Italia: The less frugal adventure
February 25, 2015
Long have we been talking about going to Italy, long has it been out of reach. Until we recently made it happen.
I wanted to take a leisurely time to sightsee in Florence and the Cinque Terre region, but our time constraints put paid to that notion. We did a bit of criss-crossing through the country to keep it interesting instead.
We skipped the rental Ferrari experience, instead opting to put the Italian rail system through their paces for all the big hauls. I bargain hunted for train tickets, carefully mapping each stage of our journey so we could buy tickets on discount sites before departure. Cheaper AND nicer trains = two thumbs up (but not that cheap, it still cost almost $300 for the two of us just for that part of transit).
The rides varied from excellent to terrible.
Italo, privately owned rail: Ferrari inspired design, air conditioned cars with free WiFi, ability to reserve seats and second class was as good as first from what I could tell. SUPER fast. Bonus: space agey bathrooms! Clean and sleek.
Frecciarossa, government owned rail: standard type commuter design, air conditioned cars with free WiFi, comfortable and relatively quiet. Didn’t use the bathroom so not sure how that was.
Regional rail: terrible. Just terrible. We were crammed like sardines in a botulism ridden tin, our car had no air conditioning for a 2+ hour ride in 80+ degree heat. People were sitting on the stairs in an effort to avoid passing out. Bonus: we survived. We saved a lot of money as these were the cheapest of the lot but I would have been happy to pay the $200 for a private car had I expected that. (Then again… I’m notoriously cheap sometimes…)
So obviously we compromised where we didn’t care much about the thing to save money but NOT on food. I simply wasn’t going to make the effort to go on such a big trip while uncomfortable AND deprive myself. We brought a lot of snacks for travel days and lunches, planning to have breakfast at our hotels where they were providing breakfast without extra cost, and eat dinner out.
Experience-wise, that was the best choice I think, as I picked places with pretty fantastic breakfast spreads.
We, not even kidding, breakfasted for three hours one morning! We might have looked like gauche and greedy Americans but I never got that feeling from the amazing and so-very- friendly breakfast servers. My money is on they were humoring the then visibly pregnant lady. 🙂 By the time we left, we had bonded with Maria who was super excited about LB and had to give us hugs before we left. We were both disappointed that we wouldn’t see each other (and that glorious breakfast!) the next day.
We got to know some awesome restauranteurs of smaller establishments, and were repeat diners at the best of them. Dinner was a serious business. 🙂 I didn’t enjoy any wine but I rarely care about that. I did, however, feel deprived over the prosciutto! Still: pastas, fresh fish, pastries, pies, random “fast food”, pizza … So. Good. So very good.
We managed to cash flow both trips even though we spent more than annually budgeted for travel back in 2013 and a also bit more, well, not recklessly but more freely than usual. I chalked it up to the Pregnancy and “when are we going to do this again?” Tax.
Like the London trip, using our biggest pot of miles, British Airways, was pointless.
I did redeem a truckload of Chase Rewards points. I had the option of using them to book flights, hotels and car rentals directly for an extra 20% in points value but none of their options were any good for our destinations. We weren’t driving and none of the areas we planned to stay had anything useful on the list of redemption hotels.
The best value was booking lower cost, family-run hotels, then redeeming the points for cash to pay for them. All told, we cashed in enough points for about a thousand dollars which nicely defrayed the cost. And we earned yet more credit card points for charging the hotel bills – the circle of rewards points life!
We also used a big whack of our Starwood points for two luxury hotels priced at remarkably low redemption costs for the category rankings. I’ve never stayed at a Category 7 hotel and I’m not sure if we will again any time soon.
That was about twelve hundred dollars of value. If we didn’t pay with points, though, I’m sure we would have just stayed at cheaper hotels.
The weather was miserable for much of the trip, going from an unbearable sweltering to a grey gloom and downpour. Packing extra lightly meant I was ill prepared for both extremes, and even more so because I had put on another few pounds before leaving. I never knew what a difference a few pounds around the waistline made and I’ll never take my reasonably stable weight for granted again, if that ever comes back.