frequently asked questions (and answers) for Italy
I received quite a few emails from other travelers about Italy, and decided to compile them below. I will continue adding new questions and answers as I receive them. Do you have a question? and I'll do my best to help. :)
taking the train
money issuesCan I use my American ATM card in Italy?
In general, the answer is yes. But you need to take care of a few things before you leave:
Did you have any problem getting cash?
We brought a total of 550 euros in cash between the two of us, and charged as much as we could on our credit cards. When we ran out of cash a week later, we were able to use the automatic teller machines outside Italian banks. The only small problem I ran into was I was unable to get 400 euros initially; I changed the amount to 250, and the cash came right out.
For purchases, you get a slightly better rate using cash vs. credit card. When I returned, my bank only charged a US$3 processing fee for using an Italian ATM (with an exchange rate of €1 to US$0.99). Our credit cards charged us an exchange rate of around €1 to US$1.02. Although the difference is relatively small, when you charge a big amount (like a four-night hotel bill), it's more obvious. However, I still like the convenience and relative safety of making purchases with credit cards. You can always cancel them right away if you lose them; you do not have such an option with cash.
We think we will bring just a minimal amount of euros and use our convience cards and credit cards in Italy. Is this wise?
Very. See above.
Should we bring more than 1000 Euro for two adults and one child?
I would advise AGAINST this unless you know your hotels offer self-combination safes inside your room. We had this in two of our four hotels and found it extremely convenient. If your hotels don't have safes, it's probably not a good idea to bring so much cash with you. Just take enough to get you from the airport to the train station to your hotel. After you settle in, you can walk around to find a bank, then do your withdrawls there. Most Italian machines accept Plus cards. I didn't see any that accepts Star.
What's VAT (Value Added Tax), and how do I get my tax refund?
If you live outside the European Union countries and spend over 155 euros in a store in the course of one day, you are eligible for tax refunds. It's kind of a convoluted process, but hey, I'd go through any process to get my money! Here's how it works:
At the end of each shopping spree at a store, collect all your receipts and go up to the Customer Service desk, where there is usually a sign that says "VAT Tax Refund" (or something to that effect). The rep will ask you to fill out your name, address, and passport number on a form. You don't necessarily need to have your passport with you, but it's handy because at some stores they just take it and type in all the information into the computer for you (maybe you can just bring a photocopy with you and leave the passport itself in the safe at the hotel). Anyway, they will then give you another form that shows how much credit you should get back.
When you arrive at the airport from which you will leave for the U.S., you go to the Customs counter, show them all your forms, and they'll stamp the paperwork. Sometimes they will check your purchases; make sure they're still in un-used condition. My friend and I encountered two separate Customs officers, and thus had two different experiences:
Customs Officer A took my friends' paperwork, stamped them all, gave them back to her, and told her to mail them back in the included envelope when she returned to the U.S. She would then receive a check in U.S. dollars from Italy in a few months.
I don't know which scenario you'll run into. This was at the Milan airport, so your experience may vary.
For travelers leaving Europe from the Milan Airport: As of October 2002, if you're standing at the front of the airport, the Customs desk is all the way to your right at the end of the terminal wing. But do NOT go there first! We learned the hard way that you must (in the following order):
Whew, that was a mouthful. But that's how we went through the paperwork portion of the tax refund application. I will report back when I actually see the money on my credit card.
For more information about these tax refunds, go to Rick Steves' section on VAT or About.com, or run a search on "VAT tax refund Italy" on Google.
taking the trainWas it easy to buy train tickets in Italy?
Yes! Before I left home, I went to Germany's Bahn site at
and printed out the schedule of the trains I wanted to take (including a four-hour window in case I changed my mind and wanted to leave earlier/later). When I got to the ticket counter in Italy, I just circled the train I wanted, told the ticket agent in Italian, "Due biglietti, prima classe, non fumatori, per favore!" ("Two tickets, first class, non-smoking, please!"), handed over my credit card, and walked away with the tickets in under two minutes. Very easy, no hassles at all. By the time my friend and I were ready to leave Rome (our last train trip), we felt like old hands at this and even tried the self-service ticket machines at the train station, which worked out very well too.
What are these yellow ticket validation machines I keep hearing about?
Before you board your train, be sure to punch your ticket in the yellow validation machines. They are present everywhere in the station: Lobby, platform, etc. It'll be very obvious when you see them. Make sure there is a readout on the display, then shove the ticket in there, and the machine will punch it automatically. We were bewildered at our first machine; turned out it wasn't even connected (hence nothing on the display). A friendly Italian man led us to a second machine and taught us how to validate a ticket. In most cases, you will not be able to read the numbers the machine prints on the ticket, but as long as the ticket is validated, the conductors will not give you any trouble and they do check! On each of the four train rides we took, the conductor came through the aisle and inspected everyone's tickets.
What were the train stations like?
Nice, clean, and big! Or maybe it's because I'm used to some of the local train stations here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are generally only two tracks, one going north and the other going south. In Milan, Florence, and Rome, there are many platforms (maybe 10-15), but we didn't have any problems finding our train.
Note that the wall display lists each train by its final destination, so if you're going from Rome to Florence, for example, your train will most likely be listed as "Milan" or another big city, because Florence is generally NOT the last stop of your train. If you're taking the EuroStar Italia, however, it'll be easy to spot your train because there aren't too many of them. They're bullet-shaped and look very sleek. It's usually listed as "ES" on the wall display. More often than not, your train tickets will NOT tell you which platform your train is. When in doubt, just ask other people around you.
Did you ever make a reservation on trains and then miss the connection?
No, we actually always bought the ticket on the spot.... That is, we would arrive at the train station about half an hour before the train was scheduled to arrive, buy the ticket, then hop on the train when it came in. All our trains were direct, so we didn't miss any connections. However, I remember reading on Graffiti that it's not a big deal if you miss a train. The person who posted the message said he/she just went up to the window, explained the situation, and received a re-issued ticket promptly.
What's the Kilometric Pass (Biglietto Chilometrico) and how do I use it?
Unfortunately, the Kilometric Pass is no longer available on Italian railways. It used to be that up to five people could share the Kilometric Pass on Italian railways, as long as the distance the passengers amass were under 3,000 kilometers within two months of travel time. As of June 2003, this program is no longer in existence. :(
For more information on other train passes, visit Rick Steves' page on Italy railpasses.
miscellaneaDid you bring any maps with you?
I bought the Streetwise maps for Florence, Rome, and Milan. They are laminated cardboard maps, and fold up accordion-style I don't have to stand on a street corner with a HUGE map in front of me, looking like a lost tourist.... :)
Should I worry about my very bad Italian? I just know a few words.
My friend and I knew only a few words of Italian ourselves, but we managed to survive 12 days in Italy just fine, so don't worry you'll be just fine. With your basic Italian vocabulary, English words, and gestures, you should be OK. We brought Jiffy Phrasebook Italian with us and found it very useful.
Did you register with the American Embassy in Italy before you left?
No, I did not register with the U.S. Embassy, but it sounds like it won't hurt to do so. You can send them an email and see what they say. The American Embassy in Italy has a website at http://www.usembassy.it/.
What is the latest on toilet paper in Italy? They do have it, right?
Rest assured; there will be toilet paper everywhere you go, unless the janitor gets lazy the day you visit. I'm not sure why we are advised to bring TP with us. Perhaps it's for travelers who are staying at one-star hotels. As long as you are not staying at youth hostels, you should be OK.