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!

1 comment:

Walt said...

We're hoping to get to Germany in the next few years. You raised a bunch of monetary tips I would never have thought of with the exception of calling your credit card company in advance to let them know you'll be using your cards while away. I do that now when I'm traveling to Florida or Texas, just in case.