Just having returned from two weeks in Italy where I spent less than $2,000 including airfare and with no couch-surfing involved, I wanted to share the 5 techniques I used that helped to kill my travel expenses.
Get Free (Well, Almost Free) Airfare
During the flight back from Rome I peeked at the itinerary of another passenger and saw that roundtrip airfare from Chicago cost them about $1,750. The same ticket for us was $167. Most people hear frequent flyer miles and assume that the only way to earn them is by flying which is WRONG. The easiest and most lucrative way to earn miles is to sign up for credit cards that offer huge mile bonuses, meet the spend requirement to get the bonus (e.g. spend $3,000 in three months), and then book FREE travel.
Skip the Hotels
We spent the most time in Rome, and we knew we wanted to stay in the old center with its winding narrow streets filled with tiny restaurants, cafes, shops, and foot traffic. Of course everyone else wants to stay there too so that means paying a premium. The two CHEAPEST hotels that Rick Steves recommends in the old center are €140-€150 a night.
I happened to stumble upon Cross Pollinate which represents apartments in a handful of European cities so I emailed them requesting a sub-€100 apartment in the old center. They recommended a small apartment on the top floor of a building with an ENORMOUS private terrace that had sweeping views of the city. For €95 a night we immediately booked it.
Eat and Drink Well, but Smart
When we weren’t dropping €80 on super-romantic restaurants with black-vested waiters we were eating and drinking well by using these tricks:
Every day from about 6PM until 10PM bars will offer a table full of small dishes and anyone that purchases a drink at an inflated price gets to eat for FREE. During aperitivo at the bar Freni e Frizioni €6 got me a Peroni tap beer and plate after plate of decent food.
Never have coffee sitting down. Why? Because drinking your coffee at the bar is cheaper than drinking it at one of the cafe’s tables. No matter what cafe you’re in, every city has a regulated price: espresso at the bar in Rome was €0.90.
There are public water fountains EVERYWHERE in Italy, in Rome alone there are 2,500. Bring a water bottle with you or buy a bottle of water there and re-use it, filling it up with the cold, safe, great-tasting water from the fountains.
Pizza or sandwiches to go is a cheap and reliable way to eat well. In Positano we would grab bottles of Peroni, olives, fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and baguettes and have a delicious meal on our terrace or at the beach.
One of the reasons I have a man-crush on Rick is for the wonderful self-guided tours he provides in his books. Instead of hiring a guide or paying for an audio guide my girlfriend and I would trade-off being a guide by using his self-guided tours.
We did this for EVERYTHING: Pompeii, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Capitoline Museum, the Borghese Gallery, and St. Ignatius.
To help save tourists money Rome offers a sightseeing pass called the Roma Pass. It costs €36 and is valid for three days covering admission to two sites, discounts for additional sites, and public transportation.
We used the Roma Pass for free entry at the Borghese Gallery and the Colosseum/Forum and paid the discounted price of €11 at the Capitoline so in total we spent €47. Without the pass we would have paid €36 for the three sites so the wildcard is how much public transportation you use.
Since the bus costs €1.50 a ride if you’ll be riding more than a handful of times get the pass. We only hopped on the bus four times so we paid an extra €5, BUT we got to skip the long Colosseum line which was probably worth that amount.