Here are some of the things I would do differently if I had to plan my first trip to Italy all over again.
Book more Guided Tours
I would book more guides even if it stretches the budget a bit. With our experiences in India, I am generally wary of guides who spout limited amount mugged up information of apocryphal variety. Italy is different. The guides have to licensed there. Although many tourist places in India also have licensed guides, they do not have any understanding of history, archeology, architecture or art, which is required to appreciate historical places. I don’t know what do Indian guides have to do to acquire the license. But in Italy, they have to study and write an exam and the exam seems to be made of stern stuff. The guides seem to know what they are talking about. They understand archeology. And this seems to be an aspirational profession because they are highly qualified too. The guide who took us on Colosseum tour was an archeologist who had worked on that site. Our Vatican guide was an art historian. I don’t know the exact background of others, but they weren’t spouting things they didn’t understand. One should, of course, research and read reviews before deciding on a particular guide or tour, but there need not be a general hesitation about it.
Avoid Free Tours
The reason for taking a free tour was not to save money, but precisely what those offering the free tours say they are about – visiting a place with someone who would be passionate it. But the free tour we took in Rome was one of the most disappointing experiences. The guide was good – she didn’t lack competence, but she was harping on and on about it being a free tour and taking away from the experience of visiting the places. Whatever she was in it for, it wasn’t the passion of showing it to the outsiders (By the way, almost everyone tips on the free tours- so it isn’t really free. Most people are like us. They don’t go on such tours to save money, but for the company of someone passionate.) I am pretty sure experience with the same guide is better, when she is on her regular paid job.
Account for Delays due to Reliance on Public Transport
Given the costs, we had left the taxis only for emergencies. Public transport is good. But in many places, you have to rely on buses, rather than metros. Rome’s metro is severely limited, because wherever they dig they end up finding some ancient ruins and have to work on preserving it instead of building the metro!
The buses run on the Google Maps routes, but not on its time. So, the time taken for a trip can be difficult to estimate correctly. Perhaps it was such a novel experience for us because we don’t use local buses much in India. We are much happier with metros. Those who do have experience of buses here might not be surprised.
Keep a Rest Day In Between
Rest meaning rest. No walking whatsoever. With so much to see (and reliance on public transport), we walked and walked and walked. And while we have a pretty good stamina for walking, doing it for ten days proved to be cruel to our legs. There were light days in between, but we should have planned for a complete rest day.
Start Planning Much in Advance
For a trip in May, I would start planning in November or December, get the VISA in March and book things early. By booking, I don’t mean only the flight and hotel bookings where early booking can save money, but also bookings for some of the most crowded places to visit. In Italy, you CAN miss a sight because it was sold out (It has happened only once in India for us – at the textile museum in Ahmedabad).
Not buy the Firenze Card
Rome, Naples, and Florence all had these cards that gave you access to certain monuments and public transport. They were all complicated in different dimensions (more on that some other time), but Firenze card (for Florence) was the most expensive. It also didn’t come with access to public transport by default; the add-on card that would have given us that access was not available where we bought it. We perhaps recovered the cost of the card given the number of places we visited with it, but we also missed climbing Brunelleschi’s dome because with Firenze Card you couldn’t book the time in advance. You had to do it on the spot and we didn’t realize that it would be difficult to get a slot in next 24 hours. So, I would rather book some guided tours for the most important places (Cathedral, Dome, Uffizi, and Academia), buy transport passes separately if we intend to use buses much, and buy the tickets to other museums directly. They aren’t that crowded.
Buy lots of local transport tickets in advance
If one doesn’t have a pass for local transport, the tickets should be bought en-masse in advance. The local transport in the cities is mostly well integrated. The Same ticket works for buses, metros, and trams. But they need to be bought from tobacco shops or other retail outlets. They are supposed to be available on the buses at a higher price, but they usually aren’t. We ended up traveling ticketless twice on Florence buses because it was late at night or too early in the morning and the retails stores were not yet open. The driver didn’t have tickets. We didn’t get caught, but it is NOT recommended AT ALL. Because when the checking does happen, the fines are enormous and the mortification would be worse, I guess.