Q. How do I sign up?
A. If you are ready to sign up for an IWF tour, just go to the "Contact" page and download the forms.
Q. How many bags can I bring?
A. You are allowed one (1) roller bag (this can be no bigger than 26x17x11 including rollers. I know I get many questions on the size of this bag. I know there are many different sizes out there. I have found many that fit these dimensions, so I know you can as well. If the size measures 1/2 to 3/4 inches more than 26, then you should be fine. If it goes over 27 inches, it DOES NOT WORK. This dimension has to include wheels as well, do not forget that. Width can be a bit wider and I am not worried about depth. Most bag are expandable and they will grow during the trip. That is why the height limit has to be met. The van can only hold so many bags and when you bring one larger than these requirements, it does mess up the puzzle. I am sorry, but if your bag does not meet these standards, you must find another bag. I know there are Duffle type bags that do not really fit the above dimensions exactly, just make sure they are not any more than the 26 inch height. ). You are also allowed one (1) small carry on type bag. (This should be a small tote bag, duffle bag or backpack. No rollers allowed on carryon bag, sorry but a rolling computer bag is too large.) I must stress that available space in the van is very limited!!! You will also be in charge of handling your bags at all times. (Click here for Smart Travel packing suggestions)
Q. Do I need a passport?
A. Yes! Make sure you get one if you don't, and make sure it is valid if you already have one. For passport information and applications check out many US Post Offices. You can also go to www.travel.state.gov. You do not need a visa to enter Italy. (You only need your VISA credit card for all that shopping! Ha!)
GETTING A PASSPORT:
First time applicants must apply in person at one of 9,000 passport acceptance facilities. These facilities include many post offices, libraries and other government offices. Find one at www.iafdb.travel.state.gov. Many renewal passports can be done by mail. Forms are at www.travel.state.gov.
You will need: proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or old passport; proof of identity, such as a valid driver's license; two identical passport photos. You can get these photos done many places, including Walgreens, etc. (Warning: do not take photo with sunglasses on or even on your head. A friend had hers on top of her head and they would not accept the photo.)
The cost of a passport seems to change regularly. You will need to check the website for current prices. It is taking much longer to process applications, so do not wait to order yours.
Most passports are good for 10 years.
Q. What about money?
A. Italy is a member of the European Union so they use the Euro. The exchange rate changes almost daily. There are several ways to get Euro.
You can buy them before you leave from most banks in the US. I have done this through Bank of America. (www.bankofAmerican.com) It is convenient, but you do pay a higher exchange rate than using an ATM. It is still cheaper and easier than exchanging dollars for Euro at currency exchange places. It does help to have some Euro when you arrive for tips, taxi and food.
The easiest and fastest way is to use ATM's in Italy. They are everywhere and you usually get the best exchange rate. Most airports have one available. There is usually a limit of how much you can get each transaction. It seems to be about 250 euro. Be sure that your ATM card PIN is numerical. There are no letters on Italian ATM machines.
You can also use credit cards in most stores and cities. There will be some places however, that only accept cash. Sometimes you can get better deals with cash as well. Travelers checks are also accepted in many stores, but not everywhere, I would use this as a last resort.
It is very important that you notify your bank and credit card companies before you leave the US that you will be traveling overseas. This will prevent any hassles in getting your money or making charges. Also, get phone numbers where you can call in case of problems.
If you want to see the latest exchange rates go to www.oanda.com. You can also print out a very helpful "cheatsheet" here with exchange rates. www.bloomberg.com is another good resource for exchange rates.
VAT or Value Added Tax - A 20% sales tax is already included in the price of merchandise in Italy. If you purchase more than 155 Euro worth of goods at a store that participates in the VAT-refund program, you are entitled to get most of the tax back. Unfortunately not all stores provide this service, but it is worth looking for the "Tax Free" notice. You will have to fill out a form (must have your passport with you) and keep your receipt. Most merchants will fill out most of the form for you. In order to get your refund you will have to present the paperwork at your airport departure customs agent that deals with VAT refunds. I usually ask the agent at the check in counter when I am getting my boarding pass for the location. The refund is given in either cash (euro) or credit card. Do plan to give yourself a little extra time at the airport. Sometimes you will have to show the merchandise and it must be unused, so keep it in your carryon. Depending on how much of a "mad shopper" you have been, it can really add up.
Q. Will my cell phone work overseas?
A. Some wireless companies offer an "international calling" option, which you have to request before you leave. Check with your provider to see if they offer coverage in Italy. It is getting easier to use your own phone. I have used mine often and it works great. If you do have a smart phone such as an IPhone, you will also need an "international data plan" as well. *Do not leave home without this or you will pay for it dearly later. Once again, check with your service provider for details. You can also rent a cell phone through companies on the Internet. I have also used pre-paid phone cards that you can purchase here with prepaid minutes, but you use up your minutes faster overseas.
Q. Will I be able to check my email or use a computer during the trip?
A. Internet service is provided in all the hotels we use. Sometimes there is a fee and some are free. Most of the tour hotels have a computer you can use. You will not have a problem getting online. Italy is definitely into all types of technology.
Q. What about bringing electrical appliances?
A. If you bring any electrical appliance (hair dryer, hot curlers, computer, digital camera chargers, etc.), you will need a converter or an adapter which you can get at Best Buy, Radio Shack, etc. There are many places online that sell them as well. The electricity supply is 220watts (ours is 110watts), which means your appliance should have a switch that you can turn to the correct voltage. If it doesn't you will need a transformer/converter, because an adapter alone will not be sufficient. You are responsible for providing the correct adaptors/converters for your appliances, not the hotel or Italy With Friends. Just a reminder, all the hotels we use do have hair dryers. You can also buy most appliances in Italy.
Q. What is the time difference between here and Italy?
A. Italy is 6 hours ahead of EST and 7 ahead of CST. Texas falls under CST. This means you will be jetlagged the first few days. I find that if I put myself on Italian time right away, I adjust quicker. I try to go to sleep at a descent hour the first night. I have also been known to go to bed as early as 6pm if I am really tired. Air travel is just exhausting and you will be tired when you arrive in Italy. Some will have been up for over 24 hrs. You should not let yourself take a nap as soon as you arrive however. It really helps to get outside as quickly as possible. The fresh air can help revive you. It is very important to get a good nights sleep that first night and then wake up at a normal time the next morning. It may help to take a sleeping pill like Ambien the first night so that you will actually sleep.
Q. What is the weather like during the months of the tours?
A. Weather in Italy is very similar to the weather in Maryland or Virginia. Spring is a lovely time of year, but can still be rainy. It can also be a little cool, especially in the evening. Be sure to bring along rain gear and a light jacket. Late spring can be warm during the day. Spring is especially beautiful in the countryside where wildflowers such as poppies and Iris may be in bloom. Sadly, we are not there during the sunflower season. Summer like anywhere can be HOT, so come prepared with cool clothes and sunscreen! You will have a lot of daylight during this period which is great for sightseeing. September and October are also wonderful times to visit Italy. It usually is cooler than in the Spring and you will definitely need to bring a light jacket. October can be rather warm some years, so be prepared and check out the forecasted temperatures before you leave to pack appropriately. Everything is green and the grape vines may have begun to turn to their fall colors. It can really be spectacular. Even if it rains in Italy, it is still so beautiful! The daylight hours do get shorter in the fall. Also, just a note on air-conditioning. Italy regulates its usage and it is usually only allowed between June through September. By law, hotels cannot provide A/C (or heating) outside of summer (or winter). I have however been able to use it in May and October when it is really hot at some hotels???
Q. Will there be time to do things on your own?
A. Although I have listed a day to day itinerary, I have tried to leave some personal time. I know how tiring traveling can be and that you do need some down time. I also have tried to limit too many early mornings. There will be time most evenings where you can be on your own.
**Since we spend several days in each city, you also have the option to stay at the hotel instead of joining the planned activities. You can certainly plan your own activity at your own expense. Please remember, there will not be any refund for unused portions of the trip, or for meals that a traveler wishes to have away from the group.
Q. What are included meals like and what if I'm vegetarian/have allergies/ require a particular diet?
A. Breakfast is always included, served at our hotel, and will be a buffet type with many choices in both food and beverages. Included lunch or dinner will be at local restaurants and you will order off a regular menu or may have a set menu with several options available for each course. Bottled water, tea or coffee is included with all meals. Wine is included will all dinners. (2 glasses per person, red or white) Beer, soft drinks or cocktails are never included. Even though Italian specialties include salami, prosciutto, dairy products, and savory meat sauces, there will usually be plenty of choices without as well. Italians eat much more organic than we do most of the time. Of course, enjoying the Italian cuisine is a huge part of this tour. Also, remember there will be lots of wine tasting. If you do require particular dietary needs, please let me know before departure. I will do my best to try and meet your dietary needs, but do keep in mind that Italian food is "Italian food", and a big part of it may not be on your diet.
Q. Am I going to be able to bring back food or wine?
A. Yes, you will, but not all kinds of foods are allowed. You cannot bring meat products of any kind. You can bring cheese as long as it is vacuum packed. You won't be able to bring back any kind of plant or seeds. You can bring sealed products like chocolate, cookies, honey, extra virgin olive oil, etc. As far as wine and liquor is concerned, you can bring a total of 5 liters combined. (If you bring more, you will have to pay duty on it.) Of course, now carrying some of these items are prohibited, due to the TSA 3 oz. minimum in liquids rule. I have put wine or olive oil in my checked bags in wooden boxes that you can buy in most wineries. I also bring along some large zip-lock bags and even bubble wrap if I am seriously considering packing something breakable in by checked luggage. Another option is to have the wine or olive oil shipped home from Italy. This is the easiest even though it is a little pricey. (www.customs.gov)
Q. What about medications?
A. If you are on any prescribed medications, do bring plenty to last the entire trip. You may want to make a list of the medications that you take and their correct names and amount required. There are pharmacies all over Italy. You should be able to get medications if you have your doctors approval with you. This is just a safety precaution.
B. If you take over the counter med's for allergies, headaches, etc. you should bring those as well. You can buy these types of med's in Italy, but they may be different. I have allergies and always need extra medication while in Italy. It is better to have too much than too little. Also, if you have a tendency to motion sickness, however slight, bring along necessary precautions. There are many types of medications available, so come prepared. Most of the roads in the Tuscan countryside are very curvy and hilly. I will do my best to drive slow, but having the medication will benefit everyone on the trip.
C. It never hurts to have plenty of Band-Aids for those blisters that might arise from all the walking you will be doing. (Helps to have a comfortable pair of sandals along as well, just in case.) Also bring along antibiotic cream, insect repellent lotion (there are mosquitos in the Summer), sunscreen, skincare lotion,etc.
D. If you have any type of stomach problems you may want to bring a supply of antacids, laxatives, diarrhea medicine and good old Pepto Bismol tablets. Many people experience some stomach trouble just due to the change in time zones, unfamiliar type of foods and just eating several meals a day. Also, many dinners do not even start until after 7 pm. Better to be prepared. You would hate to miss something because you are too sick to leave your hotel room.
E. Just a note on Italian bathrooms. There is nothing worse than being sick on vacation, but then to have to be sick in a tiny, dark, dirty or "heaven forbid", unisex bathroom is just unimaginable. Sadly, the bathroom situation in Italy is not the best. Public bathrooms can be hard to find. Sometimes you have to pay a fee for bathroom use, but at least these are usually kept clean.
Q.How can I find out about flying to Italy?
A. Even though I do not include airfare on my trips, I will be glad to help you find the best way to get to your Italian destination. Go to my web-page on "FLYING TO ITALY" and you will find lots of information.
Q. What about tipping in Italy?
A. This can be a confusing topic for many traveling to Italy. Tipping in Italy is not as automatic and generous as it is in the US, but for special services, tips are appreciated, if not expected. As in the US, the proper amount depends on your resources, tipping philosophy, and the circumstances, but some general guidelines to apply.
Restaurants: Check the menu to see if the service is included (servizio incluso - generally 15 percent); if not, you could tip 5 to 10 percent for good service, though be advised that Italians rarely tip. Leave the tip on the table, or hand it to your server. If you pay by credit card, you will not see a line for a tip, so you must leave it in cash or your server may never get it. In Italy you will never be rushed to finish your meal and leave. Waiters are not as pressed to constantly be hovering over your table to provide you with service. Many times if you do need something, just ask politely and your waiter will come immediately. *Also just another note about dining out. You will see a charge on your bill for 'Coperto' (cover-charge). This is not a tip, but is rather a cover charge for basically sitting at the table and bread, olive oil, silverware, etc. This can range from 1-4 euro depending on the restaurant.* Taxis: To tip the cab driver, usually just round up. If the driver helps haul your bags (and they are really heavy), you might want to toss in a little more. (I have also read in several places that you should not tip taxi drivers at all, especially if the fare is already really high.) Special Services: Always it is polite to tip porters who carry your bags about 1 euro per bag. Maybe leave a couple of euro for maid service in your hotel. In general, if someone in the service industry does a super job for you , a tip of a couple of euros is appropriate and appreciated. When in doubt, ask. If you are not sure whether (or how much) to tip for a service, ask your hotel concierge or the tourist information office.
Q. What type of hotels are used?
A. The hotels used on an IWF tour are all 3-4 star properties. Most are centrally located and provide easy access for tour sightseeing. They are all very nice with air conditioning and private baths. They all have hairdryers available. Some are family owned properties with special touches. All the hotels will have Internet available, some free, but others will charge a fee. Many hotels in Italy are in very old buildings, so it is important to remember that everything may not be "perfect". You may have to climb stairs or wander through halls in order to find your room. Every room will not always be the same. Some hotels, especially in the larger cities, may not be totally sound proof. This is just a fact of life in Italy. Here are a few examples of some IWF tour hotels:
Rome - Albergo Santa Chiara, Hotel Aberdeen, Albergo Cesare, Hotel Pace Helvezia
Florence - Hotel Pendini, Hotel Silla,
San Gimignano - Hotel Leon Bianco, Hotel Cisterna
Siena - Hotel Athena
Italian Riviera - Hotel Vis a' Vis (Sestri Levante)
Venice - Hotel Ala, Hotel Violino D'Oro
Orvieto - Hotel Virgilio, Hotel Duomo
Q. How do I get from Rome airport into central Rome?
A. There are several ways to get into central Rome from Fumicino airport which is located several miles away.
1. You can easily take a taxi cab which is regulated by the city and runs around 48 Euro for the ride, not per person. The only drawback about a taxi is that sadly many taxi drivers are not honest and will try and overcharge you. Just make sure you set your price before you leave the airport. If you have a problem afterwards, go inside the hotel and ask them for help before you pay the driver. I take a taxi all the time and usually have no problems.
2. There are private car services available through your hotel. There is also a great website, email@example.com. You can set up your own private car or van pickup. It is very easy and the price is not much more than a taxi. The nice thing is that someone will meet you at the airport after you pick up your luggage and they will direct you to their van and get you to the hotel easily. You do not have to worry about anyone cheating you. You do have to pay in cash however.
3. There is a shuttle service available that you can find through www.viator.com.
4. There is a train, the Leonardo Express that will take you to the Termini Train Station. Just be prepared to walk quite a bit once you arrive at the train station. You will then need to take a taxi to the hotel, so sometimes this does not really save any money or time.
5. There are several buses that also go to the Termini Train Station. This is probably the least expensive way into town. It can take a while depending on traffic. Once again, you will have to take a taxi to the hotel from the station.
Q. Should I get Travel Insurance?
A. Travel insurance is a great way to protect your travel investment with trip cancellation insurance. There are many plans available on the Internet and at your local travel agency. Getting travel insurance is totally your decision. Here are a few websites: