So you want to go to Italy. You’ve read our comments about what’s distinctive about traveling in Italy (Are You Ready for Italy?), and it sounds like a good fit for your next vacation. But are you ready for independent travel?
Maybe you should be on a motorcoach tour, with a group of people, in a highly structured itinerary, with lots of support every step of the way. Or maybe you should see Italy from a cruise ship. On a cruise, you take your comfort zone with you, and you only do what you want at any given time. Both motorcoach tours and cruises put very little pressure on you to get yourself oriented or make decisions about what to do. They also don’t require much preparation time, or tough decisions about packing light. In short, they’re easy ways to travel. What we offer here is independent travel, which is a big step beyond motorcoach tours and cruises. We love independent travel, but it takes a lot more involvement and preparedness by you, the traveler, to get it right. If anyone in your traveling party does not buy into the extra effort and adventure independent travel entails, you may have stress and disappointment you haven’t bargained for.
Most of the people who visit this website have crossed that bridge. They understand and accept the implications of traveling independently and would not have it any other way. They think of travel as an adventure, not expecting everything to be controlled and predictable. They brush aside the inevitable inconveniences. And they savour the cultural differences.
If you haven’t been to Europe before, on your own, it’s possible you haven’t thought about some of the realities. So check out the subjects below. Ask yourself what you want out of your next vacation and what effort you are willing to put into it. If you have doubts, but still want to consider an independent trip, here are some things to consider.
1. PREPARATION TIME. We hear it a lot, “I didn’t have time to read the information you provided.” That worries us. A fundamental need with independent travel is that you find the time to (1) carefully choose an appropriate itinerary; (2) read the travel tips and other information on this website; and (3) plan for how to use your time and get around. If you cannot find that time, we strongly advise that you choose a cruise or a motorcoach tour instead.
2. LUGGAGE. This can be a pretty big deal. Maybe in all other respects, you’re a natural for independent travel. But you are not willing to pack small, and the idea of hauling your own big bags around could just wreck a trip for you. When you take a motorcoach tour, you set your bags outside your hotel room, and the bags just appear at your next hotel. Really slick! And you can pack more freely, without much worry about the amount of clothing you take.
But if you travel independently, using the trains like many people do, moving your luggage around is a very different experience. There is no one to help you get those bags on and off the trains, down the aisles and stowed away. You need to think about what is really important to take, and pack it in smaller bags than you think you need, if you want to enjoy train travel.
3. TRAINS. Yes, you can take a vacation to Italy and avoid using the trains. Of course, taking a motorcoach tour or cruise will accomplish that. You can also travel by private vehicle, either driving it yourself or by hiring a driver. But the answer for people visiting the cites. for the most convenience and value, is to use the trains.
If you use the trains, you must get yourself to the station, learn how to read the departure and arrival boards, find your train, get your bags on the train, find your seats, and finally, get off at the right place. And some train trips are much easier than others. But by comparison with a motorcoach trip, which takes very little thought on your part about getting around, independent travel by train requires a lot more involvement and personal effort from you, both physically and mentally.
4. PAID IN ITALY. If you take a motorcoach tour or a cruise to Italy, you can expect to pay for most of the trip in advance, in your home currency. It will only be when shopping or dining out in your “free” time that you will be faced with using euros. You won’t need to think much about the exchange rate. You’ll probably use a credit card, so you won’t need much in cash euros, just enough for incidentals.
With independent travel, the euros (or the Swiss francs) become a big deal. You will find yourself thinking a lot about how to take money to Europe, where and when to exchange it, what fees your bank or credit card company will add, and how to have cash when you need it. Dealing with foreign money and constantly thinking about the exchange rate (especially now, with the weak US dollar), can be a real burden for some people. It’s possible to obsess about it, so that what you are spending gets in the way of the travel experience. But for experienced independent travelers, it’s just a routine part of traveling overseas.
5. GETTING AROUND. For successful independent travelers, the prospect of getting lost in a foreign city, and the challenge of dealing with unfamiliar transportation systems, are part of the adventure, not things to fear. What about you? Can you enjoy getting out of your comfort zone for this trip? If not, consider a motorcoach tour instead. It will be much easier. You’ll have a tour leader traveling with you. You won’t need to think much about where to go and what to see. The tour leader will take you to the most popular tourist destinations. For your “free” time, you will be offered options for what else to do, and again, the tour leader will set it up for you and be handy to answer most of your questions.
But for independent travel, you need a spirit of adventure. If you can’t loosen up and wander for fear of getting lost, or can’t deal with the schedules so you can board a water bus in Venice, or can’t imagine visiting museums and galleries in Florence without a guide, then maybe you are not an independent traveler at heart.
6. YOUR ATTITUDE MAKES THE TRIP. It’s true in general that good travelers make good trips, but it’s especially true with independent travel, where you don’t have a tour leader, or the crew of a ship, or the staff of a resort to keep you entertained. While we can give you sound advice and tips for booking your own trip, no one can guarantee a good independent travel experience. That depends on you.
Good independent travelers make the best of what comes their way. They’ll still enjoy Tuscany in the rain, or Venice on a high-water day. They’ll find something interesting to do in Zermatt when it’s too cloudy to see the Matterhorn. A flight delay or a taxi strike won’t ruin their trip. They expect travel to be an adventure.
FINAL THOUGHTS. We’ve been pretty blunt here, like we’re trying to discourage you from independent travel. It’s just that not all travelers have the same needs. You may be the type who wants more certainty, or more structure, or more convenience than you can get with independent travel. We don’t want you to find out when you hit the ground in Italy that you should have gone with a bus tour or a cruise instead.
It’s more important to us that you get the right trip, and be happy travelers, than it is to sell you something.
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