We get asked a lot: “How do you afford a trip to Italy every year?” A lot of it has to do with frugality (I’m quite the cheapskate), but we also employ some money-saving tips in order to enjoy Italy on a budget. It never feels like cheap travel though—we stay in lovely city-center apartments, eat amazing Italian food, drink good vino, and make it to all the best places to visit in Italy. Our Italian vacations are spectacular, we don’t miss out on anything and I don’t want you to either, so here are some of my money-saving tips for cheap travel to Italy.
- Drink coffee at the counter. When you get to Italy, you must have espresso (a.k.a “un caffe”). Italian coffee is one of life’s great pleasures. Usually you go to the cashier and pay. You tell them what you plan to order and if you will sit a table or stand at the counter. Choose to stand and drink your itty-bitty espresso with the Italians. Prices can double, triple, quadruple, or worse if you sit down. Once you’ve paid, take your receipt to the coffee maestro behind the counter and enjoy the delightful drink he puts in front of you. I usually pay around 1€ for an espresso; even in the swankiest places, I don’t think I’ve paid more than 1.50€.
- Get fancy dessert at a café. The nicer cafes in Italy serve fine pastries and desserts. These magnificent confections only cost a few Euros a piece. I’ve noticed that desserts in restaurants cost quite a bit more. Who is hungry right after a big plate of pasta anyway?!? Instead, get a takeaway dessert from a cafe or go for gelato. Another of life’s delights is gelato, but if you’re paying more than 3€ for a small cup or cone you’re paying too much. My favorite gelateria charges 1.50€ for a small cup. I’ve been to some where a cone only costs 1€. I’ve also seen people charged 15€ for a cone. This is extortionate, but it happens. Be mindful of what fair prices are and declare how much you would like to pay when you order. Most gelaterias have a display of cup/cone sizes and prices, so you can just point if your Italian isn’t strong. The clerk will then ask you what flavors and you can order with abandon knowing that your tasty treat won’t break the bank.
- Order house wine. This is Italy—home to wine and the wine god, Bacchus—they know how to make good wine. Even cheap wine is generally good. Many restaurants have relationships with local vintners and sell that delicious nectar to their patrons at ridiculously low prices. We once paid the same for wine as we did for water! Buy it by the half liter (couple glasses) or liter (roughly four glasses). It may sound outrageous, but we pay around 4€ for a liter of vino bianco at our favorite fiaschetteria.
- Use public transport. Italy has an incredibly efficient and fast train system that transports you all over the country for a reasonable price. I’ve found Italo to have better prices than Trenitalia, but they service fewer locations. To give you an idea of price, right now a first-class seat to go from Rome to Florence on Italo in May showed a cost of 22€. And it only takes an hour and a half! Buses are also an affordable travel option costing less than 2€ for a ride in many cities. Once you have a ticket, you can generally ride for 90 minutes on that single pass. Read more about train, bus, or Rome transportation.
- Free museum passes. The first Sunday of the month is free state museum day in Italy. If you’re not there at that time, you may want to consider getting a museum pass for the Italian city you are in. Some cities have passes that provide a great value by allowing you to skip the lines and get into museums without paying any additional charges other than the cost of the pass. Some even include public transportation! I’ve found Italian museums to be a good value anyway—the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum can all be visited on one ticket for 12€.
- Visit free attractions. Many Italian churches have awesome artworks and, better yet, they are in situ meaning that they are in the spot for which they were intended. You can also enjoy traveling through the back lanes of a picturesque Italian neighborhood, visit artisan workshops, enjoy street performers in a piazza, sit in a public park, or find a lookout point that gives you a stunning view of the city. These free attractions are often the best places to visit in Italy.
- Go on a tour. Italy tours with reputable tour companies can be a good value. We like The Roman Guy tours because they offer unique, cool experiences where they’ve taken the hassle and guesswork out of everything. At the busiest attractions, their groups skip the line, too. With our code ROAMING our readers can save 5% on almost all their small-group Italy tours, which they hold in Rome, Florence, and Venice. Read more here.
- Cheap Italian food. Food is generally cheaper the further you get from the tourist areas, but I’ve found excellent values right in the center of Italy’s most expensive cities. It’s not difficult to find a huge sandwich stuffed with prosciutto, salami, or bollito (boiled beef) for 4€ or less. A home-made plate of pasta shouldn’t set you back more than 10€, unless you have expensive items on it. You don’t have to order all the Italian courses either—just get a primo (generally pasta, risotto, or a hearty stew) and maybe split an antipasto if you think the carbohydrate course won’t be enough. These days, it’s very popular for places to offer an aperitivo, which is food to accompany a drink. Although the drink may cost 10€, the free buffet that is served with it may be more than worth the cost of the drink.
- Consider lodging in places other than big hotels. Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO, and other vacation rental companies offer apartments for a price that is often less than a hotel room. You get a lot more space, a kitchen, and can find one right in your favorite area. The conventional wisdom you might use to snag a deal on a hotel room in the States is different in Italy. When looking at hotels, I avoid the big hotels or chains because they are often pricier. I look at smaller hotels and inquire about the price of booking directly through their website (often a savings there). Many small hotels don’t deal with big aggregators like Priceline, because the fees are too high and it pushes up the prices of their rooms too much so they are reliant on the traffic to their website and are more likely to negotiate slightly. Here are some additional posts on choosing vacation rentals and one on selecting a European hotel.
Using these money-saving tips, you too can enjoy cheap travel that is still luxurious. Go to the best places to visit in Italy and have the same (or better) experience as everyone else, but for less. Buon viaggio!
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Disclosure: Roaming Historian will receive a small commission for tours booked with the code ROAMING.