In the age of global mingling, you may think that local cultures are slowly fading away, primarily in places flooded with tourist, but it is not necessarily the case. Italy is one of the examples of holding firmly to its own way of doing things if visitors like it or not. Keep that in mind when planning your first time holidays to Italy, especially when coming from the USA. In this post, you will learn about renting a car, driving, eating out, and generally what to expect when visiting Italy and how to deal with it.
FIRST TIME HOLIDAYS TO ITALY – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
When traveling, most of us are open to new cultures and easily embrace differences. The more exotic a country, the more forgiving we become. But a country like Italy, one of the most popular destinations in the world, is not exactly falling into the exotic category.
Unconsciously, we expect things to work the same way as they work at home, or better! You may have a dreamy image of Italy in your mind, but try to tone it down. Even though all roads lead to Rome, they were not built with you in mind.
Travel arrangements for first time holidays to Italy – what can go wrong
Your lodging may get canceled just before your arrival
I booked many apartments all over Europe and never had any problems until my trip to Rome. Less than 48 hours before my scheduled arrival, the reservation was canceled by an owner.
With help from Booking.com I was able to get my money back and book a new one for a similar price but the experience was nerve-wracking. When planning a trip to Italy, try not to deal directly with an owner or book a regular hotel.
Your airport transfer may cost you double of what you should be paying
Get ready at home for your first time holidays to Italy. Most major airports list a flat rate for transport from an airport to a city center. Find out how much it is. When you arrive, head straight to an official taxi stand and even there confirm the rate. If you take a ride with someone that grabs you on a sidewalk, you would most likely pay double what the rate is.
You will most likely get a different car than you booked and it is not going to be an upgrade!
It seems that in Italy, a contract you signed with a rental company is still a subject for negotiation at the time of arrival. We rented a seven-person car with an automatic transmission and paid for it well in advance. When we arrived at Hertz locations in the center of Rome, the game started as soon as we walked in to pick up our car.
First, we were told that no cars with automatic transmission were available. That did not go well so miraculously they found one. It was much smaller than what we booked, but what can you do? We took it.
Hertz personnel acted like nothing happened. There was no apology or any offer of compensation. I did not give up that easily and was able to negotiate a second driver for free and returning a car empty.
You may fall for a cheaper manual-shift rental car and then regret it every day of your trip if you have little experience driving it (this mostly for American readers)
If you drove a manual shift a few times in your life, it does not mean you will be comfortable doing it in Italy. Between crazy traffic, crazy drivers, and crazy roads, you would drive yourself crazy too. It is worth paying more for an automatic transmission.
You may rent a car that is too large for Italy
When renting a car for your Italian holidays, do not use American standards of comfort. Even though we were packed to the roof, we were eventually happy that we did not get the seven-person car. Italian highways are excellent, but secondary roads are challenging – very narrow and winding.
Same with parking garages. Returning a car in Rome was an adventure, and I am not talking about just the streets of Rome. Hertz drop off area was on the 7th level of a parking garage and reaching it without scratching a car required skillful maneuvering and it was far from pleasant.
You will not understand the Italian rules of the road
I am sure there are some but they are subject to improvisation. If you are a driver, be on alert all the time. If you are a pedestrian, remember crossing the road is a hazard! You practically have to start walking to force drivers to stop. Most of them do not even slow down when approaching a crosswalk.
You will get lost – GPS is not dealing well with Italian secondary roads
Download offline Google maps before your arrival, just in case your reception is lost and you have no idea where to go next. In some areas of Italy, like the Amalfi Coast, for example, GPS gets totally confused. Do not follow it blindly, check frequently where it is leading you, and do not take any shortcuts!
Walking is sometimes the best way to explore. Minori beach as seen from a hiking trail in Ravello.
How to visit Italy if driving is not an option
Skip driving altogether if you feel uncomfortable about it. There is no need to have a car in big cities. Use Italian trains to transfer between them. Trains are excellent in Italy – clean, fast, and on time. For visiting the countryside, take day tours.
They will cost you more than driving, but everything will be arranged for you so you will have peace of mind. Unless your orientation skills are not existing, save yourself money and time and walk between major attractions in Italian cities. They are usually close to each other.
Things that may shock you during your first time holiday to Italy
You will need cash in Italy
Credit cards are accepted in Italy but not as widely as in the USA. You need cash, especially if you plan on using taxis. Learn more about using credit cards in Italy.
Italy is one of the most polluted countries in Europe
If you dream about the Vespa scooter scene from the famous movie Roman Holiday, reconsider or do it very early in the morning or late at night when there is no traffic. The air in Rome, and in Italy in general, is heavily polluted. Read more here.
Not everyone speaks English in Italy
Despite Italy’s international fame, English is not as widely spoken there as in other western European countries. That is especially true if you travel south of Rome. On a few occasions, I had to dig out a few words on Italian I knew to get things going.
You may go hungry in the morning
If your hotel is not serving breakfast, you may go hungry until Italians are ready to start their day. I have to admit, I have breakfast at McDonald’s in Rome! To my defense, at 7 AM nothing else was open even at the most touristy areas. Keep this in mind and have some groceries handy.
Italian breakfast is coffee and carbs
Italians enjoy light breakfasts, usually consisting of an obligatory coffee and pastries. If your idea of a breakfast is bacon and eggs, find a hotel targeting foreign tourists, cook your own, or go straight to McDonald’s. (I can’t believe, I am saying that!)
It is hard to find good food in Italy
You heard me right! In touristy areas, it is very hard to find exceptional food or even good food. Keep in mind, it is mass production. One time, in Venice, I got a roll that was so hard I could not even bite into. The explanation was, it is because we microwaved it too many times!
Where you can find outstanding food is in small Italian towns. Some of the best food I ever had was in Soave served at the exceptional restaurant The Osteria in Via Roma.
Your waiter will ignore you
During your first time holidays to Italy, you may find it rude that your waiter is not checking if your needs are met. This is how things work in most of Europe. Your meal is for you to enjoy and no one comes to interrupt it until asked. Wave if you need assistance.
Your restaurant bill may include items you did not have
Do not be alarmed if you see “coperto” on your bill, a service fee that is automatically added to the check (must be visible on the menu), but make sure that you are paying only for what you had. Check your bill item by item.
Many restaurants have empty soap dispensers
It is so common I have to mention that. In many restaurants around major attractions, the soap dispensers are where they supposed to be but there is no soap in them. Carry wipes just in case.
Toilet seats are missing
I have no explanation for that but in many restaurants, there are no toilet seats, just naked toilet bowls. I am talking about women’s bathrooms.
Washcloths do not exist in Italy (and in most of Europe)
OK Americans, get over that! Bring your own washcloths or use your sock – it will fit perfectly on your hand. For more information read Rick Steves’ Europe’s Hotel Bathrooms: What to Expect
Italy can get extremely crowded
Italy attracts visitors from around the world. Crowds combined with the heat of summer can spoil your visit. Plan your holidays for shoulder seasons. Also, get up early to enjoy your favorite sites without hundreds of people around you.
Many museums have their own closing days
Again, come prepared. Check online when your favorite attractions are closed. Many museums are closed on Mondays but it is not always the case. For major tourist attractions, plan ahead and buy skip the line tickets on the internet.
The Vatican Museum skip the line ticket are a waste of money
When you make your reservation online, you may think that the number of visitors to the Vatican Museum is controlled. Wrong! Literally, anyone who pays more on the streets gets in. And the sale is so aggressive, it is hard to walk without being constantly interrupted.
As a result, the museum is packed inside. One way only, elbow to elbow, no way to escape. It does not matter what kind of ticket you have or if you are with a guided tour. This is a money-making strategy with no respect for visitors or art.
If you want to enjoy your visit to the Vatican Museum, maybe this before-hours tour would work or try to visit first thing in the morning.
Now, when I told you all the ugly about first time holidays to Italy, I have a statement to make: I love Italy and hope to return many more times. You can call it unconditional love.
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