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Episode #175: Expert answers to FAQ about travel in Italy

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When planning a trip to Italy, whether it is your first or you are returning, there are always so many decisions to be made and questions that arise. We share a live Q&A session from our Italy Travel Planning Facebook community where we are joined by Italy expert and travel consultant Danielle Oteri from Feast Travel to help answer a whole range of questions about Italy travel.

Show notes

Joining us for this Q&A session is Danielle Oteri, an art historian who has been to Italy countless times and offers trip consultations and travel planning services, as well as running tours specializing in southern Italy – Feast Travel. She has a deep knowledge and even deeper passion for Italy and along with Untold founder Katy, has learned a lot along the way. This session took questions submitted by members of our Italy Travel Planning Facebook community, on a range of topics.

What you’ll learn in this episode

Which airport should you fly into when you’re traveling to Italy?

The two major airports are Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa. Florence is tiny, Naples is a little bit bigger and does have some direct flights from outside of Europe but Rome or Milan are the two big international airports. People tend to want to get to the closest airport to where they’re going – Florence, Naples or Venice perhaps but the issue with that is it will often mean a stop in another major hub in Europe, like London, Paris or Amsterdam. And often you’re going to have to change airlines which is where things can tend to go wrong. For those that are flying from the United States that are coming from the West Coast, for instance – try instead to layover in Boston, New York, DC or Atlanta – which will be much better than a layover in London Heathrow or Paris Charles De Gaul. Heathrow is huge, one of the world’s biggest airports in the world and it can be a nightmare dealing with so many different terminals. If you’re not from Europe, it makes more sense to change in your own country with no extra customs etc and more familiar processes. At these hubs, you’ll get access to more frequent flights direct to Italy. The same goes for Australia, New Zealand or Canada – Rome and Milan are the two main hubs, so get to a city that can get you to those. Then you get the train on to whatever is your final destination – which is really easy.

READ: our guide to Train travel in Italy

For the majority of visitors who will be going to Italy for 10 to 14 days – how many places should you try and see in that amount of time?

Katy and Danielle have both been traveling to Italy for decades, and they are not even close to seeing everything. You want to go back to everything that you’ve been to before – let alone go to new places. And in the places you’ve been back to 20 times – you still haven’t had enough. You’re not going to see it all – it’s impossible, so don’t even try. For a 10-day trip, Danielle suggests two locations. It might be controversial, but from her own experiences and planning so many trips for people, 5 and 5 is ideal. It might seem a long time in just 2 destinations when you’re wanting to see so much, but you can also do day trips from any of the major cities. It is a really effective way to use your time because you don’t have to spend all that time unpacking your luggage and getting from A to B. Katy always suggests people spend a minimum of three nights anywhere they go. So for 10 days that might mean 3 locations – but if you want to have that truly deep experience and really explore, then she agrees with Danielle, that 2 locations are best.

You can’t underestimate the amount of friction and stress that’s injected into your trip when you’re moving around. There’s also so much time wasted – packing, getting to and from train stations and even coming out of the train stations. Florence is notorious and Danielle once took two hours waiting in line for a taxi. Things can also get tricky when people are traveling when they”re hungry. – people get cranky. If your train is late and you’ve got a tour booked. There are so many things that can go wrong in transit. Minimizing your stops and really focusing your experience saves a lot of stress and then doing day trips from places like Florence, Venice and Rome are really great ways to experience more locations without always having to move. From Rome you can get to some great places – Naples is only an hour by train, Orvieto is a lovely hill town just over an hour away. From Naples, you can go to Pompeii, to the Palace of Caserta, Capri, and all along the East coast including the Amalfi Coast.  You can get out into the countryside as well. People who have booked just a couple of nights in the Tuscan countryside are going to find it takes a long time to get there and settle in – and then it’s quickly time to go again. You really need to sink into a rural place and take more time to relax and enjoy.

Combination ideas for those 2 locations in 5 days

  • Rome and Florence If it’s your first time and you’re more of a bucket list traveler, then Florence and Rome you can cover so much. Danielle has recently put together a great trip for some clients to these cities. What’s nice about staying in these 2 cities is that they got to spend the money they saved on moving around – on some nice restaurants and doing a day tour to the Cinque Terre with a driver.
  • Rome and Naples
  • Florence and Bologna or Modena (Emilia-Romagna is very well connected on the train, so you can explore the region even if just day-tripping from Florence)
  • Venice and Milan
  • Milan and the Lakes
  • Milan and Turin
  • Milan and Genoa (Genoa is Katy’s new favorite and is great for the train – you can go up and down the coast really easily)

READ: our guides to the best day trips from Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Bologna and Venice

Sicily can’t be done in a few days

People often want to fit a few days in Sicily but you really need to be there a week to 10 days. You’ve just got to surrender to it and commit your time solely to Sicily  – which we guarantee is worth it. 

Get off the travel treadmill

Unless you’re mostly wanting to tick things off and take photos, try and look deep into your why. Really think about why you want to travel and what you want to get out of it. It can be easy to get stuck into a sausage factory of activities that may not be what you really wanted deep down.

Everyone has got a different amount of time, a different budget, different travel styles, and interests. It’s really worth digging deep and thinking about why it is you want to be in Italy –  then magic things will happen. 

Should you stay in an Airbnb or a hotel?

Airbnb is not a brand – the same for VRBO and all the house home-sharing platforms. They are platforms/websites with a lot of differently owned apartments on. These are platforms and not a guarantee of quality. You’ve got to read those reviews very closely.  These options can be great for families because getting several hotel rooms can be really expensive. And particularly with kids or for those with dietary restrictions, it can be handy to have your own food. If you’re traveling for a long time, it can also be useful if they have a washing machine because sometimes, laundry can be problematic. For some reason, it’s often difficult to get laundry done on a weekend, unless you’re in one of the big five-star hotels. Since Covid, there have been changes with Airbnbs around the cancelation policies, so read those carefully to make sure you know exactly what’s going on. Most Airbnbs ask you to pay upfront and there are a lot of cancelation options, which is not necessarily the case with hotels.

European travelers can be very thrifty because they are often on family vacations – perhaps somebody from Germany that’s driving to Italy. If an Airbnb price is just too good a deal, look to make sure that it includes towels and sheets because a lot of European families on a budget, travel with those things and they’re not provided.

Check locations carefully

What happens in two locations in particular – Sorrento and Tuscany, is many places will state “it’s only 20 minutes from…” whatever major point of transportation is but that’s very often not the case. You really need to look at the map to see if that home is in a very residential area. Often, especially when you really fall in love with a villa in Sorrento or in the Tuscan countryside, they tend to be on residential roads or in very rural areas and you’re not going to be able to pop into town easily to get a gelato or a coffee.

In the cities particularly, make sure that you know what the check-in time is because you’re possibly meeting the Airbnb host at the door or at a cafe and there won’t be a place to drop your luggage off like with a hotel. You also have to be really careful and ask a lot of questions when renting an apartment or a house. If renting a villa, you may need to ask the owner to stock it with some groceries because if you’re arriving late in the day, you want to make sure that you’ve got something to eat or at least some coffee if there are no shops nearby.

Hotels

For couples, Danielle recommends staying in a hotel. It’s a nice part of the experience and who doesn’t love having someone make your bed every day? Katy’s kids love staying in a hotel for the breakfast! When you get that great selection with cheese, prosciutto, eggs, and of course in Italy, several different types of cake. You can load up with breakfast and then just have a snack for lunch to keep you going. People think hotels are more expensive, but sometimes they’re not – and loading up on breakfast means you’re going to save money on meals. Katy also likes hotels because you just don’t have to think – everything’s done and after a long day you can just relax and not worry about having to do anything.

Should I rent a car or take the train?

Both Katy and Danielle suggest taking the train whenever possible.  Don’t underestimate the amount of time that you will spend at the ticket desk of a rental car place. Danielle has gotten stuck at the Rome rental car office for two hours. Even after making sure a million times with all her points and membership status that she was going to have an automatic, they end up giving her a stick-shift/manual as it was the only option available.  Always keep in mind that booking an Automatic in Italy (and much of Europe), does not guarantee that’s what you’ll get.  In some places, it is actually best to drive – like Tuscany or Umbria. But there are things you need to think about. Both those regions tend to have very dark roads late at night. 

If you’re thinking of driving, take a look at the maps and look at the roads you’d be driving. Some regions are very easy to drive in – Puglia is flat, easy to navigate and your GPS is usually going to have a signal.  Taking trains takes you straight to the center of cities.  Katy did the journey from Rome to Venice a few weeks ago, and it was just so easy – you can just sit back and relax and before you know it, you’ve arrived at your destination and you’re jumping on your Vaporetto or your water taxi to your hotel. If you’re flying to Venice and you rent a car in Venice, and your next stop is Florence – don’t pick up the rental car until you absolutely have to. You don’t want a car for your time in a city.  If you’re doing a trip that includes Florence and Venice and you want to do a day in the Tuscan countryside, still use the trains to transfer between cities and just rent a car for the day from Florence, preferably from outside the city. You don’t want to drive in the city. Driving is generally not a relaxing experience and if you’re going for a day trip in Tuscany and you have to consider if you want to do a wine tasting. It’s generally easier to go on a tour. It’s easier and you’ll have a more relaxing time. You won’t have to worry about all the different road rules, tolls, and zones where you’ll be fined for entering etc. If you’re from the US or Australia, for instance, and you’re assuming the roads are going to be similar
to what you’re used to – let us assure you, they’re not.

READ: our guide to Renting a car in Italy

If you’re in a mountainous area, download that GPS route ahead of time and maybe have a paper map as a backup because your signal could
cut out and not come back for a while. You might want to see the scenic route but if you’re not familiar with these kinds of roads – you really are better off sticking to highways. 

Driving the Amalfi Coast is never a good idea. The roads are incredibly small and windy. You’re generally bumper to bumper – especially in the summer. They also change the rules all the time. Last year they changed the rules so that tourists could only drive on the Amalfi Coast on alternate days. Many were unaware as there was little warning of the change. Parking is always a complete nightmare. 

What about flying?

It’s rare that you’d need to fly within Italy at all unless you’re going to one of the islands or you’re going a very long distance. It’s usually much easier and quicker to train. 

Sophie and family are traveling to Italy, starting in Amalfi. One of the days they want to take the ferry to Capri. You can only buy tickets to the Blue Grotto there, in person but how do you travel from where the ferry lands, to where the small boats for the Blue Grotto are?

You can either get to the start of the Blue Grotto by bus, by taxi or there are tours that head out from the harbor you arrive in at Marina Grande. No tour can guarantee you a Blue Grotto trip. It is not something that you can put on the list and say 100 % I’m going to do it. It is very changeable and weather dependent – it can shut several times in one hour in any season.  Keep in mind that it’s a very expensive 10-minute experience. You can also have an amazing experience by taking a boat around the island and dipping into all the other less busy/hyped grottoes. Capri is generally expensive – which can shock, even if you’re expecting it. Just a single bus trip is 2 Euro which adds up for a family of four doing little bus trips everywhere. A taxi to go 10 minutes is around €40 and it’s not always easy to get one.  Danielle believes Ischia
is a better choice than Capri. She loves Capri but describes the experience of the crowds as a meat grinder. We suggest visiting Capri in low season. Danielle has a tour guide who’s going to do a tour this year called Capri in winter which she’s keen to sign up for. In winter Capri has many beautiful local traditions and there are lights all over. The island is very proud of their culture and history. Danielle was on Capri on Palm Sunday many years ago, when there was a wonderful procession in the middle of Anacapri – one of her most beautiful memories.

LISTEN: to our podcast on Christmas time in Capri

Everyone talks about all the walking you will do. In Rome would you walk from the area by the Trevi fountain over to the Vatican, or is it better to take public transportation?

How you get around is a very personal decision. Being from NYC, Danielle is a walker and is used to a lot of walking. It can be different if you have mobility issues or are not used to working a lot. If you’re not used to doing a lot of walking, it might be good to get your sneakers on and start going out walking, to prepare you. Try to find some hills (and even cobbled stone streets if you can!) You can think of Rome as a giant open-air museum – everywhere you walk you’re going to see something interesting. If you had a Vatican tour in the afternoon, you could spend the morning meandering your way over there, stopping in churches, stopping for a gelato, stopping to have lunch – so you get plenty of breaks. Then at the end of the day after the Vatican tour when you’re tired, just take a cab back. Other places, like Naples, have amazing public transportation systems, but Rome’s is not great. In Rome, there’s a taxi app that works like Uber, and called Free Now.
It can stop you from being over-charged and you’re not allowed to hail taxis in Rome, so you can get picked up wherever you are. You pay on the app, can track the car and everything’s easy.

LISTEN: to our podcast on Getting around Rome with taxis

Katy will be traveling to Rome in September with her parents who are in their mid-70s, and her dad has some mobility issues. She’s definitely going to be mixing it up and getting a strategic taxi here and there. Even if you’re not traveling with mobility issues, you could easily to be doing 20,000 steps a day easily just because there often isn’t the option to get transport/taxis so there are times it makes sense to book one when you’re warn out.

It seems like it’s high season now all year round. Is there not really any shoulder seasons anymore?

This year has been the busiest yet. This is no doubt this was the COVID comeback year because much of last year you still had to test in order to come back into the US and elsewhere and there were few visitors from Asia. It is an extremely busy year and it may well continue. Italy is just a very popular destination, rightfully so. You should take these things into consideration when choosing your locations, because if crowds are not your thing, then you really do need to think differently about how you travel. There are plenty of amazing options without crowds (and the prices that go with them), but you’ll need to think beyond the traditional options. Carefully consider how you are going tackle those traditional options. Katy really does not like crowds. When it’s your first time the excitement probably gets you through but it can be quite unpleasant, so try and work out a place to stay that’s in a fairly quiet area, but where you can walk to lots of the main locations. A hotel where you can just decompress after a long day. Go to the busiest spots very early or late to avoid the worst of the crowds.  If you go to the classic cities, also consider going out into the countryside. Some of the smaller towns outside of Rome, like Orvieto, are just beautiful and from Florence, you can go to Arezzo, which hardly anyone goes to – most head to Lucca or Siena. 

A lot of people experience anxiety about what they’re going to miss out on. Don’t always assume that the most popular stuff is the best stuff. We try to encourage people to not think of Italy as a theme park. Sometimes people think they must go to the Colosseum and the Vatican like people don’t want to miss out on Magic Mountain at Disney. Just because they’re the most famous things or the most iconic things doesn’t mean that they are the best thing.  In terms of the Colosseum, for example – it is an incredible building and it’s so iconic but just next door, you’ve got the Domus Aurea. Not only is it a very interesting place with amazing frescos and mosaics and an incredible story behind it, but they’ve done a great Virtual Reality experience that takes you back 2,000 years ago to when Nero built the palace. With many of the historic sites in Italy, they don’t do a particularly good job of explaining it – which is why you often need a guide. The Domus Aurea had done an amazing job. The Baths of Caracalla is another great site. It’s huge and if you’re interested in Roman history, and in what ancient Rome was like for rich people, enslaved people, for all citizens – it’s a great place to go. The Baths of Diocletian and the Appian Way are other places to get a more rich experience without the number of people you’ll get at the Colosseum. 

Seena is contemplating staying in guest houses. Would you recommend these or not?

There’s just not one simple answer for this – it’s going to depend on each place, where they are and their reviews. Always read the reviews carefully. It’s probably a more personal experience if you get a B&B with a nice host with a small number of rooms. But there are good ones and bad ones. There are so many different options for accommodation in Italy. We love an agriturismo(farm stay). You can stay in a Masseria in Puglia, a baglio in Sicily. They’re like mini resorts – sometimes with a pool and a restaurant on site and often a very charming option.

Be open-minded and curious …. and ALWAYS read the reviews!

Tours, guides and trip planning

We get a lot of questions about guides and tour groups but it’s actually really hard to recommend particular guides because for starters – with our group of 110,000 members, if everyone tries to go for an individual guide, they’re likely going to be disappointed because the guide is not going to be able to answer that amount of emails or and certainly not accommodate so many people. Our group generates a lot of demand.

There are some reputable companies that we particularly like, like LivTours which are an amazing local company that do very small group tours of six people or under. They operate in the major cities. We also like and use Take Walks a lot and  With Locals are great for private tours. 

Danielle’s Trip consultations & travel planning

Katy, along with her team at Untold Italy, offer a lot of free resources, and their boutique group tours, but doesn’t offer trip-planning services as Danielle does. Danielle does trip consultations for people that just want to ask all their questions or want to strategize their trip. She doesn’t want people to have cookie-cutter experiences. She will ask all sorts of questions about the kinds of experiences that you want to have and will try to put in a little adventure and put in a little luxury. You can book these one-on-one sessions that she does with you via Zoom. She records them and uses all the resources she used to plan trips for her private clients – she’ll create a fully illustrated document for you of specific
resources that she’ll recommend for you, like tour guides. It’s like having a little guidebook made just for you.  She also has her full travel planning service. She has so much fun doing the consultations and has met so many wonderful people and had lots of great conversations. She’s learned so much about what people are most worried about when they travel, what their anxieties and fears are, and what they’re really looking for – even if they don’t know it themselves. She’s honed her diagnostic skills in terms of finding great experience for each person. 

Danielle is always very honest with her clients. People will sometimes say “What do you think of that location?” and her reply is “it’s a dump – don’t go there!”. She won’t hold the punches telling you about the downsides of anything you might want to do – even if you still want to do them, it’s good to have a plan of how best to do an experience.  In fact, Katy is getting Danielle to plan her big trip later in the year. She’s helping Katy build some amazing experiences in a beautiful part of the world that she knows very well, South of the Amalfi Coast on the Cilentro Coast. Katy
is heading there in September with her family and friends. You can get in touch with Danielle through her website Feast Travel.

About our guest – Danielle Oteri from Feast Travel

danielle oteri feast on history

Danielle Oteri is a writer, art historian, and founder of Feast Travel (formerly known as Feast on History) a food, wine and art school specializing in Southern Italy. She is passionate about the city of Naples and surrounds and knows it inside out – including where to get the best sfogliatella and life-changing pizza. After visiting her grandmother’s town on the Cilento Coast she was inspired to celebrate her family’s homeland and help others do the same.

Danielle offers services for both itinerary consulting, itinerary design, as well as Feast Travel’s own group tours. She publishes fantastic information on the many treasures of Southern Italy to help people reach and learn more about them, especially as information available in English is hard to come by for many of these places. 

If you’re visiting New York City you can also join Danielle’s company Arthur Avenue Food Tours on a delicious walk through Little Italy.

You can find Danielle on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Genoa – port city and capital city of the Liguria region
  • Ischia – island near Capri with hot spring beaches
  • Anacapri – town on Capri island
  • Domus Aurea – the golden house – Nero’s grand home has only recently been opened to the public
  • The Baths of Caracalla  – baths that were Rome’s second-largest Roman public baths, or thermae. The baths were likely built between AD 212 and 216/217, during the reigns of emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla
  • Baths of Diocletian – public baths in ancient Rome, built between 298 CE and 306 CE and named after emperor Diocletian
  • Via Appia/Appian Way – earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the republic, connecting Rome to Brindisi

Resources

  • imprimatur – mark of endorsement
  • baglio – restored farmhouses specific to Sicily
  • FreeNow – taxi app used in Rome and other cities in Italy

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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