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Travel prices in Italy and across the world have been, for lots of reasons, creeping up for things like flights and transport, etc and eating into our budgets. Even if you’re not a budget traveler you want to get the very best bang for your buck and by saving some money on flights and accommodation, you can splurge on special experiences, or that perfect pair of Italian-made shoes.
In this episode, we welcome back author Corinna Cooke, who writes the Glam Italia series of guides for Italy and who runs boutique small tours all over Italy. In the past, Corinna has joined us for podcast episodes on itinerary planning (episode 53) and finding inspiration for your trip (episode 104), but in this episode, we are looking at how to make your money stretch further to enjoy Italy while keeping an eye on your budget.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Get a credit card that is a travel card, but a non-airline travel card, otherwise you can end up with very specific, awkward flights or only flights at times you don’t want to go. Corinna’s card for instance gives her 2 miles for every dollar she spends. Once you’ve got this card, use it as though it’s a debit card. Corinna uses hers for every single expense in her life – all her bills, every purchase, filling her car, buying a train ticket and every cup of coffee. It’s surprising how much and how quickly you spend. Try to never run a balance on it – every couple of days pay that thing back off. Most of the travel cards will give a really good signing bonus – so perhaps 50,000 or 60,000 miles when you sign up
- Choose an airline that is the airline that you will fly with and set up a mileage program with them. Then when you buy flights buy with that airline or on one of their code share partners. So for example if your chosen airline is American Airlines and those flights are far too expensive to do a given trip, Finnish Airlines might do an alternative route, say Los Angeles, Helsinki, Rome, and that might be really cost-effective
- So with both the above when you then book your flights, you’re getting miles with the airline, and you are also getting miles with your non-airline credit card. Once you’ve accrued your points, when it comes to paying for your flight, if you have enough miles in there, you hit the redeem miles button and it’ll bring up all of your travel expenses and you can just zero them out
- When you hit that redeem miles button is it’s going to populate all of your travel expenses so you might not have enough to cancel out your flight but you can start zeroing out your train tickets. Similarly, you can do it with your accommodation bills. Corinna took a 2 week trip to Italy in 2021 and did it for almost free due to this strategy – only spending about $400 on a very big trip
- The credit card companies recognize so many things – it knows how to recognize hotels, Airbnbs, train tickets, tickets to site like the Colosseum. So if you don’t have enough miles accrued for a free flight, you can still be knocking out these other things
- Use your chosen airline’s shopping portals. For instance, American Airlines has EV Rewards. You set up your account and choose your mileage program ie American Airlines miles. Then everything that you buy through that portal is accruing you more miles. So not only if you buy through these portals are you getting those miles, but of course, if you’re buying with your credit card, you’re getting those miles as well. If you have any large purchases you need to make, try to hold off until you find a deal on one of these portals, as the more you spend the more you gain. You can really accumulate an enormous amount of miles and get really significant portions of your trip for free
- With flights, if you’re traveling on a budget, you can actually save quite a bit of money by being flexible on flights that take a long time, with multiple stops. But do be aware that you might pay for it when you arrive. If you’ve got a flight path that maybe saves you a few hundred dollars, but you’re leaving at the crack of dawn and you’ve got long layovers and it’s taking you forever to get there, and then your first couple of days you might lose because you’re just so travel-fatigued
- Set up flight alerts, on Google and Sky Scanner, for instance. Then you’re seeing where price drops are and you can also see what days are cheaper to fly, which can depend you’re departing from
- Flights from a main airport hub are likely to be cheaper so consider taking internal transport within your country to get there to then go international
- If you’re staying in vacation rentals, Airbnb etc, you can save money by going to fewer rentals and staying longer. Every time you check out, you have a cleaning fee and most of the country it’s going to be around €50 – sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s a bit less, but in general, if you factor into your budget that the cleaning fee portion of your accommodation is going to be €50. If you keep changing accommodation, going from one to the next to the next, you’re racking up all of these €50. So you can if you’re on a budget and you want to condense things a little bit. So you’ve got a twelve-day trip instead of moving every three days, move every four days. So perhaps stay in somewhere like Florence as a base and do day trips around Tuscany from there
- Whatever type of accommodation you’re doing, go one neighborhood back from the action. So in Rome, for example, instead of staying in the historic center of Rome, go one neighborhood back and be in Testaccio or Ostiense. You’re just a few blocks back but it is all still walking distance and you’ve changed your $179 a night for one-bedroom, to say $100 a night – you’ve saved yourself the price of a night’s dinner
- In these tourist centers, as well as accommodation, restaurants and bars are going to be more expensive. So in a historic center, right where all the action you might pay $4/5 for a cappuccino while if you go back a neighborhood it might be $1.20. If you’re avoiding the tourist areas and you’re avoiding tourist restaurants, the cost of your meal and the quality of your meal will be so much better
- Food tours might seem expensive, but you generally eat so much that if you’ve done a food tour at lunchtime, you probably won’t want to eat anything till lunch the next day, so you’ve saved yourself at least one other meal
- If one of the things you have on your bucket list for your Italy trip is that you want to do a foodie walking tour – depending on where in the country you’re doing it, the price differential changes enormously. So it’s going to cost a lot less is say Liguria or Puglia than it will in Rome.
- Port cities are always really good for food tours because street food is not that much of a part of most Italian life, but in the port cities, it has a long, long history
- As well as staying in outer neighborhoods, staying outside the bigger cities is a lot cheaper. So for instance Corinna stays in a huge apartment in Arezzo in a historic Palazzo which costs less than a shoe-box sized place in Florence would be
- Rome, Florence, Venice, and the Amalfi Coast are some of the most touristic places in the world, so a simple supply and demand equation means that they will be significantly more expensive than if you get even a little off the beaten path. And not just for the cost of your accommodation, it’s the cost of everything from your coffee, your lunch, your tours, and even the tourist tax.
- If it’s you’re first or one of your first few times visiting Italy then. of course, you’re likely to want to see those major cities sites, so that’s when just heading further out from the main hub really makes a difference. It also will mean more intimate and more personal experiences and interactions. The biggest thing that you will take away from your trip is human connection, so if you build a trip that enables you to have as much human connection as possible, then you’re going to come away with a much more enriched experience than if your only experience is being right in the center, where all the crowds are, where everything’s expensive, where the waiters are so flat out busy that they can’t stop and shoot the breeze
- Book your high-speed train tickets early. When you’re going big city to big city, say we’re going to Venice to Florence, for those big high-speed trains book that ticket as early as possible. Be decisive. You know that your check-out is going to be at 10.00 or 11:00 from wherever you’re staying, so don’t plan stuff for that town for that morning because then you’ve got to figure out what to do with your luggage etc. Be decisive and go, okay, book your train for 10 or 11, checkout, go straight to the train station to get that train. The main companies like Italo, open up their tickets just over three months before the date. When they open up, it’s the cheapest you’re going to get them. From that moment they keep going up and there’s a huge difference in price. On Corinna’s last trip, she stalked the Italo website for a week or so waiting for them to appear, and as soon as they did she bought all her tickets for her trips and a ticket that cost her $34.50 buying them then when waiting until the month before, would have gone up to around $75. This is where you can put those savings into action to make your trip more luxurious – and book first class which will be the same price as an economy ticket would cost. if you didn’t buy early
- The type of ticket you buy also can mean big savings. When you look at tickets you will see a variety of options – the higher price one at €115 for a ticket from Rome to Milan. At this price, you have no fees for changing the time or date of your journey and if you needed a refund, you lost 20%. The next category down was an economy version at €59. For that, you have to pay a 20% fee if you need to change the time/date and if you need a refund, you lose 40%. The next one was a low-cost one, which was €56 with a 50% fee for changing tickets and it’s non-refundable. Then finally the cheapest option was €49 and it’s zero refund, zero changing. So if you’re looking at it and going, well, I know that I’m leaving Rome at 10:00 in the morning and going to my next destination – you don’t need to take refund/changing into consideration. You’ve made the decision, you’re going at that time. Though this is where, if you’re unable to travel for some reason (such as we saw with covid) you need to make sure it’s covered by your travel insurance. We don’t believe anyone should travel without travel insurance and Corinna doesn’t allow anyone on her tours without it, and here’s why
- Lots of museums and sights are on combo tickets, so you can see more than one museum on one ticket. In Rome, for instance, the National Museum ticket, where you can see 2 to 4 of the Crypta Balbi, Palazzo Altemps, Palazzo Massimo and the Baths of Diocletian for a set price with the ticket lasting a couple of days
- We don’t recommend the hop on hop off buses (which are great in some cities) but in Rome and Florence, where they can’t get near most of the main attractions and what is included is not so great, they don’t make a lot of sense. You can end up missing so much. You’ll also miss so much that you’d see walking from A to B. They may also seem (claim) to save you money but you have to pay a booking fee. You can’t just turn up to some of the places – you still have to book your spot with the Vatican and the Colosseum separately
- Figure out what is your most important thing, what is your absolute thing, and you put your money into that. If the Vatican is your thing, make sure you get the really good Vatican tour, or if the Colosseum isn’t getting a really good Colosseum tour. You put your money there, get the private or small group tour or get the early access. And then you can do some of the other things in a less expensive way – maybe picking up the audio tour for something else rather than have a guide? You want to make sure that the things that are on your dream bucket list, that you’re diverting money to do them. And the great thing is because you’re playing the mileage game, when you sink your money into that killer tour you’re redeeming those miles again
- If you’re in a slightly bigger group of family/friends, maybe you’ve got four or six people, then don’t just look at small group tours or larger group tours as you can actually get a pretty good deal on private tours if you’ve got a larger group. We are big fans of With Locals and on a lot of their tours, the kids go free. Their tours are very reasonable, they’re all private and they have set itineraries you can work from, but you can also create your own itinerary if you’ve got a particular interest in anything. Even if there are 3 or 4 of you and you’re splitting the cost it can work out worth it too
- If you’re traveling on your own, you can do something like reach out to a guide and say, “I’m going to be here by myself, there’s no way I can pay for a tour with you by myself – do you have a group that I could tag on to?” They’ll sometimes give the client a call and ask them -sometimes not, but it’s worth a shot. Or they might put you together with a friend of theirs who does small walking tours for randoms. They’ll have ten to a tour, but everybody has come in from wherever, and your cost is much lower
- Swipe smart!! So we only travel with a credit card – a travel card so that it has no international fees. When you’re buying stuff you’re going to use that card. We only use our debit cards to get cash from the cash machine. But you need to find out from your bank well ahead of time what their fees are to use that debit card because most of them will have like a $3 international fee. But then they’ll tack on 2% or 3% of the total that you’re withdrawing. If that’s what your bank does, now you’ve got time to find another bank to open a separate account with to avoid that. In the US, for instance, there are banks and credit unions. Most of the credit unions will do a no-fee international debit card, so you might be paying that $3 per withdrawal, but you’re not paying an additional 2%. Also. in the US, Charles Schwab has an account that you can open where the debit card is free overseas. Figure it all out ahead of time and when you take your money out you’ve got cash for days with minimal fees
- We also like the Wise debit card. You can put money into your Wise account in your local currency and then when you move it to Euros they have excellent rates. You then have a bucket of money to then use for cash, without all the fees.
- Do not ever use a Eurobank ATM, or from the airport – they and extra fees that are extortionate. Try to find ATMs that are attached to banks. It can be a good idea, if you’re able to get your cash out during bank opening hours, just in case there’s any issue or your card gets eaten and always have a backup card. It’s just good to cover all the worst-case scenarios for peace of mind
- It’s a small world after all (in the Untold Italy universe) – Corinna tells us about how she was listening to one of our recent podcast episodes, only to hear the voice of Angelo Carotenuto – a tour guide she’d had an amazing experience with many years ago on a trip to the Vatican with her son Tommy. Angelo now runs his own company, Liv Tours, with his wife Kristen and Corinna certainly attests to what an incredible guide he is – a walking, talking encyclopedia, and having had drama training in Los Angeles, he’s the perfect story-teller and a lot of fun. His podcast episode was about their amazing new tour all on the Women of Ancient Rome and Italy
About our guest – Corinna Cooke
Author Corinna Cooke is a favorite guest on Untold Italy. Originally from New Zealand she fell in love with Italy thanks to a high school art history teacher who introduced her to Italian Renaissance art. After moving to London and traveling throughout Europe, she couldn’t stop returning to her beloved Italy.
Now living in Phoenix in the United States, Corinna is a woman of many skills. She leads several Glam Italia small group tours to Italy each year and writes guidebooks of the same name exploring her favorite corners of beautiful Italia. And her “day job” is a make-up artist. But, her heart is always called to Italy and her first love.. the city of Rome!
You can find Corinna on these channels:
- Websites: CorinnaCooke.com – Corinna’s author website and Corinnabsworld – Corinna’s blog
- Travel Item recommendations – Corinna’s Amazon page
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/corinnatravels
Places mentioned in the show
- Arezzo – charming town in Tuscany
- Testaccio, Ostiense – neighborhoods in Rome, slightly away from the main center
- Carlo Menta – amazing pizza in Rome
- Certaldo – this hilltop town, with winding medieval streets, has spectacular views all around of Tuscany and the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer, and poet from the 1300s
- San Gimignano – picture-perfect Tuscan village
- Basilicata – a small region in Southern Italy best known for Matera, the cave city
- Crypta Balbi – in Rome, offers its visitors a historical trip through Rome’s past. Built between 19 and 13 BC under Lucius Cornelius Balbus, it originally housed a theatre, a block of four apartments, and a patio
- Palazzo Altemps – 15th-century palace housing Renaissance artworks & antiquities, Greek & Roman sculptures & library
- Palazzo Massimo alle Terme – Neo-Renaissance palace with a classical art collection including sculptures, mosaics & gold jewelry
- Baths of Diocletian – were public baths in ancient Rome. Named after emperor Diocletian and built from 298 AD to 306 AD, they were the largest of the imperial baths
- Milazzo – town in Sicily
- Lipari – part of the Aeolian islands off Sicily
- thepointsguy.com, canadapointsguy.com, thepointsguy.co.uk, www.pointhacks.com.au – sites that give you info on getting travel cards and points
- EV Reward – shopping portal
- National Rome Museum Ticket – you can get a combo ticket to get into Crypta Balbi, Palazzo Altemps, Palazzo Massimo and the Baths of Diocletian https://www.rome-museum.com/national-roman-museum-tickets.php
- Livia – Roman empress from 27 BC to AD 14 as the wife of Emperor Augustus.
Resources from Untold Italy
- Discover our recommended booking sites for your Italian trip to find some great deals and learn about some average prices for various things in How much a trip to Italy might cost
- Listen: to our previous episodes with Corinna: Episode #104 Experiences to include in your dream trip to Italy, Episode #081: Packing for Italy, Episode #053: Planning the perfect Italy itinerary, Episode #006: Florence highlights, and Episode #49: Exploring Florence with Corinna Cooke and to our podcast episode with Angelo from LivTours who was Corinna and her sons guide on their Vatican tour many years ago Episode #109 Women of Ancient Rome and Italy: The Untold story
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.