Wednesday, July 24

Italy Travel 101: Back to the Basics

In my ongoing series of articles about traveling in Italy, I would like to address something that everyone knows about - understands - and reads or listens to wide-eyed, every time a friend or relative relates their 'vacation horror story' about the pickpocket or thief in [fill in the foreign city].  I have had an onslaught of visitors this summer, and while almost all are seasoned international travelers, each and every one got taken in by someone in some way during their stay.  I find it mind-boggling that when coming to the Emerald City of a fabled country, travelers suddenly hang up their usual wariness, steadfast sixth sense and determine that those trillions of stories you read or hear about just aren't going to come true for them.  So much for The Secret.  Heck--even I've been 'taken for a ride' by that Neapolitan cabbie and had my wallet courteously removed from deep inside my backpack in London [luckily, that's as far as the hands NYC it's a different story].  Even worse, in both cases, I knew I was being fleeced.  So, let's review a hybrid of just two of my recent guests' visits in the Bel Paese when it came to keeping things on their person, like their money.
[Note: this is not to say that an extraordinary time was had by all, that many many merchants and restaurateurs went out of their way to see to it that everyone enjoyed their time, at a bargain, often with a chilled glass of limoncello served up at the end, and that the occasional taxi did, indeed, have their air conditioning running. This is simply a quick & dirty summary of 'forewarned is forearmed' when visiting any country.]
Transportation:  You know in any airport or airport look-alike (say, a major train station) those announcements, signs, placards stating...Don't take a ride from someone offering you one. Go to the Taxi line, make sure there's a sign on top of the vehicle reading TAXI, etc etc.  Okay?  Even when you go abroad and you're jet-lagged and you have luggage and they're smiling and insistent and seem 'legit', just don't do it!!  Do I have to repeat myself?  
I can even add a nice preamble to that: How about, pay real attention to your emails esp when your tour guide or friend-resident in [fill in city name] tells you what to do?!  
I told my friends their hotel was a 20 min. walk from the station, faster with little luggage.  A taxi would run about 8 euro, and to make sure a) the meter was on b) they've set it on that little itty bitty number 1 (read about that here) and c) they printed a map of the area or used GPS to know when a left turn is not a right one.
But no, into a car they waltzed with a guy offering a ride, no meter, no medallion. Do you really think you're going to get a bargain?  Their cars may come with no perks (and that includes insurance), but this does not signify you're at the Thrift Shop of motor vehicles.
Total damage? 30 euro or $40 for a 6 min. ride.
Another taxi trip:  Family gets in the cab.  I inform them it will take about 5 mins and 10 euros + an extra charge for Sunday and perhaps a kid.  The cabbie says he doesn't need to turn on the meter and the fare would be about 25 euro.  Wisely, they ask him to pull over and they get out.
At this point, dear tourists, Note the Cab Number.  Heck, you take pictures of your plates of food and you can't point your iPhone to the side of a car?!  Then, you report them.  
You do not - I repeat, do not - bother paying them for any portion of the ride you just got.  They did not take you to your destination, they are STEALING FROM YOU.  You do not owe them a thing.  Your guilt trip is tantamount to asking the guy who is making off with all your jewelry and computers from your house if they'd like to sit down for a cup of tea and some nice scones to boot.
If they pipe up, you again wield that phone you have on your person 24/7 and actually use it to speak to someone.  Dial 113 for the cops.  Someone will speak your language, believe me.  The taxi will leave the scene, but you can still report them (even later, if you want).  Rome even (supposedly) has a tel number where these sorts of thievery can be reported.  And finally, keep in mind that you now have a fixed rate to/from the airports. No tips, thank you, no shenanigans from you tourists.  There may be a slightly extra charge on Sundays & holidays and for extra luggage (more than one pc). Slightly. They give you a new song and dance, don't jump in to their beat.
For more on taxi taking in the Bel Paese, see links on the Caveat Emptor section of my Travel Tips Page in the tabs above. 
Public Transportation:  Braving the crowds in the subway in & out of the Vatican, they placed their wallet in the outside pocket of the backpack??!!  In what world are we living? My visitors are people who have lived in China, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, for crying out loud.  Is it because Italy looks so nice? Is it too much pesto or provolone?  Too much wine at lunch?  Naturally, said wallet was purloined faster than they could say Turista.
Your bus/train ticket.  I'm sure your guidebook says it straight away, but no one reads those first few practical pages.  Punch your ticket in a machine.  On board.  No, not the same machine that issued your ticket in the first place, that would make far too much sense.  Punch it.  Punch it on the airport train as well.  Look around.  You'll see what I'm talking about.  Follow the crowd.  This is no time to be a rebel nor a leader.  Again, authorities look for the foreigners and start charging (from 5 euro to 50 depending on who's doing the checking) while turning a blind eye to the hordes of gypsies who ride the rails continuously to separate you from your valuables.
Private Transportation:  The biggest scandal of all is the fact that you will be levied a 70 euro ($92.50) fine just for driving to your hotel, or in any city center during the daytime (and sometimes at night as well).  Some hotels get you off the hook, but I don't know how or if that really works.  This is a tourist tax and a pox on a place that counts on the tourist dollar (in more ways than one).  
Parking meters need to be paid, they're fairly straightforward. Park within the blue lines. If you can tell they're white, you don't need to pay.  If you have foreign plates you risk being towed.  My sister just got a ticket for parking when the only meter in the area was out of service.  Hours are posted and it's a helluva lot easier to decipher the system than in NYC.  In many other cities, it's a 'scratch n sniff' card you can scratch out for the amount of time you desire.  Oh-and, those guys who 'help' you park your car? They're illegal. Some people give them money so they don't ruin the car in their absense. My car is so bashed up, they'd be doing me a favor.  But, no, even if they're wearing florescent vests, no need to have that guilt trip as well.
For more on a new way to hit up drivers in the Bel Paese click here and be careful if someone 'hits' you / if your mirror 'hits' another or if someone offers to change your tires on the roadside (after they've been mysteriously pricked by tacks) - their buddies are cleaning out your car while you look on in earnest [this happened to a friend in Milan as others near Naples]. Regardless of the hassles, I'm personally relieved that they don't car-jack here at gunpoint [although your purse may go flying out a window as two guys fly by in a motorino].
Dinner:  The restaurant messes up the order, and then makes you pay for their mistake.  This has happened to me countless times.  From ordering the free drink with the dinner special only to find it on our check or, as happened to us, at I Vascellari in Trastevere, three people ordered three pastas, one each.  Asking them to divide the plates - in the kitchen - somehow, by their calculations, ended up being translated as three people who ordered three pastas each in a mad carbo-loading extreme, clearly readying ourselves for the Tour de France.  Even though I had piped up when the first dishes were served, we were still charged for 9 plates ('don't worry, we know, we're just into serving generous helpings - which, I might add, is true)  They came down (slightly) after I complained.  But even then, the owner still insisted while the wait staff had a sudden lapse of memory: "The pasta was made. Why should we have to swallow the cost?"  And, did I say payment in cash only?  Dinnertimes in Italy have a way of suddenly throwing off the entire electronic system of a country that is the fifth or sixth largest economy in Europe. 
Sitting down for meals & snacks on the go:  You will be charged double.  Granted, you can take them to task like the one tourist who made headlines when charged 64 euro (about $90) for three gelati.  Look at the prices. They're often posted.  And don't give your custom to the guys who are charging 5 euro for a small cup of Italian ice (granita) or 12 euro if you're seated.  
There's a misguided law in place (or was it actually right on target?) that states 'No loitering and eating on monuments', say, like the Spanish Steps or Florence's Duomo.  It was (appropriately) geared toward the guys proffering their wares, but now the police, instead of going after the counterfeiter rings, go after the rich tourists.  You will (not always) be fined a hefty sum (upwards of $600 or so) for your transgression.  Ditto when you purchase items on the beach or streets.  Funny how that practice isn't in place when it comes to dealing with sex slaves. The Johns roam free while the service providers get arrested.
And, be wise to the guys selling electronics on the street (even 42nd street)  Really? Do I have to repeat this? Read more here.
And finally, drink the freely flowing water rather than spend the extortionist prices on mini-plastic bottles. Now, if only there'd be a law to stop what I call runway robbery in airports (worldwide), then we'd really have a Buon Viaggio!


Anonymous said...

I so enjoy reading your advice/adventures! And every time I do I am glad we stayed WAY off the beaten path on our three trips to Italy. We have NEVER been accosted/rooked/fined or otherwise mistreated, not even been cut off by a rude driver on the motorway. Wish I could come back soon, there are so many more places we'd like to visit. We love Italy and its wonderful friendly people.

Irreverent Italy said...

@Anon - wow - you are clearly the exception that proves the rule, but....Good on ya! That's great. In Venice alone I've been pickpocketed (twice) and ambushed for my purse as I stepped away from the bank machine at night.
The handle broke so the guy only got a bamboo handle...! In Naples, while stuck in traffic, guys smashed my passenger window & grabbed my purse I had stashed under the seat (already cognizant that it shouldn't be up on top of the seat).
In a way, all three times were negligence on my part:

- wallet in outside pocket of rollaway suitcase
- wallet in coat pocket while seated on bus (in which someone watched me purchase a tkt & then put there)
- going to a bank machine late night at the station

I'm just saying, BE AWARE (not AFRAID)!!

Anonymous said...

As a tour guide of Rome, I can't tell you how many clients have had their bank cards cloned after inserting them into cash machines around town.
Use the ones INSIDE the banks (generally, down the Via del Corso) - as they can't get into the machines to set up the cloning...