Once you’ve got getting to Italy sorted out, the next thing on most to-do lists is to figure out accommodation. I know that there are plenty of travelers who prefer to not book lodging ahead of time, choosing to book on the spot instead. This certainly gives you more flexibility in your travel plans, and you can totally do that if you want to. Personally, I like knowing where I’m going to be laying my head at night so that I don’t have to spend precious vacation time hunting for an acceptable room.
Whether you’re inclined to book in advance or book as you travel, however, you’ll need to know a few things about accommodation in Italy beforehand.
Albergo Ristorante || creative commons photo by Marco Bellucci
Different Types of Accommodation in Italy
Some of the terms associated with lodging in Italy will be ones you know (because they’re just adopted English words), while others are Italian words. Here’s an overview of the kinds of accommodation terms you might see, and what they mean.
- Hotel – Yep, it’s just what you think it is. The word “hotel” in Italy is pronounced without the H, so essentially it’s OH|tel. There’s a star system for hotels in Italy, but it doesn’t correspond to the star ratings you might know from elsewhere. (More on the star ratings is below.) In Italy, the amenities a hotel has can vary considerably, just like anywhere else. Some may have swimming pools, gyms, free breakfast, and an in-house bar – others may not even have an elevator. It depends a bit on the star rating as well as the age of the building the hotel is in. If things like air conditioning and an elevator are imperative for you to enjoy your stay, be sure to read the details of any hotel description (either on their own website or on a booking site).
- Albergo – This is the Italian word for hotel, pronounced al|BER|go. The same goes for an albergo as for a hotel in Italy.
- Hostel – Hostels of decades past were strictly dorm-style bunks and only for young people. Most hostels around the world (including in Italy) have done away with age restrictions, and many not only have smaller rooms but also private rooms with en suite bath options. Sure, those private rooms in hostels cost more than a bed in a 10-person dorm, but they usually cost quite a bit less than a hotel room. Keep in mind that in Italy, they can be a bit fuzzy about terminology – some hostels are advertised using the word “hotel” or “guesthouse,” but if the prices are dirt cheap or they have any dorm-style rooms available, it’s most likely a hostel or a seriously budget hotel.
- Ostello – This is the Italian word for hostel, pronounced aw|STEL|oh. The same goes for an ostello as for a hostel in Italy.
- Agriturismo – The English translations for agriturismo – “farm holiday” being the most common – don’t quite capture the meaning, in my opinion. An agriturismo is typically like a bed and breakfast on what is often a working farm, but you’re not required to do any farm work as part of your stay. (Somehow, “farm holiday” suggests to me that you’re expected to milk a cow or something in exchange for your room.) In any case, the agriturismo is increasingly popular in Italy. The experience varies quite a bit based on what the farm has available, but can include outdoor activities or cooking classes. Most of the time, at least one meal per day is included in your stay, and sometimes more than one. These places are, by default, not in cities, so reaching them can be difficult (or impossible) without a car. Also note that sometimes you’ll find agriturismo places mixed in with hostel listings, either because they’re more rustic or they’re relatively inexpensive.
- B&B – Despite the fact that “bed and breakfast” translated into Italian would constitute completely different letters, you sometimes see “B&B” options in Italy. It means roughly the same thing, although since Italians are not generally a breakfast culture, they’re not exactly splashing out a big breakfast spread. You may find a fridge in your room stocked with fruit, yogurt, and the makings for coffee, and that’s the “breakfast” portion. You may book a B&B and then find it’s really just a budget hotel that provides a simple buffet breakfast.
- Villa/Apartment/Vacation Rental – If you’re staying in one place for more than a couple days, choosing a vacation rental can be a really great idea (especially if you’re with a family or other group). In Italy, you’ll find them advertised as vacation rentals, apartment rentals, and – sometimes – villa rentals. Unless you see photographs of some country estate worthy of the images of a “villa” you’re conjuring up in your head, however, don’t expect your vacation rental to come with butlers and a limo.
- Convents/Monasteries – Convents and monasteries have a long history of serving as hostels for traveling pilgrims, and the tradition continues today – albeit slightly modified to include all manner of travelers. Not all convents and monasteries welcome tourists as guests, but those that do usually make for a very inexpensive bed. You may face a curfew after which the exterior doors are locked, separate sleeping quarters for men and women (regardless of marriage), and even sometimes required attendance at services. Check out the details before you book, but don’t rule out convents and monasteries as accommodation – if you’re not planning to be out all night anyway, or you’re traveling alone, they can be safe and quiet places to stay.
Star Ratings on Hotels in Italy
We’re conditioned to think that a 5-star hotel is always luxurious, and a 2-star hotel is usually to be avoided – but in Italy, that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, the 4- and 5-star hotels are likely to be on the more luxe end of the scale, but there are plenty of 1- and 2-star hotels that you’d never guess had so few stars. So what’s up with the star ratings in Italy?
The star rating system in Italy is based on a specific checklist that includes things you may not even care about – the size of the lobby, how close the lobby is to guest rooms, how many towels are provided – but that can drive a hotel’s rating down just the same. The size of a hotel’s guest rooms can also be a huge factor, but of course if a hotel is in an historic building it can’t change the size of the rooms. In addition, the star rating system isn’t even a national thing – it’s partly regional. That means that the checklist and scoring system might award two stars to a hotel in one part of Italy, and three if that hotel were in another part of Italy.
The bottom line, for me, is that I pay less attention to the star rating on a hotel in Italy when I’m considering whether to stay there. Instead, I pay more attention to the actual list of amenities that hotel offers and the location of the hotel.