Travel mistakes in Italy. Having travelled and lived in Italy for the last twenty years, it’s safe to say I’ve made plenty of these travel mistakes. Italy, on the whole, is one of the easiest and most pleasant countries in Europe to travel to, but there are many common travel mistakes travelling in Italy that are easily avoided. We’ve put together a list of our top 15 travel mistakes in Italy.
Italy is one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations for good reason. It has a huge variety of things on offer, from culture and food through to amazing natural landscapes and sports. The most difficult thing for someone planning a trip to Italy is deciding what to see and what to skip. You simply can’t see it all, and the biggest mistake travellers make on a trip to Italy is selecting the wrong itinerary.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but some research and planning ahead could make all the difference for your Italian holiday. Remember that the country is a patchwork of very different regions, all with their own characteristics. Of course a trip to the main cities, famous throughout the world, like Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome is not a bad place to start – but if you’re looking for a peaceful break in a romantic hill-top village you may be better off skipping their hustle and bustle and heading off in to the Umbria or Marche regions. Or perhaps you’re looking for a beach holiday with great food? Then Sardinia or Puglia might be the best option. Maybe you want a mix of family-holiday with beach and amusement parks, plus some culture – then the Adriatic riviera is hard to beat. With a bit of planning you can get the best of various different types of holiday.
When is the best time to visit Italy? That depends so much on where you want to go, and to do what.
Italy has a big variation in climate throughout the peninsula and islands, so it’s a good idea to check average temperatures for your destination. More than one traveller has made the mistake of presuming that the country basks in year-round sunshine; one of the most dramatic examples of this is visiting Venice during the winter, where often rain ends up flooding the city. The flip-side to that is visiting cities like Milan or Bologna in August, when the heat can sap your will to live, let alone sightsee!
Let’s take a crazy example – you want to visit Florence (which has a very small and poorly serviced airport). You look around for good flight deals, and find cheap flights to Bari. That may sound like a good option, but getting from Bari to Firenze by train involves at least 6 hours (more likely 8-10), one changeover and a cost of €145. Using a budget bus service like Flix bus, you could save some cash but it will still cost around €60 and take upwards of ten hours. Flights to nearby cities like Bologna or Pisa might cost more, but will save you time and money in the long term.
Also be aware that night trains between cities are increasingly more rare, so for example, if you’re arriving in late into one of Milan’s airports (Malpensa or nearby Bergamo), with the idea of travelling on to Bologna, Florence, Rome or Naples by train, you should always check www.trenitalia.it or www.italotreno.it for train timetables and ticket purchases.
When you’re in Italy:
Tipping is not an Italian tradition, and it’s certainly not expected. Restaurants will normally have a ‘coperto‘ charge on the bill – this is a per person charge, ostensibly for bread/breadsticks but is charged regardless of whether you eat the bread or not. It’s a basic service charge. If you feel you have had excellent service in a restaurant or bar you can feel free to leave a tip, but don’t be surprised if it marks you out immediately as a tourist.
Italy has a tradition of fairly rigid meal times. Lunch time generally starts from 12.30 onwards and finishes by 2.30pm, while evening dinner starts at 7.30 through to 9.30pm. Outside of these hours you can find it difficult to get a meal, though this is obviously changing as globalisation takes hold, particularly in the big cities. The more traditional a restaurant is, the more likely it is to hold on to these hours – and given that the best Italian food is generally in traditional restaurants, try and stick to these hours.
The coverage and quality of public transport varies greatly throughout the country. For example, in Emilia-Romagna there’s a well-funded and extensive Train/bus network throughout the region, connecting cities like Parma, Modena, Bologna, Piacenza and Rimini. In Sicily, though public transport is more complicated and relies mainly on bus routes. Visiting amazing hill top villages whether it be in Tuscany or Calabria can often be a challenge when relying solely on public transport.
Rome is another example where public transport, while extensive and well-funded, is plagued with problems. The metro doesn’t cover the whole city, and indeed has seen lengthy closures due to dangerous faults with infrastructure (elevators)
Anyone who’s eaten in Italy will know that it’s a common enough practice for the waiter to suggest options, and in some restaurants you might not even be given a menu. This is a tradition based upon the best of Italian cooking – choosing the freshest ingredients. Unfortunately there are plenty of restaurants, particularly in the big cities, that use this tradition to rip off tourists. A classic example was the case of two Japanese tourists in Rome, who were offered advice by their waiter which led to a great meal at a cost of 695 Euros!
How to avoid being ripped off in Italy in a restaurant? Well, when offered any off-menu choices, politely but firmly ask how much they will cost. As mentioned above, in most cases it’s a perfectly normal practice and should be welcomed, but make sure you know how much you’re going to be spending. The same goes for wine or after dinner drinks.
Because Italy has so many world-class monuments (the most UNESCO world heritage sites in one country), it’s not surprising that queues are long, and in many cases pre-booking is essential. For example The Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano) by Leonardo Da Vinci, housed in the refectory of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie Church is limited to 25 visitors at a time and booking is obligatory.
Another example is The Uffizi gallery in Florence, where you can visit without pre-booking, but queues are long and difficult, while there is a pre-booking system available on the official website.
When visiting the Vatican you can spend hours in line waiting to buy tickets to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, but there are also online ticketing options available from the Vatican Museum website
Increasingly, in the main cities, major tourist attractions are giving tourists the option to book in advance, so check out your sights online first and plan accordingly.
This isn’t really just an Italian phenomenon – taxi drivers around the world take advantage of ill-prepared tourists, but nevertheless there are repeated horror stories of taxi drivers (particularly in Rome) taking tourists on wild-goose chases across the city and charging them huge fares. Good practice before getting a taxi is to work out roughly how far your destination is (use google maps and directions), ask the driver (politely) roughly how much the fare will be, and make sure that the driver is an official taxi with its meter switched on.
It’s important to stress that most taxi drivers are decent and honest, so always be polite – but do make it obvious that you know roughly how far you’re going.
Italy has placed restrictions on taxi competitors like Uber, so for the most part you won’t be able to use them. Also remember that you need to call a taxi or go to a taxi rank, as in general Italian taxis can’t be flagged down on the street.
Carrying large amounts of cash is never advisable when travelling, but you need to make sure you have enough for incidental costs. Most cities have a large network of ATM machines, and most restaurants and shops take credit cards (though when paying they will ask you whether it’s ‘carta o bancomat‘ (credit card or bank card – in nearly all cases, for tourists, it’s o.k to respond carta). Be aware though that there are still lots of restaurants and bars that will not accept cards, so it’s best to check before ordering. Also many cafes/shops will insist on a miminum charge before accepting cards. In smaller remote towns, there may not be an ATM so go well prepared.
Italians are justifiably proud about their coffee, and they have very strong ideas about what it should/shouldn’t be. If you want a large mug of coffee, or coffee with various syrupy additions – that’s fine, but you’ll have to explain your preference clearly. Ordering a coffee will – obviously, in the mind of an Italian – get you a tiny cup of espresso. Sad to say, Starbucks is making inroads into the Italian market, so if that’s your thing you can locate the nearest one in cities like Milan, Rome, Florence and Bologna.
If you’re driving in to major cities check beforehand on traffic restrictions. Many city centres have traffic limitied zones (Z.T.L) which, while not pedestrianised, are off limits to normal traffic (there are exceptions, like residents, taxis, and buses). These may not show up on your map/sat nav, so it’s always best to check with your accomodation in advance. Many cities will allow tourists to drive to their hotels, but the hotel must register the licence plates. Often, for example in Siena, there is a limited time window and specific route that a tourist must use to reach their hotel by car – so best again to check with your hotel/guesthouse.
Also be aware of speed cameras (autovelox) both on motorways and in towns. See here for a guide to speed limits in Italy
Italy’s motorway network (Autostrada) is very good, but it is heavily used, and there is nothing worse on a holiday than spending hours bumper to bumper on, for example, the Autostrada del Sole. There are some general common sense tips – for example, avoid travelling on Friday afternoons/evenings during the summer from the inland cities towards the coast, and vice versa for Sundays when workers return to the hot cities. Trafiic peaks at the end of August when people return from holidays on the coast and in the south. Major holidays like Easter and Christmas also see heavy traffic.
To avoid problems like this you can check the autostrade.it site for news, updates and useful tools like a toll calculator.
Train travel in Italy is generally cheap and fairly efficient. Regional trains in particular offer good value, though they can be slow and overcrowded. For fast trains your ticket usually includes a seat reservation and is only valid for the specific train you’ve booked. Regional tickets though usually have no seat reservation and so are open ended tickets, causing quite a bit of confusion for tourists. You must validate the ticket before boarding the train – ticket validation machines are at the start of platforms. If you can’t find one, you should ask the ticket inspector immediately on boarding. Ticket inspectors tend to be lenient to tourists, but in theory they can give you a hefty fine for not having validated your ticket. Be warned!
Because regional trains offer good value, they are often packed compared to the more expensive high-speed or inter-city trains. When buying a ticket from the vending machines in the station, you’ll often get the choice of 1st class or 2nd class tickets, and it may seem to make sense to upgrade and treat yourself to a bit of comfort. Watch out though because as more modern trains have been added to the regional network, not all trains have a noticeable difference between 1st and 2nd class carriages – indeed some trains have no discernible 1st class carriages at all, though the ticket machines still sell tickets at almost double the price.
Instead of buying a 1st class ticket, we advise you buy 2nd class and then, if you get on a packed train and see a cool air-conditioned first class section, go to the ticket inspector and ask to upgrade your ticket.
Having listed these top mistakes made travelling in Italy, keep in mind that it’s still one of the friendliest most easy-going countries in the world, and a place where it’s simple to find great culture, excitement and food. Have a great Italian holiday!