I learned while Traveling in Italy (and other countries).
With a last name like Capo, you would think I would have traveled to Italy many times in my life. “Ma no!” This was my first trip to the place of my father’s homeland. I didn’t want to just visit Naples, so with my good friend, Lisa Wernick, we decided in 17 days to tour the country, covering nine cities. Italy was amazing, the food–fantastic, and I will write more about my Italian travels in another blog. For now, I wanted to give anyone planning on going there some very useful tips that can make your trip that much more enjoyable.
1.Passports: Whenever you do international travel, always make copies of everything you have in your wallet, especially a colored copy of your passport, if you lose it, it’s that much easier if you have your number and a copy on you. All hotels ask you to show your passports as you check in, and in some cases they insist on holding onto your passport till you check out.
2.The Go Pass: If you plan on doing a lot of international travel and you are a U.S. citizen you can apply for a Go Pass. Simply go on line to www.globalentry.gov and answer the questions. Once you get pre-approval you will be asked to go in for an interview. (I did mine at JFK airport.) They will ask you further questions, photograph and fingerprint you. The cost is $100 for the year, but when you come back into the country you do NOT have to wait in the customs line. You simply go to the Go Pass kiosk, answer the security questions, let the machine take your photo and your fingerprints. The computer does its magic and if your face recognition and fingerprints match what they have on file, you are through customs in about five minutes.
3. Hotels: A couple of things; Nowhere in Italy was I able to find a washcloth…the hotels just don’t have them. So if you like to scrub yourself in the shower or bath, bring your own washcloth (BYOWC). (You can always bring your own pillowcase as well if you are worried about bedbugs.) Also, most of the hotels insist you leave your room key with them and not take it out on your excursions. So remember to lock your stuff up in the room safe. Lastly, the voltage is different so you have to bring a converter, but unless your hairdryer or iron curler is pretty up to date it will burn out fast. (Mine did!) Luckily they had hairdryers in most of the rooms.
4. Bathrooms. Now, as you are perusing the fascinating cobblestone streets of Italy, it is inevitable that you will have to stop to go to the bathroom. Well, you better bring some spare euros. The public bathrooms charge 1.50E per visit. Also be prepared that most toilets do not have toilet seats and many of them are only about 8 to12 inches off the ground, so start practicing your squats now.
5. Church Protocol. Italy is filled with gorgeous churches. You can practically get blessed at any corner. But here’s the catch: To pay your respects you have to be properly dressed, which means your shoulders and your knees must be covered. They take this seriously, you will not be allowed in the church if either of these parts of you are exposed. You don’t want to be waiting in line to see the Sistine Chapel only to find out your attire prevents you from getting in. Besides, the last thing you want to do is get some saint angry at you when you come to pay your respects.
6. Water: It’s simple…If you walk a lot, you will get thirsty. You can buy bottled water, carry a camelback like I did, or you can drink from the fountains. Yes, the fountain water is drinkable, and there is even a little trick on the fountains that if you hold the end of the downward pointing faucet, the water will back up to a little top sprocket. The water coming out of that will shoot up and you can just drink it like a regular water fountain. Now mind you, I’m not talking about the big fountains with the statues in the middle, I’m talking about the cement fountains that you will find on the sidewalks of Italy. Also in the restaurants, always specify if you want natural water or water with gas (sparkling water).
7. Taxis: Just like any city, you can get ripped off if you do not know the difference between a gypsy cab and a legit one. The legit ones have meters and are white. Their fee will start at different rates depending on how far they came to get you. The gypsy drivers will have taxi licenses and even act insulted if you question if they are cab drivers…BUT, these gypsies will charge you whatever rate they can swindle out of you. (How do I know this? Well, Lisa and I, the so called, Savvy New Yorkers paid 20E for a 10E ride!!!) We were so embarrassed at how we let our guard down that when another taxi driver (this time with a meter) wanted to charge us 1E extra per suitcase we thought we were being ripped off again and argued with him, only to find out, that is standard procedure.
8. Tipping; It is not common to tip in Italy. But, being an American I am used to tipping. Word of caution, check before you go into a place. Some places will list on the menu that they charge a cover charge (usually a 2E per person). This is just a fee, not for music or anything else, just for sitting down and eating. The tipping norm there is to just round up the bill. So if it’s 2.80Euro you leave 3Euro. By the way, they charge you for bread that they bring to the table without asking. However, it’s delicious like all other food in Italy so we didn’t mind.
9. Tourist attractions: Make sure you know the deal. We took a bus to Mt. Vesuvius. Turns out that fee was just to get to the parking lot of the mountain. We had to pay another fee to climb the mountain. (They do give you a free walking stick to help you along the way-take it!) In Capri, it was the same type of deal. You pay one fee to take a ferry boat to get to the Island. Then for another fee, a second smaller boat takes you to the grotto. Then a third smaller boat (more like a canoe) takes you INSIDE the grotto. (The boats kept getting smaller and smaller, and at one point I thought they were going to send a dingy! ) It was totally worth it, but you must have exact change for the canoe because they don’t have change. Last example is Pisa. It was one fee to take the bus to get to the tower, it’s another fee (that needs to be prearranged) to climb the tower. The entrance tickets to climb are timed (like many popular exhibits in Italy) so if you do not have advance tickets and you are with a tour, you might not be able to climb in the allotted time before you have to get back on the bus. So ask in advance what your tour/fee covers.
10. Espresso: Italians take their espresso seriously: If you go into a local pastry shop and order espresso, stand and drink it, they by law can only charge you 1.50E max. Each espresso cup also has by law 23 drops. If you sit and drink it, however, all bets are off; they can charge you up to 8 Euros. (I learned this fact from the http//:www.RomanFoodTour.com, a new company started by Joshua Elledge, his wife Francesca, and his partner Henry. They give an excellent 4-hour tour, and in the four short months they have been in business they are #80 out of 500 on trip advisor. Highly recommend them in Rome. Say Fran sent ya.)
11. Strikes: The Italians will strike at the drop of a cannoli. We were warned when we worked in Pompeii that they might just close the Scavi but not to worry, the Italians will tell you what time the strike will be over. Sure enough on one of the Fridays we were there, they put a note up, “We are striking from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Come back at 11.” So, if you are on a tight schedule and plan to visit Pompeii or any other major site, keep this in mind and leave a little extra room in case this happens.
12. Car Rental & International Driving license: For one portion of our trip from Sorrento to Matera, we decided to rent a car. So I applied through AAA for an international drivers license. All you need to do is show up at their office, bring a photo and copy of your license, pay the $15 fee and you are in. The international license lasts for one year and you tell them when to begin the clock ticking. Now it’s not necessary that you need one to rent the car, but you do need one to show to cops in case you get pulled over. As far as arrangements for car rental, if you ONLY drive an automatic, rent in advance. Most car rental places in Italy only have ONE automatic car and the rest are stick shifts. Since I don’t drive a stick, I needed to make sure they had the car I needed put aside in advance. Once you get your car and your map, you can just head on your merry way. But, I suggest either downloading directions to your own GPS for that country or renting their GPS system called the NEVERLOST for a few euros a day. In my case I also printed out Google map directions in advance, and Lisa printed out a visual of the roads. (This is in case our GPS or Neverlost had a nervous breakdown.) We also made ourselves familiar with the road signs. Lastly, I love my Italian Pisans, but they have no regard for the rules of the road. Double yellow lines mean nothing to them, and going 100 mph is the grandma speed, so be prepared on the road to be considered the sloth. Also, keep change with you as there are toll roads just like in the U.S. Remember, their streets are a lot smaller than those in the U.S., so naturally their cars are a lot smaller; therefore, pack light because there is NOT a lot of room for luggage.
13. The Heat: Hair band, hat, sunscreen. It gets hot in the day, so in your bag always carry a hair band (I carry mine on my wrist), a hat, sunscreen and water.
14. The metro: (Local train in major cities) 1.50E (instead of taxi everywhere which starts at about 3 to 4E) It is very easy to navigate.
15. Pick pockets: While I personally was not robbed in Italy, many people warned us that especially in Naples they seem to find their hands on your stuff. I carried a knapsack and made sure the opening was toward me, most just carried their knapsack in the front. Many travel agents won’t even go to Naples because it is so well known in that circle that pick-pocketing is very high. Many suggested not to wear jewelry.
16. Banks and Exchange Places: Hotels are the worst for the exchange rate. Order your money in advance from your home bank. You can bring American Express Travelers checks but a lot of places don’t take them. If you are planning on using your ATM card, check with the bank what your maximum daily allowance to take out in a 24-hour period is. At Chase it’s $300 US per day which at the time was 210E. Also tell your bank in advance the days you plan to travel and what country you will be in.
17. Credit Cards: If you plan to use your credit cards abroad, (and who doesn’t?) tell your credit card company in advance. More importantly, ask if your credit card has a fee. Usually credit cards charge a 3% fee for international transactions, but I found out my Bank of America card had a “Travel rewards Card Visa Signature card” which doesn’t charge a fee. What they will do if you have one of their existing cards is reduce the credit line on your other account with them and transfer. This also avoids a credit check which lowers your credit score, so it’s a win-win situation.
18. Travel Insurance: Lisa and I checked with Frommers and used one of their top five travel insurance places for our trip. The chances are slight you may ever use it and better safe than sorry. We almost had to use it, however, since the French Airport was on strike five days before we left and no planes were allowed in their air space. Of course our connecting flight was in Paris, so we had a panic there for a few minutes, but luckily if the strike had not ended, we would have been covered.
19. Emergency first aid kit: While the last thing you want to do is get sick while away on vacation, it happens. So if you have medicines you use or homeopathic things you like, bring them.
I sprained my ankle prior to going so I had Arnica, Tiger Balm, Traumeel, an ankle brace, and some other herbal medicine. I also brought a back brace, aloe, ace bandage, vitamin C, and aspirin. I wound up using all of them. A friend pulled her back, I started to get a sore throat, and nipped it in the bud with vitamin C. Granted our room smelled like a pharmacy, but I was able to climb and walk all over the place.
20. Calls Abroad: When you are traveling make sure you get your iPhone unlocked and ask for an international phone rate. (or get a sim card if you have a smartphone). Also keep your cellular data off and only access emails when you have a wi-fi connection. One lady accidentally ran up her phone bill to $2400 without realizing the cost. Each text message was 50 cents outgoing and 15 cents incoming. Sending photos and videos are expensive if you don’t know how to use your phone when you’re away.
If you enjoyed these tips let me know. Have a safe trip, and enjoy every ounce of it…remember you only live once, at least that you know, so live life to the fullest, and be in the “Here” and “Now” when you do. Ciao!