Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel to Italy and explore more of the culture on my Mom’s side of the family.
I’ve planned for years. “THIS will be the year I can finally start putting deposits down and take this trip!” However, my plan is always foiled; lack of money, new job with crazy probationary limits … you name it, it’s held me back.
Last year, I started taking Italian classes in the Little Italy area of San Diego at the Italian Cultural Center. My plan? Take the beginners class, brush up on my italiano, and come the end of summer, I was going to take the plunge and get this thing started!
As it turned out, my boyfriend’s parents were really interested in my ability to work with a travel agency to make a deposit and payments for this vacation, and subsequently decided they’d like to go and pay for my boyfriend to go as well. They put down the deposit with the travel agency, and we began to make payments for our 19-day European vacation, that luckily, was going to take us to France and Spain, as well, not just Italy!
April 2015 comes along, about five months before our trip, and my boyfriend gets a new job with a six-month probationary period. This means he can’t possibly go to Europe in September as planned. Our trip is postponed to Oct. 30, 2015.
I got an e-mail about a week ago which stated that due to lack of interest, the Oct. 30 tour has been canceled. Unfortunately, any other tours are too soon or too late in the year to defer to (they have one around Christmas, but as a 911 dispatcher, I can guarantee you I’m not getting that time off). Our trip has now been postponed to September 2016.
There are serious differences between a trip and a dream trip, as far as I am concerned.
All signs so far point to “NO.” And I’m not one to take no without a fight. And so I decided: Maybe we can’t all go on this trip together, but I cannot possibly wait until next fall to see Italy. I’ve taken too many Italian classes, listened to too many beautiful Italian songs in my car, and I’ve already started purchasing essentials for my one small suitcase I’m stuffing into my big suitcase for souvenir/shopping purposes.
And so, I decided to resuscitate my Italian dreams and make it happen! With limited funds and limited time, I found some amazing ways to make it work! I called my friend Zainab, who I knew would be down for the adventure (generally, she can always be counted on partaking in adventure, especially since I’m always down to deal with the details), and got busy!
The absolute cheapest way to get budget-friendly accommodations in Europe is via couchsurfing (try sites like couchsurfing.com), where you stay with locals for free, but everyone has a public profile and reviews. Hosts and guests alike are reviewed, and you can get to know the person via social media, and you have a built-in local tour guide to see the real parts of the country. It’s free, it can be a lot of fun, and you leave with new friends!
The next option is hostels. Italian hostels can cost as little as $5 USD per night for double occupancy, and typically offer lockers to store your possessions away from harm. For me, this is something I am getting a little too old for. I actually need some sleep at night to enjoy the next day, and the hostel atmosphere is generally not as conducive to that (I’m a 27-year-old senior citizen, I know).
Me, personally? I wasn’t too down for sleeping on a couch or with strangers this time around. I am opting for person-to-person rentals. I went through Airbnb.com and found four nights in Rome for a little more than $300 USD and three nights in Florence for $170 USD.
Between Z and I, we are getting seven nights in Italy for under $250 USD per person. Yes, you read that right! Obviously, rates are prone to fluctuation during peak tourism times. We are going at the end of October and into the beginning of November, which isn’t as busy for the country in terms of tourism. Also, even cheaper options were available, but the proximity of the two we chose was the key. We are close to train stations and very close to the Colosseum in our Roman location!
Some places on Airbnb charge deposits and cleaning fees, others don’t. Each listing has a booking fee. You sacrifice maid service and other hotel services, but generally, you don’t travel to stay in the room — those little extras are unnecessary. You need a place to sleep, a place to shower, and the bonus is the kitchen and amentities that you can use to save money when you visit, too! Both places we’re staying in Italy are far from the dive-y hostel type of travel we would have done previously! Also, Airbnb gets you directly connected to your hosts to arrange check-in, key pick-up and some hosts even offer discounted tour prices, airport transfers or cozy private tours in the cities they know and love!
I’m a huge fan of SkyScanner.com. Between the website and the mobile app, it’s super-easy to enter your dates, destination and even finer details like preferred departure/arrival times and number of stops. SkyScanner then searches the Internet universe and comes back to you with the best deals.
In this case, the best deal was $1,034, but the site Hip2 that SkyScanner found said flights were sold out once I got inputting all of the payment info. Further searching found that through Priceline.com, we could get flights with one stop each way, with less than two hours for layovers, for $1,099.
As an avid member of Ebates.com (more on that in a minute), I knew I could get $4.50 cash back for booking airfare through them, and additionally, they offer really reasonable and comprehensive travel insurance when you buy through them … and they don’t charge extra booking fees!
Also, if you’re less strapped for travel time, you can use the “Name Your Own Price” feature on Priceline to save a ton of money. With the majority of return flights involving 12-hour layovers in Paris, I wasn’t willing to take the risk. Next time, I may consider it! Ebates offers 5.4 percent cash back for Name Your Own Price flights.
Use Ebates.com When Booking, ALWAYS
Ebates doesn’t work for everything, but its partnered up with almost every major retailer to offer a percentage of cash back on all of your purchases on the web. I frequently earn more than $100 per quarter and always look forward to getting those surprise checks in the mail! It’s completely free to join, and if you use THIS LINK, you get a free $10 gift card of your choice after your first purchase of $20 or more with any retailer. If you book travel through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz or other sites of that nature, Ebates should always be your first stop.
In addition to the cash back, you can find a breakdown of all the latest deals, specials and coupon/promo codes. It’s also great for booking rooms through major hotel brands like Marriott, Hilton, etc. And if you’re a Groupon Getaways or Living Social Escapes fan, you can usually get up to 10 percent cash back on booking those trips with Ebates, too.
Also, when I started shopping for this trip, I used Ebates to get cash back at retailers like Target, ModCloth and Macy’s to get additional promo codes and savings, which equals more vacation money!
Sign Up for Airline Programs
Usually, I prefer to fly everywhere with JetBlue or Southwest. This is my first international expedition, and Delta is the carrier of choice. My friend Z has a Delta SkyMiles Amex, which has insane perks! She earns points for additional flights and upgrades with each purchase and has access to the swanky lounges in airports, among other perks!
It just so happened that our flights our are through Delta Airlines. Immediately, I signed up for the original SkyMiles program and downloaded the app to my phone to track my points and have easy access to my itineraries. If you accumulate 25,000 points, you earn a free domestic flight, so I am all for using this! Whatever airline you fly, sign up for their program and get points for every flight, even if you may never use them again. It’s a great way to get access to cheaper upgrades, priority seating, free surprise upgrades at the gate and more.
It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning
Now that we have our dates nailed down, I’m on a mission to maximize not just our time, but our fun. I get weekly e-mails from sites like Fodor’s, TripAdvisor and other big travel sites with reviews and blog posts. Also, I look to those who have already been to Rome and Florence for personal recommendations for this trip.
My friend Ashley just got back from an amazing vacation and told me about a company in Florence that she did a bike tour with, so I checked out their site and learned they have a Vespa tour (a Vespa ride is a non-negotiable part of this trip for me, as is a gondola ride) that stops at a castle for olive oil tastings and a family restaurant for lunch with wine! Ask around, post on Facebook and ask for advice and recommendations and use the Internet to your advantage.
Another part of planning? Make sure you find out your baggage allowances with the airline and plan accordingly. My first bag is free (as is my carry-on and one personal item), so as previously mentioned, I am packing my medium suitcase in my large suitcase. On the way home, the airline charges $100 for the second bag — still MUCH cheaper than having items shipped home from Italy!
Also, I use a cool app called PackPoint, and even with the free version, you can enter where you’re going, the duration of your trip and the type of activities you’ll be doing. From there, PackPoint generates the ultimate packing list to ensure you don’t forget anything! The paid version of this app lets you use a customization feature for packing templates for more accuracy. I have no issues with the free version at all!
iPhone users can also make sure to get all boarding passes in advance and add them to the Passbook feature on the phone to keep everything in the same place.
Some final thoughts
Take the time to explore your options and know that good deals do happen. I got the bad news on Wednesday, July 22 and had a new trip fully planned by Sunday, July 26 — and I saved a ton of money doing it! I’m convinced I am getting the trip I was supposed to get, and when we take our family trip, I’ll help our group maximize our free time on our tour by being familiar with some of the less tourist-laden things to see!
The moral of the story? When a trip falls out or the details amount to disaster, you can always plan for an amazing trip. Because our trip was postponed, none of the money was refunded. I had to look at my budget, cut some extras for the next few months and with some buckling down, my Italian adventure won’t put me in a bind.
These resources are tried and true for me on American soil, and the extra cash back, airline mile perks and being less particular about my accommodations made all the difference. Now off you go to make YOUR trip happen!
Sondra J. Holtz is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.