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Italy Travel Guide

I’m Broke and I Still Make It to Italy Every Year. Here’s How You Can, Too

Italy can be expensive but with these travel tips, you can afford to go there not once, but TWICE a year.

For many in the know, the key to a happy life is to never stop planning your next trip to Italy. Banish the idea you must be wealthy to make your Italian dreams come true.

First and foremost, travel to Italy in the low season. When you travel to the boot between November and April, you maximize overall savings, and your trip will cost up to 40% less than it would in high season, May through October.

Another advantage? In larger cities where the summer months tend to be a log jam of tourists crammed into tiny medieval streets, local residents’ nerves may, understandably, become frayed. Locals prove far friendlier in the cooler months when the vast majority of crowds have dwindled.

Getting There

Kick-start your Italy plans by selecting which region you’ll visit. Maximize your savings and minimize your stress by selecting one city as your home base. It’s a common travel mistake to cram too many cities into a short trip. Your time in Italy will be far more meaningful when you stay in one place for the duration of your visit with affordable, carefully planned day trips. A more relaxed pace also means you’re less likely to make unplanned convenience-driven purchases simply because you’re tired. Assume you will return to Italy again and again. 

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Once you’ve selected your destination, create a free search alert using Google’s ingenious flight tool that delivers real-time alerts.  After you enter your preferred cities and dates, Google Flights emails you the very moment your dream flight drops in price.

Another important tool is Going, formerly known as Scotts Cheap Flights. While paid subscribers will save the most using this service, even the free “basic deals” version can be a terrific resource; to learn about premium deals and “mistake fares,” sign up for their 14-day free trial and continue only if you like it. At press time, their membership costs $39 a year.

Rock-bottom airfares can also be found on the totally free website Fare Compare, which reveals little-known savings patterns, including which specific dates will be cheapest to fly twelve months in advance.

Getting Around

Forget renting a car. For a worry-free vacation, use the safe, clean, and simple-to-navigate Italian rail system to explore il bel paese. Whether you’re exploring smaller cities around your base of operations or traveling the length of the country via a “Frecciarossa” rapid train, the truly budget-conscious traveler recognizes a terrific deal when they see one. Keep stress levels low by booking tickets before you travel. The easy-to-use Trenitalia app is also great on the go. To avoid confusion when selecting tickets, remember that Italians place the day, then the month into the drop-down menu.

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Where to Stay

Join a religious order. Just kidding. Well, kind of. Convents and monasteries are one of the best-kept secrets of discount Italian lodging. These centuries-old guest houses are friendly and as sparkling clean as you’d expect a place run by nuns to be! Travelers need not be religious in any way to stay in these accommodations. Don’t be alarmed when you see how inexpensive the rooms are: prices do not represent their overall quality. However, some religious guest houses may impose a nightly curfew and plan accordingly. Whether you’re falling asleep beneath frescoed 30-foot gothic ceilings in Florence, soaking in the tub beneath a 15th Century fresco in Rome, or enjoying rooftop views of Vivaldi’s beloved city of Venice, you’ll do this for a fraction of what you’d pay for a big-name hotel. Be sure to select lodgings that offer breakfast: you’ll be bowled over by the quality of their fresh fruit, morning coffee, and choice of fresh bread and cheese. Which brings us to…

What to Eat

Eating in restaurants can be absurdly expensive in Italy. Quick fix: only eat gelato. Realizing this suggestion is not for everyone, let me introduce you to the myriad joys of the Italian grocery store or alimentari.

While you can pass many happy hours in the food-specific little shops in your area, a latteria sells cheese, a panificio or forno sells bread and pastries, and an enoteca sells local wine–you’ll find ample culinary treasures at the general grocery store nearest your accommodations. Most supermarkets have an entire section of gluten-free (“senza glutine”) foods for those with dietary restrictions. You don’t need to miss a student loan payment to enjoy glorious regional cheese offerings. Try the local delicacy! A wine that would set you back $40 stateside is often cheaper than bottled soda in Italy, so use this rare opportunity to be adventuresome and experiment to find new favorites.

Seeing Italy in the off-season lets you experience lesser-known meals and recipes you’d miss in the hotter months. For hot, ready-to-eat food, deli-style pizza shops allow you to make seasonal selections and purchase by the kilo. The farther afield you roam from tourist sites, the less expensive lunch on the go will be.

For an affordable dining experience year-round, large cities like Rome, Florence, Milan, and Turin boast an impressive Mercato Centrale, or indoor covered market. Even in the worst weather, visitors can browse butcher shops, sweets, and baked goods or choose from a wide variety of pasta, soups, and regional specialties that can be eaten cafeteria-style, all under one roof. Be ready to snap photos of artfully arranged fruit and flower stands: you’re on your way to a moveable feast sure to thrill all your Instagram followers back home.

Instead of spending $15 on a cappuccino near large tourist attractions, stalk the locals to see where they grab their morning cuppa. Note that soft drinks sold in a bar or convenience kiosk can set you back up to $10; resolve to buy a single bottle at the grocery store for a fraction of that price. Most lodgings make a refrigerator available to guests; bring a Sharpie to mark your groceries.

Carry a small reusable water bottle with you. Not only is single-use plastic a tacky Americanism, spending $8 a bottle adds up fast. Observe where the locals grab a drink and fill your bottle there. And before you even ask if the water is safe to drink in Italy, remember: these are the folks who brought you aqueducts! 

What to Buy

If you insist on buying souvenirs for people, get them at the grocery store. Fancy, beautifully wrapped soaps that sell for $20-plus in specialty shops in the U.S. routinely sell for $1 in everyday stores where Italian families shop. Better still, find a farmacia, universally marked in the street with a green neon cross sign, and try Italian toiletries like toothpaste, perfumes, and face creams, all for a 1/10th of what you’d pay for these items, considered luxuries, stateside. 

Browse through souvenir shops and luxury goods stores for the experience, not to buy. To find unique stationery items unavailable outside of Italy, visit an art supply store. Purchase postcards in bookstores to pay less than half of what’s charged in heavily touristed areas. If you decide to splurge on an artisanal object, inspect it carefully to be sure it is truly made in Italy, or download this app, specifically designed to help protect consumers from counterfeit goods.

Off-Season Travel

Another terrific reason to visit Italy in the off-season? From October to March, the Italian Ministry of Culture offers free admission to everyone on the first Sunday of each month. The earlier you arrive in the day, the less crowded. Even if you aren’t traveling on those dates, families with children can still save, as kids under 18 are granted free admission to state museums anytime by showing their passports. 

Memory-making is the thing that matters most when traveling. Little economies will fade from your memory as you reflect on moments of majesty that greeted you around every bend in the country known for la dolce vita. Resolve to return to Italy again and again.