Travel Tips

What to Pack

In summer, stick with light clothing, as things can get steamy in June, July, and August. But throw in a sweater in case of cool evenings, especially if you’re headed for the mountains and/or islands. Sunglasses, a hat, and sunblock are essential. Brief summer afternoon thunderstorms are common in inland cities, so an umbrella will come in handy. In winter, bring a coat, gloves, hats, scarves, and boots. In winter, weather is generally milder than in the northern and central United States, but central heating may not be up to your standards, and interiors can be cold and damp; take wools or flannel rather than sheer fabrics. Bring sturdy shoes for winter and comfortable walking shoes in any season.

As a rule, Italians dress exceptionally well. They don’t usually wear shorts. Men aren’t required to wear ties or jackets anywhere, except in some of the grander hotel dining rooms and top-level restaurants, but are expected to look reasonably sharp—and they do. Formal wear is the exception rather than the rule at the opera nowadays, though people in expensive seats usually do get dressed up.

A certain modesty of dress (no bare shoulders or knees) is expected in churches, and strictly enforced in many.

For sightseeing, pack a pair of binoculars; they’ll help you get a good look at painted ceilings and domes. If you stay in budget hotels, take your own soap. Many such hotels do not provide it, or they give guests only one tiny bar per room. Washcloths, also, are rarely provided even in three- and four-star hotels.

Speaking the Language

In most cities and many towns you won’t have a hard time finding locals who speak at least rudimentary English. Odds are if the person you want to talk with doesn’t know English, there will be someone within earshot who can help translate. The farther south you travel, the fewer English speakers you’ll encounter, but if nothing else someone at your hotel will know a few words. No matter where in Italy you’re going, if you learn some common phrases in Italian, your effort will be appreciated.

Tipping

In restaurants a service charge of 10% to 15% may appear on your check. If so, it’s not necessary to leave an additional tip. If service isn’t included, leave a tip of up to 10%. Always leave your tip in cash, even if there’s a line item on your credit-card slip for a tip (otherwise the server will never see it). Tip checkroom attendants €1 per person and restroom attendants €0.50 (more in expensive hotels and restaurants). In major cities, tip €0.50 or more for table service in cafés. At a hotel bar, tip €1 and up for a round or two of drinks.

Italians rarely tip taxi drivers, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t. A euro or two is appreciated, particularly if the driver helps with luggage. Service-station attendants are tipped only for special services; give them €1 for checking your tires. Railway and airport porters charge a fixed rate per bag. Tip an additional €0.25 per person, more if the porter is helpful. Give a barber €1-€1.50 and a hairdresser’s assistant €1.50-€4 for a shampoo or cut, depending on the type of establishment.

On sightseeing tours, tip guides about €1.50 per person for a half-day group tour, more if they’re especially knowledgeable. In monasteries and other sights where admission is free, a contribution (€0.50-€1) is expected.

In hotels, give the portiere (concierge) about 10% of the bill for services, or €2.50-€5 for help with dinner reservations and such. Leave the chambermaid about €0.75 per day, or about €4.50-€5 a week in a moderately priced hotel; tip a minimum of €1 for valet or room service. In an expensive hotel, double these amounts; tip doormen €0.50 for calling a cab and €1.50 for carrying bags to the check-in desk and bellhops €1.50-€2.50 for carrying your bags to the room.

Passports and Visas

U.S. citizens need only a valid passport to enter Italy for stays of up to 90 days.

Money

Prices vary from region to region and are substantially lower in the country than in the cities. Of Italy’s major cities, Venice and Milan are by far the most expensive. Resorts such as Portofino and Cortina d’Ampezzo cater to wealthy people and charge top prices. Good values can be had in the scenic Trentino-Alto Adige region of the Dolomites and in Umbria and the Marches. With a few exceptions, southern Italy and Sicily also offer bargains for those who do their homework before they leave home.

Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens from the EU; citizens of non-EU countries rarely get discounts, but be sure to inquire before you purchase your tickets, because this situation is constantly changing.

U.S. banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.

ATMs and Banks

An ATM (bancomat in Italian) is the easiest way to get euros in Italy. There are numerous ATMs in large cities and small towns, as well as in airports and train stations. They’re not common in places such as grocery stores. Be sure to memorize your PIN in numbers, as ATM keypads in Italy don’t usually display letters. Check with your bank to confirm that you have an international PIN (codice segreto) that will be recognized in the countries you’re visiting, to raise your maximum daily withdrawal allowance, and to learn what your bank’s fee is for withdrawing money. (Italian banks don’t charge withdrawal fees.) Be aware that PINs beginning with a 0 (zero) tend to be rejected in Italy.

Your own bank may charge a fee for using ATMs abroad or charge for the cost of conversion from euros to dollars. Nevertheless, you can usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money inside a bank with a teller. Extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash. Finally, it’s a good idea to obtain more than one card that can be used for cash withdrawal, in case something happens to your main one.

Credit Cards

It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, because MasterCard and Visa generally just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.

Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill. Because of the exorbitant fees, avoid using your credit card for ATM withdrawals or cash advances (use a debit or cash card instead).

Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.

Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.

MasterCard and Visa are preferred by Italian merchants, but American Express is usually accepted in popular tourist destinations. Credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere, though; if you want to pay with a credit card in a small shop, hotel, or restaurant, it’s a good idea to make your intentions known early on.

Taxes

A 10% V.A.T. (value-added tax) is included in the rate at all hotels except those at the upper end of the range.

No tax is added to the bill in restaurants. A service charge of approximately 10%-15% is often added to your check; in some cases a service charge is included in the prices.

The V.A.T. is 20% on clothing, wine, and luxury goods. On consumer goods it’s already included in the amount shown on the price tag (look for the phrase “IVA inclusa”), whereas on services it may not be; feel free to confirm. Because you’re not a European citizen, if your purchases in a single transaction total more than €155, you may be entitled to a refund of the V.A.T.

When making a purchase, ask whether the merchant gives refunds—not all stores do, nor are they required to. If they do, they’ll help you fill out the V.A.T. refund form, which you’ll submit to a company that will issue you the refund in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment.

As you leave the country (or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, on leaving the EU), present your merchandise and the form to customs officials, who will stamp it. After you’re through passport control, take the stamped form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (the quickest and easiest option). You may also mail it to the address on the form (or on the envelope with it) after you arrive home, but processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment. Note that in larger cities the cash refund can be obtained at in-town offices prior to departure; just ask the merchant or check the envelope for local office addresses.

Global Refund is the largest V.A.T.-refund service with 225,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Its refund form, called a Tax Free Check, is the most common across the European continent. Premier Tax Free is another company that represents more than 70,000 merchants worldwide. In some cities you may obtain the refund immediately from local offices. Look for their logos in store windows.

V.A.T. Refunds

Global Blue (www.global-blue.com)
North America: 800/566-9828
From Abroad: 421 232/111 111

Premier Tax Free (www.premiertaxfree.com)
North America: 905/542-1710
From Abroad: 06/699-23383

Customs and Duties

You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.

Travelers from the United States should experience little difficulty clearing customs at any airport in Italy.

Italy requires documentation of the background of all antiques and antiquities before the item is taken out of the country. Under Italian law, all antiquities found on Italian soil are considered state property, and there are other restrictions on antique artwork. Even if purchased from a business in Italy, legal ownership of such artifacts may be in question if brought into the United States. Therefore, although they don’t necessarily confer ownership, documents such as export permits and receipts are required when importing such items into the United States.

When returning to the United States, clearing customs is sometimes more difficult. U.S. residents are normally entitled to a duty-free exemption of $800 on items accompanying them. Although there’s no problem with aged cheese (vacuum-sealed works best), you cannot bring back any of that delicious prosciutto, salami, or any other meat product. Fresh mushrooms, truffles, or fresh fruits and vegetables are also forbidden. There are also restrictions on the amount of alcohol allowed in duty-free. Generally, you’re allowed to bring in one liter of wine, beer, or other alcohol without paying a customs duty.

Emergencies

No matter where you are in Italy, you can dial 113 in case of emergency: the call will be directed to the local police. Not all 113 operators speak English, so you may want to ask a local person to place the call. Asking the operator for “pronto soccorso” (first aid and also the emergency room of a hospital) should get you an ambulanza (ambulance). If you just need a doctor, ask for “un medico.”

Italy has the carabinieri (national police force, their emergency number is 112 from anywhere in Italy) as well as the polizia (local police force). Both are armed and have the power to arrest and investigate crimes. Always report the loss of your passport to the caribinieri as well as to your embassy. When reporting a crime, you’ll be asked to fill out una denuncia (official report); keep a copy for your insurance company. You should also contact the police any time you have a car accident of any sort.

Local traffic officers, known as vigili, are responsible for, among other things, giving out parking tickets. They wear white (in summer) or black uniforms. Should you find yourself involved in a minor car accident in town, contact the vigili.

Pharmacies are generally open weekdays 8:30-1 and 4-8, and Saturday 9-1. Local pharmacies rotate covering the off-hours in shifts: on the door of every pharmacy is a list of which pharmacies in the vicinity will be open late.

Foreign Embassies

U.S. Consulate Florence (florence.usconsulate.gov)
Via Lungarno Vespucci 38, Florence
055/266951

U.S. Consulate Milan (milan.usconsulate.gov)
Via Principe Amedeo 2/10, Milan
02/290351

U.S. Consulate Naples (naples.usconsulate.gov)
Piazza della Repubblica, Naples
081/5838111

U.S. Embassy (italy.usembassy.gov)
Via Vittorio Veneto 121, Rome, 00187
06/46741

Time

Italy is in the Central European Time Zone (CET). From March to October it institutes Daylight Saving Time. Italy is 6 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time, 1 hour ahead of Great Britain, 10 hours behind Sydney, and 12 hours behind Auckland. Like the rest of Europe, Italy uses the 24-hour (or “military”) clock, which means that after noon you continue counting forward: 13:00 is 1 pm, 23:30 is 11:30 pm.

Hours of Operation

Religious and civic holidays are frequent in Italy. Depending on the holiday’s local importance, businesses may close for the day. Businesses don’t close Friday or Monday when the holiday falls on the weekend.

Banks are open weekdays 8:30-1:30 and for one or two hours in the afternoon, depending on the bank. Most post offices are open Monday-Saturday 9-12:30; central post offices are open 9-6:30 weekdays, 9-12:30 or 9-6:30 on Saturday. On the last day of the month all post offices close at midday.

Most churches are open from early morning until noon or 12:30, when they close for three hours or more; they open again in the afternoon, closing at about 6 pm. A few major churches, such as St. Peter’s in Rome and San Marco in Venice, remain open all day. Walking around during services is discouraged. Many museums are closed one day a week, often Monday. During low season, museums often close early; during high season, many stay open until late at night.

Most shops are open Monday-Saturday 9-1 and 3:30 or 4-7:30. Clothing shops are generally closed Monday mornings. Barbers and hairdressers, with some exceptions, are closed Sunday and Monday. Some bookstores and fashion and tourist-oriented shops in places such as Rome and Venice are open all day, as well as Sunday. Large chain supermarkets such as Standa, COOP, and Esselunga don’t close for lunch and are usually open Sunday; smaller alimentari (delicatessens) and other food shops are usually closed one evening during the week (it varies according to the town) and are almost always closed Sunday.