Stamp Collected: Italy

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Italy – August 2017
Flight: $629* (via Norwegian)
Hotel: AirBNB Rome ($79 /night) | AirBNB Florence ($93 /night)

*Price only reflects a way one ticket from LAX.

I knew I was going to like Italy, but I didn’t think I’d be coming home Googling “hairdressing jobs in Rome for English speakers… but also 9% fluent in Italian.” (Side note: I had spent the 3 months prior to this trip learning to speak Italian.) I fell in love with this country that is filled with tons of history… and just as much gelato — that didn’t make me sick. Not even once. Lactose intolerant who?

Even though I did end up getting sick — stress related, not dairy — I loved walking the streets and admiring all the gorgeous buildings, each city so uniquely beautiful. During our 5 days in Italy, we explored Rome, Florence, Venice, and Cinque Terre. (That means 5 lands for all you non-Italian speakers. You’re welcome.)

Rome

Rome was definitely my favorite of the 4. Our AirBNB was in the absolute cutest neighborhood ever. Everrrr. Look at this street. Bellissima!

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We spent two days in Rome, and since we had tours booked for the second day, we went and visited all the typical tourist attractions during our first, starting at the Trevi Fountain.

Being the super-incredibly-single-nowhere-near-finding-a-boyfriend girl that I am, obviously, I had to throw the traditional three coins into the fountain. The first guaranteeing you return to Rome, the second a new romance, and the third ensuring marriage.

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The drunk text from a boy back home that I received seconds after wishing for love was the complete opposite of just that… so naturally I dove back into the fountain to reclaim my coin and took myself to Valentino to purchase a new pair of shoes instead — because, let’s face it, shoes over boys any day.

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With my new precious cargo in tow, we continued our sightseeing at the Spanish Steps, The Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. Obviously, I had to include my shoes in the pictures before I tucked them safely in my suitcase for the rest of the trip, away from all the dangers of gelato spills and annoying British girls (See: Croatia).

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Later that night, we headed out for some drinks because… wine not? We ended up becoming friends with our waiter who showed us around the nightlife, which was great for me because, not only did I get free wine, I also got to use my Italian… The. Whole. Night. Either I’m secretly fluent, or I was too drunk to notice I wasn’t making sense. Pretty sure it’s the former, but I do know I accidently called some guy’s girlfriend a sweater. My bad, girl. 

With an early tour booked the next morning, it didn’t take long for me to regret all the free wine, but there was no way I was skipping anything on the itinerary. So, like the good Catholic girl I am, I got my — still slightly drunk — self out of bed and headed to the Vatican. Oh, forgive me Father for I have sinned. I was on my own for the first part of the day, and although wandering the empty streets in the early morning was oddly quite peaceful, it was also the moment I realized I’ll never be a solo traveler. Who am I supposed to talk to? Who’s supposed to take all my Instagram pics? Who’s supposed to make me feel better about having gelato for breakfast?

We had pre-booked a Vatican and Colosseum tour through City Wonders since this would allow us to skip the lines at both. Not waiting 5 hours in line, cool. The guy that wouldn’t stop talking, not cool. I understand this is the whole point of having a tour guide, but I would have preferred wandering Vatican City on my own. He spent too much time telling me why there was a bee on the wall drapery and not enough time letting me relax under a tree in the gorgeous courtyard.

After walking through all the museums, we entered the Sistine Chapel. It was way smaller than I had imagined, and more just a room rather than a chapel. I actually had no idea I was even inside the Sistine Chapel until I noticed everyone looking up. This is when the guide decided to stop talking?

After exiting the Sistine Chapel, we continued into the stunning St. Peter’s Basilica. The guide provided us with some brief history of the church before ending the tour and, finally, allowing me to wander on my own. Amen!

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(Tip: Although the tours are booked together, they are two separate tours. You’re required to find your own transportation between the two locations, which unknown to me when booking, are on opposite ends of the city. Be sure to leave an adequate amount of time to reach the second meeting point.)

After my nap and picking up my adventure partner, we headed towards the Colosseum. Walking around this part of Rome is almost unreal, being surrounded by so much ancient architecture. This tour will take you around the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill while your guide tells the stories of all the history that surrounds you. Since there’s a lot to see, there won’t be much time to stop and look around, so be prepared for constant walking.

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Tip: When we first visited the Trevi Fountain around noon, we found the place completely packed. Before leaving Rome, we went back early morning around 7:45 a.m., and this is when we were able to snag all our pictures since it was practically deserted.
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Florence

Our next stop was Florence, and since the Italo train leaving from Rome takes about 1.5 hours, we made sure to catch the first departure in the morning. (Tip: I highly recommend purchasing these in advance. We had waited until we arrived at the train station that morning and ended up not only not having seats together but also in different train cars.)

By the time we reached Florence, we were exhausted, mostly because we had woken up at 6 a.m., and I was too busy guarding my shoes that I couldn’t take a nap on the train ride. So after grabbing a much needed caffĂš, we headed out to explore the gorgeous city.

Our sightseeing started at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Since we weren’t dressed modest enough to go inside, we had to admire this beauty from the outside only. Can’t say I was disappointed, though.

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Next, we headed towards the Duomo, which came highly recommended by my friend Brenda, and she’s Italian, so I was going to do anything she said. She could’ve told me to drink water from the Trevi Fountain, and I’d be like, “Well, if this is what Italians do….” 

Anyway, Brenda was right. The Duomo is gorgeous, but make sure you buy tickets in advance if you plan on going up inside. They were sold out until giovedĂŹ, which means Thursday, and I don’t know what day we were there on, but Thursday wasn’t anytime close, so, unfortunately, we were only able to admire this beauty from the outside. However, Brenda reassured me the outside is far prettier than the inside. Phew!

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Continuing on through the city, we headed towards Piazza della Signoria. Here you’ll find Neptune’s Fountain and a fake Statue of David — the real one is in a museum with a line going down the street. Pass. Sadly, the Statue of David was under construction, but that didn’t stop me from taking a super mature Snapchat zooming in on his privates. Oops. 

After stopping for another gelato, we made our way to Ponte Vecchio, which literally translates to old bridge — the oldest in Florence to be exact — and is known for the many jewelry shops that line it. Too bad I had spent all my souvenir money on shoes, so window shopping would have to suffice.

Once crossing the bridge, we continued down the street until we came to Boboli Gardens. There are a few different entrances to the park, including the main entrance at Pitti Palace, but our GPS took us to a smaller entrance a little farther down the road. Being so hot, we found a shaded bench to rest under before exploring the gardens, eventually heading up a hill and finding ourselves in Piazzale Michelangelo with a view overlooking the city. (Tip: We exited the park through Pitti Palace and noticed a rather long line at this entrance, as opposed to walking straight in at the smaller one we used.)

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We finished up our day exploring this beautiful city with dinner at Quattro Leoni, another recommendation from Brenda. Duh! All I have to say is to order the pear pasta. It sounds bizarre, but trust me. Delizioso!

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Venice

For our 4th day in Italy, we booked a round-trip train ticket to Venice through Italo. With not many huge tourist spots in this unique little city, we were able to just walk around without a list of things to get done, which was a nice change for me, the self-appointed tour guide of every trip.

However, there was one thing we needed to get done, though, because you can’t go to Venice and not take a gondola ride through the canals. No matter where you are in Venice, a gondola ride is the same set price – 80 EUR. So this means that when you find the one cute young gondolier in the sea of old men, you chase him down and ask for a ride. Those arm muscles — swoon! Too bad I noticed a wedding ring, so guess I’m still waiting for that whole Trevi-Fountain-will-find-you-love thing… Fingers crossed he’s Italian.

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The rest of the day we walked around exploring the streets, stopping in stores, avoiding all the dirty pigeons in Piazza San Marco, and, of course, eating gelato. After wandering aimlessly all day, it was quite the journey to make it back to the train station. I’m the queen of GPS, but I could not figure out how to get us out of those canals; what looks like a through street on the map, ended up being cut in half by a canal of water. Eventually, we made it out without having to swim upstream. On second thought, maybe we should’ve found the cute gondolier to row us out.

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Cinque Terre

On the last day, we finally headed to Cinque Terre. To reach this region of Italy, requires a 2-hour bus ride from Florence, so we booked an all-day tour through Ciao Florence. I had read mixed reviews, some saying it’s great, others saying you need more than a day to explore all the towns, but since the towns are small, there actually isn’t much to do in each one, aside from walking around or swimming… or eating gelato, so a day trip sounded perfect for us.

We started in Manarola and had maybe 15 minutes to wander around. Good thing it only took 7 minutes to walk from one end to the other, so we sat by the water for a while before catching the train to the next town.

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When we reached Vernazza, we headed up a path on our right side that would overlook the town. We were able to walk right through, but on our way out, we did notice a ranger-type guy taking tickets, so perhaps we lucked out by walking by when no one was working.

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The next stop was Monterosso. This was one of the bigger towns and where we would spend the most time. Here we were able to have lunch and take a swim in the ocean — the very salty ocean. We spent our extra time lying by the water, while others hiked up to the castle above the town.

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Following our relaxing lunch break, we took a boat to the final town, La Spezia. This town is rather tiny and has a super steep hill to get to the church at the top. Considering it was the end of the day and we didn’t have much energy left, we skipped the hike and sat and people watched for the few minutes we had before the long ride home.

It didn’t take much for Italy to become one of my favorite countries, between all the gelato, pasta and, of course, menwine… I mean, history. Everything about this trip was magical, and as I continue to sit here searching for new jobs, I’ll be dreaming of Italy and counting down the days until I can return again. Arrivederci, Italia.

Ready for takeoff? Flights | Hotels

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Fly High for a Low Fare

Traveling so often, people question how could I possibly afford all of it.

Am I secretly rich? Far from it. Do I work more than one job? Nope. Do I still live at home with my parents? Well, yes, that one is true, and it helps tremendously that I can put my “rent” into my travel savings account. But, no, my parents don’t give me money either, no matter how hard I give my dad puppy dog eyes while asking for extra cash. Puuuhhh-leeeeeeeze.

So now here I am, finally explaining to everyone how I’ve managed to keep my trips so inexpensive by sharing tricks on where to find the cheapest flights.

Picking a destination:

The first step, obviously, would be to pick a destination. On the off chance that you have no idea where you want to go, or if you want a last-minute, cheap getaway, Skyscanner has the option to “search everywhere.” It’ll bring up the cheapest destinations from any selected departure airport.

But…. If you have a long bucket list of destinations like I do, then you’ll want to spend less time finding cheap destinations and more time finding the cheapest flight to reach those destinations.

Finding the cheapest time to fly:

IMG_9785With my job, I’m lucky to have the perk of being able to leave whenever, so I’m able to work with when flights are cheap, rather than being limited to a certain time frame. This does mean that I’m sometimes traveling during the off season, though. Was trekking across Paris in the pouring rain ideal? No. But those will forever be my favorite memories.

The first stop on my cheap flight search engine checklist is Skyscanner (again…). They have a variety of different explore options, including being able to use “cheapest month” as your dates of travel. If you already have a specific time in mind, it’ll be good to know that it’s typically cheaper to fly on a Tuesday or Saturday, but if you choose “whole month,” Skyscanner will provide a day-by-day price comparison for your destination, so you can see the high and low days during that time of year.

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Once I have a timeframe in mind, I always “fact-check” with Google Flights. What I like most about Google Flights, that other search engines don’t do, is that Google will suggest changes in your flight plan to make it cheaper. Sometimes, leaving the night before or flying into a nearby airport will produce cheaper flight prices, so I always like to be aware of these options before making a final decision.

Tip: Southwest’s flights aren’t shown in search engines, so don’t forget to check their website for prices.

I was typically booking with Google Flights in the past, but I recently discovered JetRadar. When I compared a search between the two, JetRadar produced results up to $150 cheaper for my upcoming trip. This is because of the “self-connect” option, meaning that not only will I switch planes on a layover, I might also have to collect my baggage and switch airlines as well. For long flights that are broken up by layovers regardless — since I can’t afford a $2,000 one-way ticket for a non-stop — this option was super useful. However, I did notice it brought up flights with an unnecessary amount of stops for shorter flights, turning 6 hours of travel into 20.

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If I plan on making multiple stops on a trip, I’ll take all the destinations I plan to stop at along the way, and search for one-way tickets to and from each location, making the cheapest two options my starting and ending point. Flights within Europe are typically cheap (like I flew from Ireland to Paris for $14 cheap), so I never do as much research for all the little connecting flights. Instead, I refer to a good ‘ole map and plan those flights off the route that makes most sense geographically rather than cost.

Usually, I’d be the first one to urge you to make that purchase, don’t waste any time, what are you waiting for? Go. But it may be beneficial to wait a few days to ensure you’re getting the best deal.

When to buy:

Flight prices change often, so before you hit “purchase,” make sure you’re not buying during the high. Flights are often cheaper when purchased at the beginning of the week, opposed to being bought closer to the weekend. i.e. The same flight that was $600 on Friday, might only be $400 when you search again on Monday.

Other tips:

IMG_9792[1]Don’t wait too long to buy, though. I’ve never actually tested the theory that the Tuesday 6 weeks before the trip is the cheapest a ticket will ever be, but I do always book all my flights at least 6 weeks in advance.

And if you’ve chosen to fly on with a budget airline, be sure to read all the fine print. If you make sure you’re aware of the extras beforehand, even with add-ons, your flight can still cost less than with other airlines. It’s cheaper to add/pay for a checked bag online rather than at the check-in desk, and some airlines will require boarding passes to be printed prior to arrival at the airport to avoid additional fees. I strongly encourage to also pay to reserve a seat. Not because it matters if you’re seated next to your travel buddy, but flights are almost always overbooked, so reserving a seat will guarantee that you will get on the flight over a passenger who opted to not pay for reserving one, saving you from an unexpected sleepover at the airport. (Of course, in the event of flight vouchers being offered, though, you know I’m the first one running off that plane to claim one. Free flight? Yes, please!)

Ready for takeoff? Check out my useful packing tips before you go.

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