So, you’re going to Italy to study abroad. It’s a dream come true. You can’t wait to leave. You’re also a little overwhelmed about what you need to do before you leave and what to expect when you finally arrive.
I remember it like it was yesterday and, believe me, I knew next to nothing about how to navigate a completely new city (let alone one where I barely spoke the language). I only wish I had done a little more research before I left. If you’re reading this ahead of your departure, then you’re already ahead of the game, good work! If you’ve already left, well you’ve already seen, and perhaps found yourself in, some of those classic pitfalls. Not to worry. You’ve all come to the right place. Let us give you a helping hand.
In these blog posts we will provide you with all the most important info you will need for:
Part I. Pre-departure & Arrival
Part II. Getting Settled & Learning The Ropes
Part III. Advanced Travelers & Beyond
If we have forgotten anything, let us know in the comment section below. We’re here to help. So sit back and enjoy Part I of the Top Ten Tips for Studying Abroad in Italy (with special attention to the city of Florence).
Yeah, we know.
Part I: pre-departure & arrival (click the links to jump to the section of your choice)
1. Money (how much to bring, how to get more, and where to get it for less)
2. Packing (what to bring, what to leave, and how to fit it all in)
3. Arrival Info (which are the best and easiest airports, tips for picking your flights, and how to take the trains so you can get to a bed ASAP)
Know What You’re Getting Into:
It’s a subtle thing, but money is treated very differently in Italy. Europe, and Italy especially, are still primarily cash cultures. Unlike Americans, who hardly ever have cash and can put a $.50 candy bar on their credit card, Italians rarely (though it is slowly changing) pay with credit cards for anything under 200 Euro. They are also rather particular about cash in that they hate any bills higher than a 20 if it means there is a lot of change to make. They will happily wait for you to pay with exact change even if it means slowly counting out small coins.
Since so much of your money will come from ATMS that almost always dispense in large denominations, you will have to deal with this Big Bill issue a lot. “I can’t break this fifty,” is one of the most common complaints I hear and sadly, I don’t have a ton of great advice for dealing with it. I try and think about it as one of the funny, if somewhat tiresome, differences between our cultures. I also have a coffee bar where I frequent often enough that they don’t mind the occasional 50 and I take the opportunity when out at a nice restaurant to use only big bills. It’s a delicate dance where you learn to cherish your 5’s, 10’s, and 20’s and you try to purge your 50’s with as little a grimace as possible from the cashier. Chin up, we all deal with it.
Now, how you get those 50’s in the first place is the next question. These days all you really need is your ATM and/or debit card and some savvy know-how to make sure you are not wasting any of that hard-earned cash on transaction fees and international charges. Here’s a break down of the best ways to use that plastic to your advantage.
The absolute easiest system I have found is just using your debit card/ATM card at the nearest ATM. If you are a Bank of America user, for example, you have access to BOA’s sister bank in Italy, BNL (really just a sister bank of BNP Paribas). They allow their customers to take money out for free – no charge. It’s basically the same as being at home (so awesome!). I am careful to only use BNL ATMs, to keep track of my spending, and to incorporate a weekly stop by the bank to be sure I always have cash for emergencies.
Many banks have sister banks in various countries and you can find out by checking their website or giving them a call. If they don’t have one in your particular country, it may be worth the time and effort to just open up an account with a bank that does. Charges on foreign ATMs can range from $5 -10 dollars, depending on the banks involved and that can really add up after an extended stay abroad. Some banks have packages available for foreign travel, which include a certain number of international withdrawals, but you’re highly likely to exceed them. Even taking out the maximum amount of money each time and eating the charge, say $5 for every 300 Euro you take out, that is still a little over 1% charge (depending on the current rate of Euro to dollar).
If you plan to use your ATM exclusively and are planning on doing a lot of traveling, make sure you do your research. Find out if your bank has sister branches in those countries too. If they don’t, make sure you have enough cash to get through the weekend without having to take more money out and potentially lose another 5 bucks. I know it sounds silly, but I promise, you’ll thank us on the last week of your trip when you just want one last gelato.
While it is always a good idea to have at least one credit card on hand, we recommend using it only in an emergency. Credit cards in Europe can be a bit expensive. Check with your bank, but international charges can range from around 3%-6% per purchase. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Just wait until you buy that 200 Euro leather jacket and they tack on another 6 Euro, which is another 10 bucks. Then multiply that for every 200 Euro you spend. There is a better way to spend that money, I promise (pizza, for example).
If you do decide to bring a credit card, keep in mind that VISA is your safest bet (it is, for sure, everywhere you want to be…). There are also some great credit cards available now that have NO international fees. Be aware that they can have a much higher APR and a substantial annual fee, but if you’re planning on studying abroad for a year, or even 6 months, it may be worth the effort and the cost to get one. We have had a great experience with the Chase Sapphire card, just to name one. Plus you can use the points you gain to help get your parents a flight out to visit you, or a ticket to another dream destination. Just remember to pay your bill!
Before You Leave Home:
IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no guarantee (ever) in Italy that 1. there will be an ATM at the airport or 2. that said ATM is working. So before you leave, head to your bank and get enough Euros to at least cover your first cab and a coffee (100 Euro would be a safe amount). If you can, watch the exchange rate online (here, for example) and jump on the rates when they are low. Exchange rates tend to be the worst during the summer season. Anything below 1.3 is typically a steal these days and tends to drop down around January (or when Italy and Greece occasionally threaten to break from the EU). Once you are all set up and somewhat settled, you can hit up a working ATM near your house. They are everywhere in Florence.
Another thing to keep in mind is the maximum withdrawal amount. Typically, a bank will only allow you to take out at most 250 Euro a day. Should the maximum amount on the ATM not be sufficient and you have access to a sister bank, you can always ask your bank to increase that maximum for a certain amount of time. Usually they will put a one or two week limit on it for your safety. Just plan ahead if you’ll need to cover your first month’s rent or buy that Vespa you are eyeing right away.
P.S. – Word to the wise, when using international ATMs, only use those associated with banks and not those connected to stores or freestanding units. ATM Card fraud can happen more easily than you think, and is a total and utter pain to deal with (hence the emergency credit card should, god forbid, your debit card get deactivated). So be careful, be cautious, and keep an eye on your bank statements.
P.P.S. – To avoid any possible issue with your debit card be sure you call your bank and let them know you will be traveling! Give them your exact dates of travel and the additional countries, if any, you will be traveling to. This is will help decrease the chance of your bank, fearing your card has been jeopardized, freezing your account. It used to happen to me rather often and is easily fixed with a phone call, but can still result in up to 24 hours without access to your account. Booooo!
Asking The Tough Questions.
Really think you need 5 pairs of teal pants? Do you know how much that hair dryer weighs? Think you’ll really wear that raggedy old sweatshirt? Most important of all, do you know where you’re landing and how long you’ll have to carry that bag through the labyrinthine bowels of the often poorly designed airports and train stations? Well, hopefully you’re not leaving in the next few hours…
With pre-departure packing there are quite a lot of variables. Are you going for Fall, Spring, or Summer semester? Do you tend to change clothes once a day or once a week (hopefully the former…)? Are you planning any special trips to tropical or subarctic locations (Mallorca in Spring or England in Winter…)? While we can’t cater to each individual student, we can help you avoid some potential mistakes by starting with what NOT to pack first.
Things NOT To Bring:
•Clothes that require dry cleaning only
Stick with Mitch Hedberg here…if it says dry clean only on the tag, it means that it’s probably DIRTY. In general, dry cleaning and laundry services are far from perfect and Italian washing machines can be really hard on clothes. If you need to send things out, you do so at your own risk. We have seen items lost, shrunk, and destroyed. If you want that high-maintenance shirt or dress to be in a similar state when you get home, well, it may be best to leave it there. You can always wash delicates in the sink if you have to, but you’ll want to keep that to kind of thing to a minimum. When in doubt, keep it simple. And that doesn’t mean you can’t dress up. Far from it. See below.
•Tons of hoodies, sweat pants, or college-themed clothing
Sounds silly, but these quickly identify you as an American. While the fact that you are speaking English will do the same thing, these items can have negative connotations you may not expect. Hoodies and sweatpants (no matter the brand) are never worn out of the house (I don’t think they’re worn at all, really). In fact, Italians rarely “dress down.” With the exception of a certain contingent of young university students, Italians have very high standards of appearance and never look “sloppy.” You might need one pair of sweatpants and/or a sweatshirt if you are here in the colder months, but that’s it. Going out, even just to get a coffee, means getting dressed and making an effort. It’s not a requirement, but now you’ll know what all the stares are about if you do go out for a wake-me-up in your jammies. People only make the mistake once.
I owned my share of 2-hour heels – the kinds of shoes that are meant to be worn in the cab and are like two-hour time bombs. You can swing it in a city like New York, but not in Italy. First of all, cabs are costly and you may be flying solo around town just to wear those cute shoes. Second, cobblestone in heels is a hell no woman needs to bear and no shoe truly survives. And third, you will probably buckle (har har) and buy a pair of gorgeous Italian leather shoes anyway, so unless you can wear your favorite pair for at least four hours (and I mean the real four hours), just leave them at home. At least in Italy you may have a chance at finding some that are cute, souvenir worthy, and built for the streets and the amount of walking you will do (so so so so much).
•Purses without zippers
These bags are great in theory, but without a zipper you are ten times more likely to be targeted by pickpockets (yes, they exist). Leave the wide-open tote at home and bring the safer zippered bag instead. In all honesty, you could really leave all but a personal bag at home since the urge to buy a new one will be strong (very strong) and it means you’ll have even less space on the flight back.
By appliances I am referring to hair dryers, flattening/straighten irons, men’s shavers and other pluggable bathroom products.
Sadly ladies (and gents), the stories you’ve heard are true. Your hair dryer will blow the fuse and your flattening iron will not get as hot with a converter. You can use them for a while, but the change in wattage will eventually kill them. One day the wiring will simply fry. So, instead of bringing them, and watching them die a slow and painful death, just leave the American versions at home. Your hotel/apartment building/host family/student housing will thank you for not making them constantly reboot the power, and your pocketbook will thank you when you return to the States.
Now, I know some of you are shocked and appalled, but wait for me to explain.
First off, you are hot no matter what. Second, if you have roommates you can all go in together on an Italian hair dryer and share it. Maybe even sell or donate it to someone arriving after you. Third, you may find that your Italian apartment or host family already has one from a previous student. And last, but not least, you’ll be so glad they are not in your luggage when you are dragging that thing up a fourth floor walk up! Learn some new hair-dos before you leave. Or get your hair done once in the middle of your semester and be satisfied (Florence has three Aveda salons that will happily wash, dry, and style your hair). Besides, you can survive for four months with an Italian version. Most Italian women take cold showers and never dry their hair with a dryer or flat iron it, so you won’t be alone if you decide to go natural.
•Toiletries (most of them anyway)
This is a tricky one since there will be some products that you simply can’t find in Italy. If there is a brand you simply MUST have (medicated or otherwise) then do consider bringing it, but choose carefully. I see so many students arrive with costco-size toiletries only to throw them out (not even half used) at the end of the semester to make room for gifts and souvenirs. Besides the space, the weight alone should be a huge deterrent to packing too many toiletries. Wouldn’t you rather have your favorite jeans than your favorite mouthwash?
Almost anything you buy at CVS, Rite-Aid, or Duane Reade can be found in some form here, including contact solution, face wash, and most over-the-counter medication (check with your doctor please!). As a compromise, take advantage of the amazing travel-size toiletry aisle. These smaller and lighter toiletries last longer than you think and will certainly get you through your first week or so. This will also give you time to scout out your options. Also, (great news for the gentlemen out there) hair gel just happens to be one of the few products that Italy sells in bulk. Enjoy!
For some great packing tips on how to get everything you DO decide to pack into your suitcase, see this post as well.
3. ARRIVAL INFO A.K.A: planes, trains, and automobiles
If you are studying in Rome or Milan you have a pretty obvious choice when it comes to airports. Florence, however, has a few options.
•Florence Airport, Peretola (FLR):
Peretola is obviously the preferred airport for ease of travel if you are studying in Florence.
Pros: The airport is small and easy to maneuver. Getting into the city of Florence is, obviously, by far the easiest from this airport. Taxis are plentiful and cost a flat rate of 20 Euro (note: additional cost can be added for carrying bags and /or odd hours) and there is a public bus every 20 minutes that costs about 5 Euro and drops you at the train station.
Cons: These flights can be at less convenient times and can sometimes cost slightly more. However, the extra time, energy, and cost of train tickets from Rome or Milan (where flights may be cheaper) may not be worth it. The cost of getting from the Rome airport to Florence, for example, can be about 60 Euro (120 if you are doing it round trip) and will add 2 hours of travel to your trip. Unless the price difference is big enough to justify the loss of time and money, fly into Florence.
•Pisa Airport, Galileo Galilei (PSA):
The Pisa airport is the second best option for getting to Florence.
Pros: Pisa is another small and manageable airport. It is just a short train ride or bus ride into Florence (both take you to the Florence train station) and many of the travelers flying into this airport are making the same journey. Note: the Terravision bus into Florence is cheaper (5 Euro) and a bit easier than the train, especially if you are new to Italy (highly likely! See here for information on the Terravision bus).
Cons: The cost of a bus or train ticket can be less than taxi fare from the Florence airport, but you may not want to wait for a crowded bus or train after the long flight. Remember that you will be carrying your own luggage and there may be standing room only on full trains (more incentive for taking the bus, fyi).
•Rome Airport, Leonardo da Vinci International, Fiumicino (FCO):
Another city that is often used to get to Florence is Rome, Select’s third preferred airport.
Pros: Tickets to this airport are typically less expensive and there are more flights and more carriers available for those using miles or for those who have a preferred airline.
Cons: The trip to Florence, especially for someone who does not speak Italian and who has never traveled in Italy before, can be difficult. It involves a short train ride to the main train station in Rome to catch a second longer train to Florence (just one-way can cost as much as 60 Euro). Keep in mind that the trains do not run 24-hours and some flights may get in too early or too late to actually take advantage of these trains. While there are always cabs, the Rome airport is a bit further out of town than Florence’s and the cab ride is a bit more costly.
Rules & Reminders About Air Travel To Italy:
• LAYOVER DANGER! Sites that offer super cheap tickets often sneak in itineraries where you are forced to sleep overnight in the airport. Be extra careful to check the date you arrive and leave to make sure it is the same day! If you are flying home in the winter months from Florence’s airport, try and buffer as much as possible. FLR, bless its heart, has a bit of a bad rep for delayed flights when the weather is bad. Just to be sure, it might be a good idea to budget some layover time in case you have any trouble.
• HOLY EURO ARMY TIME! Don’t forget to watch for that tricky army time if you’re using a European airline. This can add to the confusion with layovers so just be sure to double, triple check. For those who are mathematically challenged, click here.
• CHARLES DE GAULLE FAIL. In case you haven’t heard, Charles de Gaulle, Paris’ main airport, is one of the worst places for layovers. If you can, avoid it at all costs. Flights traveling from the US through Paris to Italy almost always leave from a terminal that is a long bus ride away. It forces you to physically leave the airport, pass through security AGAIN, and lose a lot of time trying not to get lost. If you have less than a 2.5 hour layover, you’re at risk of missing your flight. Don’t chance it. Skip that awful place and the nightmare it will cause you.
• ALITALIA ATE MY LUGGAGE. Alitalia has a very bad (and well-earned) reputation for losing luggage. If you are flying Alitalia, be sure to pack an extra change of clothes in your carryon and anything you can’t live without for more than 24 hours. It is also a good idea to have the phone number and address of the school, hotel, or host family with whom you are staying so the airline can get in touch when they finally find your bag. They will want to drop it off with you, so it is best to know EXACTLY where you are going.
Train travel is a wonderful, wonderful thing…but not so much when you have had no sleep, have bags that weigh as much as a dead body, and haven’t slept in 18+ hours. If you know you’re going to be traveling via train in the above described state, then read this carefully before you fly in for a semester or summer abroad.
Train Travel, Basic Reminders and Warnings:
If you are traveling by train, be sure you know the name of the station you are going to. Florence, for example, has three train stations with the word “Florence” in them (Firenze in Italian…an important thing to commit to memory). The main station is called “Firenze, Santa Maria Novella,” or “Firenze SMN.” That is where you will likely be getting off. Not “Firenze, Campo di Marte” or “Firenze, Rifredi,” the two stations that serve the residential areas outside the city. Once you have seen Firenze SMN you won’t forget it. It has a particular pre-WWII look, and definitely feels like the end of the line. If your train does stop at Rifredi or Campo di Marte, it will happen right before Santa Maria Novella, so it’s also a good way to tell you’re getting close. Just be careful because the first time you might jump the gun and that means either waiting for the next train or cabbing it, which is expensive. Don’t underestimate how tired you will be during your first trip, so be sure to memorize Santa Maria Novella as your final destination.
Tickets & Train Types:
Tickets can be printed at automated machines, by tellers, scanned on smart phones, or printed from home if you sign up on the Trenitalia website. The automated machines are very easy to use and the lines usually move quickly, whereas waiting for a teller at big hubs can take up to an hour on a bad day. Keep in mind that the automated machines ONLY accept European credit cards, so bring cash.
The standard ticket will always have your departure and final destination (note: YOUR final destination, not necessarily the train’s), the number of passengers traveling on that ticket, a class (as in first or second), and the price. With trains that have assigned seats, you will also see a Carrozza (coach) number and a Posti (seat) number.
There are a variety different kinds of trains: super slow REGIONAL, somewhat slow INTERCITY, fast and fancy EUROSTAR, and super fast and super fancy FRECCIA ROSSA / FRECCIA ARGENTO. There is also a new independent company called ITALO that runs a more affordable fast train between the major hubs like Rome, Florence, and Milan.
It used to be that the slow regional trains were more frequent. They tended to make more stops at smaller and less popular towns and cities. In the last decade, they have come out with much nicer faster trains that can get you from Rome to Milan in the same time most people eat lunch. The only down side about these new trains is that they cost quite a bit more. Poor students used to take the 6-hour train from Rome to Florence to save the cash, but these are now very infrequent and sell out fast.
If you take the super-fast train (called the Freccia Rossa, Argento or the Eurostar) you will get an assigned seat (you can even pick seats so that you and friends can sit together) and there is no need to do anything but arrive, sit, and produce your ticket when the conductor comes through. (Tip: take it out and put it on the table if you’re going to fall asleep right away.)
However, THIS IS IMPORTANT, if you take a regional train (that doesn’t have assigned seats) you will need to STAMP your ticket before getting on the train. If your ticket has no date, time, or assigned seat, it is an open-ended ticket. You could hypothetically use it at any time, so if you don’t validate it, it implies that you are trying to scam the system by riding without officially paying. If the train conductor catches you, he will charge you a fee for not validating your ticket. The validation machines can be found on the pillars right in front of the tracks (called binari). The validation machines are green and Grey (see photo). Other people will be doing it too, so just look around and DON’T FORGET! Place the ticket, short side first, into the ticket reader, wait for the sound of the stamp, and then remove. Make sure you can read the numbered date (at least reasonably) on the end of the ticket. If not, re-stamp on another side and hope the train conductor is in a good mood.
When you arrive at the train station, look for the electronic departure board that lists the upcoming trains. The next ten to fifteen departures are usually listed in order by departure time along with train number and final destination. Keep in mind that your final stop may not be the train’s final stop, so check the train time or train number to be sure you know which is yours. When the train is ready, a track number will be assigned and shown on the board under “bin,” which is short for binario, which means “track.” When the bin is up, follow the crowd to the appropriate track number, usually well labeled. In some stations this may involve going underground to reach far off tracks, so get a sense of the station if you aren’t familiar with it.
Many stations now have the added feature of being able to tell you, before the train has arrived, roughly where each coach will stop. This means that you can know where to stand so you can jump onto your specific carozza (coach in English) right away. If not, hover in the middle of the track until you know whether the train is coming in with car 1 in front or car 14. This will save you time wandering up and down what can be a very long train.
Tips, Tricks, & FYIs
•Getting Discount Eurostar Tickets!!
If you’re already planning to take a trip, go get your tickets ASAP! Certain trains will have a certain number of discounted seats – but they sell out fast! You can buy them from the machine, but they are a little hidden and tricky to find. Your best bet is just going and waiting in line for a teller. If you manage to plan at least a month ahead of time, you can buy tickets that are designated as “Super Economy” or “Economy.” These can be very, very cheap, but cannot be refunded or changed (kind of like economy plane tickets). If you plan with enough time or are willing to be flexible with your train times, you can get a Eurostar ticket from Rome to Florence for as low as 19 Euro (a fare that typically costs 43 Euro!). So be smart and get organized! The more trips you can tack down, the more you can save. Besides, when a ticket is that cheap, having to cancel for an emergency doesn’t sting so bad.
• Changing tickets and refunds
With the full price tickets you can change or refund at any time up until the departure time of your train. To refund, you will have to speak to one of the ticket office tellers and the refund will be discounted 20% from what you originally paid. If you want to change the ticket to a different date or station, simply go to the automated machines, and follow the instructions. You will need the CPN code on your ticket, usually in the lower right hand corner. Once you have changed the date and time, the machine will print out a supplementary ticket that you will need to show IN ADDITION to the original ticket, so keep them both close. Note: you cannot change the specific route on your ticket, only the date and time. If you would like to change your departure and/or destination city, you will have to see a teller.
• Sciopero (read: sho-per-oh, or “strike” in English)
This is a rather important word when it comes to train (and bus and plane) travel in Italy. It means “strike.” Learn it, live it, love it. You have no choice, unfortunately.
Strikes happen about once every two months and are usually preceded by a notice of the trains (or buses) that will be affected in the local news. Usually the faster trains like Eurostar are not affected, which is another incentive to spend the extra money. If you have an important trip, just keep your ears open in the local bars and cafes or check the trenitalia website for updates. Either way, you are bound to hit one at some point. In the event that you are caught in one, check both the machines and the teller to see if there is an alternate route to get to your destination. Otherwise get comfortable living La Dolce Vita.
Find the next tips in:
Top Ten Tips for Studying Abroad in Florence or Italy Part II!