Vacationing in Italy? 20 Frugal Travel Tips

If 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?

I’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.

Let us know of your frugal travel tips for Italy or other destinations, below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Mary Harrsch

    Karen has given us a great bunch of tips but I have one more to add whether your destination is Italy or somewhere else in Europe – if you don’t yet have one, ask your credit card company for a card that uses a microchip instead of the (outdated) magnetic strip that is used by so many cards here in the States. Also set a pin for it and remember it! And, like Karen says, be sure your new card does not charge foreign transaction fees either.

    I do take exception with her advice not to order foreign currency before you go, though. Although its true there are a lot of ATMs at the Rome airport, using them makes you a target for the ever-present pickpockets there. On my last trip I was going to both England and France so ordered $500 each in British Pounds and Euros and my local Bank of America charged me $7.50. I did not think that fee was excessive and gave me more peace of mind when I was hustling through the airport with my luggage and only had to find my ground transportation without worrying about whether the shuttle driver could take plastic or not.

    • Mike Hampton

      Microchip credit cards are due to become more popular in the US shortly , and you are right to be concerned . In Europe all the credit and debt card are equipped with microchip . In the meantime buy a

      RFID Blocking wallet or case .

  • marketfog

    The writer never took the subway. Several years ago we purchased an all day pass on the subway. It stops near virtually every major tourist attraction. It was fast, convenient and inexpensive.

  • Terry Sanders

    Concerning using a debit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee: smaller banks may not be tied into the major international networks travelers will need, especially if traveling outside of large cities or to more obscure countries. A lot of good your fee-less card will do you if it’s originating bank doesn’t participate in the essential foreign networks. It is NOT a given that EVERY debit card is functionally valid everywhere, and assurances from ‘Harold and Edna’s Thrift Bank’ that your card will be accepted is hardly reassuring.

    Concerning credit cards: there may be versions of VISA that don’t charge the FTF, but mine does. And American Express does. DO NOT take an obscure credit card with you overseas. Credit card acceptance is still not as widespread as we’re accustomed to, and when American cards are accepted, only the 3 majors, and sometimes only 1, will be accepted.

    As far as public transport in Rome: it’s ok, but can be slower than walking on some routes during rush hours, IF the bus comes at all. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t. Be prepared for an (obscenely expensive) taxi if you must get to your destination and are not near a Metro–which is more reliable over it’s awesomely-limited routing.

  • Mike Hampton

    And if you have an unlocked cell buy a 10 euro Sim at the airport or kiosk . Also , as I was born and raised in Italy for 27 yrs I recommend first timers to go with a guided tour ( more expensive , but worth ) . It will save time and aggravations , you have no idea how chaotic and disorderly Italy can be . Above all , don’t rent a car . Tour guides have special deals with museums and front door attendants ( the art of corruption and dealing originated in Italy ) , that alone will save you hours from waiting in lines ( Sistine Chapel etc. ) . Don’t be shy and haggle when shopping . Forget trying to learn the language , most locals in the tourism industry speak English . Have fun , Italy is a beautiful country to visit , but it’s a pain to live in .