10 Strategies For Organizing A Budget Trip To Rome

Apr 18, 2014

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You might notice a change in the title of our destination series. While for the past two years we’ve been featuring a Destination of the Week with information on using miles to get there and points to stay at various hotels, we’re branching out and trying something new we’re calling Destination Edition. Posts in our new series will cover everything from planning quick getaways to strategies for extended trips, the top sights and attractions in various cities, our favorite eats, and more. We’re excited to be changing things up and exploring new places in a new way, and we hope you are too. So without further ado, here’s the next post in our new Destination Edition series!

With the US dollar still trading fairly low against the euro and frequent flyer program devaluations happening left and right, we thought tapping into less expensive travel might be a good theme to focus on this spring. We asked Madrid-based TPG contributor Lori Zaino, who’s visited Italy over 15 times and even lived there for a few months, for some suggestions on how to plan a budget trip to Rome. 

La bella Roma.
La bella Roma.

Living in Europe, my plan has always been and always will be to travel smart – meaning spending my money the in the best way so I can visit as many places as possible in comfort. Now, when I say the word “budget”, I don’t mean staying in hostels or backpacking. My main rules are: I never share a bathroom or bedroom with the unknown (this was fine when I was in college traveling through Europe but not now!), plan ahead of time to get the best rates, and tap into as many local resources as possible to avoid tourist scams. In this post, I will detail different ways you can save money planning and executing a trip to Rome. The idea is to spend as little money as possible, but without forgoing comfort, and still getting to all the things you’d like to see and do. I’d love to be able to travel in extreme luxury, but even more so, I’d rather visit as many places as possible. So now that I have my priorities set, here are some tips to travel well without emptying your wallet:

1. Arrival: Miles/Points

Fly Alitalia to Rome.
Fly Alitalia to Rome.

Getting to Rome from the US is fairly easy, as several airlines offer nonstop flights from major US cities such as New York, Newark, Chicago and Miami. This gives you many options to use miles to get there. For example, you can fly nonstop to Rome from JFK on American (oneworld) and Delta (Skymiles). United (Star Alliance) flies from Newark as well. Milan is a short flight or a short high speed train ride away, so if you find that you can get a better deal flying to Milan, try that option. You can also catch Delta, Alitalia and Emirates flights there from New York (well, for now, with Emirates).

The nice thing about Rome is that although there are points of the year where it is colder, the temperature throughout winter is fairly mild and it doesn’t snow, so if you get a better deal to go in low season, go for it. You won’t have to trek through snow in January, just expect to wear a coat. If you decide to use an American AAdvantage award for your trip, make sure to maximize on this by trying to fly during off-peak periods (generally October-April according to American) so that your economy ticket only costs 40,000 miles roundtrip.

2. Arrival: Low-Cost Carriers

Fly low cost to Rome from other European cities.
Fly low cost to Rome from other European cities.

If you are planning a bigger European trip, meaning Rome or Italy in general isn’t your first destination, I suggest flying low-cost from other spots in Europe. Last October I flew for just 70 euros ($96) roundtrip Madrid to Rome Ciampino on Ryanair. And that was even high season in Rome. When I looked at Alitalia prices (I always check to be sure), they were over 300 euros ($413) for the same 2-hour flight (only to the other airport Fiumicino). The airports are both close to the city and easily accessible by bus or train so I clearly opted for the Ryanair ticket. Now, I did book my ticket 3 months ahead of time as well, so that helped with getting a cheaper price. However, make sure you check all your options. Occasionally low-cost carriers aren’t the best option. When planning a trip to Paris in November, the Easyjet price was just 10 euros less than the Air Europa price, so I opted for to fly Air Europa and check a bag full of goodies for free to take my friend I was visiting. When I went to Dublin a few weeks ago, I flew one way Ryanair and then Iberia Express on the way back. The return tickets were actually about the same price but I could fly at 1 pm on Iberia instead of a super early 7 am on Ryanair.

With low-cost carriers, make sure you know your options and research everything ahead of time. Sometimes the low-cost airlines don’t show up on travel search engines, so take the time to go to their websites and price out your trip. Consider the cost of traveling with a checked bag, as sometimes when  you add in the extras, they do add up on a low cost and you end up paying the same anyway. Some options for low cost airlines flying to/from Rome are Easy Jet, Ryanair, Vueling and Bluexpress. Always check Alitalia, British Airways, Iberia, Air Europa and other airlines that fly throughout Europe to compare.

If you are not using miles, I strongly suggest planning your trip in advance. One of the ways I get good deals is because I am as organized as possible and a researcher by nature. Even if you are not, if you know you want to head to Rome in eight months, start looking at tickets now. Get ideas, note prices, set flight alerts. The more flexibility you have with dates will also give you more flexibility on prices.

3. Accommodation: Points

Use hotel points to get free stays.
Use hotel points to get free stays.

If you do have a lot of points, the obvious way to save on accommodation is to use them for hotels. Obviously in Rome, you have a variety of options which are pointed out in a past TPG post on Rome here.

4. Accommodation: Apartment Websites Like Airbnb

A great apartment rental I stayed at in Trastevere from Rentals in Rome.
A great apartment rental I stayed at in Trastevere from Rentals in Rome.

If you don’t have points or are saving them for something else, I highly recommend using an apartment booking website like Airbnb or Owners Direct. These websites usually have cheaper accommodation than most hotels, and are usually full apartments so you have extras, like a kitchen. I also feel that when you rent an apartment, you get a more authentic, local experience (which I will touch more on later). I have rented two apartments in Rome, both which I would highly recommend and stay in again-great prices and people. The first one was a studio through Airbnb which was perfect for two in Trastevere (the absolute best neighborhood in Rome, more on that later) and the other, a 2 bedroom large and airy flat advertised on Owners Direct from Rental in Rome, also in Trastevere. The prices were lower than I might pay for a hotel and more spacious too. And the nice part about having an apartment is that if you are really on a budget, you can always cook in the kitchen, or at least make sandwiches or have snacks around so you won’t spend as much eating out. Plus, some rental services like Airbnb are coded as “Travel” merchants, so you can earn travel category spending bonuses on them using certain credit cards like 2X points with the Sapphire Preferred, or redeem your Barclaycard Arrival miles to pay for them at a good rate.

5. Accommodation: Hotel Tonight App

Hotel Tonight app.
Hotel Tonight app.

Now, the final option you have if you are aiming for a budget trip is using the Hotel Tonight app, which gives you hotels for that day listed at discount prices. For me, this is hard to wrap my head around, as I am an advanced planner. The thought of leaving it until the last minute to book sends me into a tizzy, but I have to recognize that you can stay in some amazing places for some great prices if you are willing to leave it to chance! Checking out my Hotel Tonight app right now, I see deals in Rome for tonight ranging from $76-$336 for this evening. However, keep in mind that if you are going to Rome during high season, for a long period of time, for a special event or festival that may reduce availability of hotels, or if you need to be in a specific neighborhood, this situation may not be for you. That being said, this could be especially great for long layovers, or weeknight stays. You can instantly get $25 off your first booking with Hotel Tonight using the promo code BKELLY99 if you are a new user. Just enter the code upon sign up.

6. When In Rome: Do As the Romans Do

The beautiful Trastevere neighborhood.
The beautiful Trastevere neighborhood.

Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world. Its historic city center, like areas near the Roman Forums, Colosseum, Piazza Navona, etc. are mobbed with tourists all year around. Although I do recommended seeing these sites at least once, the thought of staying in these areas can be overwhelming, it is just so touristy. If you want to be a part of the real Italian culture, stay in Trastevere. This is where locals live, eat and drink. Though still part of the main city (about a 30 minute beautiful walk over the river to the historic center or a quick bus or tram ride) this part of the city is the real Rome. The food is mouthwatering and delicious, the people are friendly, and it’s easy to wander through the small cobblestone streets looking at ivy covered ancient buildings…now this is Rome!

Trastevere is authentic-the "real" Rome.
Trastevere is authentic-the “real” Rome.

Eating out in the main city center is overpriced and to be honest, not so great. I’ve paid $8 for a nasty piece of pizza near the center, but if you head over to Trastevere you can get a whole lunch menu for that or slightly more. If you are someone who visits Italy with some serious eating in mind, Trastevere is the place to be. One of my favorite lunch spots is Rugantino, where they have fixed price lunch menus and some of the best gnocchi with a lemon butter sauce I have ever had in my life. If you continue down Via della Lungaretta, there are a million cute spots and terraces to dine at, all reasonably priced.

Rugantino restaurant.
Rugantino restaurant.

The no frills, cosy IVO Pizzeria boasts some of the most popular pizza in Rome, at least according to locals. Get there early as they fill up fast.  The decor may be basic, but the pizza is to die for and prices are quite cheap for the quality of the food. The waiters are friendly and fun, and will try to help you out even though they barely speak English!

Pizza from IVO.
Pizza from IVO.

One last reason I love Trastevere is that if you are heading to the main tourist sites, Trastevere is perfectly located in between the historic city center and Vatican City. In fact, a gorgeous walk up the right will get your to St. Peter’s in just about 20-25 minutes.

A tip for seeing something free and beautiful in Rome: check out the ceiling of the St. Ignatius church. In my opinion, this blows the Sistine Chapel away! And the best part: no lines, it’s free and no one knows about it!

The ceiling of the San Ignazio church in Rome.
The ceiling of the San Ignazio church in Rome.

Another idea is to learn a little bit of the language before you go, even just a few phrases. Italians love it when American at least attempt. It’s also a great way to avoid roundabout taxi drivers overcharging you. Usually before I get into a taxi I will try to practice the name of the destination as much as possible in Italian beforehand, and throw in another phrase like, “Has there been a lot of traffic today?” or “what about the weather”. If the taxi driver at least thinks I speak a little Italian or know something about where I am going, usually they tend to get me there as quick as possible. They all have meters, but I notice the times I have taken a taxi and spoken only in English, I am fairly sure they’ve driven around a little extra, idled a bit more! So you don’t need to be fluent, but give it a shot! Hilton is running a promotion where you can get one free night stay for purchase of Rosetta Stone, and often times airline shopping portals will offer several miles per dollar for purchase, so check it out. Buona fortuna!

All in all, you are in Rome to see Rome, so do see the big tourist attractions. But take some time to simply walk around in Trastevere, have an espresso and breakfast pastry in a small, local cafe, and really get a feel for what Rome is all about.

7. Tips & Tricks: A Local SIM Card

A WIND sim card can save you roaming charges.
A WIND sim card can save you roaming charges.

One of the things that saves me a lot of money during foreign travel is to buy a local SIM card for my phone. As long as your phone is unlocked, you can do this. Basically, either when you arrival to the airport or any local phone store (I have always used WIND while in Italy but there are several providers) you can purchase a SIM card that will offer you internet, calls and messaging. The last time I went to Italy, I bought one that offered me 1 G of internet and it was about 15 euros ($21). My friend was charged $105 in roaming charges on her bill for using her phone’s regular data. So as you can see, if you plan to spend some time using the internet for work or pleasure during your stay, buying a local SIM card is a great deal.

I will say that if you don’t speak Italian, I would try to get the card at the airport. If you stop into a WIND store, they may not speak English at all. Also, if you plan on using the phone to make local calls, it’s easy and cheap, but if you are planning on calling the US a lot, you will have to pay more for the card to give you more available minutes.

Of course this only works IF your phone has a SIM card and it’s unlocked. If you plan on doing a lot of international travel, it might not be a bad idea to have an older, SIM-card-ready, unlocked phone that you keep just for this purpose.

8. Tips & Tricks: The Free App Stay

Stay is a great resource so you don
Stay is a great resource so you don’t have to turn on your data roaming to find your way around Rome.

An option for you to use if you don’t want to pay for internet but you want access to maps and information about Rome as you are walking around is the free app, Stay. Basically, you download the app on your phone before your trip, then download your city guide, and pinpoint spots you want to see and go. You can also log in on the computer to surf around on the site and add things to your guide and it will update to your phone. Mix and play around with adding in your own spots, like specific restaurants or your hotel or apartment location, and then use some of their spots for tourist attractions etc. It maps everything out for you and then while you are there, as long as you have your GPS on, without your internet and data roaming on, you can see a moving map of where you are and where all of the spots you want to visit are on your own personalized guide and map. It’s a great resource if you don’t want to turn on your data and get crazy charges.

9. Tips & Tricks: The Roma Pass

The Roma Pass
The Roma Pass

If you do plan on seeing some tourist sights and using public transport, try the Roma Pass.  There are two options: the card for 72 hours (36 euros/$49) and the card for 48 hours (28 euros/$38). The card includes public transport, museum and tourist attraction entrances and more. Think about what you want to and see, and how much time you plan on spending on transport to see if it is worth it for you.

10. Tips & Tricks: Euros And Credit Cards

Euros are important as some places may not accept credit cards.
Euros are important as some places may not accept credit cards.

I recommend taking money out of the ATM in Italy once you have arrived. You will usually get a better rate than exchanging at the airport. That being said, whenever I travel I usually just email all of my friends and ask, ” Who wants to change euros for dollars?”. Granted, most of my friends are travelers, but there is always someone looking for the other currency wanting to exchange and guess what-no fees! So ask around to see if you have co-workers or friends that might be willing to do a fee-free exchange with you.  They may be itching to get rid of unused euros. Plus, it’s always good to arrive in the country with a little bit of the local currency, especially in Rome, where most taxis and smaller places may not accept credit cards.

If you are going to be spending on your credit cards while there, a few recommendations. Make sure you have a credit with no foreign exchange fees, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Barclaycard Arrival. Many places in Rome do not accept American Express, so if that is your main card, make sure to have another as well. A lot of bars, street markets, taxis and smaller, local restaurants may not take credit card at all, so always have cash on hand too.

These tips are just some ideas to help you save money getting to and while in Rome. Please feel free to add any of your tips or personal experiences to save money in on a trip to Rome!

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