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!

Thursday, July 18

Postcards from Paradiso: Touring in Italy

Anyone who has any remote connection to Italy, and surely any of my faithful readers will know that I, for one (but we number in the millions), am not a fan of the Italian postal system.  In fact, I dedicate an entire chapter in my book to it, The Postman never rings even once.  And so it is today, that I offer the adventurer and resident alike, a new Travel Tip for all those earnest communicators who desire to share lovely nuggets of their travels to and thru the Bel Paese and beyond.
But, let's start with the historical precedent.  Since, of course, Italy is still quite (pleasantly) a country bound by tradition.  When I first traveled to Italy as an adult, I would be shocked each time I set about trying to send postcards home, for three reasons: 1)  I generally couldn't get stamps for it at the post office, 2) Those purveyors of stamps, Tobacco shops, where I'd be sent on my mission often didn't know what to charge, leaving me stampless, or 3) The ensuing discussion, in the event someone had stamps to offer, of what my postcard actually would cost to mail. 
More images of the front-side &
the Regata Storica di Venezia at

That's because, I would write full sentences (over 5 words, in fact) on the back of my card, informing my parents that indeed, I had yet to be sold into white slavery and was having a good time but did not necessarily 'wish they were here.'  I would soon discover that anything more than 'Saluti' and my signature was deemed 'a letter.'  And I'd have to pay full postage as if mailing a letter sealed in wax [Okay, that last part might not be true...because in the old days - and I'm talking up through the 1990s - I also discovered that letters that were not sealed meant you could pay less to send them].
They say that travel is a journey of discovery.  In fact, my 1982 trip through Europe brought many illuminations such as why my Italian relatives never offered up any actual 'news' on the backs of postcards, why letters arrived unsealed, and how one could actually pee in a hole without getting it all over their pants legs...
[For more on that, check out my post, Wearing it on my (pants) sleeve]

And so, it would appear that some traditions are hard to die.  They've since done away with the sealed/unsealed envelope thing, but writing on postcards means you're going to pay per word; as if sending a telegram in days of yore (still a common practice as well, especially to commemorate (?) the deceased -- but I'll leave that for another day).
So, my sister was surprised to learn it would run $2.88 just to send a postcard from her holiday home.  And this, only after spending 40 minutes at the dreaded Post Office to learn of the rip-off firsthand.
I explained to her the reason why (she deigned to pen a message on the back of it) and so, we came across our fabulous work-around -- especially if you want to communicate to those not on instagram or facebook (yes, these dinosaurs still exist, really and truly):  Apple, many of you will have forgotten, launched in 2011 a brilliant postcard system that only keeps getting better, aptly named (or is that app-ly?) CARDS.
- You take a picture of your fab oceanside view, charming piazza, or mountain hike
- You send it thru Apple
- They even post the actual stamp on it for you (and as far as I can tell, stand in line to do so)
- They send your letter which actually arrives at its destination
- Heck - you can even send the same card to a number of users [and that would appeal to Italians, because then, your message will most likely read, Best Wishes! or something simple of that nature.]
I have since discovered that there's another app for this same postcard & more mailing, the original Postagram - doing that much and more, and the price? Just $0.99 down from $1.99.  And for those of us who still need to send the occasional telegram?  Heck - it's a bargain! 

Note:  many live links throughout post above - just hover over covered areas.

Monday, July 8

Touring Rome all day, Three Flavor Gelato, Awesome Pasta Dish: Priceless

It had been such a long time since it had occurred, I almost forgot the practice.  So, continuing in the spirit of my Notes for Traveling Italy, I thought I'd let you know what may happen when you produce that Mastercard to pay for that priceless experience of enjoying an awesome plate of pasta.  Nothing.
Italy was slow to catch onto the credit card craze, and still much of society operates in cash.  That's primarily to avoid having transactions tracked, and most likely due to the age of the population.  And I don't mean just the elderly.  Since you may be living at home well into your 30s, PapĂ  is probably not so over-the-top generous as to hand you his plastic, carte blanche, if you will.  In any case, as I mention in my book, when you finally go to pay your bill, suddenly every credit card machine is broken from Trapani all the way to Trieste.  The practice was so prevalent I always used to amuse myself in thinking it was due to some amazing hacker who would trip up the lines throughout the country each night, right at dinnertime.  But then, little by little, restaurateurs decided that if they couldn't beat 'em, they'd join 'em, and they'd swallow the 3% charge on the credit card [all the more digestible since it was the client who'd be actually choking down the excess charge] and accept the plastic with gusto.
And so the other night, when it came time to pay, the waiter gladly started the old familiar pantomine -- taking the card up to the register, and then returning quickly, saying apologetically, 'I'm sorry, there was something wrong with the line and the card would not go through.'  Quickly applying my very own first rule of Life in Italy, Never take 'No' for an answer, I challenged the verdict.  The proprietor, knowing me, and knowing I was not a tourist, just told me to come back another day and he'd run the card through again.  
Back another day, the proprietor was not in.  And so, the cashier man said, "Sorry, our card machine line is out.  Can you pay in cash?"  Again, pleading my case [bear with me here...I wasn't intentionally trying to test the system by being a royal pain in the butt...I had forgotten my bank cash card numbers and was seriously out of paper money.]  Finally, the friendly waiter who already had learned of my predicament from the night before, came over, grabbed my card and said, "Let's see if I can't kick-start this thing."
And before I could say risotto arborio --- I heard the familiar purr signaling the receipt emission, grabbed a pen and put my Giovanni Hancock right to it.
Granted, most tourists don't have the luxury of returning another one usually just coughs up the cash and calls it a day.  But in that case, you have to follow the monition of the American Express man if he happened to find himself on a tour of Italian towns:  Don't leave home without a big wad of bills.  Adding, for effect, but when you do, just be sure to Mind the Gypsies in your midst.
After all, being part of a ring of pickpockets, well, Membership does, indeed have its privileges.

Wednesday, July 3

Tourist in Italy? Keep the Change!

My first rule for visiting Italy and as reported in my book is Make sure you have lots of change.  I'm not going to go into the reasons why (you'll have to buy the book - on link to the right), but Caveat Emptor those of you who do not heed my warning.  But, one thing you will not need change for is for TIPS.  I've dedicated an entire post on the Tipping practices in Italy [It's on my page dedicated to Travel Tips].  But of course, my one lonely voice is just a drop in an ocean of 7+ million visitors who get taken to the cleaners every time they sit down and eat or drink in Italy (just ask the couple that was hit up for € 64 or $83.25 for ordering a few gelatos and sitting down to eat them on the premises).

This past month, I have had an onslaught of visitors blowing through Rome on their way in, out and in between.  Which signifies a lot of meals out or evenings on the town.  And all the joviality and fun ends when the bill comes - and not because, as one visitor observed, the prices were so much higher than back home.  Americans take a big, huge guilt trip and start trying to figure out just what to leave by way of tips.  Which leads me to interject, 'How about nothing? Or how about, very little? [and here, I'm thinking like an Italian in the way of a coin or two].  So, on a 100 euro bill, Americans turn ashen asking, 'Well, is €25 too little?'.  I hotly retort, it's way too much.  
And this is because of the bread. 
Picture from UrbisMedia
Last night, on our 120 euro bill, the 'bread charge' which came into play because the random 'cover charge' was outlawed, amounted to 20 euro. In short, that amounted to a levy of 2 euro per person or 16.6% of our bill.  On large groups, there is often even an extra service charge, just because.  When my friends queried, "Is service included?" the waiter was honest.  No, it's not.  And so, the table went into their collective guilt complex, probably because we were so close to Vatican City.  But that's because they've already levied a surcharge on your meal, whether or not you eat the bread.

Americans cannot let this rest and just leave with a smile like the rest of us.
Wait staff are not going to pipe up and decline, although, on occasion in Bell'Italia I have actually had waiters refuse a tip [arguably, and due to my accent, it could have been I was offering too little...].

Ditto on taxi rides.

Just pay what's on the meter.  Okay?
You're already paying top dollar, getting taken for a ride, and generally it's costing a fortune.

If people won't read the fine print in their guidebooks, please pass this on:

Taxes and Tips are already in your bill.  That's why the numbers when you purchase anything are so nice & tidy and round.

So, keep the change.  You'll seriously be needing it.