I wanted to provide a recap on our Italy / Paris trip.
Many people might wonder, why the heck don’t you just book through a travel agency or travel with a group? Here are a couple of reasons:
1) I want to know exactly where our money is going. I don’t like to see one lump sum. I want to be able to cut costs where possible.
2) Groups mean that we have to do what the group is doing. What if we want to wander on our own for a while? I want to be in more control of our time.
3) It’s more adventurous doing it on your own.
4) I actually love planning trips.
As mentioned before, I studied in Spain when I was in college. After returning back to the US, 2 years later I planned a 2 week vacation to travel through Spain with my mom and sister. After planning the Spain trip, I realized how much fun I had putting it together. So when we decided to go to Italy and Paris, I got a rush of excitement to start the planning! Here are some tips just in case you are interested.
We paid $750/pp roundtrip from SAT to Rome. Right now, the prices are actually dropping the closer you get to the date due to the lack of traveling being done in this economy. However, it’s difficult for anyone to plan a trip to Europe a couple of weeks before – you usually want to plan 6 months ahead. So I thought $750 was actually pretty good.
Doing your Research.
As soon as I booked the flight, I started searching for a good book about traveling through Italy. I picked up Pauline Frommer’s Italy – Spend Less, See More. Highly recommended. She actually writes for various countries, not just Italy. Why I liked this book:
1) Best Times. In the US, we expect everything to be open 24/7 or at least from 9am-9pm. Europe is a bit different on their hours – closing at odd hours or closed on random days. She will let you know about this up front. She will also let you know when the worst time is to go due to the lines.
2) Invdividual vs. Group. While in Rome, we opted to do group tours which Paulin recommended. This was the best decision we made, saving us so much time and provided us an education at the same time. For example, we booked a tour for Vatican City. When we went to enter in the Vatican museum, there were 2 lines – tour groups and individual. The individual line looked about 3 hours long whereas our group walked right in – no wait. I can’t even imagine the summer!
3) Traditional vs. Non Traditional Hotel. Hotels in high tourist cities are expensive, period. Especially when you book in the city center. Pauline recommends other forms of accommodations for example: apartments and even monasteries and in neighborhoods outside the city center.
4) Restaurants. She recommends restaurants at all price levels and in various locations of the city.
5) Information, Information! She provides websites, phone numbers, addresses.
6) Education. Let’s say you decide to go see a gallery, museum, cathedral, or any historic site on your own- she will provide you an education on that site as if you were in grade school all over again learning about the history of Italy. I really enjoyed this because it’s more than just seeing, you are actually understanding and appreciating what you are seeing.
TripAdivsor has an extensive amount of reviews done by consumers. You can read through people’s comments to understand if certain hotels are ideal for you whether you are a family with children, young couple or elderly. Further, you can weigh out location vs. cost. European cities actually aren’t large in space as most US cities are, well Texan cities for sure. Even if you stay in a neighborhood outside the city center, a walk to the city center is no more than 30 minutes. Or you can always take public tranportation such as the bus, metro, taxi – all very safe, easy to use and accessible.
This trip was the first time I had ever used Venere.com. Comparing to Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotels.com – Venere had the best prices. Not only that, you don’t have to pay upfront whereas you have to with lots of hotel resllers such as Hotels.com. This was so convenient because as we got closer to our trip dates, I realized that hotel prices had dropped. I went and cancelled all our bookings and rebooked. It was so easy to do through Venere.com.
I will mention the hotels we stayed out again:
Rome, Italy – WRH Trastevere Hotel (134 Euros/night). Apartment style, no elevator. Great room – Clean, modern. Free laptop in room with free internet. 20 minute walk to city center. Rome is a bigger city than most normal European cities so the tourist attractions are spread out all over.
Paris, France – Hotel Valadon (only 130 Euros/night). 10 min walk to the Eiffel Tower. Superb rooms- clean, modern. Free Internet.
Milan, Italy –NH Grand Hotel Verdi (157 Euros/night). Milan is an expensive city because it attracts businesses. Our hotel was a chain in Europe attracting business people. Nice, clean and close to the central station. About a 20 min walk to the city center. No free internet.
Venice, Italy – Hotel Ca’Pisani (159 Euros/night). Loved this hotel! Awesome service. Clean rooms, very cozy. Only 15 min walk to the city center.
Florence, Italy – Una Hotel Vittoria (141 Euros/night). About 30 min walk to city center. Very retro, modern hotel. Downfall was that Internet cost 3 Euros per 1/2 hour, what a rip off!
Attractions – Why we were there.
Make reservations for everything! I know you might not want to be bound to a scheduled itinerary but it’s so worth it, even if you don’t make a couple of your scheduled attractions. Seriously, if you are going to a city and you don’t want to leave without seeing a certain thing – for example, the Colesseum in Rome – then I recommend making reservations. Lots of attractions will sell out months in advance like the Last Supper in Milan.
I also recommend booking tours in Rome as mentioned before. The tour group we booked with was EnjoyRome – a recommendation from Pauline Frommer’s book. They were highly educated individuals and gave very thorough tours. Benefit was that groups get priority entrance also!
Europe has one of the best public transportation systems. Traveling from city to city is super easy and affordable. When we decided to go to Rome, we knew that we wanted to see other cities, taking advantage of our time there. To travel through Italy, we utilized TrenItalia: Milan to Venice 2.5 hours. Venice to Florence 2.5 hours. Florence to Rome 1.5 hours. Going from Florence to Rome was 33 Euros one way for example. Also, you can schedule and pay ahead via their website or you can book when you get there. I’d say book at least a week in advance maybe sooner in the summer just so you can esnure you get a seat. The benefit though is that trains leave and come very frequently to all the major cities so you should find something.
We did go to Paris while there but although we could have utlizied the train, we opted to fly. Mainly because it would have taken us all day to travel to Paris or we could have done a night train. Really, the flight was so cheap and the fact that it took only 2 hours to fly from Rome to Paris just made more sense to us. There are 2 popular low cost airlines in Europe: Ryanair and EasyJet. We went with EasyJet mainly because I have heard of so many horror stories on Ryanair. EasyJet had great service. Just remember that this is not Southwest Airlines. Yes, it’s a low cost carrier but Southwest Airlines is an exceptional airline. EasyJet will ding you for excess buggage items and weight or charge you to get on a new flight if you missed your flight.
When to go.
We chose March because the timing fit our schedules best. As you know, prices go way up for the summer. You will get the best prices from Fall through Spring. Also, do not go in August. Besides the fact that is it so hot, everything is closed ( meaning shops and such). Europeans leave the cities for the beaches during August. The weather is similar to the weather here in the US. We got some crazy cold days while in Rome and Paris. It was nice 60’s one day and then dropped down to the 40’s another day – sounds like Texas, huh. That’s just the randonmess of Spring weather I suppose. If you do go in the summer, it will be hot and and you are at historic sites so many times, the AC will not be like AC here in the US. Prepare to sweat!
I am a pretty organized traveler. I print all documents beforehand and organize it in a binder. I still managed to get one airport location wrong though. And we managed to forget our passports in one city. Next time we will have a checklist to follow just for an extra double check.
When we were checking in for our final flight back home, we conversed with this retired couple in front of us. They had spent 6 days in Rome and had years of travel experience. They asked us about our trip and what we learned. I told her about our mishaps. She laughed and said, no matter what, each trip you learn something new.
She was right. I thought about my last Spain trip and I specifically told my mom and sister that we don’t need to pack a lot since we will shop there. Well, we managed to pack a lot and buy a lot and our suitcase was just too large and unmanageable to take on trains. We ended up shipping it back via ship! It took 2 months to get back to us.
So this trip, I did a way better job of packing and thought twice before I purchased anything.
But as that woman said, you learn something everytime. This time, I will learn to follow a checklist and make sure I read in between the lines.
Overall it was such a wondeful trip and we absolutely, no question, want to return to Rome. That city leaves you wanting more.