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Vacationing in Italy? 20 frugal travel tips

You'll want to spend your hard-earned money on fabulous food and adorable B&Bs. Don't waste it on money-changing fees and other unnecessary expenses.

By MSN Money Partner May 28, 2014 12:54PM

This post comes from Karen Datko at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyIf you're taking a European vacation, chances are good you'll be visiting Italy, the fifth most visited country in the world. With fabulous food, spectacular architecture and a gorgeous countryside, what's not to love?

Couple reading guidebook in Rome © SIMON WATSON/Lifesize/Getty ImagesI've visited Italy four times and I'm going back again this year, including a third visit to Sicily. I've learned a few frugal tricks.

To help you prepare for your Italian holiday, here are some tips to avoid unnecessary spending. While these tips are specific to Italy, many of them can be applied to travel in other foreign destinations.

First, some general tips

Unless you have a reserved seat on the train, you must get your ticket stamped in the little machine before you board. If you don't, you're facing a hefty fine if the conductor checks it.

After you hop on a city bus, get your ticket stamped in one of the little machines on the bus.

Do not carry anything in your pockets. Pickpockets are a real problem in Italy. Everyone I know who's visited Italy and didn't follow this advice has had their pockets picked. I also do not carry a purse but conceal my money and plastic in a flat pouch I wear around my neck under my shirt.

If you do take a purse, put the strap over your head so that the purse is away from the street, and use a strap reinforced with metal. But that won't always help. A pickpocket lifted a friend's wallet from her purse after bumping into her in St. Peter's Basilica.

Don't waste money on money-changing fees

There are so many ways to waste your precious funds just to access foreign money. Here's my advice:

  • Don't pay your bank a big fee to change dollars into euros before you go. And don't visit the money-changing places at the airport or in town. There are plenty of ATMs at the Rome airport and all over Italy. Use them instead.
  • Make sure your debit card doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee -- often 3 percent. My bank instituted that charge, and I subsequently opened an account with a bank that doesn't.
  • Make sure your credit card doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee. If it does, get a credit card that doesn't. You'll save about 3 percent of each foreign transaction when you get your bill.
  • If the business where you're making a purchase with plastic offers to process the charge in dollars rather than euros, don't. There’s an extra fee for that too.
  • Make sure you alert your credit and debit card companies about when and where you'll be going. And make sure your daily limit on ATM withdrawals is high enough to meet your needs.

Plan ahead

Unless you're on an open-ended trip, you'll want to make the most of your time. That means figuring out where you're going, how you can get there, where you'll stay and what you want to see.

Case in point: A friend of mine took the train from Paris to the Palace of Versailles, only to find it closed that day. The next day, his final day in Paris, he went to the Louvre, on the day it's closed. Checking the schedule on the Internet before you leave home could have prevented that.

The first time I visited Sicily, I hadn't planned well enough. My traveling companion and I ended up getting off the train at Taormina, one place in Sicily I hadn't wanted to see because it's expensive and very touristy, because it was getting late. I trekked around town for about an hour from one hotel to another mentioned in a guidebook as the lower-cost ones until I found a vacancy. That was not a relaxing night.

Do your homework

The Internet has a bounty of information about every possible destination. My favorite for travel advice and reviews is TripAdvisor, where I've contributed many reviews. You may have other favorites, like Wikitravel.

Here's the kind of information you can easily find:

  • When to go. The off-season, of course, when prices for rooms are best. Italy is best avoided in August, when many Italians go on vacation and the weather can be beastly hot.
  • Places to stay. Read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Venere. You're looking for price, accessibility, cleanliness, and availability of parking if you're renting a car or proximity to the train or bus station.
  • Expert advice. I consult the TripAdvisor forums. One of the regular contributors is "Vagabonda," an expert on travel in Sicily who's answered my questions about the best ways to reach various destinations on the island. I've redone my itineraries based on her recommendations, saving time and money. She provides invaluable advice, and it's free!
  • How to get around. Once you figure out where you're going, you can quickly look up which bus lines serve your destinations and what times the buses leave and arrive.

Read some guide books

Read reviews of guidebooks on Amazon, then pick two of the best for your location. You'll want to know about local customs (Get that train ticket stamped! Yes, the restaurants charge for bread!) and you'll want to know what all there is to do. Imagine going to Catania and not visiting the fish market -- one of the great open markets of the world -- because you didn't know it was there.

Find the best hosts

Bed and breakfasts are often the best value and come with the added benefit of -- if it's a good one -- a gracious host who will facilitate your exploration and chat with you about your host nation over a delicious morning meal.

Use public transportation

A friend of mine who lives in Rome drives to and from work each day. I think she's nuts (or certainly braver than I am). And if you think the drivers in Rome are insane, they are tame compared with those in Naples, where crossing the streets without fear is an acquired skill. For that reason and because of the high cost of renting a car, I take public transportation rather than rent a car.

The city bus system in Rome is fantastic. (I haven't taken the subway.) It's fun to take the train between cities.

In Sicily, people depend on regional and local bus lines to get around, and it's inexpensive. In a few cases, your better option may be the train.

Don't overlook the local bus. I took one from the Catania–Fontanarossa Airport into town, and also took a local bus from Catania to Acitrezza (where "La Terra Trema" was filmed). That trip was less than 2 euros each way, if I recall correctly.

Learn some of the language

You'll want to know some Italian. Once you get away from the big cities, Italians who speak English can become a rarity. And you'll certainly want to know enough to compliment and express appreciation for wonderful service and fabulous food. That can bring a smile to even a surly waiter's face. Or it can be the start of a wonderful friendship.

There are plenty of free options to start learning a new language.

Pack light

I travel with two outfits in my lightweight but sturdy carry-on backpack, plus the clothes on my back. I hate hauling luggage around, and I avoid paying those pesky luggage fees charged by the low-cost, high-fee European airlines because my backpack fits under the seat.

Splurge on the right stuff

I will never tell you to skip a lunch or dinner and instead have a piece of fruit or some cheese to save money. One of the many wondrous pleasures of Italy is the food. If you can't afford a sit-down meal at least once a day at a moderately priced restaurant, hold off on the trip and save more money until you can.

More from Money Talks News

Jun 1, 2014 8:31AM
I went and got a book on Monastaries and Convents that rent rooms.  Did that in Venice and Florence.    Good clean rooms, centrally located and often with private baths to boot.  AND CHEAP.  
Jun 1, 2014 10:09AM
You should have say  that the pickpockets are Gypsy in 99% of the cases.They use their children to make you concentrate on something else, and the adult take your wallet.
May 29, 2014 10:26PM
The problem is saving to get here.  I recently became a bit of a saver, and I was actually able to afford a trip to the the Caribbean Islands for the first time in my life!  My best savings tips are:
 1. Review your car insurance regularly, the big guys like geico and esurance change their pricing every year.
2. Pack a bag lunch most days. Save money by eating out less in general.
3. Don't waste money in bars. They are the biggest frivolous expense in a lot of lives.
4. Get rid of financial advisors who do not bring you any value. The 1% a year they cost adds up to enormous sums over a lifetime.
5. Don't be above using coupons.
6. Do what Suzey Orman recommends and trade in expensive whole life policies for Term life. Mine from Life Ant costs $19 a month and I can sleep at night knowing my family is secure if anything happens to me. 
7. Drive slower. You can increase fuel efficiency 20% by driving slightly less aggressive, and slowing down 5-10 mph on highways.

With simple changes you can probably save about 25% a year, without big lifestyle sacrifices. When I retire, I will have the cash to buy my condo in Hawaii outright.

Jun 1, 2014 5:13PM
If you have the chance to travel to Europe ..............go
Jun 1, 2014 9:05AM
"(I haven't taken the subway.)"
Try it,  you'll like it. It's stations serve all the places you might want to go in Rome and it's only crowded at rush hour.  The fares are quite inexpensive. Don't have the right change?  Buy an espresso at the one of the fast food places and they'll favor you with the bills or coins you need for the automated ticket machines.
Anywhere in the city is only a short walk from one of the stations. If you have a hotel close to the terminal,  so much the better.  Then you have access to the main stations for subway,  bus,  and trains. 
I only wish the U.S. had Euro style trains,  better buses,  and in-town metro type transportation.
Jun 1, 2014 3:59PM
I live in Italy part time, and would add:  public transport is cheap, even the EuroStar (hi speed) trains, but just because you see locals not paying on local buses, try to figure out how to pay if you can;  pizzas are cheaper than in the USA, full meals more;  agritourismo (B&B) guides will save you a bundle; talk to Italian college students in touristy areas - they can point you to all sorts of things that don't cost a lot and love to practice their English; if you rent a car BE CAREFUL - traffic seems crazy but the laws are draconian so DON"T HAVE AN ACCIDENT and buy insurance - your credit card will NOT insure you in ITALY as it does in most other countries; and most of all, be friendly!!! If you strike up a conversation with someone who speaks some English, and make an effort to speak a little Italian and ask simple questions, you'll make an instant friend. If you are at all condescending, you'll be stonewalled or lad badly astray, just of the heck of it.
Jun 1, 2014 10:52PM

inexpensive food - look for little markets and get take-away food - and drinks - or cafeterias. 


About getting Euro's before your departure - most larger US banks can do this for you at a very reasonable fees.  I get mine from my major bank - online - no fee - and FedEx to my house the next morning - every time you use your card at an ATM or for a purchase you pay a fee, and not always the best exchange rate. 

Jun 1, 2014 10:48PM
Very prejuciced comment - when you know zero about the Italan court system. You are judging an entire country on one  very confusing case - and I bet you have no first-hand knowledge about this case.   By hanging on to this attitude you are missing  some of the greatest  art, music, food ever. 
Jun 1, 2014 11:43PM
Jun 1, 2014 9:37AM
Personally for my money I can think of a lot safer places to go than Italy , given their kangaroo court system . My next stop is probably New Zealand or Greece for some scuba diving .
Jun 1, 2014 12:12PM
Cheapest way to travel to Italy?,..just float over like the african 'refugees' do.  Be sure to demand free housing, medical attention and welfare when you get there. 
Jun 1, 2014 2:56PM
I don't have that part of the world in my travel plans, many better places to visit than there. 
Jun 1, 2014 1:27PM
I would never go to Italy, their court system / system of justice is F'd up.
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