*Caveat: Italy is a very large country and costs can fluctuate dramatically based on where you go. Thus, although we saw more than just its capital city, it feels a bit disingenuous to claim that this is a comprehensive budget guide to all of Italy. Really, it’s more an overview of traveling in Tuscany, Rome, and a tiny bit of Emilia-Romagna (read: some of the more expensive parts of the country). If you’re traveling to lesser-known parts of the country outside of high season, you can probably stretch your budget further than we did.
For some reason, I had always thought that, being one of Western Europe’s more economically disastrous countries, Italy would be relatively friendly to budget travelers. I’m not completely naïve—I knew it would be more expensive than pretty much anywhere in Asia, but I thought that once we made it out of England and France, our budget worries would be a thing of the past.
But, I guess if Italy can rely on anything to bring in money, it is the many tourists that flood it every year. Whether your interests are art museums, touring the remains and delving into the history of the country that birthed an empire, eating your weight in pasta, pizza or gelato, or simply kicking back and enjoying la dolce vita, Italy sings a siren song that travelers can’t seem to resist… and it intends to make you pay for the privilege of enjoying its many charms.
In a perfect example of divine irony, we actually spent more on average while touring Italy than we did in either London or Paris. While I can’t say that we found Italy to be excellent value for money, with some creative thinking, we did manage the miraculous and managed to come in under budget…. barely.
To see how we did it, and how much we recommend budgeting when visiting Italy, read on!
Italy By The Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Italy: 13
Places Visited: Pisa, Florence, Rome, Bologna
Average Daily Cost, per person: $46.80 US
Projected Daily Budget, per person: Our overall trip budget is $50/person, so we were $3.20 (per person!) UNDER budget! Not a huge margin by any means, but as you’ll see, we fought hard for each and every one of those dollars saved!
Cost of transport from Paris to Pisa, Italy (Transavia Flight): $62.20 per person. We purchased our tickets just under 2 months in advance and were able to snag promo rates (plus a little extra for the privilege of checking one bag each).
Cost of 90-day visa: Free! Italy is part of the Schengen Zone and so visitors from the U.S. and Canada can stay for visits of up to 90 days (within a 180-day period) inside the entire region free of charge. Note: This does not mean you can stay for 90 days in France and then pop over to Germany for another 90 days, etc., It’s 90 days for ALL Schengen countries.
Total Italy Costs PER PERSON: $670 US
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our transport into Italy. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other like-minded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up… such as buying a replacement wallet when our original one was stolen in Paris! Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
On the face of it, spending less than $20US/person/night in Italy during the high season doesn’t seem so bad. But, the truth is that finding reasonably budget-friendly lodging in most of Italy was a real stretch and pretty stressful. We used a combination of CouchSurfing & AirBnB in order to stick to our budget with mixed results. Despite costing us zero money, the CouchSurfing was definitely our smartest move as we really loved the people we stayed with and wound up enjoying those cities the most of the bunch; perhaps that was just a wild coincidence, but… maybe not. On the other hand, although renting rooms through AirBnB was much cheaper than renting hotel or hostel rooms, we were generally underwhelmed with the places we stayed in Italy. The room we rented in Florence was about a 20-minute walk to the city center, we had to stand out on the street in order to access the advertised WiFi, and despite our host claiming he enjoyed hanging out with his guests, we only saw him twice: once when checking in, and once when standing out on the corner checking our email… In Rome, our hosts were lovely and welcoming and had a great apartment at a really reasonable price, but it was about a 45-minute tram ride to Termini station from their place and so not the most convenient place to base ourselves. If you factor out our CouchSurfing evenings, we actually wound up paying more like $30US/person/night for our accommodation, which seems like a more realistic (though still low) lodging budget in Italy. At that rate, you can count on something basic, but (hopefully) clean and sufficient for sleeping, but probably not a super desirable/convenient location.
Normally I would be ecstatic that the next highest cost to our budget was food—clearly we had our priorities straight. But in Italy, $17US/person/day stings a bit because of how disappointing we found the food. We generally ate out one meal per day, but sometimes ate out both meals (in Europe we often skipped breakfast or simply ate something very small at home), which probably explains the higher daily cost. We did self-cater quite a bit in Italy, but as we were never staying anywhere where we felt we had unfettered access to the kitchen, we tended to stick to picnic-style meals (bread, meat, cheese) rather than doing any actual cooking.
In terms of eating out in Italy, we tried to limit our dining excursions to lunch time, when we would pick up some pizza by the slice or maybe look for special set menus. We also came to love aperitivo hour, which takes place in early evening (around 6pm) when many bars and restaurants offer complimentary food along with any drink purchase.
One thing to keep in mind when dining out in Italy is to check the menu for unexpected charges that will automatically be added to your bill. Unlike France where bread is included free of charge, this is not the case in Italy, and many restaurants charge an obligatory “bread fee” which can be as much as €3 per person! This is generally listed as pane e coperto on the menu, and can effectively be viewed as a cover charge since it will be added to your bill even if you don’t touch the bread on your table. Also, although it’s totally kosher to order tap water in France, it’s apparently considered quite gauche and rude to do so in Italy, so even if you’re just drinking water with your meal, you can expect another €2-3 added onto your bill. So, just for the privilege of sitting down at a restaurant, even if you don’t eat the bread and split a bottle of water, you could be looking at an extra $8US added onto your bill! Thus, from the start, it’s already a more expensive proposition to dine out in Italy than it is in France.
A few other tips to save money on food:
- If you visit cafés (we’re not coffee drinkers, so this was never an issue for us) it is almost always MUCH cheaper to stand at the counter rather than sit at a table.
- If you are at a restaurant that includes mention of servizio on the menu, this is essentially a service charge and can be anywhere from 10-20% of your final bill. Generally this is not something that is included at most local joints, so seeing mention of it is often a sign that the restaurant in question is a tourist trap. If you do wind up eating somewhere that includes a servizio on your bill, certainly do NOT give an additional tip on top of that!
Italy was the only country where we took advantage of Europe’s famed train network, largely because it was the only country where the trains were so affordable. The country is well connected by trains (especially if you’re heading to larger, popular cities), and getting around using the rail network is really convenient.
Casting my mind back to my big trip to Europe back in 2005, Italy’s trains stuck out as being some of the worst in western Europe and I expected that not much had changed (especially since the fares were so much cheaper than the ones I had seen for France and Spain). Nevertheless, all of the trains we rode in Italy were clean, comfortable, quiet and impressively modern, leaving us suitably impressed.
For longer routes on high speed or special trains, you will generally save money by purchasing tickets at least a few weeks in advance as you will likely find some kind of promotion or “early bird” discount to take advantage of. The Trenitalia website isn’t the easiest site to navigate (especially since you’ll need to know the Italian names of your departure and arrival city!), but it’s miles better than it was ten years ago and we were able to purchase our tickets using a credit card without any fuss.
You could, of course, get a rail pass to tour through Italy, but for the most part, trains in Italy are so affordable that I don’t think a pass would really be great value here. Perhaps if you want to keep your plans extremely flexible it could be helpful, but if you’re traveling in high season, then you’ll probably want firm plans so you can secure your lodging well in advance too
Also, for regional trains, you generally do not need to purchase your tickets in advance because the fare doesn’t change. For example, the trip from Pisa to Florence was always about €8 whether you purchased your ticket 60 days early or the day of your journey. If you’re not sure whether you should buy your ticket in advance or not, I’d recommend poking around the website and testing out different dates for your preferred journey and comparing prices for tickets leaving tomorrow versus ones leaving 50 days from now. We were able to save 50% on our tickets by booking them about 2 months in advance.
Around cities, we would either walk or take buses, which were generally very affordable (often in the ballpark of €1 ($1.25) per ride). In Rome, we did buy the seven-day transport pass because we knew we would be taking the tram at least twice per day given the location of our apartment. In retrospect, I don’t know if this really saved us any money since the pass cost €24 (~$28 US) per person, which amounted to just under €5/$5.50 per day for the five days we were in the city. Public transport in Rome is really affordable: it only costs €1,50 per ticket (valid for a 90-minute ride on any and all public transport), so we would have needed to use our passes 4 times a day to save money. Some days we used our pass 4 times, but some days we didn’t, so… we probably only broke even on this one. It was nice to have the pass and not have to worry about purchasing tickets, but ideally on a return to Rome, we’d base ourselves a little more central and just buy tickets as needed. The Metro is swampy and muggy and just all around awful (and doesn’t really have great coverage) so it’s best to not be too reliant on it when visiting Rome; either plan to take the buses and trams, or better yet, walk!
Other than visiting two museums in Florence and the Vatican while in Rome, everything else we enjoyed in Italy was blissfully free. Rome in particular is a great city to just have a wander but, truth be told, all of the Italian cities we visited seemed to offer plenty to enjoy at no cost, which was a welcome reprieve to our wallet which otherwise got quite a walloping! You don’t have to pay the big ticket prices to enjoy views of the Colosseum or the Roman Forum or the Leaning Tower, though you certainly can fork out the big bucks if you want to. For us, it was enough to see a few museums for a few notable works of art and leave it at that. Apart from the Vatican which was really pricy (€16 per ticket!), we found the museums in Italy to be reasonably priced (€7,50 per ticket for both the Ufizzi & the Accademia in Florence).
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Averaging around €2 a cup, it didn’t actually cost very much, but one of the most satisfying things we did was eat our way through the best gelaterias in Florence in search of the very best in town. There is something deliciously decadent about eating ice cream multiple times a day, but when in Italy… 😉
Worst splurge: Dinner at Osteria Bonelli in Rome. This was the meal we were sure couldn’t fail and would open our eyes to the glories of Italian cuisine, but it definitely fell flat for us.
Best surprise: We’re going to give this one to Pisa, since we really had no interest in visiting and were certain it would be a glorified tourist trap. Instead, it was a chill little city (well, once you got away from the crowds near the Leaning Tower during the day) that absolutely charmed us, especially when we got to witness the Field of Miracles by moonlight. Absolutely stunning.
Worst surprise: I’m sure everyone is tired of us harping on the unimpressive food in Italy, but I don’t think we can emphasize enough just how underwhelmed we were. (Until we got to Bologna, that is.). After having so many people rave to us about the food in Italy, it was frustrating to find ourselves disappointed more often than not during our first 10 days in the country. At least the gelato never disappointed!
Favorite meal: I LOVED the tortellini I had in Bologna, but it’s hard to think of a meal that was more delicious or more fun than the ragu that Elisa taught me how to make. To me, that dish of pasta a sauce was the very best of Italy on a plate. (Steph); Gelato from Grom! If I could have eaten it every day, I would have. (Tony)
Least favorite meal: The greasy pizza in Rome wasn’t great, but at least it wasn’t expensive. I still feel insulted by our meal at Osteria Bonelli, so I guess that would have to be it! (Steph); Ditto. Except I want to add that I am especially upset by that meal because my dish, the oxtail, was clearly the worst. So underdone & underseasoned! (Tony)
Best memories: Seeing the Field of Miracles in Pisa completely deserted and the Leaning Tower illuminated only by moonlight; eating our cheesy calzone/pizza hybrid monster; learning how to make a real risotto with Irene (our CouchSurfing host in Pisa); eating all the gelato in Florence (and discovering Grom!); witnessing the David’s naked splendor; getting lost in the alleyways of Trastevere in Rome; hiking up the Aventine hill for the most spectacular view in the city from the orange groves; the map hall in the Vatican museum; meeting up with our pals from AngloItalian, Follow Us! for the FIFTH time; finally eating well once we reached Bologna; learning how to make ragu with Elisa; wandering the rainy streets on our personalized walking tour led by our wonderful CouchSurfing host, Enrico.
Hidden gem: Bologna! I think travel bloggers are cottoning on that this is one of those spots in Italy to be treasured but somehow, despite its many many charms, Bologna has escaped the crowds that plague so many nearby cities. It’s beautiful and fascinating, the food is worthy of the hype, and if you go now, you can still feel like you’ve discovered a part of Italy that most people don’t know about.
If We Could Do it All Over Again?
Honestly, we could probably just cut & paste our regrets/lessons learned from our Paris round-up, since they’re almost identical to the ones we have for Italy.
We (just barely) managed to stay under budget in Italy, but I can’t help and wonder whether we would have had a better time if we had just thrown caution to the wind and lived it up rather than trying to keep our costs down. In particular, even though it feels like we paid too much for the crummy places we stayed while in Italy, maybe we should have just gone for it and paid an extra $20 or $30 a night and stayed in nicer rooms in better/more convenient parts of town. Same goes for meals: maybe we should have sought out the best places in town (within reason) and not worried if our meal was half of our daily budget. Ironically, perhaps if we had spent a little more money, we wouldn’t feel like the country was quite poor value for money.
Other than the money thing, on a return trip to Italy, we would do our best to avoid the crowds and really get under the skin of the country. That means not visiting in summer, and definitely heading to places that most people don’t. I admit that before visiting, Italy was probably the place in Europe I was the most excited to return to. And yes, that was because of the food. Partway through our visit, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever want to go back, but we had enough wonderful moments in places like Pisa and Bologna that I do think our sometimes lackluster experience was more due to being in the wrong places at the wrong time than any issues inherent to those places.
Although I wouldn’t say Italy is as high up my “devour & conquer” wishlist as it once was, I do think there parts of the country that would make the country worth a repeat visit for future explorations. In particular, we’d love to explore more of the Emilia-Romagna region, and then perhaps work our way along the eastern coast through Abruzzo, and Puglia, doing our best to meet locals and really form connections with the people in the places we were visiting.