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Princess Plans a Trip to Italy
Useful Tips and Resources
by
Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil

 

Planning a trip to Italy, or anywhere for that matter takes research.  There are those of course who just “wing it,” but Princess believes that a well-planned trip can help avoid the trouble and anguish that can arise when traveling.  This is not to say that problems or unscheduled incidents won’t occur, but being well informed about the area and the options available helps one deal with whatever may lie ahead.

The number one resource for travelers, at home and abroad, is the Internet.  There are numerous websites for helping you make your choices.  When the Frog and I decided to go to Italy, I first went to Fodors.com and did preliminary research about where to go and places to stay.

Getting There

Once we decided on our itinerary, the first step was getting airline tickets.  I tried all the traditional discount websites but ended up getting tickets on the phone with Continental.  It turned out that flying into Milan was substantially cheaper than flying into Rome, so if your itinerary includes Northern Italy or Tuscany, this is a good option.  Please note that it is an hour bus ride from the Milan Malpensa Airport to the Milan train station; if you’re catching a train, add that time to your travel.  The bus ride costs between 9 and 11 Euro, depending which bus line you take.

Getting Around

By train.  Italy has a great rail system with room for baggage.  Since legroom is limited, long distances can be tough.  I obtained the train schedules for our destinations from trenitalia.com.  Since we didn’t know our exact schedules, I didn’t purchase the tickets from the states, though it is possible to do so from raileurope.com.  There is a surcharge for tickets purchased from the U.S. that you won’t have in Italy. 

If you do decide to purchase your train tickets in Italy, here are a few tips.  You must purchase tickets before you get on the train.  If you choose the Eurostar, you’ll need assigned seats for a specific train and time.  Tickets can be bought at travel agencies in the big cities, just ask your hotel.  Tickets at the Milan train station can be purchased from the travel agency adjacent to the train station.  The train we wanted was sold out but there was one the following hour.  If you’re on a tight schedule, you may want to purchase tickets a day or two in advance.

By air.  Italy has local airlines that connect major cities.  If you don’t want to sit on a train for 9 hours from Milan to Naples, you may want to consider air travel.  I would definitely recommend buying airline tickets ahead of time to avoid getting shut out of your desired flights.  Europebyair.com is a good website to get schedules and buy tickets.  We took a flight from Naples to Milan on a local carrier, Volare Airlines, a growing commuter airline, which was very comfortable with great service.  It was comparable in price to a train and took only an hour.

By car.  Driving the Italian countryside is beautiful.  The roads are well maintained and well marked.  Most local rental companies can be found in the major cities.  I used Autoeurope.com to book a car and was very happy with them.  I shopped around and they lived up to their motto of having the best price.  They are contracted with different local car rental companies in different cities and countries.  In Italy it was EuropeCar.  You may not get the exact car you reserve but you do get a relatively comparable car (we ordered an intermediate Alfa Romeo and got a intermediate Fiat, which worked fine).  When signing up for a car, be sure to check their special promotions page.  They have special deals for different types of upgrades and international mobile phones.  To get the promotions you often have to pay in full by a certain date, but one of the advantages about Autoeurope.com is that you can cancel your reservation without penalty (this was true as of this date but always verify cancellation policies when you make reservations). 

AN IMPORTANT TIP ABOUT DRIVING IN ROME:  DON’T!!!!  It is just impossible to negotiate the streets so don’t even bother.  The Frog and I spent 2 hours going around the same block trying to get to our hotel.  If you have to drive to Rome from somewhere else, follow the signs for Centro Rome.  As soon as you enter Via Veneto through the Porto Pinciana, go directly to the EuropeCar office and dump the car.  There is a EuropeCar located right across from the American Embassy.  All you have to do is make a right off Via Veneto.  Highly recommended, trust me.

Ferry.  There is ferry service throughout the Amalfi Coast and it is a great way to get around.  On a hot day or on any day for that matter, this is a lovely way to travel.  There are ferries from Sorrento to Salerno, via Positano and Amalfi.  You can get on and off anywhere and they run often.  There are ferries to Capri from various towns on the Amalfi coast including Naples.  For schedules, check out http://www.capri.net/home/en/transport.php.  This can help you figure out your schedule, especially if you are flying out of Naples.  Note that ferries from the smaller towns run less often than from Naples, Sorrento and Salerno.

Lodging

Planning where to stay took up most of my research time.  Again, the Internet was a great way to get information and to make the reservations, but I did consult a few books just to get different opinions.  The first place I started was at Fodors.com.  What I found most useful was the mini-guides of the different cities and areas.  The “Rants and Raves” section had actual travelers’ opinions, which were sometimes different from the book’s review.  Most hotels have websites and I urge you to check them out to get more information (to find these do a search for the hotel name).  Just remember that hotels’ websites are their promotional tools and therefore they will only tell you what’s best about a hotel.  Another useful tip when deciding on a hotel, remember location, location, location.  Not all 4 star hotels are in the best areas.  If location is important to you (it definitely is to me) then I would get the address of the hotel you are considering and map it out on mapquest.com.  Note that the areas around rail stations, while often convenient, are usually seedy, especially in larger cities.  I found this to be especially true in Rome.  It lead us to change hotels and neighborhoods (trust me, the Via Veneto is much nicer).

My favorite websites for booking hotels is www.utell.com.  This is a hotel booking website that I have found very useful on different trips.  It lists available hotels, rates (including promotional deals), availability and star rating.  I have found rates that are better than discounted web rates, which are usually non-refundable for cancellations.  In most cases Utell’s cancellation policy is 24 hours prior to arrival (please verify this when making your reservation).  I also have had good experiences with their customer service.  When we were unhappy with the location of our hotel in Rome, I called their 800 number in the states (there are local numbers for most European countries) and they proceeded to book us into another hotel.  The booking agent was very helpful and since I didn’t know what hotel I wanted, she recommended different hotels and neighborhoods.  We ended up in a very nice hotel in a very nice neighborhood.  The cancellation policy and ease in switching hotels can be important.  We met some women in Rome, who to their dismay, had to remain at the hotel in the seedy neighborhood since their reservations were pre-paid and non-refundable.  This is something to think about when booking pre-packaged discount tours.

Another thing to note about Utell: sometimes they will only have suites available.  If you don’t want a suite and want to stay at that hotel, it is worth contacting the hotel directly through their website and asking if they have standard rooms available.  I was able to do this with our hotel in Capri, which lowered our rate by $75 a night.  Capri.net is a good source for listings of hotels in Capri.

Tuscany Lodging.  When visiting Tuscany, I would recommend staying in a converted farmhouse or villa rather than a hotel (which are few).  I would also recommend reserving early.  Most of the properties are small and have only a few rooms, which book up quickly.  It is best to do some research on where you want to stay in the region since it is spread out with different areas for different interests.  Also, some properties are only available for 7-day rentals and some do not have breakfast or daily housekeeping.  Many properties have their own website so it’s worth doing a search if you have the name of the property.  I found the book, Tuscany & Umbria (Charming Small Hotel Guides: Tuscany & Umbria, 3rd Ed) by Nicola Swallow, Richard Dixon, Fiona Duncan, to be quite useful especially when crossed referenced with Fodors and other websites. 

A great website for information and to book farmhouses and villas is Tuscany.net.  You can get comprehensive information about properties, rates, locations and many other details.  On this website, you can put in an availability request for different properties.  Your request is forwarded to the property and they will contact you via e-mail with rates and availability for the dates requested.  The only problem is the cancellation policy: most properties will charge a steep cancellation fee, sometimes as much as 100%!  Be sure that you are certain about your travel dates and destination.  Another thing to look out for when booking through this website, when you receive your confirmation voucher (which you must take with you), verify that the rate quoted in the availability e-mail matches the rate quoted in the voucher.  I had a huge discrepancy in one of my requests.  If this happens, contact Tuscany.net’s customer service and the property directly (by replying to the voucher e-mail).  In my case, they offered to honor their original quoted price. 

We decided to stay in the Chianti region.  A good website for information on this region is chianti.net

OTHER RESOURCES - BOOKS

When in Italy, I referred to various books for information.  Since I didn’t have a computer available at all times, books were a good resource for local information, maps and descriptions of historic places.  My favorites were Fodors 2002 Italy and Eyewitness Travel Guide to Florence and Tuscany and Eyewitness Travel Guide to Rome.  I had a book for the Amalfi Coast, but I found the Fodors guide to be more useful.  Although I cannot attest to it firsthand, Rick Steves' Italy 2002 guide was very popular and its readers seemed to find it useful.  I found these guidebooks good for sightseeing information but when it came to food, I think it’s best to rely on recommendations and word of mouth.  We had many great meals at wonderful restaurants that were recommended by the staff of our hotels as well as other people we met on our travels.

Travelers' Insurance

Though you hopefully won’t need it, travelers’ insurance is always a good thing to have.  If you are traveling during the peak season, many hotels require a week or more for cancellations so I would recommend insurance for your peace of mind.  We used Accessamerica.com.  To keep your premium low, figure out the minimum amount you would have to pay for cancellations, and take out that insurance amount.  Remember, some hotels will charge you only one night for cancellations, so you don’t need to total the entire stay.

For specific hotels and restaurants that we recommend, check out the other articles on Italy by Princess and the Frog.  They are organized by city and region and have websites, phone numbers and addresses.

Useful Websites

Research
www.fodors.com         
http://www.chianti.net/
http://www.capri.net/home/en/index.php
Hotel Reservations and Information
www.utell.com
http://www.tuscany.net/
Airlines
http://www.europebyair.com/English_us/Flights/default.asp
www.travelocity.com
www.expedia.com
www.orbitz.com
Car Rental
Autoeurope.com
Train Schedules and Tickets
http://www.trenitalia.com/
http://www.raileurope.com/us/
Capri Ferry Schedule
http://www.capri.net/home/en/transport.php
Currency Converter
http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Travelers’ Insurance
www.accessamerica.com
Useful Books
Fodors 2002 Italy
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Florence and Tuscany
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Rome
Rick Steves' Italy 2002
Tuscany & Umbria (Charming Small Hotel Guides: Tuscany & Umbria, 3rd Ed) by Nicola Swallow, Richard Dixon, Fiona Duncan

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Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil are a husband and wife team specializing in world travel and fine dining. Jon is a writer currently working on his second novel. Esrin works in television development for a major production company.

You can reach the authors at: JonGerloff@aol.com (Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil)

 

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