Affordable Italy: 6 Tips for Traveling on a Budget

by sockii

Visiting Italy is a dream of many...but is it too expensive to turn into a reality? Not necessary. Read on for my tips to enjoying an Italian vacation on a budget.

It's something I've heard from numerous friends and co-workers, when they've read about my travels to Italy and seen the vacation photos:

"I'd love to travel to Italy someday, if only I could afford it..."

Well, the truth of the matter is a vacation in Italy does not have to be as expensive as you might think. In fact, in a lot of ways it can even be more affordable than a week at the Jersey Shore or another popular US vacation destination! How is that possible? By planning carefully in advance, choosing your destinations and attractions wisely, and following some simple tips to enjoy Italy more like the Italians do than a typical tourist.

Here I'll share some of my top tips and advice for enjoying Italy on a budget, whether traveling solo, as a couple or as a family.

Image above: The scenic Amalfi Coast of Italy. All photographs on this page are by the author, sockii, unless provided by Amazon.

Are you considering a trip to Italy some time soon?
At a villa outside of Florence, Italy.
At a villa outside of Florence, Italy.

Tip #1: Plan ahead

Don't wait to the last minute to make your travel plans

FlorenceOne of the biggest expenses in traveling to Italy, especially if it involves traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, is the plane ticket. There's no real way to avoid that, but you can start searching airfare prices early to keep an eye on any discounts that might come up. Yapta is a great website to track airfares and set email alerts so that you can find out when prices might be dropping—or rising! Watching for these alerts could save you some serious cash if you have the time for it.

Also be sure to look at other expenses with air travel you may need to consider, depending on the airport you're departing from, the airline, etc. For instance, what are the long-term parking rates at one airport or another (or can you count on a pick up and drop off from a friend or relative?) What are the baggage fees charged by one airline versus another? Once you arrive in Italy, can you book transfers in advance at a discount or use public transportation easily? Consider all such factors when choosing your flight.

Italy has a great train system which you can use to quickly and easily get between major cities throughout the country. And if you buy your tickets in advance online you can save not just time and confusion at the train station but considerable money. For instance, a standard fare on the FrecciaRosa high speed train between Rome and Naples might cost 43.00 Euro. But you can buy in advance online, in business class at that, for 29.00 Euro. (That's based on a search I just ran looking several weeks in advance of a departure date.) On a slower regional train the price is only 11.20 Euro. So take advantage of the website to plan and book your train travel ahead of time, but be sure to look at the fare rules (some tickets are non-refundable and not changeable.)

Need some help planning your trip?

Check out Rick Steves' authoritative guidebook

If you're just starting to think about planning a trip to Italy, a good guidebook is a perfect place to start. One covering the entire country of Italy will help you decide which cities and regions most interest you, what attractions not to miss, and how to budget both your time and your money.

Rick Steves guidebooks are always the first ones that I recommend to other travelers. They are written in an easy-to-read, conversational tone that make learning about Italy fun! Plus, Steves focuses on practical and money-saving tips to help budget conscious travelers like affordable lodgings and restaurants, planning day trips, and how to see the top attractions in major museums.

Tip #2: Compare costs city to city

Not all Italian destinations are (priced) alike

Venice ItalySome places in Italy are just costlier than others, no way around it. Venice is notoriously expensive for visitors and there's no real escaping it with the fragile island nature of the city and the costs of preserving historic art and architecture. Other "vacation destinations" such as Lake Como or the island of Capri also command high prices for everything from hotels to taxis to restaurants—largely, of course, because their main visitors can afford it!

But other destinations less popular with tourists can be wonderful getaways and not nearly as expensive. For instance, Salerno is a great city from which to explore the magnificent Amalfi Coast of Italy; you'll find inexpensive lodgings and restaurants there, and good connections by bus and train to major attractions in the region. Naples, too, is much less expensive overall than say Rome, if you don't mind a little grit and noise (it's not nearly as "scary" a city as some guide books will have you believe.) In general Southern Italy can be cheaper for tourists than Northern Italy, and still offers many beautiful and historic attractions and sights to see.

Tip #3: Consider lodging choices other than a hotel

Why not a rental apartment, bed and breakfast...or even a convent?

Venice streetsHotel accommodations can be expensive in Italy, no doubt about it. But you can look into quite a few alternatives for your vacation that can provide unique experiences and save you money.

Vacation Apartments

A rental apartment can be a great choice if you are staying a week or more in a single location (7 days often being the minimum period of rental). For one, they are often much more spacious than your typical Italian hotel room, and available in sizes from studio apartments for 1 or 2 to multi-bedroom homes to sleep 4, 6 or more! You can find charming apartments in historic palazzos, fully modern penthouses with beautiful private balconies, and everything in between. Vacation Rentals by Owner is a great place to start your search, narrowing results by location, amenities, apartment size and price. (You can also read honest reviews posted by previous guests of the apartments). Apartments generally will at least have basic kitchen facilities as well, which can save you money if you want to do at least some of your cooking on your own.

However, there can be some drawbacks to apartments, one of the most critical being that if your plans change or you have to cancel your trip, you may lose your entire rent if prepaid. You may wish to read my article on Vacation Rental Apartments versus Hotels for more information and to decide if that might be a good option for you.

Monasteries and Convents

This may seem like an odd choice at first, but it can be an excellent choice for a single traveler or a family as well that wants to stay in a safe, quiet environment. Accommodations may be simple but feature basic necessities (including private bathrooms) and all are welcome, regardless of religious beliefs. You can search for more information at Monastery Stays and view some of the available locations throughout Italy.

Bed and Breakfasts

Bed and breakfast lodgings can be comfortable and pleasant especially for couples or single travelers, offering personalized service and amenities. Websites like TripAdvisor are great for comparing accommodation options from city to city and reading honest reviews from those who have traveled there in the past. That's how I found the excellent B&B Salerno Centro for my recent stay in Southern Italy, and I've also used the site for researching lodging in Milan, Florence and Rome before.

Tip #4: Purchase discount travel and attraction cards

Many major cities and regions offer them

Rome ItalyTicket prices for museums and other attractions can quickly add up when you're on vacation in Italy as very few major attractions are free! But you can save considerable Euros if you are staying in one region for a while and purchase a combined ticket or pass.

For instance, in Rome there is the RomaPass, available for €34.00. This 3-day pass entitles you to entirely free admission to 2 major attractions of your choice (most use it for the Colosseum & Forum), free admission to a number of lesser museums, free public transit and discounted admission to other attractions and events. Having a RomaPass also enables you to skip the long admission lines at the Colosseum & Forum—a huge bonus!

The VeniceCard is a 7-day pass available at different price points, including one for young people 6-29. It includes admission to 10 museums, the Doge's Palace, 15 churches that normally charge admission, and other discounts. You can also get a tourist card valid from 12 hours to 7 days of use of Venice's water buses (the vaporetto), good if you plan on exploring the other lagoon islands or simply want to get around quickly.

The Firenze Card is a 72-hour pass which includes admission to the major museums of Florence, free public transportation, free public wifi, and has a smartphone app connected as well!

Traveling to Naples and the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum? Then consider one of the Campania artecard selections. Available for 3 or 7 days, Naples only or "all of the region", it includes free admission to a number of museums and sites plus discounts of up to 50% beyond that.

The MilanoCard is available for 24 hours to 3 days and includes public transportation and discounts on everything from museum admission to food and shopping.

Of course, before purchasing one of these cards, you should really look over the list of included/discounted attractions and decide if you will in fact save money or not with the card. If your time is limited in one location you may do better just paying for attractions as you go, or see if you are entitled to any student or other kinds of discounts. Also check what the rules and prices are for children if traveling with your kids.

Save money if you're visiting Pompeii with a Campania artecard

Tip #5: See magnificent art for free: In Italy's great churches!

Experience Italian art in situ, not in museums

Siena ItalyIt is true that some major cathedrals in Milan, Rome, Venice and Florence do charge admission fees to tour them outside of Mass hours and when there to worship. But there are many churches that are entirely free to enter and contain magnificent works of art including paintings, frescoes, mosaics, statues and inlaid marble work. This is truly the best way to experience many masterworks by artists such as Titian, Tintoretto and Caravaggio: within the context and setting for which they were created.

You also can save admission fees on churches that do charge them if you attend Mass. Just note that you do have to attend the service, but afterward will be free at least briefly to walk around and look at the artwork, chapels, etc.

Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" and "The Inspiration of St. Matthew", on view in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Italy.
Caravaggio in Rome

Tip #6: Eat like a local

Avoid the tourist traps and eat (and drink) like an Italian

Seafood in VeniceEating out in Italy can be cheap or incredibly expensive, but price doesn't have to reflect quality! You can enjoy delicious meals in any Italian city or destination without breaking the budget by just eating more like the Italians do than the tourists. That is:

* Avoid most restaurants and cafes near major attractions or famous landmarks. You are going to be paying more for the view than for the food and drink if you sit down at a cafe along the Grand Canal in Venice, in the piazza outside the Pantheon, or inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Instead wander down side streets and into residential areas where you will find trattorias and osterias focused more on local residents than the tourists.

* Italians generally only enjoy a small pastry and an espresso-based drink in the morning for breakfast, which you can grab at any bar. But note that if you sit down at a table for service, you will pay perhaps double or triple versus standing at the bar or getting your munchies to take away! Otherwise some hotels offer terrific breakfast buffets with enough choices and hot options to keep you fueled and filled all day until dinnertime.

* Don't feel that you have to order a full three courses (antipasti, primi, secondi) at every meal. In fact it can definitely be too much to eat for most, unless you are dining at a higher-end restaurant offering more tasting-menu style dining. Just keep in mind that meat portions in Italy tend to be much smaller than you might be used to coming from America and secondi generally don't come with sides.

* In most major cities you can find eateries known Tavola Calda, literally "Hot Tables". Like a cafeteria, a Tavola Calda will feature options such as pre-prepared salads, sandwiches, pasta entrees and pizza by the slice. It won't be gourmet dining by a long shot but can be perfectly fine for an inexpensive light bite—and a good choice if you've got fussy or hungry children in tow who want something to eat and fast!

* Unless you're a serious vinophile, just stick with the vino della casa (house wine) available at most trattorias and osterias. It'll be cheaper than a bottle and typically very fresh and typical of the region.

Bar snacks in Venice* Have a large lunch? Then you might be able to make a simple, light dinner out of bar snacks! Italians seem to find it inconceivable that you might want to have a cocktail or glass of wine without something to eat at the same time. If you stop in a bar in the early evening and order a drink, you will generally receive a variety of nibbles for "free" to accompany it. It could be as simple as peanuts and chips or as much as a slice of pizza, marinated olives and cheese, fried arancini, tramezzino sandwiches or some combination thereof! Some days after ordering a simple cocktail I had absolutely no room for any dinner afterwards. In Venice, making a meal out of bar snacks called cicchetti is very easy and one of the least expensive ways to enjoy good food in the city.

Order a spritz cocktail in Naples and enjoy "free" bar snacks - plenty for a midday snack!
Spritz in Naples

Come to Italy!

You can afford it if you just plan wisely!
sockii in Venice
sockii in Venice
Updated: 05/08/2015, sockii
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


sockii on 07/18/2015

Thank you for the detailed comments, Veronica! The DK Guides are definitely our favorites for Italy when you want really detailed, historical information and background. Great for museums and art especially.

Veronica on 07/18/2015

A fabulous and practical article.

In my opinion Italy is the most beautiful country in the entire world. It is so varied, Until about 1871, it was lots of small states not one country and some parts were only added after WW1. This means that each part is fairly distinctive although unified if that makes sense. In fact in the Dolomites in the north Italian isn't the main language. They speak a Germanic Italian dialect

It is expensive that's for sure, but Sockii is right, there are ways to make it cheaper. Our travel agent loans out the DK guides ( above ) and if he doesn't have one we borrow friends DK guides or go to the library. That saves some money. Although there are wildly expensive eating places, you are right that the back streets have some very authentic and reasonably priced trattorias. This is especially true of the wildly expensive Venice and Florence.

In the very North, The Dolomites, most hotels do a free afternoon tea a few hours before dinner. After a good breakfast this reduces the need to pay for a lunch. Along the Amafi coast they tend to bring free Italian breads before you order so you don't need to buy a starter.

And as Sockii said, the discount resort tickets are excellent value. A one day coach tour of a region shows a great part of it with all the important sights and you are taken straight there without having to wander around. Worth the money.

Guest on 07/17/2015

Great leads and info. You have laid this out in a very simple and affordable way for anyone. I love the Church Arts. Your information here is priceless for anyone considering a trip to Italy. I would love to come to Italy, but have no one to come with. lol

Kiani on 07/01/2015

Thanks for this nice article. Keep it up. :)

blackspanielgallery on 06/24/2015

Planning ahead is so important.

Mira on 05/28/2015

I shared it on StumbleUpon. This is a really useful article!

MBC on 05/23/2015

Thanks for the leads and information. I like the one where you rent an apartment.

sockii on 05/23/2015

Yes, Naples is a great city to visit (I'm working on rewriting/moving an article I have all about the city over here shortly). We did exactly that last year: spent a week in the city as a base point for then visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as checking out the many museums and unique attractions there. Here in the US it has a bad reputation that keeps a lot of travelers away...but maybe that's a good thing as it makes it more fun to visit without being surrounded by tourists.

DavidPaulWagner on 05/23/2015

I am glad that you mentioned Naples. Economical, a warm climate, lots of character and history, friendly locals, and not too many tourists! Also it's a great jumping off spot for Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Mt. Vesuvius. IMHO, worth staying a week or two!

Sheri_Oz on 05/23/2015

I like the south of Italy. Happened to be in Bari during the peanut festival and that was great fun.

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