I was just on NBC talking about travel in Italy. One of the points I mentioned but didn’t have time to get into depth on is how to travel Italy on a really tight budget.
I was a single mom and we never had money to spare, yet not only were we able able to go to Italy each year, we were able to have amazing vacations on a budget so tight it squeaked when we walked. (I also did trips on my own, kiddo free.) All it took was some planning and some strategy, both of which I am going to share with you.
1. Know When To Go
The first plan was not to travel during high season. My normal time frame to travel was late May/early June, when school had let out but the season wasn’t yet in full swing. Over the years I also traveled in December, February, March and October, depending on when I had time to go.
Mid June to mid September are high season and are a more expensive time to travel.
2. Plan Well Ahead
I always start planning my next trip to Italy on the way to the airport coming home! Long range plans give you something to look forward to but also give you more opportunity to be ready for killer deals on everything from flights to accommodation to train tickets.
3. Spend More Time In Fewer Places
Rather than planning a trip that takes you from one end of the country to the other, focus on spending more time in fewer places. Each time you move to another town or city you lose vacation time checking out, traveling and then checking in to your new accommodation. If you do vacation rentals (I do) you pay a cleaning fee each time you leave. If you think of this as €50 per move it can really add up quickly.
We would base in one place – for example San Gimignano, and spend a week or so driving all over Tuscany exploring new towns and villages. Then we would move to Rome for 4 days. One time we stayed in Sicily for 10 days and then Rome for 3. We always had an amazing time, got a feel for the town we were staying in, made friends there, and were able to explore at leisure.
When you apply a little strategy you can save enormous amounts of money and even travel for free.
1. Stay Outside The Hot Zones
The more touristed cities are obviously more expensive to stay in. The closer you are to the big tourist attractions, like the Colosseum, the more expensive everything is. Not only accommodation, but coffee, a glass of wine, lunch etc.
Go a neighborhood back from there and the prices go down significantly.
You can also save loads of money by staying in a town close by. You’ll never tear me away from Rome, but instead of staying in Florence you can cut the cost in half by staying in another Tuscan town a brief train ride away. My giant fresco apartment in Arezzo costs half the price of a shoebox in Florence. A Cappuccino and a croissant in Arezzo costs €3, which is around half the cost of central Florence. I adore Arezzo but can also whip into Florence on the train for about €5, and spend as much time as I want there strolling the museums and soaking up the magic.
2. Play The Mileage Game
This is the most important trick of them all. It’s how I have gamed a free flight to Italy every year, and now it has become even easier to earn extra miles super quickly. There are two parts to the mileage game:
Part One: Earn Credit Card Miles
This is the fastest way to earn free flights and/or cancel out other travel expenses such as hotels/airbnbs, train tickets, rental car costs and much more.
The first thing to do is get a non-airline travel credit card. There are plenty out there but in the U.S the two best ones are the Chase Sapphire card and my favorite, the Capital One Venture card. Both these cards offer no international fees when you travel, and both let you earn 2 miles for every dollar spent.
The Chase points need to be used on Chase linked airlines but still is a great program.
The Capital One Venture card lets you use miles to buy flights on any airline, any flight you choose. For several years I used American Express miles to get free flights – they also have an excellent mileage program.
A regular airline credit card only lets you use miles on that airline, and has endless blackout dates. They also don’t let you use miles to buy your ideal flight plan, so you can find yourself stuck with awful flight plans and crazy layovers. When you use an airline credit card the airline has all the power in the relationship. When you build up miles on a non-airline travel credit card you choose the flights you want – you’re not sitting in the back row on some janky plane, instead you fly the airline of your choice (and build up more miles with them while you’re at it!)
Whichever travel credit card you get, you now want to run your entire life through that card. Other than mortgage/rent and car payments you can run almost all of your life expenses through your card. From groceries to gas in your car to insurance payments, paying utilities, cell phone bills – everything! Even buying a coffee or paying for parking. You’re not buying anything extra, just turning your cost of living into frequent flier miles. You will be amazed at how quickly the miles add up. You just need to be disciplined and pay the card each day/week so you don’t run up a balance.
When you purchase airline tickets or any travel related expenses your Capital One Venture card tracks them. When you want to pay the bill you hit Redeem Miles and all your travel expenses will populate, with the number of miles you need to use to cancel out each one. You can now zero out the cost of your flight, or maybe the cost of your airbnb, your train tickets – whichever travel expenses you want to cancel out. It’s brilliant! And even better, you didn’t spend extra money to get these miles, this is just rerouting your cost of living.
Part Two: Get More Miles Using Shopping Portals
This is a newer way to add even more miles for doing what you were already doing anyway. The main U.S based airlines now have their own online shopping portals. (Capital One has their own portal too.)
I mostly fly with American Airlines, so use their portal the most. All you do is sign in and create an account using your airline frequent flier account number. Then every time you want to buy something online you go into the portal and type that business into the search bar. You can see the American Airlines portal here. It’s just one extra step to take you to where you were shopping anyway, but you get extra frequent flier miles in the process. It takes a while for these miles to add up, but it’s worth it when you get a free flight!
I talked about this on the Untold Italy podcast. I explained how I wanted to buy two J Crew white t-shirts. I went into the American Airlines shopping portal, typed in J Crew and it took me to the J Crew website. From there anything I bought earned me twice the dollar value in American Airlines miles. Often there are bonus days where you earn more than 2 miles per dollar. Recently I bought products from Sephora online and earned 5x miles per dollar spent. Again all you are doing is adding one more step to your online shopping process, but you are earning frequent flier miles in the process!
Double Dip For Miles
The last thing I want to tell you is to double dip for miles. In the last example where we talked about using airline shopping portals to earn airline frequent flier miles, we are now going to double our miles by using our non-airline travel credit card to make the purchase. When I bought those J Crew t-shirts I earned 2x miles with the American Airlines by using their portal, but I also earned another 2x miles with capital One by using my travel credit card. I do this for every online purchase. It doesn’t seem like much but the miles add up like crazy and before you know it you are taking yourself on free trips or trips that cost you next to nothing. You can hear more about it in the untold Italy podcast #116 (linked below). I go into depth with lots of examples and explain more about how to travel to Italy (or anywhere else you want to go) on a shoestring budget, and have an absolutely amazing trip!
Check out the Untold Italy Podcast episode where I explain more about traveling on a budget here
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For more tips on how to plan a trip to Italy, plus information on everything from how to use the trains to which foods and wines to order where, check out my best selling book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget). Available worldwide in paperback and eBook versions, on Amazon.