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 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, 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. 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, 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  So we did.  And after a bit of peeking and researching, we chose to cancel there and instead book a room via 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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Alrighty, let’s say you’re planning a trip to Italy.  First advice is definitely to plan well in advance – minimum of six months or so for planning/scheduling/budgeting things as optimally/economically as possible.  Unless of course you’re made of money, in which case feel free to throw handfuls of it up in the air, have your personal travel advisor make all the plans for you, and just leave tomorrow.  If this describes you, please call me – I will happily plan your trip, and promise to keep my advisory fee under six figures.

But if you’re like me – not poor, but not exactly stumbling over piles of spare C-notes on the way to the bathroom – you’re going to want to minimize your costs, budget as much as possible, and pre-pay for what you can to avoid getting too over-your-head on credit card stuff.  So with that in mind, let’s take a stab at the three big items you’re going to need to plan for:  air fare, hotels, and in-country transport (trains, car rentals, etc.).  For this entry, we’ll just look at air fare.

So, how can you fly to Italy on the cheap?  


Briefly, there ain’t no such thing as a “cheap” flight to Italy.  Economy fares range from “Good lord, how much?” to “black market organ donations required” levels, while business/first class prices will make you wonder if they’re planning on throwing in a Fiat or pair of Vespas as a free gift with purchase.  Rules of thumb are:
  • Aside form getting one of the biggest individual expenses of the trip out of the way early, there’s really no huge benefit to reserving many many months in advance.  We saved a bit due to increases in fuel costs that trickled in a few months after we booked, but all in all you won’t see lots of savings by booking 6 months out
  • Flights are least expensive during the off-season, September through March (excluding travel around the major holidays)
  • Insanely expensive pretty much all of the rest of the time
  • Flights from the east coast are slightly less expensive that those from the central US or west coast.
  • If you’re planning on visiting other parts of Europe, it may be somewhat less expensive to fly in London or Paris, then use the trains to visit Italy.  If you were thinking of hitting England, France, Spain, etc. anyway, check to see if flying into/out of these countries saves enough to offset the travel time between countries -- Paris was typically about $100 less, while London often saved $200-300.  You'll need to factor in the cost of inter-country transport and the time spent in transit to determine whether these are "real" savings for you.  More on that when we discuss train travel ...

What We Did:

Since we planned on sticking with destinations inside of Italy, we just bit the bullet and found the best prices we could on flights into and out of Rome.  This turned out to be approximately $1300 each (like I said, OUCH).  These were round-trip out of Austin, with a layover in Charlotte, NC followed by direct to Rome.  We could have saved a bit (~$75-100 per ticket) with additional layovers but frankly we didn't feel the savings were enough to justify the additional time spent stressing out in airports and airplanes. Prices going into Naples or Milan were pretty much identical as well.

Given how much cash we were sinking into plane tickets, we went ahead and bought the trip insurance for the tickets, too – about $100 more for each ticket, but frankly in this case I think it’s worth it.  YMMV.

Next up:  Hotels.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Hey! Remember me?

Yeah, yeah. I know.


Anyway, yeah, the blogging's been kinda "on hiatus" for a few months. I've really been hit hard by a combination of too much work, too much travel, too many commitments, some personal drama, and a lingering -- sometimes almost overwhelming -- malaise that has haunted me in the months leading up to the first anniversary of my best friend's death.  Put these things together and voila! Not a whole lot of urge to share, you know?  I try not to dwell on the negatives, and I try even harder to not drag others into my own little hells when they come along.  Everyone has hard times in this life, and I have wonderful folks who help me through the tough times.  I just don't want to spend a lot of time writing about it.

So yeah.  No blogs for a while.

All this "stuff" has also done a bit of a job on my training, too.  I mean, I'm still training, and still teaching when I can.  I still love it.  But I've been spread so thin that actually learning new technique, new forms, etc. was kind of ... well, frustrating.  Nothing would stick.  It was taking me forever to learn things, and what I actually managed to get a grip on I often forgot by the next time I managed to make it to class. Hit a tournie in March and did a pretty piss poor job, mostly due to just not having adequate time and focus to prep adequately.  That kind of stung.

But you know.  Whatever.  Moving forward.

So the big thing right now is that life is starting to settle back down a bit, in both the "busy-ness" sense and the emotional sense.  The lingering sadness over Gregory's death has receded to a manageable level following the end of April (that whole "the first year sucks" thing?  True).  Work is more sedate and we have some really exciting changes coming for my job and for our company.  I can see a time in the near future when I'll be able to really re-focus on my training in a meaningful way. 

But first?  I'm takin' my ass to Italy.

After 20 years of marriage, Christine and I chose to celebrate this fairly huge milestone in our lives together by FINALLY getting off the damn North American continent and crossing the pond.  We'll be flying out on June 3rd, returning on June 14th, and spending time in Rome, Sorrento, and Florence.

One thing I've learned about myself in the past few years is this: when I become obsessed with something -- and I mean truly obsessed -- about something, it means I really need to take a break.  When I say "obsessed," I don't mean "really interested."  I mean constantly thinking about something.  Waking up and immediately wanting to jump on the internet so I can do more research.  Counting days.  Talking at length -- annoyingly, no doubt -- to anyone nearby about the subject at hand. And that's how I've been about Italy for the past few weeks.

I really need this trip. 

So, in keeping with this theme, for the next month or so the blog is gong to be about Italy.  Our plans, what we've researched and learned.  How we've planned things and chosen locations.  What we expect to do there.  And then, once we've returned (or perhaps even while we're there -- there's WiFi on the high speed rail system after all ...), we'll walk through impressions and experiences, and lessons learned. I expect there will be a lot of ecstatic wonder.  Dumbfounded joy.  Awe and adoration.

And gelato.  There will be a LOT of gelato.

And when I'm done, I hope I'll have put together a bit of a travel diary that others can use to plan their own trip to this incredible country.  Martial arts might play a role in these writings -- I mean, it's kind of an omnipresent fact in my life, even when I feel like I'm not focused on it as much as usual.  And I'm sure we'll get back to it in time, regardless.  It's not like I've run out of things to talk about in the art I love. But perhaps, for the next month or two, this blog (and this trip) will provide a purer, more real example of "shin chook" (tension/relaxation) than I've been able to demonstrate here before. 
For the past year it's felt like every aspect of my life has been defined by nothing but tension. It's clearly time to give relaxation it's turn.

Bring on la bella vita.

So, in the next few entries?  We'll walk through our rough itinerary -- when we leave, how we're going, when we arrive, where we're staying, and how we're getting from place to place.  We'll look at some of the money issues involved, too -- this ain't a cheap trip, but we've found some ways to save a little and still treat ourselves well, with some great hotels lined up and nice transportation options all over the place.  Looking forward to sharing.