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Touring Italy - Rome, Venice, Lake Garda, Tuscany, and Florence

A great way to see Italy is by motorcoach, with a local Italian guide as your leader.
My wife and I recently returned from a motorcoach vacation in Italy, traveling to Rome, Venice, Lake Garda and Sirmione, and Florence. **Photo: Street musician in front of the famed Roman Pantheon, now a church.

Here are some tips to make your own motorcoach vacation to Italy as successful as ours:

1. Italians are very tourist-friendly. Yet, you will not find the English language written on signs or spoken except in high-tourist traffic areas. Bone up on the Italian language. Take a college class, use a DVD interactive course, or study a phrase book and dictionary. It is a lot of fun to interact with the local population. The most acute need is to be able to speak Italian when you want something - an item to buy, a restroom, a coffee, or directions.

2. Hotel rooms have television, and there are a few American sitcoms and dramas, but overdubbed in Italian. The only English-language shows we found were news shows. In one case, we could find no English-language stations.

3. Newspapers, magazines, and books. The International Herald Tribune is in English but is hard to find. In the airport there are English-language magazines, like People, and some books. Otherwise, study your Italian.

4. Buy some Euros in the U.S. before you go. The travel agency we used, sells a starter pack of 78 Euros, and we bought two packs that lasted till the last day, when we used a bancomat (ATM). Dollars can be exchanged almost everywhere there is a "Change" stand. Dollars are not welcome to pay for retail goods.

5. We were advised to take nothing except our passport for ID. We were also advised to leave everything else at home, including credit cards. Buy a debit travel card. It works like a credit card in Italy and is accepted everywhere. You load the amount of money on it that you expect to spend. That keeps your bank account from being emptied if there is a theft. The bancomats requires a PIN number, so make sure and set one up for whatever plastic card you plan to use. When using a plastic card, a 3% exchange fee may apply.

6. Tipping. It works like this in restaurants. Inside seating, a 10% service charge is automatically added. Suggest 10% additional as a tip. For seating in the outdoor cafes, tipping is "welcomed."

7. Bottled water. Just like in the U.S., bottled water is sold in clear plastic bottles. Yet, there are also blue and green plastic bottles that contain carbonated water, labeled either as Frizzante or Gassata. Very refreshing.

8. You may find there are few chairs in the airport or coffee shops. Italians like to stand while they enjoy a light meal or coffee.

9. At a coffee shop, pay for what you want first at the cash register, then take the receipt to the barista who will tear it to show it is used and serve you your espresso, cappuccino, or Coffee Americano.

10. Some tour bus companies provide Wi-Fi on the bus; others do not. On the bus we used, there was electricity to charge cell phones and cameras. Wi-Fi is available in hotels.

11. Electricity converter. In most hotel bathrooms, there is a hair dryer. Still it is a good idea to take a converter so you can plug in phones and cameras. Did not see a clothes iron and board in any room.

12. The overhead bins in motorcoach are not as large as those on airplanes. Therefore, the typical airplane carry-on bag with wheels is way too big. Something along the size of a laptop case is more like it. Nor is there storage under the seats.

13. The main north to south highway is a tollway. There are rest stops operated by a company called Autogrill. Upstairs in a typical Autogrill is a full service cafeteria. On the main floor is pizza, sandwiches, coffee, and a retail store selling beverages, packaged food, and souvenirs.

14. To convert Euros to dollars, make yourself a cheat sheet, using the most current exchange rate. In our case, the exchange rate was 1 Euro to 1.35 American dollars. Therefore, an item costing 100 Euros would in fact cost your wallet $135 US. A cheat sheet for centigrade temperatures and kilometers would also help you navigate.

15. Our motorcoach tour company offered optional excursions. If you want to get the most out of your trip, these are mandatory. These excursions took us on a speedboat ride across Lake Garda, a boat ride down the main business canal in Venice, and special Italian dinners at small local restaurants.

16. Buy a waist pouch or neck pouch to hold your passports and other essentials beneath your clothing. Make sure it is also shielded to prevent thieves from using portable scanners to read your plastic card numbers.

17. Italy seems almost crime-free except for the threat of pickpockets. Anytime you are in a large group on the street, be protective of your wallet, money, and plastic cards. My wife almost lost her purse to a pickpocket who entered the hotel breakfast room, casually draped his jacket over her purse on a chair, and attempted to walk off with it. Don't be paranoid, just be alert.

18. Keeping in touch with family in the U.S. Some cell phone carriers have roaming agreements in Europe. Others do not. Two options exist: buy a special prepaid cell phone for use in Europe. Or buy a calling card that accepts voice mail messages and allows you to call home. We used the calling card in a hotel and there was no additional charge to use the hotel phone.

19. Religion. Obviously, Italians are generally Roman Catholic. But their undeclared religion is Gelato (ice cream), coffee (espresso, cappuccino) and just good food all the time. It is everywhere.

20. Customs coming back to the U.S. You will be asked to declare purchases. They are duty-free if under $800. Stick to packaged products, canned, or bottled. Raw or cured meats are not allowed.

21. When you land in the U.S., if that airport is not your final destination, you will have to claim your bags, go through customs and security, and then recheck your bags for the final flight home.

22. If you see the word "Coperta" on your restaurant bill, that means you are paying a small cover charge for the privilege of sitting inside.

23. The flight from Chicago to Rome was about 9.5 hours. On the way back, we paid an additional $134 per seat for six inches of extended leg room. It was more than worth it.

24. Using the suggestion of the tour company, we tipped the motorcoach driver, 2.5 Euros per person per day, and the travel director and guide 4 Euros per person per day. Like many in the guest service industry, they work on nominal salary to be made up by tips for doing a good job. When you have a local guide, that person should be tipped, too.

25. Study the history or Rome. It was founded in 753 BC. When you see where the Circus Maximus once stood, it will help you understand how an once-spectacular arena (watch the movie Ben-Hur again) is now nothing more than a grassy elongated hole in the ground.

26. American-style fast food. Very scarce. Don't count on it.

27. One interesting feature of Italian hotel rooms is a method designed to conserve electricity. When you swipe your room key to get into the room, you then insert the key into a slot in the wall inside the room. This keeps the electricity on. When you pull the card out of the wall slot, the electricity goes off.

28. If you leave your hotel on your own for a walk around the city, take the name of the hotel and the address. It is so easy to get lost in the narrow, winding streets of Italy. Further, write down the cell phone number of your tour guide.

29. You may be reading this and wondering if you should take a guided motorcoach tour. The answer is YES! The major tour companies pack a lot of financial clout. At the Vatican museum and the Colosseum, the lines of individual travelers were so long, the wait must have been four hours or more in the hot sun. The tour buses arrive at special times and we enter the sites through special gates so there is no waiting. The tour bus director is your local guide, in this case an Italian with a good command of English. He knows the nooks and crannies of the cities, the best restaurants, the sights you do not dare miss. Your suitcases are brought to your hotel room. At specialized destinations, such as the statue of David in Florence, a local expert guide steps in to cover all the details. To spend a week on your own in Italy one would not see or do one-quarter of what our tour group did, and with a lot more frustration. Motorcoach tours are not just for senior citizens. Our coach was filled with honeymooners, young professionals, middle-aged people, and a few of us retirees.

30. Finally, pack light. Bring walking shoes. Leave room in your checked bag for the great souvenirs sold in Italy.
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Published: 10/1/2013
Bouquets and Brickbats