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My inexpensive Italian vacation

Here's what I did to limit the cost of the trip without reducing the enjoyment. Plus some tips on protecting yourself against identity theft.

By Karen Datko Feb 27, 2012 5:08PM

I recently spent two fun-filled weeks in Italy -- my third trip to that gorgeous country and one of numerous overseas trips I've made. I thought I'd share with you the steps I took to make the most of my vacation spending and guard against identity theft.


How affordable was it? The total cost for two people was $3,380 for 15 days, not including the international airfare. That's just over $112 a day per person.  


Travel planning

Make an effort to learn the language. This has many benefits (more on that below). I borrowed a CD set from the local library for free until it disappeared from the stacks. Then I found a brand-new version of the same course online for $25, much cheaper than heavily advertised Rosetta Stone and also very effective.


Go with a friend or two. A double or triple room isn't two or three times the cost of a single, so you'll save big there. 


Go in the off-off-season. Room prices are much, much lower. The hotel we stayed at in Diamante, Calabria, charged 60 euros a night in November for a double room that costs twice that during the high season. And they upgraded us to a Tyrrhenian Sea view, with a lovely balcony, without the 10 euro extra charge (or without us asking). It's true that not all restaurants were open that time of year, but, trust me, we didn't go hungry. 


Read a travel book or two -- or more. Unplanned travel can be a waste of money. No, you don't need to plan for every moment or day of your journey. Be flexible. But you'd be kicking yourself if you didn't know that the most perfect mosaics in the world were only 40 minutes away or if you found out too late that the train station you got off at on a dark, cold night was several kilometers from the town (more on that too).


Also, a good guide book will tell you that, in Italy, you must get your train ticket stamped before you get on board unless you have a reserved seat. That little tip could save you a hefty fine. We took our own copies of Let's Go, Frommer's and Lonely Planet on the trip.


Have the right luggage. I bought a carry-on backpack from eBags that fit in the overhead bin or under the seat both on my flight to and from Rome (no checked-bag fee for those flights) and my flight on a low-cost European airline from Palermo to Rome, where a checked-bag fee could have substantially increased the airfare. (I travel light, packing two sets of clothes, wearing a third, and taking a clothesline for hand wash.)


Get the right plastic. I used a credit card that has a 0% foreign transaction fee. I also notified the card company about my travel plans (you don't want to find out your account has been suspended because of suspicious, out-of-country activity). I also told my bank, after making sure my daily withdrawal limit from an ATM was high enough for my planned spending but low enough so a debit card thief couldn't quickly clean out my account. I took a second credit card as a backup.


Secure your valuables. Carry your cards, passport, driver's license and cash in a money belt around your waist or around your neck, stuffed under your shirt. Pickpockets abound. Keep your credit and debit card numbers, the phone numbers for overseas collect calls to your card companies, and copies of your passport photo page and driver's license in a separate, secure location. (Post continues below.)

Booking flights and accommodations

Use a travel agent. My travel agent tracked airfares until the number fell into what I considered an acceptable range, and she charged $20 for my flights. Doing it myself would have taken many hours.


However, if you're booking a flight within Europe, do a search for low-cost flights and book it yourself online with a credit card. My travel agent didn't have access to the discount intra-Europe fares I could find myself.


Do a deep search for rooms. Using reviews on TripAdvisor  and Venere, I found a lovely little double room in a B&B just minutes from the Campo dei Fiori in Rome that cost only 202 euros total for three nights -- an unbelievable find in a spectacular location. The best things to do in Rome were an easy walk or city bus trip away. I booked the room online with my credit card.


Accessing your money

Don't waste your money getting euros before you go. You risk getting a lousy exchange rate at the bank. And don't plan to exchange your dollars at one of those money-changing places. They give a less favorable rate than you can get with plastic. (Plus, none of the banks we saw in Italy allowed non-account holders to go inside.)


Use the ATM, starting at the airport. Use your ATM or debit card to withdraw money from one of the machines there. Make sure you're not getting a cash advance on your credit card -- which comes with very high interest and no grace period -- and keep an eye out for ATM skimmers.


Pay for everything you can with your credit card. It's secure and, like your debit card, you'll get a good exchange rate. Keep in mind that unless you have a "chip and PIN" credit card, your U.S. card likely won't work in places where cards are accepted but there's no person to process the transaction, such as gas stations. Otherwise, the transaction can be done manually.


Other travel tips

Remember what I said about planning ahead? Here are two illustrations. 


We ended up in Taormina, a very pricey tourist town in Sicily I had no desire to see, because of inadequate preparation. (After two huge cruise ships at the port below disgorged their passengers, the main streets were nearly impassable.) However, we found a hotel that cost only 80 euros because we hauled around those travel books. OK. No big deal.


More poor planning the next day resulted in us taking a train from Catania to Enna, after we had stood in the rain for nearly three hours waiting for a bus to Piazza Armerina that never came. One or two of the guide books suggested the Enna train station was right in the lower part of that mountain town. Actually, when we got off the train, we saw we were in the middle of nowhere and that the station was dark and deserted. We were still wet and now very cold. It was late. Panic was setting in.


Suddenly the train conductor, who had watched this play out as he held the train, called to us to get back on board, then instructed us to ride to the end of the line at Caltanissetta and take a cab to a certain (lovely and inexpensive) hotel. He didn't speak English. That $25 Italian CD kit had done its job.


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