Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rome - Italy

Sheraton Roma Hotel & Conference Center

I got a couple of nights by using some SPG points I had accumulated from previous trips, making this hotel room cheap for a vacation trip. The hotel is nice and comfortable, as I would expect from a Sheraton at a large city. However, it isn't very well located:

  • No restaurants on a walking distance. The hotel has a restaurant offering good food, but it is of course much more expensive. E.g,  a pasta dish costs about 18 Euro in the hotel, while a similar one will cost about 9 Euro on a restaurant.
  • The metro (subway) station is at walking distance of about 15 minutes, but in order to get there, you need to walk on a very small sidewalk next to a road with cars driving at high speed. Also, the sidewalk isn't well maintained (you've to go over plans and trash on the way). Don't use it if carrying more than one small bag.  You can take the bus which is 1 stop away from the metro station.. but still not very convenient.
  • The hotel offers a shuttle bus driving on regular schedules to the old town (close to the Coliseum) and to the airport. However, they charge 6 Euro one way per person (older than 4 year old), and our driver didn't treat passengers well (respectfully).
  • The hotel will add 18 Euros of tax per day (note that this is per day, not per night. We pay an hotel per night). I would expect every hotel to charge some tax, and this money doesn't go to the hotel. But for you to know, here it is this above amount per day.

The Coliseum

A must see... better if you can learn some background history before going. 

I recommend taking a guided tour (also see my blog notes about advance ticket purchases)

If looking for a restaurant or coffee shop, check the menu for prices. The closest places can become expensive (e.g. 5 Euro for a small coffee). Walk 1 or 2 blocks further away, and you'll get more reasonable prices.

The Roman Forum

Just outside the Coliseum, you'll find the Roman Forum with ancient public roman ruins. An entrance fee is required (online, I bought the combined ticket for Coliseum and Forum)

The Vatican

Another absolute must see. 
Lots of visitors... buy online tickets in advance to save hours of waiting in line!
If traveling with young kids, be prepared. This place has lots stairs and isn't prepared for strollers. Also, strollers aren't allowed in St. Peter's (you can store them somewhere though, ask in advance)

If you have time , allocate seveal hours to visity this place. There is a Vatican Treasure Museum (7 Euro entrance), and lots of things to see and history to learn.

If looking for a restaurant or coffee shop, check the menu for prices.  The closest places can become expensive (e.g. 5 Euro for a small coffee). Walk 1 or 2 blocks further away, and you'll get more reasonable prices.

If traveling with kids... our experience with taking the tour was that the guide doesn't wait. He just continues without caring if you get behind because traveling with kids that are slower... still, the information we could hear was very useful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mantova (Mantua) - Italy

Mantova is a nice town, with beautiful and old downtown, and a lot of history

The Ducal Palace and Castle are some of the main attraction. I didn't have time to visity the Palazzo TE.



Sunday, September 13, 2015

Verona - Italy

Very interesting, lots of history. Verona was built by Roman's and has lots of old buildings. Also, the downtime is very nice. Unfortunately,   I only had a few hours to visit it at night... I'd like to come back, see it at daytime, and visit the castle and other historic places.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Italy - Preparing before traveling...

Some general useful information to consider before traveling to Italy...

I found very useful to purchase tickets online before the trip... it saved lots of hours in lines.

Roma Tour information

Roma Pass

I haven't used this one, but since I got the info I write it down here.

COLISEUM tickets (online purchase):  

The line for buying tickets on site is huge. Save a lot of time by purchasing online in advance. Then walk directly to the group entrance, and show your printed purchase receipt.

Transportation - Trains

      • When traveling 3 times or more on train, one of the Rail passes could save some cost. But before buying, check your travel plans. In Italy, some trains require reservation and a fee on top of the cost of the pass, and high speed trains aren't included. If purchasing a pass, give it at least a week in order to get the benefit of free standard shipping. 
        • Rail Europe  :  This company offers overnight ticket shipping in the USA (for an additional cost, of course)
        • Eurail
      • It is probably better to buy tickets in advance through the Internet, at least to book a space. But 14+ days in advance will give you a discount. I used the following train sites to book my tickets (cost is mostly the same, but I notices that the schedule availability can vary between them):
      • Something I learned during my trip, unfortunately I didn't know in advance, is that discounted tickets purchased online are valid for a specific schedule only, in most cases they can't be changed (however, some more expensive tickets without discount can be changed). BUT, the same ticket for the same price, can be purchased on the train station machines and they are open for 3 months (no exchange penalty)!  If you don't have easy access - or time to go- to the train station, consider purchasing tickets online in advance. Otherwise, I would recommend purchasing them at the train station, perhaps upon arrival in order to do it before the trip, but mainly to get the cheaper ticket that can be changed without penalty. Also, the personnel at the train station cannot handle online purchases very well (see my next point).
      • Also, be careful with online ticket purchases. At home, print the email receipt and the PDF attachment. The information on the PDF is needed in order to print the actual ticket (either at the ticket office of the train station before taking the train, or at one of the automatic ticket machines also on the station). The lines at the ticket office can become very long on certain day/times. Also, the personnel isn't very helpful in general, even can be rude.  Even by taking the printed online receipts to the ticket office, in some cases, they were NOT able to find and print the actual ticket (also, the ticket machine wasn't of help)... Since the ticket office cashier wasn't of much help, we just ended taking the train with our email receipts. 
      • Kids up to 4 year old travel free on trains, buses, and metro !  Nice!!!

Arriving to Milano Linate Airport

  • Going through immigration at Milan was very fast, and the bags were already in the carousel when we passed the passport control.

Transportation - Car Rental

  • Car rentals are more expensive than in United States. As you know, it is not just the rental cost, but all the fees and taxes added on top. Always compare with the cost of train tickets.
  • In general , for travel between towns with train station, use train whenever possible. Buses are an alternative in some cases, but pay attention to the schedule (some buses don't go every day to some smaller places)
  • A rental car will probably be needed to go to smaller towns, and can also be used to reduce travel time when several train/bus combinations are needed.
  • A rental car paid with miles or points can become a lot cheaper than train... But still, don't forget to consider the costs of fees and taxes, and also of gas. In Italy, one gas gallon costs about $5 us dollar). But rental cars are also very efficient in gas consumption.
  • GET A GPS !   Consider that renting one will cost about 15 euro + tax per day (quote from Avis in Italy).  Make the cost/benefit calculation... if you plant to rent a car several days, it might be better to buy a GPS with maps from Italy before the trip.
  • 'The kids tax' ....  rental companies abuse with the rental fee for car seats, which in general are pretty old, not clean, and not well maintained. Expect to pay between 25 and 34 euro per day (quote from Avis in Italy), for a car seat.  About 10 Euro for a booster....   It might be better to purchase one $50 or cheaper car seat in the use, take it to Europe, and through it away before coming back if you don't want to carry it... personally, I think that this rental cost is too high and unfair for parents. Somebody with two kids would pay more for car seat rental, than for car rental !
  • In Italy, the gas stations have a machine for off hours operations. These machines will accept Euro and Credit Card... however, foreign credit cards are NOT accepted everywhere (actually, none of the gas stations where I tried did accept my US credit card. The same happened to other people from other countries)... take cash with you when driving!  Also, keep in mind that if you overpay, the machine WILL NOT return change. It'll give a code that can be used for purchasing gas later, which isn't helpful for a tourist that isn't planning to come back... so, be conservative. 
  • Parking:
    • White zone: free
    • Blue zone: paid parking (pay at the meter station on the sidewalk). Use coins to pay. In general, it blue zone parking becomes free after 8pm.
    • Yellow zone: for residents.

Internet Access (WiFi) 

  • Unless you have an European cell phone, be prepared to have lots of issues with the 'free internet wifi' hotspot.
  • I was not able to connect to the advertised 'free wifi' from Italian airports, train stations, trains, and even public WiFi from the city (e.g., Venice offers free WiFi). All those ' free wifi' aren't really free, because they ask the user to register and provide personal data, and an SMS number where they would send the WiFi access information. But the SMS never arrived to my phone number from USA.  Perhaps it works with European phone, but even when I asked italians about WiFi access in the train, they said that it wasn't working (of course, they used their own data plan from their cell phone). In general assume that you will NOT find free WiFi access in Italy.
  • Many restaurants and bars offer WiFi access. You must of course buy food or something from them, and the water will give the WiFi access. In most cases it works without problems, but in some restaurants it didn't work... just in case, ask before placing an order :-)
  • A couple of times, I've been lucky and found some open WiFi access (private routers that didn't have a password).. but be careful, this is highly insecure, and somebody could be reading your data transmissions.

Cell Phone

  • GSM works well in Europe, and also in Italy.
  • CDMA phones (e.g, Sprint from US) do not work.
  • On the street, I could see the older public pay phone (with coins). However, I haven't used them.
  • In Europe, it should be easy to purchase a SIM card or a Prepaid cell phone, for use during the trip.  I didn't use this option.

Smoke (from cigarettes)

  •  Non Smokers... know in advamce... in Italy people smoke a lot outside (luckily not inside). And they don't seem to care much on whether you like it or not.  Also, no much care for avoiding to smoke near kids.  If you intend to eat on a restaurant sitting on the sidewalk tables, keep in mind, and look for spots farther away from smokers (if possible).


  • Italy can get warm an  humid. 
  • Larger water bottles (1.5+ liter) are cheaper in super and mini markets in town, and more expensive in train and airport stations. I paid 2 Euro for a 2 litter bottle in a mini market, 1.7 Euro for a 0.75 litter bottle at the train station.
  • In Rome, there are free drinking water fountains in different places of the city. Even  inside the Colosseum and Foro Romano (fill your empty bottle or canteen and save some Euros)

 Family Restrooms

  •  Don't expect to find family restrooms in train stations, museums, and towns in Italy. In general, there are only male/ female toilette, clean but very small without room for changing diapers of a toddler. Also, lots of the restaurants and bars have restrooms in the basement, reachable through a small stairway which isn't easy for  smaller kids.