This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2019.
The bad news – as we already know – is that the dollar has fallen significantly against the euro over the past year. The good news is that this currency challenge shouldn’t prevent travelers from going to Italy this year and for many it hasn’t. Travel expert Pauline Frommer told listeners of her radio program recently that while surveying various travel companies about their summer bookings, most said that while travel to Europe in general was down, bookings for Italy remained steady or are even expected to increase. Italy will be far from empty this year and it pays to plan ahead.
High oil prices, steady demand and limits on the number of seats for sale can increase airfares to Italy. One of the most frequent questions travelers have is how far in advance to buy airline tickets. What if they buy now and there’s a sale in a month or two? With so many people still traveling to Italy and limited seats for the summer season, if you find a decent airfare for travel between the beginning of May and end of September, you are probably better off buying the tickets.
At press time, a roundtrip ticket between New York and Rome for July 11 to 18, 2008, was priced at $1,386 on Alitalia and $1,362 on United. The Italian discount airline Eurofly was offering the same route for $1,009. If you live in Canada, low-cost carrier Zoom Airlines will begin twice weekly flight between Toronto and Rome and a weekly flight from Montreal to Rome in March 2008. At press time, a roundtrip ticket from Toronto for July 12 to 20, 2008, cost $1,231. The above fares are not unreasonable given the various factors involved.
Certainly check the websites of individual airlines but also be sure to visit the search engine Cheapflights.com. In one search, it aggregates results from the airfare deal sites you should also be searching – such as Cheaptickets.com and Hotwire.com – as well as big booking players like Expedia.com and Orbitz.com.
When you’re ready to buy your tickets, use the website Farecast.com to predict whether ticket prices for a particular route will stay steady, increase or decrease over the next week. Travelers can plug in international trips of two weeks or less up to six months in advance. FareCompare.com is also worth consulting; it displays a calendar showing which days offer the lowest fares on specific routes. If you just want to keep an eye on which airlines are offering sales and specials, visit Smartertravel.com.
While the Internet is an essential tool, don’t forget that good travel agents have access to consolidator fares and can also help save you money on flights.
Package Deals Pay Off
Before you purchase airline tickets, consider buying them as part of a package – one that includes some combination of airfare along with other components such as hotel, rental car and/or train tickets. You will almost always save over what these pieces would cost individually. Since you’re pre-paying in dollars, the package portions of your trip will not be subject to currency fluctuations.
Gate 1 Travel offers well-priced, customizable packages. You can request a preferred airline (for you mileage gurus), choose specific hotels and take advantage of affordable add-ons such as a private car transfer or a gondola serenade. Here’s an example of one of their packages: the 7-Day Florence and Venice by Rail package with roundtrip airfare from New York, accommodations at the 4-star Sofitel Firenze and 5-star Hotel Bauer and first class train travel from Florence to Venice is $2,169 per person, based on double occupancy, for a mid-May departure. Alternatively, if you choose 3-star hotels, the price drops to $1,699 per person.
If you want to absolutely be sure of what you will spend, consider choosing an escorted and/or fully escorted tour. Again, you will be paying in dollars and with most meals included you will only have a few unaccounted for expenses.
Bid for Travel
Have champagne tastes but not the deep pockets to match? Check out LuxuryLink.com, which offers luxury hotel packages and villa rentals at a discount through online auctions. At press time, Luxury Link had package at Venice’s Ca’ Segrado (see page 7) for four nights in a room with a water view, valued at $2,715, with a starting bid of $975. The site also offers a “Buy Now” option. One example is a three-night package in a suite at Tuscany’s Castello di Velona (where Rachael Ray held her wedding) that retails for $2,095 but can be immediately purchased for $1,745. The Luxury Link site is also a good place to seek out significant savings on villa rentals. A villa that rents for $6,000 per week can be had for half that if you try your luck at an auction. Of course, always check for any blackout dates but the restrictions generally aren’t too bad.
Skyauction.com is another excellent auction site for air and hotel packages, hotel nights in Italy’s major cities and coach and business class airline tickets. There are bargains to be had but bidding can be fierce. The best bidder has already done his or her homework on what things usually cost. Those who are flexible in the dates of travel are also at an advantage. Sky Auction also has a “Buy It Now” option; for instance, purchase up to eight roundtrip tickets between Rome and New York for $475 each (plus taxes and fuel surcharge of $270). That’s a great deal but additional surcharges apply depending on the dates of travel (all of this is explained on the bidding page); early summer departures incur a $250 surcharge and summer departures must add $530 per ticket. Given the high cost of plane tickets, these could beat out other airlines according to price. Skyauction doesn’t tell which airline you will be flying on until after purchase but in the above example it was easy to figure out, because of scheduling details, that the seats were likely on Eurofly.
Cruise to Savings
Truly savvy travelers will be cruising Italy this summer; there’s probably no better deal and nearly every cruise line you can think of – Carnival to Princess – will be cruising the Mediterranean this summer. After all, you’re paying in dollars ahead of time, so you already know what your accommodation and dining costs will be. In addition, many cruise lines, especially those with bigger, flashier ships, keep prices low, knowing that you will spend money on board on drinks, gambling and shore excursions. High-end lines like Silversea and Seabourn include all alcohol and gratuities their cruise prices and are worth considering especially since their small ships can get into smaller ports such as Amalfi and Portofino.
Celebrity Cruises offers a 14-day Best of Italy cruise on its new small ship Azamara Quest with port calls in Venice, Ravenna, Bari, Taormina, Sorrento, Porto Cervo, Livorno (for Florence and Pisa) and Civitavecchia (Rome). Overnight stays in many of these ports offer more time for exploration. Travel agents who specialize in cruises can use their special relationship with particular cruise companies to offer their clients special deals including free airfare or complimentary shore excursions. Cruisecompete.com lets you to reach over 100 cruise specialists simultaneously via e-mail to see if they can beat your best quote for a specific cruise. Cruisedirectonline.com is also a must-click for searching for the best deals.
Where to Rest Your Head
Expect accommodations to be one of your biggest travel costs. But there are ways to find competitive hotel rates and alternatives to hotel stays altogether. Vibeagent.com is a one-stop website for searching multiple hotel chain and hotel discount sites including Venere.com, which specializes in Italian properties. Another tactic is to purchase a yearly membership with Touring Club Italiano, which gives you a discount of at least 10 percent at 50,000 hotels around Italy.
“Go south, or at least combine smaller, more remote destinations with one of “the Big Three” (Rome, Florence, Venice),” recommends Nan McElroy, author of Italy: Instructions for Use. The south is cheaper than the north. In rural areas, consider staying in an agriturismo. This is a legal classification for an operating farm that welcomes guests (fewer than 30 per night) derives its main income from agricultural activities. Not only can staying at an agriturismo provide a great bargain (imagine paying 50 euros per night), the smaller more intimate atmosphere is a great way to interact with Italians.
The best way to save money on accommodations, especially if you have more than a few people in your group is to rent a villa or apartment. Homeaway.com (listing over 9,500 properties for rent in Italy) claims that a hotel averages 50 percent more per square foot than an apartment or villa rental and that math looks right. Pages and pages could be written on renting in Italy but the best advice is for first-timers to go through a reputable rental agency (see Dream of Italy’s May/June 2003 Special Report: Villa Rentals) who has someone on the ground for 24-hour service.
Those who have rental experience may want to go directly through owners through sites like Homeaway.com or even Craigslist (your editor rented her apartment in Turin for the Olympics this way) but only after asking all the right questions and speaking to references. Rentals have been traditionally offered by the week but more and more, especially in the big cities, are rented on a nightly basis, so it never hurts to ask.
One great advantage of renting is the chance to do as the locals do and cook at home, saving money on eating out. “The cost of groceries, especially fresh produce, is still a good value in Italy and the quality is high since Italian cooks are discerning shoppers,” notes Lisa Byrne of ItalyPerfect.com.
Renting a car is essential for to properly tour many parts of Italy but has become expensive (plan on spending at least 50 euros to fill it up with gas). Remember that renting by the week can often be cheaper than renting for just a few days, do your homework and be sure to rent in the U.S. before going to Italy – you will always pay more on the ground there. Cars with automatic transmissions cost much more so if you know how to drive stick shift, all the better. AutoEurope.com generally offers the most competitive rates (and offers Dream of Italy readers an additional discount with code 7200261) but some European rental companies worth checking out include Maggiore and Sixt.
You absolutely don’t need a car in the city and you will end up paying in terms of parking and headaches. Mike Fuller of ItaliaRail.com advises, “Take the train between cities and rent cars locally to avoid costly gas, toll charges and parking. Many train stations have rental car agencies in or near the station.”
To save on local public transportation and museum admissions, find out if any of the cities you are visiting offer city cards for tourists. Naples, Orvieto, Padova, Rome, Turin, Trieste, Verona and Venice are among the locales with such programs. For example. purchase the Verona Card at one of many locations around the city (8 euros for a one-day card and 12 euros for three days) and gain free admission to the city’s museums, churches and monuments and travel for free on the local bus.
— Kathy McCabe