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Episode #166: What to expect when you book a private luxury tour of Italy

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Private luxury travel in Italy is something you may dream of or may not have even ever considered but it could be more achievable than you think and is the perfect way to experience a memorable and stress-free trip to Italy. Working with someone to custom-build your itinerary to your exact needs and desires, where they will book everything for you – takes away the stress and hassle of the planning and logistics. From the moment you are picked up on arrival, you are taken care of every step of the way.  Whatever your style of travel, some time spent being looked after and with your every need catered for is a real treat and means you can truly relax and take in all the wonders of Italy. 

Show notes
In this episode, we talk to Giovanni from Joe Banana Limos & Travel, a family-run company that has been helping travelers explore Italy for well over a decade, offering tours of Naples, Pompeii, and the Sorrentine and Amalfi coasts as well as custom-built private tours all over Italy (and a little bit beyond) to fit your needs and interested. Taking one of these luxury private tours, not only means you can pick and choose what you want to do, see and eat, but also enables you to just sit back, relax and soak up your time in Bella Italia. On a trip to Italy last year, Untold founder Katy and her family got to experience the incredible hospitality offered by Joe Banana on the Amalfi Coast. The family is still talking about it many months later. They were able to relax and truly enjoy the scenery and experience without having to worry about getting to the train station on time or whether they’d parked in the wrong spot! On those days, she was able to truly be present in the moment and can still smell the aroma of the lemon trees, the feel of the sea breeze, and the taste of the incredible smoked mozzarella and lemon zest lasagna – the stuff of dreams.

What you’ll learn this episode

  1. Giovanni has been involved in the tourism industry since 1998. He owns Joe Banana Limos in Italy which specializes in private tours and is also a travel agency. Their main clients come from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore – from all over the world, though most are from the US and Canada. Everyone in the business speaks English and their aim is to make a truly memorable vacation for their clients (or guests as Giovanni likes to call them)
  2. The business is very family orientated with Giovanni’s wife, brother, sister-in-law and the rest of the team feeling like family. The most important thing for anyone working for Joe Banana is that they have passion for what they do. The client has to be in the center of everything. As someone who runs a tourism business, he knows this is key to everything and the secret of their success
  3. Lots of people have a dream in their mind of visiting Italy and having the ultimate experience and that’s the kind of trip that Joe Banana can offer
  4. Their private custom tours mean everything is taken care of so the client gets to soak up the beauty of the country all around them
  5. What Giovanni tries to do with their clients, (who very often became friends) is to make it so they feel at home. When they come to Italy, they will be free to do whatever they want to do, but with a personal assistant for the entire length of the vacation and without having any stress. Ideal – as who wants stress on vacation?
  6. You don’t have to worry about booking your hotel, your experiences – the winery, the cooking class, or any tickets or guides. They take care of everything
  7. Joe Banana specializes and has become very experienced in doing their private tours of Italy, and they are also now extending their offering to include nearby countries such as France, Austria, and Switzerland – for a true European experience
  8. For the business, Giovanni used the model that the big bus tours use all around Italy. But to offer the same principle but in a private way without 40 or 50 other people. You’re not spending quite the same money – it does cost slightly more, but it’s a private, VIP service. You have a driver at your disposal, you have guides and tickets everywhere you go. There’s always someone that takes care of you in each corner of Italy
  9. Back in 1998, Giovanni worked for the big tour operators taking people all around Europe. This is where he began to think “what if people need to use the restroom at a time other than when the tour director says it’s time to stop? Why don’t we offer something different to these people?” This idea expanded to think of doing all tours with these private luxury minivans (most of the fleet are Mercedes minivans) – to get to places where the big tour buses can’t go
  10. There are many places the bigger vehicles can’t get you into – they’re not allowed or simply don’t fit. There are also places other smaller vehicles aren’t allowed as well – you need a special, government-authorized license like Joe Banana. This means things like you can be taken directly up to the front of the Accademia in Florence, directly outside of the Vatican and the Colosseum. Getting you exactly where you need to be can make a big difference to your experience – you are saving your precious vacation time and your energy levels
  11. Joe Banana, of course, also has the correct insurance coverage. Beware of drivers/companies that don’t have this – there are many out there who are not properly registered to cut their costs. When you see a service that seems a huge bargain compared to the others – it’s worth considering why.
  12. The advantage of Joe Banana, over a one-man band or very small company is that there is a team behind you. If a driver or guide gets sick, they’ll of course be replaced. It’s a luxury service – so when problems arise they will be taken care of

An example Joe Banana 10 day customized tour: starting in Venice, and ending in Rome:

On any of these private tours, everything is planned alongside you – giving you what you want but doing all the hard work on the planning and logistics and when you are on the tour you have customer service 24 hours.

10 days is a particularly popular time frame for those coming from the US – who are traveling long haul but don’t have so many vacation days to spare. This is where the time-saving of a private tour really comes in. You can easily lose a day moving between cities, with a driver you save time and can get to use that time for extra sight-seeing and experiences. 

Arriving

A driver will pick you up at the airport wherever you arrive. If starting in Venice this could be into Milan, Zurich in Switzerland, or into Venice itself. Clients love coming in to Venice airport, as the transfer to their accommodation is by private boat. What a way to start your trip! 

Days 1 & 2 – Venice

The day next, you would do some touring based on what you want to do and see. In the evenings you are free to do what you like but you can of course get restaurant recommendations or have them booked for you.

The day next they would take you to the islands, the famous Murano, Burano, Mazorbo, and Torcello. Mazorbo is famous as it’s the only part of Venice where there is a vineyard – with a fascinating history to it as well as amazing wine. 

You will of course get the option to go for a gondola ride with an assistant. You can do a private tour of magnificent The Doges Palace and surrounding area. 

Day 3 & 4 – Florence & Tuscany (with Emilia Romagna stop-off)

After 2 nights in Venice, your driver would pick you up,  get you to the dock by boat, load your luggage etc before heading off to take you to the Tuscany area.

More often than not, they have a stop on the way in the Emilia Romagna region. This region is of course very famous for its food – the Parmigiano Reggiano, the parma ham, and the balsamic vinegar. Clients get the chance to taste 100-year-old vinegar, some aged Parmigiano Reggiano a tour of the farm, and have a wonderful lunch before continuing the day traveling on to Florence.

To get from Venice to Florence in a day, you can do it by train, but you’re not going to be stopping to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano farm. You’re going to save yourself a heap of time if you travel this way, and you can just sit back and relax while someone transports you to the places that you need to go to. You don’t have to figure stuff out for yourself – find platforms, worry about timings etc. Sometimes the train is the quick and efficient way to go and Joe Banana includes it in many of their customized tours – but a driver can mean some unique stopovers – like stopping to have a lunch break at a winery, with wine tasting, after all, you’re not driving!

They usually offer the drivers for 10 to 11 hours at the client’s disposal for the day. That means you could work in a schedule so that at night if you want to go to dinner somewhere special, that’s out of the way –  you can go there with your driver. People love having a driver at their disposal.

In Florence, for your 2 nights stay you would be helped check in to your hotel in the center. They make sure that the client is in central, safe areas where they can walk around, and relax with easy access to everything. So in Florence, you would be in a hotel somewhere near to  Piazza della Signoria, near to the Duomo – all the top sights. Same thing in Venice, Rome, Sorrento – you will always be in the best place in the location you stay. 

Some of the bigger tour companies don’t stay in the center,  so to get into the center of Florence or Rome, they need to use the local transportation or be shuttled. This is because the companies need to stay in a big hotel to fit the bus-load of people they have. But it can really lose the charm of being in Italy if you’re not staying right in the heart. As the hotels are centrally located, you are able to walk to the restaurants,  the shops and to find nearby bars for an aperitivo watching the Passeig (the local’s evening stroll). Most of the centers are pedestrianized which means wandering is easy and safe. 

The hotels will also be four or five-stars. The reason for this is because a three-star hotel in Italy is not like a three-star in America or in Australia etc. It’s a little bit different and they can be a bit hit and miss – so they above all want to avoid any issues, so stick with the 4 and 5 stars in standard double occupancy room. The tours are private so you can choose to have a triple room too – you can choose to have a family room or a single room because the tour is customized for your needs.

The day next, you would have a personal private licensed professional guide take you to the Accademia, where you can see the famous statue of David by Michelangelo. They can also organize to go to the Uffizi Gallery. It is always customized, so if art is not your thing, or you’ve been to Florence before and seen some things already, you can change that for something else you’ve dreamed of doing. They can go off to the Chianti region, visit Siena or San Gimignano or enjoy truffle hunting or wine-tasting experiences. You will get to experience Florence with a guide, and then you have some leisure time to wander, eat and shop – Florence is, of course, famous for its gold and its leather.

Day 5, 6 & 7 – Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast (with Tuscany/Umbria stop-off)

The day next, they would take you on to Sorrento. You can stop have a stop on the way to one of the gorgeous, ancient hill towns – maybe Orvieto, Montepulciano, or Siena

You’d be spending 3 nights in Sorrento, which is a great base for exploring. You can have a day exploring the Amalfic Coast – by car or by boat. You can have a day spent in Capri. You can have a day spent in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Mount Vesuvius. You could head down to the Paestum temple near Salerno – with its nearby Buffalo Mozzarella cheese farms. You can customize these few days to whatever you’d most like to see and do. When they do Capri, they do it as a private boat tour. A perfect way to see the island. 

When you leave Sorrento to head to Rome, on the way you will have a stop either in Pompeii or Naples or do both. For Pompeii, you would have your guide and entrance ticket included. Note – tickets are always included for every museum on these tours of Italy.

After Pompeii, you would then stop off in Naples for Pizza. You will have a chance to have an overview of this beautiful city, and then get to experience real pizza – Neapolitan pizza. People always love this – in fact, a lot of people chose to have a stop in Naples just for the pizza!

Day 8, 9 & 10 – Rome (with Pompeii/Naples stop-off)

You will have your hotel in the center of Rome for 3 nights for easy access to everything. You will have a professional guide available to you for 2 days. It’s important when you visit the city to have a professional, licensed, authorized guide. They will always have that little tag on. It is important that they know the city very well, so they can show you the history and explain the stories behind it all. Work with your imagination to bring back to life 3,000 years of history – at the Colosseum, the Vatican. These places will always have skip-the-line tickets included – which is great as tickets are not always so easy to get these days as it’s getting busier and so it’s well worth it as the queues can be large and slow. With these 2 days, you would get to visit so much of the eternal city of Rome. As well as the Colosseum and Vatican, you have Piazza Navona, the Pantheon – dropping the coin in the Trevi Fountain, the Catacombs (which they find people really love to experience!). Many people have been to Rome before, so it can definitely be customized for different and you can get off the beaten path to see some hidden gems. 

Day 11 – saying goodbye

So you’ll have 2 nights in Venice, 2 nights in Florence, 3 nights in Sorrento, and 3 nights in Rome – a total of 10 nights – 11 days total, and then, sadly, it will be time to say goodbye. Joe Banana will take care of their guest from the moment they land in Italy until the moment they jump on the plane and fly back home. At the end of the trip when you’re low on energy, you don’t have to worry about getting to the airport as your driver will make sure you get there in plenty of time, without any stress. 

This is a typical 10-day itinerary, but they also do 7 days, 5 days, 18 days, 21 days. 

Experience taking a private tour

Katy and her family had the experience of being taken from Naples to Rome with Giovanni’s brother, Pierpaolo. With a stop for delicious pizza on the way – her kids are still talking about that experience. They can vouch that when you’ve finished doing your sightseeing and eating pizza, you jump back in the car and can just relax. You can even have a sleep and get woken up at the next place

Lots of people plan their vacation around special occasions – maybe a birthday, an anniversary, or a honeymoon. One of Giovanni’s nicest experiences recently was with a couple who took a boat with a guide over to Capri, they had their guide and Joe Banana provided a special Italian cake with their name on it. The guide came back to happily report they’d had an incredibly romantic engagement, under the spectacular Faraglioni rocks. 

At Joe Banana, they’ve had all kinds of special requests. One client was there for 15 days and every day he wanted a massage booked for him, so they had to make sure each hotel had spa facilities available at the times they needed, which is actually quite tricky logistics

They get lots of queries from couples, but the majority of the bookings are for families – groups of 3 or 4 usually, they’ve had larger groups and the very most they have done was for 21 people. They had to use 3 7-seater minivans as there needed to be plenty of room for the luggage as well as the people. They were together for the entire tour and loved it. It is definitely tricky booking that many people into hotels – it’s unusual to find large hotels with 100s of rooms. Most hotels have 60-80 rooms.

Giovanni had another memorable client – a guy from the US, whose family was originally from Italy but he’d never been to Italy before. He told Giovanni that he’d worked his whole life and he wanted this to be a trip of a lifetime for him and his wife, so to pull out all the stops, no matter the cost. This really pulled at Giovanni’s heartstrings because he didn’t travel like this every day – this was his dream. He came with his two nieces and they arranged a fantastic tour for them. They arranged special treats for the boat trip to Capri and when they went to the Vatican. When Giovanni met them in Sorrento he had a cake and a nice bottle or something local – the man was almost crying and said, “Giovanni, thank you so much. You made my dream come true.” This is an experience Giovanni will never forget and is the essence of why he runs this business.

When Katy and her family were in Italy last year, not only did they have some fun times with Pierpaolo, but Giovanni sent one of his drivers to pick them up for an experience that Katy will probably never stop raving about. It was a really thoughtful experience, as Giovanni knew that they had been to a lot of places already and that she likes to go off the beaten path. He took them to a beautiful lemon grove overlooking the Bay of Naples and Massa Lubrense. They met the family that runs the business and learned how they propagate all the citrus trees they had there, and they also made them the most delicious lunch. This incredible lasagna with smoked mozzarella and lemon zest blew Katy’s mind. The whole experience was so thoughtful and they were really well looked after. When you chat with them, Joe Banana will listen to what your interests are and aim to find the best experiences for you (though they might not give away all their secrets upfront).

A private tour of this kind is more expensive compared to the big tour operators – but it’s a very different type of service and experience. For 4 people for a 10-day tour, it may cost about 6,000 each. Obviously, it can depend on the type of accommodation because a client will choose the type of room – their offers are based on standard rooms in four or five-star hotels – so it could be a bit more or less – 5,000 or 7,000. 

There are many tours you can look at on their website, joebananalimos.com, to give you some ideas and get you inspired. You can fill in their form to get in touch, they also have a toll-free phone number. You can chat online, you can chat to them on WhatsApp. You can get in touch in lots of ways and you can also find them on social media – Instagram and Facebook

There are over 50 set packages but any of those can easily be customized. Whether you want to change just a little part or a big part – you can get in touch with one of their representatives in the office, tell them what you are wanting or dreaming of and they will do their very best to accommodate your requests. Looking at the packages can be a good starting point to give you ideas of what’s possible. The majority of customers modify the tour at least a little bit – adding a stop off for something they really want to see, do or, of course, eat!

To hear from someone who experienced one of Joe Banana’s amazing private tours – listen to our podcast episode with New Yorker Kathleen Guglielmo, who enjoyed an incredible 18-day private tour with Joe Banana traveling around Italy –  Episode #88 The Grand Tour.

About our guest – Giovanni Guida

Giovanni runs Joe Banana Limo & Travels with his brother Pierpaolo and they have more than two decades of experience in the tourism business.

Giovanni’s nickname ‘Joe Banana’, is the inspiration for the name of my company. Nicknames are really popular in the southern part of Italy, where basically, every family has one. Giovanni was given this nickname when he was 9 years old. His Grandad used to sell fruits using a three-wheel minivan, and he used to sit on the back trailer as he drove street by street through their little village. One day he was eating a banana while riding on the back of his grandad’s trailer when a few of his school friends saw him, and from that moment his nickname became “Banana”.

Giovanni began his career as a tour director and driver of tour buses, taking tourists from all over the world to visit the main cities around Europe. In 2010, he started his own little business with driving and guide services. He was soon joined by brother Pierpaolo, who started his career studying management of touristic enterprises and who with further studying and a lot of experience under his belt, in 2015 became a licensed professional tour guide.

Year after year they have grown and have added private boat tours, private guided tours and other services, until the realization of their dream to become a full travel agency. In this way, they feel they can meet all the needs of their guests. Their fully customizable private tours can take you all over Italy, and even include some nearby countries such as France, Switzerland, and Austria. Everything is taken care of for you so you can just make the most of your vacation time and have no stress – only memories. 

You can find Joe Banana on these channels:

Places to visit mentioned in the show

  • Piazza della Signoria – grand piazza in Florence
  • Accademia – art museum  in Florence, home to Michelangelo’s David
  • Murano, Burano, Mazorbo, Torcello – islands on the Venice lagoon
  • Doge’s Palace – formerly the Doge’s residence and the seat of the Venetian government
  • Uffizi gallery – art museum adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria
  • Siena – ancient Tuscan city south of Florence
  • San Gimignano – picture-perfect Tuscan village
  • Montepulciano –  a medieval hilltop town in Tuscany, famous for its wines
  • Orvieto – Umbrian hilltop city with a gorgeous cathedral and fascinating past that is an easy stop between Florence and Rome
  • Pompeii – the world-famous, miraculously uncovered city that was covered by the Vesuvius volcano eruption in AD 79
  • Herculaneum – the town hit first by Vesuvius’s explosion and where people died the quickest, without warning – such as the ashy rain that fell on Pompeii hours before (though few recognized it as a warning sign)
  • Paestum – amazing ruins sites to visit when based in Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast with the area around where you can get the best buffalo mozzarella
  • Vatican, Colosseum, Navona Square, St Peter Square, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Catacombs – top sites in Rome
  • Faraglioni – stacks/coastal and oceanic rock formations eroded by waves that can be found on Capri
  • Massa Lubrense – wonderful little town to visit, not quite on Amalfi Coast, but between Sorrento and Minori

Resources

  • la passeggiata – the walk or stroll after dinner that’s a strong part of Italian culture

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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