Italy is a popular vacation destination for families because it offers something of interest for everyone. The land of gelato welcomes children in general and, more specifically, has sights and foods that most kids love. Whether your family is visiting monuments or relaxing in the Italian sun, here are some ideas on how to organize your vacation for fun and savings, too.
1. Rent an Apartment or Villa
For less than the cost of a hotel room you can rent a comparably comfortable and well-located apartment or villa in Italy. You will get more room for people to spread out and keep out of each other's way. You won't have adjust your schedule to hotel restaurant hours and maid service, either. You will have to make your own beds and settle for a weekly change of towels.
You can save on restaurant costs by eating 'at home' in your villa or apartment. We suggest having breakfast and dinner at home and dine in a nice restaurant for lunch. For your home meals, elaborate preparation isn't necessary, you will find excellent pre-prepared selections in supermarkets, small grocery stores, snack bars, pizzerias and "tavola caldas," cafeteria-style restaurants. Shopping for your food in Italian grocery stores and open air markets is a super cultural experience for the whole family, too.
2. Get the Best from Restaurants
The fixed-price menu of the day, often called the tourist menu, offers a full meal with savings over a' la carte. Menus are always posted outside the restaurant door so you can browse the price and selection. To choose your restaurant, use Michelin's Red Guide (restaurant guide) that profiles even moderately priced establishments. Few American tourists carry the Red guide, so the restaurants don't become mobbed with consequent price increases.
When ordering, request the house wine and tap water "aqua naturale." The tap water in Italy is drinkable.
A $15 plate of pasta for a small (or not very hungry) child may be hard to swallow, so ask for a half-portion or an extra plate to split big portions. Italians love children and waiters are usually happy to indulge their appetites. And when the children finish, promise them an ice cream at snack bar around the corner where you can also get an after dinner drink and enjoy people watching at a fraction of the restaurant price for coffee and dessert.
You can spend $20 for a coke on Piazza San Marco in Venice or on the Via Veneto in Rome and find the people-watching worth every bit of it. Or, if refreshment and budget prevail, wander a few piazzas removed from these famous spots and order your coke or, better yet, a typical Italian beverage made with flavored syrups and fizzy water.
Tip Wait for the waiter to collect your signed credit receipt from the table. Don't just sign it, get up and walk away because in most Italian restaurants, your credit card number is printed IN FULL on the ticket -- an easy way for someone to cruise by the unoccupied table and snag your receipt and obtain your credit card number.
Stay in an apartment with a washing machine to do your own, but don't expect a clothes dryer, so allow enough time for clothes to air dry. If you're at a hotel, don't pay for the expensive hotel's laundry service; instead, find a local laundromat and people-watch while you wash. Always bring a travel laundry line and, whenever you spend more than one night in one spot, hand wash easy-care clothes.
4. Exchanging Currency
Buy your local currency at ATM machines, called Bancomats, using your debit or ATM card. The exchange rate will be the most favorable and the transaction fees the lowest. Save on transaction fees by withdrawing larger amounts each time. Don't use your credit card for withdrawing local currency -- big fees. Before traveling, check with your bank on the fees they charge for overseas transactions; a few have exorbitant charges.
Tip Make sure your PIN code is only four numbers; that's all Italian machines will take.
5. Telephone Calls
Buy local phone cards for making calls which is cheaper than investing in a rental phone, or bringing one from the States. They are a terrific value for calling back home, too.
Check in at home and reconfirm future reservations by stopping in an internet point where you can surf and pay by the hour at, usually, a very reasonable rate.
6. Strike a Bargain
In Italy, many stores now have fixed prices "prezzi fissi" which you'll often see on a little sign near the cash register. The days of negotiating the price of everything are gone. But, if you're buying directly from the proprietor and are selecting multiples of something, or investing in high ticket items such as antiques or jewelry, you can politely ask if there is anything that can be done to help you with your decision, like, ahem, a discount. Then you must pay in cash! Don't dicker over the price and then pull out your plastic. It is understood that the discount depends on saving on the credit card transaction fee and, possibly, discreetly keeping this cash sale off the books.
7. Museums & Monuments
Research free days at museums and, thinking of the children, consider smaller museums for shorter attention spans.
Reserve your tickets for popular spots ahead of time; the fee is worth it. Nothing dampens a visit to a popular site like standing in line for an hour and a half in the blazing sun. For any attraction, find an up-to-date schedule; even call ahead; hours change. Please remember that you are in Italy where punctuality is sometimes sacrificed for more important things, so be prepared to wait a few minutes for something to open. Adjust to "dolce vita" time.
Some sights are best seen with a guide who can whisk you past lines and bring history and art alive, for example, the Vatican Museums with the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, the catacombs in Rome, and the Uffizi in Florence.
Enjoy your travels in Italy with your family. When in doubt, have a gelato or a glass of wine and stop doing anything, just relax and let Italy come to you.
Pat Byrne is the president of Excellent Europe (http://www.ExcellentEurope.com) a company that selects exceptional vacation rentals in Italy with families in mind. She is also the author of the Kids Europe Italy Discovery Journal (http://www.KidsEurope.com) a resource book, journal, and guide just for kids traveling in Italy that has over 500 ideas for free and fun activities in Italy.