When you’re contemplating a trip to Italy, the main things that will be constraints are time and money. Usually, people have more of one than the other – and chances are good that even if you’ve got money to spare, you’d rather not spend more than you have to. So budget questions are a big deal when you’re planning an Italy trip.
The thing is, answering those questions is really tricky. I can’t lay out one Italy travel budget that will work for everyone, nor can I answer every individual question that comes up. What I’ll try to do here, then, is help you set parameters for figuring out how much your Italy trip will cost, based on the type of trip you’re planning. I’ll also offer money-saving tips where I can, as well as let you know when I think splurges are warranted.
Keep in mind, however, that any actual figures I’m listing below are either estimates or may have changed between when I wrote them down and when you’re reading them. Use this as a guide, but double-check actual prices as you go.
Okay, then, let’s take a look at the cost of the different elements of an Italy trip.
Airfare to Italy is almost always going to be the biggest expense of your trip, but the actual cost can vary quite a bit depending on the season and your airport of origin.
Italy’s high season is basically May-September (although there are sometimes slight dips in August and slight spikes around Christmas, Easter, and other major holidays), which is when flights will be most expensive. The cheapest flights tend to be in the winter months – November, January, and February in particular. That means putting up with some pretty damp and cold weather, though, so if you’re hoping for that middle ground of not-super-expensive flights and not-super-cold weather look at the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. April and October are generally thought of as the best of the shoulder seasons.
The further away your origin is from your Italian destination, the more costly your flight will be – that’s not rocket science. What’s inexplicable, however, is how flights from North America to Paris or London or Frankfurt are often quite a bit cheaper than flights to Rome or Milan. It’s annoying, and it’s just the way it is. If you’ve got the time and like puzzles, you can work out what I think of as a “two-step” flight plan to get to Italy – taking advantage of a cheap flight to, say, Amsterdam and then hopping on a European budget airline to get you to Italy.
Note that if your itinerary is basically moving in one direction through the country, you should look at what are called “open-jaw” tickets – flying into one city and out of another. They may be a little more expensive than a simple round-trip ticket, but the cost difference is often negligible. And, as far as I’m concerned, if an open-jaw ticket means you don’t have to backtrack and spend part of your precious vacation time in transit within the country, that’s a splurge that’s worth it.
In summer, fares from the US east coast to Rome can be $700-800, while fares from the US west coast can top $1,000-1,200 (or more). In the winter, prices are sometimes cut in half. There are often fare sales, especially in the shoulder and off-seasons, so if you’re still on the fence and looking for a deal then be sure to set up an email alert with your booking engine of choice. That way you’ll be kept in the know about the current fares, and you’ll be aware of when they start to drop – or rise.
This line item can be all over the map, from a bunk in a hostel dorm to a 5-star hotel in Venice. Unlike airfare, however, this part of the budget varies primarily because of things within your control.
Accommodation in Italy follows roughly the same high and low seasons as airfare – May-September is high season, winter is low season. There are more mini-spikes and mini-dips in hotel prices, however, for seasonal holidays (there are spikes for Christmas, Easter, and Venice’s Carnevale, and there’s usually a dip in August), not to mention a point at which the hotels in your ideal price range are booked up well in advance of holidays. In some cities, weekend rates will be higher because they’re tourist destinations. In other cities, weekday rates will be higher because they draw a large number of business travelers.
You’ll need to make your decisions about the type of accommodation you’re looking at, and then start doing some research into what prices are in the places you want to visit. I’d caution you against looking at only a certain star-rating (the star rating system for hotels in Italy isn’t the same as it is elsewhere, nor is it consistent throughout the country), and I’d also suggest that you look at other types of lodging besides hotels. Some budget hotels and guesthouses are listed as “hostels,” although they’re not what we’d think of as hostels, and vacation rentals are becoming more and more common throughout the country.
Because I think you really need to spend one night in Venice in order to truly experience the city, I’m calling a Venice hotel a worthwhile splurge. Stay on the islands, not the mainland. It’ll cost you a little more, but it’s one night, and it’s Venice.
Beds in hostel dorms can range from $15-40 per night – the more expensive ones are in the main tourist destinations – and prices rise if you want a private room. Hotels in the 2- and 3-star range (I usually start my hunting among the 2-star hotels) can start as low as $80 per night and go up to $200 or more. And, of course, if the hotel in question is more luxurious or overlooking a major attraction, the price of a room will shoot up dramatically. You can save money by staying in a hotel that’s a little further away from the main attractions (just make sure it’s near a bus or Metro stop), by traveling in the off-season, or by skipping the big tourist destinations in favor of less-visited places.
Unlike some places (I’m talking to you, United States of America), there is a wealth of choice when it comes to transportation in Italy. You could rent a car in Italy if you’re seeking out more remote places, but most visitors are well-served by the country’s intricate train and bus network (not to mention the armada of boats that ferry people around the coast and islands). There is a transport method that fits every budget.
Most travelers get around Italy by train, which is sort of the happy medium between the most cost-effective and the most convenient. You can get individual train tickets as you go, or get an Italy Rail Pass before you leave home. There are good reasons for each one of those options, and to figure out which is the right choice for you there’s some math involved. (I’ve written about this in a separate article, “How to Decide Whether to Buy a Rail Pass or Point-to-Point Train Tickets in Italy.”)
Bus travel in Italy can be even cheaper, but there’s no national bus network serving the whole country, so it’s not always easy to get from one region to another by bus. Renting a car can be more cost-effective if you’re traveling with a group (it can also be a necessity if your itinerary includes a bunch of places without train stations.) Keep in mind that there are also “train + drive” rail passes, which allow you to use trains for most of your trip but include a few days of a car rental for when you get to (let’s say) Sicily or Umbria and you want a little more freedom to roam.
When it comes to transportation within a city, I’m a big fan of public transportation – Metro first, buses second – if walking isn’t the best option. I also choose trains or shuttle buses to get into the city from the airport, rather than paying for a taxi. But once I get into the city center, I’ll splurge on a taxi to get to my hotel or apartment if I’m carrying luggage. On one trip to Italy many years ago, I negotiated the trip from Milan’s Malpensa Airport to my Milan apartment with two medium-sized suitcases and a carry-on bag via the Metro and a 20-minute walk. Sure, I saved money, but I was exhausted, aching, and cranky when I finally arrived at my door. Being frugal at the expense of one’s sanity isn’t math that adds up properly, if you ask me.
There are many options for Italy Rail Passes, depending on how many days of train travel you need, but – at the top end of the spectrum – a rail pass good for eight days of train travel in a one-month period ranges between $373-$465 (adults) or $304-373 (youth). A pass good for only three train travel days in one month costs between $212-$264 (adults) or $174-$212 (youth). Adding up the cost of individual train tickets (plus reservations, when needed) for the trips on your itinerary will tell you whether a pass or tickets is the more budget-friendly option. (Again, I go into more detail about doing the math on a rail pass vs. train tickets here.) As for car rentals, the cost will vary depending on the size of car and the season in which you’re traveling. An economy-sized (i.e. very small) car rented for a few days of driving around Tuscany could be as little as $50-70 per day. Note that rental cars are almost all manual transmission in Italy – automatics cost more.
I’ve met some people for whom food is merely fuel. One guy even went so far as to tell me that he “wouldn’t cross the street for a good meal,” let alone travel across the planet. If this sounds like I’m describing you, feel free to skip this section – you’ll no doubt be content with whatever cheap grub you can find in Italy.
I, on the other hand, consider eating in Italy to be part of my souvenir-gathering process.
The good news for budget-conscious travelers is that even if you’ve got caviar tastes, you can eat pretty darned well in Italy without a trust fund. Some of Italy’s quintessential treats – espresso, pizza, gelato – are some of its least expensive. And, despite what traditional Italian menus will have you believe, there’s no need to order something from every course – antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce. The Italians rarely do it, so why should you?
The best Italian food is made from ingredients that are seasonal and found locally (both of which cut transport costs). You’d be smart to find an outdoor food market, even if you’re not stocking your own pantry – getting an idea of what’s fresh and local will help you order wisely in that town’s restaurants. You’d also be smart to avoid restaurants that cater specifically to tourists with their menus-in-many-languages and hawkers out front telling you you’re hungry as you walk by the front door. Not only is the food apt to be of lower quality, the prices in these places tend to be higher, too (often because they have views of or are near major attractions).
Getting a carafe of house wine is cheaper than ordering a bottle, and in Italy the house wine is almost universally exceptional. Asking for water means you’re buying bottled weater, unless you specify tap water (acqua del rubinetto). Tipping in Italy isn’t really a thing (no, really), so don’t factor that 15% tip into your food budget.
An Italian breakfast is a coffee and pastry, usually eaten standing at the bar (the same fare costs more if you get a table), which will only cost €2-3. (Your hotel or hostel may offer a breakfast with your stay at no extra charge, too.) Pasta dishes can cost from €7-15 (depending on where you are and what’s in it), meat courses from €10-25, and side dishes (vegetables or salad) from €4-10. The afternoon shot of espresso that Italians favor costs €1-2 (again, it’s more if you sit at a table), and a scoop of gelato costs from €1-2. One of Naples’ world-famous pizzas – a whole pizza to yourself – may only cost €5. The same dish at a restaurant often costs less at lunch than at dinner, so you can save money by having your largest meal at midday. You can also stock up on fabulous picnic items at the outdoor food markets – cheeses, cured meats, fresh bread, fruit – if you want to save even more money, eating one restaurant meal per day.
The variety of things on every traveler’s “what to do in Italy” list makes figuring out one budget for activities and attractions nearly impossible. One person will be content with sitting on a park bench and watching people walk by (cost – nothing!), while another will dream of helicopter trips over each major city (cost – astronomical!). What you can do, however, is narrow down your list of must-do activities and figure out what they will cost.
Browse the official websites for all the museums, monuments, art galleries, and churches on your itinerary to see what (if any) admission they charge. Some attractions are free, some offer free entry on certain days or at certain times. This is all good information to have when you’re planning your own trip. Note that even if a church doesn’t charge admission, the facilities cost quite a bit in upkeep – donations of a euro or two are always appreciated.
Consider the merits of getting a city pass for the places you’ll be visiting. Does the Roma Pass save you money over paying full price at the attractions you want to see, or will you not visit enough of them to make it a worthwhile expenditure? Keep in mind that these passes often include transportation, too, which can factor into your budget.
There are lots of DIY tours out there – you can follow along with a guidebook’s walk through a city, or download an audioguided tour of a museum – so look into those options before you leave home. Even with those free options, however, I’m a big fan of taking guided tours when I travel – whether it’s a walking tour of a city or neighborhood, or a tour of the highlights of a specific museum, expert guides almost always make me feel smarter and more engaged with a place. The cost of tours varies widely, which means there’s one for just about any budget, but this is another example of a part of my budget where I think a splurge is warranted. And don’t forget to tip your guides, you guys.
As mentioned, you’ll want to look up current admission prices for the museums and attractions on your itinerary and do your own math. For reference, at the time of this writing, these are the admission fees for some of Italy’s top attractions:
What you choose to bring home to remember your Italy trip by is the only thing that will determine this part of your budget.
You could spend hundreds on a genuine painted ceramic plate from Deruta, or less than €20 on a fake Gucci handbag (made in China, not Italy) from a sidewalk vendor in Milan. You could pick up a gorgeous piece of handblown glass on the island of Murano for the cost of a night in a fancy hotel, or spend a few euro on a miniature statue of David. It just depends on what you want to schlep back home with you – and what will give you the most joy when you look at it years from now.
Outdoor markets sometimes offer great souvenir-shopping opportunities – including inexpensive clothing, shoes, and leather goods. Those sidewalk vendors who sell knock-off designer brands from sheets or cardboard “tables” are selling illegally, and Italian police have the right to fine the buyer as well as the seller if they catch you – so think twice before you spend your money there.
There are a couple of official sales seasons in Italy – one in winter and one in summer – when every shop has what amounts to a clearance sale. Discounts usually start off at around 30% off, and drop throughout the sales period. If you’re visiting during one of those official sales, you may come home with some treasures obtained at bargain prices.
Also remember to do your research about what you’re allowed to bring home with you. This applies primarily to food and wine, as some foods can be confiscated at customs and with others you’re only allowed to bring home a certain amount. Each country’s rules differ on this, so you’ll have to find out what your home nation allows.
If you’re more of an “experiences as souvenirs” traveler, consider taking a class in Italy that will benefit you for years. Learn to make an authentic pizza in Naples, for instance, or take an intensive Italian language class in Siena – you won’t have anything to put in your suitcase afterward, but learning experiences like that outlast tangible souvenirs almost every time.
I can’t help you here, folks. This one is all on you. Happy shopping!