things cost quite a bit more than typical once you get to Italy, but the money you have squirreled away to spend on holiday will experience shrinkage reminiscent of the sensation gents feel immediately following a cool dip in a mountain stream on a crisp spring morning.  Startling, and quite noticeable.

However, at present -- thanks (?) to the smoking crater that stands where the economies of Greece and Spain used to stagger hither and yon -- the Euro/USD conversion rate is at a 24-or-so-month low, flirting all-too dazzling around €1/$1.24.  Still not great, but nearly 10% better than it was when we started planning the trip in earnest just 6 months ago.  As such, I am very, very glad I didn't make the error of buying Euros is advance.  Depending on the state of the world at the time of your visit, your mileage may vary.  Greatly. 

In general, though, there's not much point is planning too far in advance.  Just assume that, whatever money you may have, you are going to leave it all in Italy.  The main question is how to make it go as far as possible.  That's where these tips come in.  These won't make things cheap, by any means, but they will help your cash go a bit farther.

So, you're gonna be in a country that uses Euros.  You're gonna need Euros.  How ya gonna get them? OK, let's keep this part brief:
  1. Aside from acquiring around €50-100 "walking around cash," do not purchase Euros in advance if at all possible. Unless you have some sort of inside angle you're gong to pay a premium on the current conversion rate (typically either a percentage above the current exchange rate or a flat fee) that will make the Euros very expensive versus more economical methods.  Get just enough Euros from the airport or your bank to make yourself comfortable: no more. In our case that will be about €100, as we need €50 to cover our car service on arrival and I want to have at elast a little cash above that "just in case."
  2. Once in Italy, the best way to obtain cash is typically by just using ATMs and Italian Bancomats with your own ATM card. Note that depending on your bank you might still get additional international transaction fees, just like a credit card transaction:  check before you go.  If you have time (say 6-8 weeks head start -- I waited until 4 weeks out and it was definitely cutting things way too close) consider opening a Capitol One High Yield Money Market account, which includes ATM access to your cash with the same no-fee features their credit cards have. 
  3. Before relying on your ATM cards for large amounts of cash, though, make sure to account for your bank's maximum daily ATM withdrawals and factor in the Euro conversion.  In other words, if your bank limits you to $400/day in ATM withdrawals , this will only equal ~€300. Plan accordingly, and if necessary (for example, if you are planning to withdraw cash to pay for large expenses like hotels) spread your money across a couple of checking/savings accounts and ATM cards to increase the amount of cash you can pull per day.
  4. For larger purchases (say, anything over €10-15 or so) try to use a Visa or Master Card that doesn't charge an international transaction fee.  Many cards charge a 1-2% transaction fee in additional to the current USD/Euro conversion rate when processing a charge internationally, so it's worth your time to shop around a bit.  I applied for a Capitol One card 6 months ahead of our trip specifically because they do not charge any additional fees on international transactions (i.e. when you charge something in Italy you will owe the only the current USD/Euro conversion amount at the time of the transaction, with no additional fees).  Pretty much all AmEx cards also offer this, but you'll also find that AmEx is accepted at far fewer places than Visa/MC. Of course, if you use an AmEx you are used to being told "sorry, no" so this should come as no big surprise to you.
  5. Before you leave the USA, be sure to call all of your banks and let them know that you will be traveling and that you may be using your cards internationally. If you don't you might discover just how aggressive your bank's anti-fraud measures can be just when you are least able to effectively deal with them.  Note that if your card gets deactivated typically they will only reactivate it if you call them from the telephone number of record on the account, which is unlikely to be one that is convenient to you while traveling in Italy, so be sure to do this part.
That's really about it.  The main takeaway here is that you're going to pay through the nose for most stuff, but you can at least trim a few bucks off here and there, and in the end that can really add up.  Plan ahead, and your money will go farther.

-=-

So, now.  Planning your itinerary.

Yeah, this part sucks.

As I've mentioned, we came to refer to this process as "The Death By a Thousand Cuts." In terms of tourist appeal, Italy is unfathomably deep. History, art, culture, food, architecture, natural beauty ... you name it: Italy's got it, and it's got it in friggin' spades. Unless you're planning to move there for a few years you're just not going to have time to see everything you might want to see.

So, one of the first frustratingly realizations is simple, and brutal:  no matter how much you want to see everything, it's just not going to happen.  No matter how much you want to see EVERYTHING, you just won't.  And if you do try to squeeze in every single thing you possible can, you run the very real risk of missing the entire Italy experience in pursuit of a series of check-marks on your "must see" list. Understand this up front and perhaps ... just perhaps ... the pain of slashing your itinerary to something meaningfully do-able within the time you'll be there will be less painful.

So, let's take our trip for example.  We will be in Italy for 11 days/12 nights total.  This is the single longest vacation we have *ever* taken.  And yet, here are the "very highly desirable" (versus "just cannot miss on this trip") sites we have had to scratch off our list in the interest of planning a trip that was more than a exhausting whistle-stop:
  • Venice
  • Capri
  • Ischia
  • San Gimignano
  • Siena
  • Cinque Terre
  • Herculaneum
  • Paestum
And this just touches on major cities/geographical areas/attractions that are easily within travel distance of places we'll already be.  There are entire *regions* we won't even access, let alone have a shot at visiting.

After a lot of hemming and hawing and back and forth, we finally settled into a fairly manageable list of places and things we are trying to see in Rome, Florence, and Sorrento over our trip.  In Florence and Sorrento, this was fairly easy (Sorrento we will enjoy in the evening, while we will use our one full day in the region to explore Pompeii; Florence is a more manageable/smaller city that can be effectively explored on foot and we have kept out must-sees there fairly limited).  Rome was a much trickier itinerary.  We tried to plan things by picking 3 or 4 must sees that were located close to each other per day, and then created a list of places we will see as opportunity presents, with our evenings unplanned and dedicated strictly to enjoying walks around various areas Rome with frequent stops for wine and gelato along the way. All in all it looks manageable, if challenging.

So, without further ado, I present to you our tentative itinerary.  It remains to be see just how close we'll actually come to sticking to it!
  • Monday: Arrive early afternoon and explore Via Veneto area a bit (Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Cripta dei Cappiccini) before New Free Rome Tour at 5:30 to get oriented/see some highlights (Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Immaculate Conception and Marcus Aurelius Columns …) . After tour, dinner and just wander and explore before heading back to our hotel.
  • Tuesday: Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica in the AM, Castel St. Angelo, Museo delle Anime dei Defunti, Santa Maria del Popolo, possibly end day with Museo dell'Ara Pacis (if time permits)
  • Wednesday: Colosseum Underground Tour at 9:40AM, San Pietro in Vincoli, Domus Romane della Palazzo Valentini at 1:30PM, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Capitaline Museums, Roman Forum (if time permits)
  • Thursday: Campo de Fiore, then Palatine Hill, Roman Forum (if we didn’t get to it Wednesday evening), Borghese Gallery at 1:00PM, then … stroll the Borghese Gardens? Catacombs of Priscilla?
  • Depart for Sorrento Friday AM, stroll Sorrento Friday evening
  • Saturday: Pompeii, then climb Vesuvius.  Back to Sorrento in early evening.  Dinner, explore Sorrento Saturday night
  • Sunday: Head to Florence, explore Boboli Gardens and Piazzale Michelangelo Sudnay evening, then hit Piazzo Vecchio Sunday night? 
  • Monday: Train to Pisa, visit Pizza dei Miracoli, but to Luca, explore and bike the ancient wall, back to Florence for early evening strolling and exploration.
  • Tuesday: Accademia di Belle Arte in the AM, climb the Duomo and explore in the afternoong (Bargello Galery if we have time), then Uffiza Gallery in the afternoon.
  • Return to Rome Wednesday afternoon and explore Aventine Hill area -- Circo Massimo, Villa del Priorata di Malta, Santa Sabina, Santa Prisca, Parco Savello and the municipal rose gardens, Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
  • Thursday:  Tears, and a journey.
Tomorrow is the day -- updates as time permits, or a synopsis and follow-up after the fact.  Arrivederci!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Ferries and Buses Too!): Getting Around in Italy

OK, so for this entry let's look at what I've learned about the various methods you may want to use to get around in Italy (at least when going from city to city -- I'll touch on what I've learned about getting around within your destination city another time).  I'm by no means an expert on this, but at least I can pass along a bit of research -- maybe it will help.

So, you've selected your flight to Italy, and your reserved your hotels too. Now it's time to figure out how you'll get from point A to point B while you're there.  Let's assume that you (like us) will actually be hitting a few different major areas of Italy while you're there.  In our case, we're starting in Rome, then heading south to Sorrento for a weekend, then up to Florence for a few days, followed by a return to Rome and then home. This naturally begs the question of how you'll travel between these destinations (God, I love it when they beg). Your choices are pretty typical:  car, bus, train, or plane.

I mean, you could also get a private driver, too.  Knock yourself out!  Options are plentiful.  I suppose you could rent a chariot drawn by burros if you really wanted to, but I wouldn't recommend it. 

Option 1: Renting a Car

So, cars.  Renting cars is actually pretty affordable -- notably less expensive than renting here in the US, actually.  However, you need to factor in a lot of other items before choosing to rent a car strictly based on cost/savings vs. other methods of transport. The number one thing is the cost of gasoline -- as of this writing, factoring in USD to Euro conversion, gas runs the equivalent of just under $9 a gallon.  Add in the cost of tolls (many of the major thoroughfares between cities are toll roads, and not cheap ones -- for example, the main road between Florence and Venice will run you about €15 one way) and it rapidly beceomes clear that you're not going to save any money by renting a car.  Now, that's not to say you should rent one.  If you enjoy driving, or are planning on spending a lot of time just exploring the countryside and you don't like being held to a strict schedule it might be perfect for you. And if you've been to Italy before and are looking to avoid the well-worn tourism path and get out to see the "real" Italy, you'll have little other choice. Be sure to also factor in that Italian drivers have a reputation for driving like complete friggin' lunatics, that driving into and out of major cities like Rome, Naples, or Florence will typically take you multiple hours due to traffic, and that parking can be very difficult to find and expensive.  Just be aware you'll need an International Driving Permit to rent over there -- you can get one from AAA.
 

What We Did


The only place we considered renting a car was in Sorrento, but given how brief our time there was going to be, and that we are planning on spending an entire day in Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius, the actual amount of time we would have been able to take advantage of having a car was minimal at best.  Plus the roads along the Amalfi Coast as considered  by many people to be some of the most dangerous/terrifying in the world.

Verdict: screw driving.  I'm on vacation and I really don't need that stress. Next!

Option 2: Buses

This one we really didn't give much thought at all (at least for going from city to city).  From what I've ascertained, chartered buses are primarily used by tourists for transfers from airports to smaller towns/cities and for guided tours to specific destinations or for sightseeing purposes. Could definitely be wrong.

What We Did


Never been a fan of riding on buses. This was never really an option we considered for transport around Italy.

Option 3: Hopping a Plane

There are lots of inter-city flights available that are (supposedly) pretty affordable.  Frankly we didn't research this much as we weren't traveling long enough distances to justify it.  I figured that once you factored in the time spent going to and from airports, getting through security, checking/retrieving luggage, boarding, taking off and landing you'd need to be saving a lot of time versus other method of transport to justify the choice.

What We Did


We crossed flights off our list of options pretty quickly.  If we were heading all the way up to Milan from Naples or Rome we might have considered it, but for the fairly short jaunts we were doing it just wasn't worth the cost or hassle.

Option 4: Trains! Glorious Trains!

OK, NOW we're talking!  When it comes to getting around Italy trains are clearly the preferred way to go.  You've got your very plush and modern high-speed rail connecting most of your major destinations, with older and slower regional trains connecting pretty much everything else. Tickets are quite affordable across the board, even for nice first class accommodations on the luxurious high-speed trains, and especially if you pre-book using one of the MINI discount fares. However, MINI fares have some frustrating restrictions -- more on that later.

When it comes to purchasing your fares there are a few ways to go.  You can get multi-day/multi-trip passes, or just purchase each leg of your journey individually.  If you have a fairly defined itinerary and don't plan on bouncing around too much it will probably be more cost effective to just book one way tickets between your various destinations.  Obviously this will require that you have pretty well-defined departure and arrival times to avoid having to change the tickets.

As of this month high-speed rail is now offered by two carriers instead of just one:  Trenitalia and Italo.  Italo is the new kid in town, so their trains will probably be slightly more modern and sexy.  Perhaps a bit more expensive as well, until competition really starts to kick in and they start putting out bargain fares.

The slower regional trains are prtty much everywhere, but we haven't researched them too much as we'll mostly be focusing on the cities we're staying in.  The only regional trains we'll be using are the Circumvesuviana (to get from Sorrento to Pompeii and back) and a Trenitalia Regionale Veloc (between Florence and Pisa).  Tickets for these can be purchased only 7 days in advance.  As far as I've been able to to tell, the main difference between first and second class on these trains is that only the first class cabins are air conditioned.  Could be wrong.

Tickets for the high-speed rail can be purchased 60 days in advance.  All seats on the high-speed rail (first and second class) are reserved -- first class seating is just a bit nicer -- more room, club seating, power outlets, etc. -- and includes a drink and snack.  These trains also feature air conditioning throughout and WiFi access (although it is currently in the testing phase and costs 1 cent to use.  ONE CENT. We'll see how well it works out ...).

What We Did


We reserved one way, first class tickets from Rome to Naples (closest destination to Sorrento), from Sorrento to Florence, and then from Florence back to Rome.  Many people feel that the additional cost of first class between Rome and Sorrento and Florence and Rome isn't worth it since second class is quite roomy, air conditioned, and the ride is less than two hours (first class about 2-3X second class, with MINI discounted fares coming in around €40 each for each of these routes) but we went ahead and splurged for the hell of it.  Paid in advance and got the discounted MINI fares, which saved us about 20-25% ...

... except for when we decided we needed to change one of our train reservations.  Original plan was to leave Rome for Naples around Noon but when we started going over our schedule we realized that would get us into Naples (and thus Sorrento) too late to meet a shuttle bus we needed to catch.  So, since I had read that Mini fares could be changed exactly one time, I figured no big whoop and went to change to an earlier arrival time (leaving at 10:00AM instead of Noon).

Yeah, not allowed.  With the MINI fare you're allowed one change, but it has to be to a LATER day AND time.  No changes to other trains that run the same day, or on any earlier days. So even though I was only trying to leave a couple of hours earlier there was no way to do so.  Only option was to cancel my tickets (at a 50% penalty) and rebook.  So, there went about $50 and all of our early booking savings!  Oh well, live and learn.

Getting to Sorrento: Train (Eww ...) or Ferry (Yay!)

So, once we had all our trains squared away, all that was left was figuring out how to get from Naples to Sorrento.  The most direct, but least appealing, way would be to take the Circumvesuviana railroad.  It's a regional rail that stops at all sorts of spots along the coast, Sorrento being among the last.  Crowded, fairly slow, no AC, and we'll be lugging luggage as well.  Not terribly appealing.

So, I started looking for alternatives, and it turns out there's a terrific high-speed hydrofoil ferry service that runs out of Mollo Beverello.  Not cheap (about €10 each, plus extra for baggage) but MUCH faster, nicer, and to top it off you get the view of the coastline and Vesuvius from the Bay of Naples the whole way. We'll need to grab a cab from the train station, but otherwise this looks to be a much nicer option.  The only frustrating point is that their website is a shambles, not functioning properly, and untranslated, so we can't seem to make any reservations in advance. I'm assured this will not present an issue by others who've done this before.  Hope they're right. Worst case, we just go and take the train.

Next time: Choosing your itinerary, aka The Death By A Thousand Cuts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Picking Hotels in Italy

OK, for this entry let's look at the process we went through in selecting our hotels for our Italy trip.  Unlike air fare, where you've really got very little in the way of selection or competitive pricing, lodging tends to offer a lot more opportunity to save, although as you'll see in most cases substantial savings come at the cost of other aspects of your vacation experience.  Still, if you're spending most of your time in major cities you will at least have a large number of options available to you.

So, how do you select a hotel?  A lot of it comes down to what your expectations are when it comes to travel.  Much like increasing your chances of getting a date, the number one way to cut lodging costs is to lower your standards.  Some folks are perfectly comfortable staying in places that offer little more than a bed and a door that locks, with shared bath and shower facilities  down the hall and not much else in the way of creature comforts (like, for example, air conditioning).  Others (like me) have grown accustomed to a certain level of luxury when traveling (private baths, in-room AC, bar/restaurant on premises, etc.) and not having these comforts available would result in a less pleasant travel experience.

If you don't care about much aside from having a flat surface to collapse on at the end of the day there's a really good chance you can find a very affordable (€40-75/night) place somewhere in a major city like Rome or Florence without much trouble.  Think 2-star joints -- it might be kind of run-down, most likely not air conditioned except (perhaps) in the common areas, and chances are most of the staff will not speak much English, but chances are it'll be adequate and safe, if not exactly picaresque.

If you're looking for a little more comfort, but still want to keep costs down, you can grab places that are farther out from the main attractions.  Again, depending on the city this may or may not be a big deal. In Rome, as long as you're near the Metro it's really easy to grab a train and get to the heart of the city.  In a smaller city like Florence spending all day walking to major spots is much more doable. But just be aware you might be trading easy access to the city and its sights for savings, and you'll probably need to be more rigid in planning your itineraries for the day to avoid unnecessary time-consuming trips back and forth to the hotel.

What We Did:


But in our case, we've really left the days of roughing it behind, and we both want a place with more amenities and a bit of style that also afforded us the ability to quickly access the main attractions of the various locales.  So, we looked for places that were more upscale, if not 5-star deluxe, but also centrally located (at least in Rome and Florence: we figured after 5 days in Rome, when we got to Sorrento we'd be fine with being out in the boonies a bit).

If you are going to be picky, but still want to try to avoid blowing huge wads of cash, it's time to start researching like mad.  We used Rick Steves' Italy guidebook (which included recommendations for many hotels at different price points), as well as extensive research on Tripadvisor, Travelocity and Hotels.com to get opinions from other travelers that had stayed at the properties that caught our eye.

We also spent a lot of time looking at the location of the hotels. This is especially true of our hotel in Rome (well, we actually wound up reserving and/or cancelling reservations at different hotels in Rome: more on that in a bit).  One of the pleasures of Rome that we are looking forward to is just strolling around the city in the evening, wandering until we get tired and just walking back to the hotel when we're ready.  Obviously, if your hotel is somewhere in the Hinterlands this will be less appealing.  Needless to say, the closer you are to the "hot spots" the more likely you'll pay through the nose.

Anyway, after much hemming and hawing we finally settled on one hotel in Rome, one in Sorrento, and one in Florence, leaving a decision about our final night in Rome (after returning from Florence, but before departing the following morning for our return flight home) open for the time being.  The hotel in Rome we contacted directly, as we'd heard that they offered discounted rates if you a) mentioned that you'd found the through Rick Steves and b) agreed to pay in cash upon departure instead of by credit card (this is very common in Italy, by the way).  The hotels in Sorrento and Florence, however, we reserved and paid for via Hotels.com, which offered us some really good prices as well as the ability to pre-pay for the hotels, thereby making budgeting for the trip a little more manageable.

One thing to keep an eye on is the cancellation policies.  In pretty much every case there were no non-refundable deposits, and all of the hotels were fine with cancellations right up to 48 hours prior to arrival, but caveat emptor yada yada.  Hotels.com typically has a full refund policy, too.  Which can come in handy ...

... especially if you're a pain in the ass, who can't make up his mind.  Like me.

So, here are the hotels we initially booked:
  • Rome -- Residenza Cellini: Nice location, lovely building, tastefully decorated
  • Sorrento -- Hotel Prestige: Beautiful and relaxed place in the hills overlooking Sorrento, with views of the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno
  • Florence -- UNA Hotel Florence: High-style, trendy, uber-cool modern hotel.
Of these the hotel in Rome was by far the most expensive per night (approx. €180/night), plus we were going to have to pay them in Euros, cash, to get the best rate.  The hotels in Sorrento and Florence we purchased via Hotels.com, with decent rates and good discounts for early booking (the place in Sorrento was, relatively, a steal, at less than $300 for the weekend!).

So, these stuck for a couple of weeks.  And then, one day, it hit me:  We're not locked into the hotel in Rome or anything.  We can keep looking, waiting for sales or discounts to pop up on hotels.com.  So we did.  And after a bit of peeking and researching, we chose to cancel there and instead book a room via hotels.com at the Hotel Diocleziano.  Very well reviewed, conveniently located within walking distance of the Roma Termini station, slightly less than the Residenza Cellini, and we can get it all paid up in advance and not worry about dragging a bunch of cash with us.  Sounds perfect!

A little later, we finally decided on a hotel for our final night in Rome.  In a fit of break-the-piggy-bank exuberance we decided to splurge, opting for a truly luxurious and beautiful boutique hotel on the Aventine Hill: The Hotel San Anselmo.  Gorgeous property in a very different area that the Deko Rome for our final night.  Incredible design and style, with each room uniquely decorated.  Balconies with views of central Rome.  Truly amazing place (seriously -- here's our room, here's the hotel. Zowie).

So, now we've got a) 1 truly astonishing boutique hotel in Rome, b) a relaxing retreat with views of the bays nestled in the hills in Sorrento, c) an ultra-modern trendy design hotel in Florence, and d) the Hotel Diocleziano.  Which looks ...

... nice? 

With rooms that look like they were decorated -- well -- about 30 years ago.  Simple and utilitarian.  Like an upscale Holiday Inn. And which is located by a big train station.  In a neighborhood which according to other travelers tends to be a little less than "nice" after dark -- not dangerous, just kind of ... grimy.

And with that I'm done.

So, here I go.  I start researching again.  I start dropping notes and sending messages and posting to forums, until Lo and Behold!  I hit on the perfect hotel!  The Deko Rome. Number one rating of all hotels in Rome on Tripadvisor.  Hundreds of 5 star reviews.  Located in a wonderful little spot just off Via Veneto, 10 minutes walk from the Spanish Steps.  Remarkably, not insanely expensive -- just very difficult to get. I ping them, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they've got a room available.

And they do!  But, due to availability (it's a very small place -- 6 rooms) we'll need to take a suite for the first night, for an extra €50, then switch to a double for the remainder of our stay at €175/night. Excited, but figuring "the worst they can say is no!" I agree but suggest €175 a night across the board instead of paying extra for the suite, since we really don't want/need it and the owner graciously agrees (actually, he said "Oh, what the heck, sure!"  His name's Marco and he's very nice). It's a total win, although we are now back to having to acquire a pile of Euros to pay when we depart. How to do this as inexpensively as possible is yet another task that I'll cover in a future entry.

At this point, Christine made me promise to step away from the computer and just stop already. In my defense I'll just say that OCD may be kind of frightening, but it can generate some kick-ass results!

So, the moral is: plan ahead as far as you can.  Get a good grasp on what you want, and what you're willing to pay for it.  Research research research.  Make reservations early  and if possible pre-pay (as long as you can cancel at will and get a full refund no questions asked) to make budgeting as easy as possible.  And don't be afraid to change your plans.  As you prepare for your trip you'll find your plans will shift.  You'll come to understand the location of the things that matter most to you in relation to your lodging, and if it looks like you'll spend too much time hoofing it back and forth, don't be afraid to find a place that's more reasonable/appropriate.

Well, that's more than enough on that topic.  Next entry we'll look at cars, trains, ferries, and so forth.