Recently I’ve had a number of people ask me about travelling in Italy so I thought that I would list some of the less obvious things that I learned on my trip. Some of this is repeated from my trip logs posts, but you can read it all in one place here.
Getting a prepaid SIM card with Internet is cheap and easy
Doing the research on prepaid SIM cards and plans using the provider websites was not easy because they don’t tend to have English versions of pages. If they do have an English page, the the translation is most likely incomplete and inaccurate. The good news is that there are plenty of forums online where people ask about getting a phone in Italy and you can find many helpful hints at prepaidgsm.net, flyertalk, and slowtravel.
The other good news is that prepaid phone plans are incredibly cheap and easy to use, so it’s pretty hard to go wrong. There are a bunch of providers in Italy and they all are reputed to have good coverage in the major towns and cities. I used TIM and was really happy. 2 Euro got me a card with 5 euro of credit and a few days worth of Internet access.
One thing you should be aware of is that they might ask you for a Codice Fiscale as well as a copy of your passport. They may or may not ask for this when you get your SIM because the retailer can make one up using your passport; however, some reports seem to indicate that a grumpy SIM salesperson may not want to be bothered. See my post on getting a SIM in Italy as well as this BlogfromItaly post for details on how to do that.
Oh, and once you pick up your SIM card and have it activated, either have the salesperson (if they speak English) or someone at your hotel change the service voice prompts to English. Actually getting my SIM card has a bit of a funny story which can be found in my post about my first day in Venice.
Just be sure that you have an unlocked GSM phone that works on the 900/1800 MhzGSM band and supports the 2100 Mhz band for UMTS/HSPA if you want 3G Internet speeds.
Boutique hotels offer free Internet
Speaking of Internet, prior to my trip I did a lot of research on getting a SIM card with mobile data because I didn’t want to have to pay high hotel rates for Internet access. For each of our stops in Italy we booked boutique hotels rather than large chains and the big surprise for me is that every single one offered free wireless Internet.
Once I realized this it made some sense to me that hotels aimed at travellers could take reasonably cheap Internet and offer their customers some added value for free. Larger chain hotels that have more of a business clientele can charge whatever they want for Internet because business people feel they really need it and are expensing it anyways.
Of course, I have to get on my soapbox and remind everyone that free wireless Internet is terribly unsecure. Make sure that any services you use (webmail, Facebook, etc) have HTTPS encryption enabled. Anything that isn’t encrypted can be seen by anyone nearby. I only use free wireless Internet in combination with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For more information on VPN and how to get set up with one check out my Secure Travel Internet post.
Oh, and before you think that you can just walk from hotel to hotel getting free Internet everywhere you go, all of the Internet access was password protected. Upon check in at each hotel we would inform them that we would be using the Internet and they would print off a little strip of paper with the SSID and a unique password that you would enter when prompted.
Tip: If you have more than one device with you that you will be using to access the Internet ask for a password for each. The web access is cookie based so two computers can’t use the same password at the same time.
Taking the train is fun and easy
Being from Canada we’re not that used to taking long distance trains. We have a great railroad that crosses our country but it’s really expensive and I don’t personally know anyone who has taken it (although most of my friends want to one day). Because of this, the idea of hopping on trains was a little intimidating.
As soon as we worked out the dates for our travel and started booking hotels we decided that it would be a good idea to start booking train tickets. We didn’t want to get stranded anywhere, but from everything we read online, unless you are travelling on a holiday you can pretty much just buy your tickets when you arrive. The train system is so efficient and well used that there are plenty of trains going between major centres everyday so it is very unlikely that they will be sold out. Slowtravel has a great primer on the types of trains and how to buy tickets.
Trenitalia does offer the ability to buy tickets ahead of time online, and if you buy them far enough in advance you get a small discount; however, most non-Italian credit cards are rejected by the site. We decided to risk it and bought all of our tickets on our days of travel.
A good recommendation for the risk averse: When you arrive in a place via train just pick-up your departure tickets while you’re at the train station.
If you buy 2nd class Eurorail tickets (first class really isn’t that much nicer) note that you can put medium sized suitcases between back-to-back seats (where one seat is facing forward and the seat directlybehind it is facing backwards). There isn’t much space in the overhead rack and very little storage at each end of the cars.
Be aware of traffic restrictions in towns and cities
If you love to drive and can handle yourself in the larger North American cities, driving in Northern Italy is a blast. One of my tour guides did warn me about driving in the South of Italy, saying that even he was afraid to drive anywhere around and beyond Rome. We picked up a little convertible in Florence, drove it all over Tuscany, dropped it off in Pisa, and loved it. Then again, I also love driving the highways around LA when the traffic is light. Just make sure you can blend in with locals – it’s always safer when everyone drives the same way, regardless of what way that is. A few things that you’ll want to note when driving in Italy:
The first is that some towns and cities have Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL), or limited traffic areas. They seem pretty serious about these and if you drive into them without permission you can be fined pretty heavily. If your hotel is located within one of these zones they will probably have already told you and you will have to give them your license plate number ahead of time. They’ll register you with the traffic police so that you don’t get ticketed. In some place these zones are enforced by traffic camera. In others you have to be caught. I drove into one at Montepulciano because a tour group was standing in front of the signs and I missed it entirely. I think I got away with it though.
In addition to traffic cameras enforcing the ZTL, they have speed cameras all over Tuscany. Each time you get into a little town they have signs warning you and somewhere in the town there will be a little grey box next to the road. I’m not 100% sure if these are still in use, though, as I was initially slowing down for them but then noticed that the locals didn’t seem to do the same. If I was in a line of traffic I didn’t want to be the one guy who jammed on the brakes so I just went with the flow. I was a bit worried, but 9 months later I haven’t seen any additional charges on my credit card from the rental car agency so I’m starting to breathe a little easier.
Bella-toscana.com has a great primer on Italian traffic violations, what to do about them, and maps of the ZTLs in Florence and Pisa.
Finally, in the event that you do get in some kind of traffic problem, make sure that you have your International Drivers Permit. You may or may not be asked to provide it when you pick up your rental car, but I’m told that the Police are pretty picky about them. See my post for details on International Drivers Permits.
It’s not hard to learn a little Italian
The ability to speak a little Italian (parlo poco Italiano) went a long way with the locals. It was always a nice ice breaker and people did seem to appreciate the effort. We met some people at lunch one day who had been to Italy every year for some ridiculously long amount of time, and yet they seemed incapable of speaking a single word of Italian. They couldn’t even pronounce the name of the town we were in. I guess you can get by without it, but it seemed a little sad to us.
We carried pocket dictionaries everywhere we went and before hand I spent some time learning via You Tube. Check out my post about learning to speak Italian online. It was fun and easy – I just pulled up YouTube on my phone everytime I had 10 mintues to kill.