Italy may be a country of many riches, but you don’t need a well-lined wallet to experience them! Certainly, the starred restaurants and hotels that often get the limelight can be inaccessible for those traveling on a budget–such as a university student like, erherm, myself. However, don’t let limited funds stop you, because it’s absolutely possible to keep your costs low while still enjoying this beautiful country to its fullest. Here are some tricks I’ve picked up along the way to do just that.
WHERE TO STAY
Time and place
When traveling in Italy, consider going outside the main tourist season–you’ll save on both transport and accommodations. If you’re really trying to pinch pennies, for goodness sake don’t go to Milan, Rome, Venice, or other well-known but pricey cities. Some of the most economical destinations to head to are in the south (all the better reason to go in the off-season and catch some mid-winter sun!). Sicily, Puglia, and Calabria are off the main tourist circuit but are rich in natural scenery, lively towns and cities, storied culture, and delicious foods.
Do your homework and book ahead
I have a confession: when it comes to traveling, I’m not a proponent of spontaneity. Sure, sure, there should be room for wandering sans any particular destination, or making decisions like where to grab coffee on a whim, but when I’m adventuring on a budget (which is always), I plan out the larger details like where to stay and how to get there far in advance. Prices tend to increase and options diminish as you near the date, so a little bit of planning can go a long way in ensuring you find the travel options that best suit you and your budget.
While Airbnbs might be economical to split between a group of people, prices tend to rise for just one person; so, if you’re traveling solo, a hostel can often be your best bet for lodging. Across Italy, there are some truly wonderful stays such as The Beehive in Rome, an affordable boutique hostel with bagels made in-house every morning, or Hostel Brikette in Positano, whose sweeping ocean views are the best bang for your buck you can get anywhere along the Amalfi Coast. Be sure to pack earplugs, an eye mask, and a luggage lock, and you’ll be all set!
HOW TO GET THERE
The night train is *not* that bad
In fact, this entire story is mostly just a guise for me to preach the gospel of the Intercity Notte–I love the night train. How else might one travel cross-country in the mere blink of an eye–wake up in the morning and you’re already there! Not only is the price of a ticket generally half of what you’ll pay for a daytime train, you’ll also save yourself the cost of a night’s worth of lodging–rather than having to pay for both transportation and a bed, you get a two-for-one deal. And perhaps the best part isn’t even what you save in money but what you get back in time: instead of spending precious daylight in transit, the night train allows you to arrive to your destination promptly on the first morning and enjoy a whole day’s worth of adventuring, and to stay until the late evening of your last day rather than departing in the middle of the day. Sure, it’s not the best of sleeping conditions, but it’s not awful, either. Often, the night trains are so sparsely occupied that you’re likely to have a whole row of seats to yourself, making it easy enough to stretch out and get, well, if not a good night’s sleep, at least a bit of shut-eye. (Disclaimer: if night train ridership skyrockets after this article is released and you find yourself having to sleep upright, my apologies in advance.) You might be wondering, though, why take a train such a long distance when you could just fly? Well, my friends, not only is the train better in terms of carbon emissions, it’s also more convenient: while airports are often located on the periphery of cities, requiring extra transit to and from, a train will take you right to the station in the city center.
Apologies if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating. Many trains, buses, and rental cars increase in price the closer you get to the date, so it’s best to book as early as your plans are set.
If you must rent a car…
Be aware that what you’ll actually be paying is far greater than the sticker price of the rental. Some companies can require hidden insurance fees, gas is certainly not cheap, parking costs pile up, and the road tolls in Italy can border on extortionate (the 6 hours from Rome to Turin is a whopping 55 euros!). There are assuredly some destinations out of reach of public transit that still merit visiting and thus a rental car, but it’s not the most affordable of options.
WHAT TO DO
Going to the chapel
It’s nearly impossible to pass more than an hour in Italy without hearing the ubiquitous bells of the country’s tens of thousands of churches toll–the ever-present chimes are a trademark of the Italian soundscape. The churches of Italy are home to awe-inspiring artwork, impressive architecture, and countless cultural artifacts, and the best part is, admission is almost always free. (If admission does come with a price, consider attending a religious service instead–they are always free!).
Io vado al museo
Io vado al museo is an initiative from the Ministry of Culture that declares all state museums free on the first Sunday of every month from October until March–another great reason to travel in the off-season. Some museums will also run free days of their own, so it’s worth checking their websites to investigate!
Perhaps the absolute best way to get to know whatever corner of Italy you find yourself in doesn’t cost a single cent–all it takes is putting one foot in front of the other. Exploring a piedi, on foot, you’ll stumble across endless hidden charms: the flash of a cat’s tail as it rounds a corner, the wind laughing and gently ruffling a line of laundry, the afternoon sun lighting up a cobbled alleyway, glasses clinking at the sidewalk cafe, all enough to make you truly lose yourself among Italy’s endless winding streets.
WHAT TO EAT & DRINK
Portable personal pesto
As sandwiches are the obvious go-to choice for meals on a dime and on the go, I can’t recommend enough traveling around Italy with a personal jar of pesto–hear me out. While the meats and cheeses you’ll get on a sandwich will deliciously showcase the regional and local specialities, meat and cheese is…usually all you’ll get. Sandwiches from the corner bottega can often be far too dry and leave your mouth feeling like you’ve swallowed a cotton ball. Traveling with pesto or another condiment makes the grab-and-go sandwich experience a whole lot more pleasant.
Two words: vino sfuso
Vino sfuso is wine sold directly from the tap, and in Italy it’s not hard to find a decent wine sold on tap for extremely reasonable prices. Bonus points if you bring your own reusable bottle!
The art of aperitivo
For those yet uninitiated, the Italian aperitivo takes place in the late afternoon, after the workday but before dinner, and many bars will offer drinks accompanied by finger food fare. While the most common accompaniment to your aperol spritz looks like some grissini or bread with taglieri (sliced meats and cheeses), some aperitivos can be so generous that they entirely replace a dinner. After rounding the night out with an obligatory cone of gelato, I’ve been completely satisfied.
Seek out markets
Head to markets to buy direct from producers–not only are you likely to find the most honest prices, you’ll be channeling your money to support local producers, too. From Porta Palazzo, Europe’s largest open air market, way up north in Turin, to the historical Mercato Ballarò all the way down south in Palermo, markets are a great spot to sample the local specialties and buy both produce and ready-to-eat foods. In many cases, markets happen only once a week, so it’s not a bad idea to check the schedules ahead of time to make sure your wandering coincides with the local market.
Bring a water bottle!
This may sound elementary, but all those plastic water bottles when you’re out sightseeing and water ordered to the table in restaurants can really add up. Carrying your own water bottle is a win-win-win situation: you’ll save money, you’ll reduce your plastic consumption, and you’ll get to partake in one of the simpler but most endearing traditions of Italy: that of the nasoni, or public water fountains. Nasoni, literally translating to “big noses,” are smattered all across Italy’s cities and towns–Rome alone boasts more than 2500–and they often bear amusing sculptural designs.
Be open to whatever comes your way–the freely given generosity of the Italian people will lead you to your greatest adventures. You might find yourself, say, getting an impromptu tour of a thousand-year-old olive grove, or joining a streetside dance party of locals celebrating the autumn harvest, or getting a personal tour of the city from your B&B host, or making homemade pasta with an adopted nonna, or even staying out until the sun comes up sharing laughs, drinks, and good company–all if you’re open to the possibilities.
If you’re not from Italy and don’t speak the language, it’s absolutely worth spending some time getting at least the basics under your belt—this can really go a long way in helping you get to know others and open doors that could otherwise remain closed due to language barriers. In the case that you find yourself the lucky beneficiary of Italian generosity, the most important word, of course, one that costs nothing but means the world, is grazie.