What I learned, from an inexperienced traveler’s point of view
1) Do your homework. Read all that you can about where you’re going and what there is to do. Listen to Rick Steves’ Audio Europe, both about where you’re visiting and general information. However, there is a saturation point where you can’t remember what you read. At that point, be flexible and go with the flow.
2) The people on this forum are kind and helpful. But it helps everyone if you do your homework first. I asked a lot of dumb, uninformed questions over the past two years. Someone always took the time to answer and help me.
3) Don’t overschedule yourself. You need time to absorb the sights, sounds and smells, to wander on your own and time to relax and enjoy. We tried to limit ourselves when on our own to one tour per day (the DaVinci exhibit was a last minute add on).
4) Be organized. Know where your tickets are, your reservation receipts, all pertinent paperwork and have ready access to them. If you use a paper file, clip like receipts/reservations together in chronological order. Set up email files. Bookmark websites by city or subject. You don’t want to be hunting for your train ticket when it’s time to board the train.
5) Try to learn a few words of the local language. I have no ear for languages. I must have listened to the RS Italian language video 15 times and other You Tube beginner Italian videos. I’m not kidding that I picked up 15 words. Important words like “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “how much does it cost?”, “check please”, “where’s the bathroom?” I felt that my feeble attempt at Italian was appreciated especially in Calabria, or they were just humoring the tourist.
6) Be diligent, be assertive, be aware of your surroundings. We had no problems with pick pockets and street vendors left us alone. I used a neck wallet. Sister-in-law used a money belt. Purses and/or backpacks were locked. It was a little inconvenient getting to money and phones but worth the inconvenience for safety and peace of mind.
7) Packing light is a useful goal. But make it work for you. You need to be able to lift your carryon into the plane’s overhead bin so size and weight matter. Take enough clothes that you don’t do laundry every day. As cool as it was this May, clothes didn’t want to dry quickly and outdoor clotheslines weren’t an option in the rain. You don’t need a hair dryer which all of our hotels provided; saves a pound. The big RS Italy guide book weighs over a pound. Tear out useful city pages, bind or staple together to save space and ¾ pound. Pack light outbound so your luggage stays with you. But don’t feel bad if you pack heavy and check luggage on the way home. Buy as many souvenirs as you want but you may need to ship glass Christmas ornaments home like SIL did. I wouldn’t change much of my packing list for next trip except adding another pair of socks, a couple more camisoles so I hand wash less often. One more sweater would have been handy so I could have washed the one I wore daily. I used almost everything I took including the three pairs of shoes to keep my feet happy, albeit my sandals were worn once but chock that up to the weather. Bug wipes weren’t used because the mosquitos weren’t out yet.
8) As important as what you pack is how you pack. Everything needs its own place in your suitcase, in your tote, in your backpack, in your purse. This goes back to #4, be organized. No left behind items except maybe a plug adapter. And everything is easily found when it’s packed the same way all the time.
9) Driving on Italian highways was not as scary as I thought it would be. But I would never attempt to drive in cities with ZTLs and crazy drivers.