How to Plan a Romantic Trip for Two to Italy on a Tight Budget
My partner and I recently returned from an incredible 17-day trip to Italy (we visited Rome, the Cinque Terre, Bologna, and Venice). It was the culmination of much preparation and research, and our planning paid off: we were impressed by how affordable the trip (and especially the accommodation) could be. We stayed in nice, clean, private rooms with kitchens (some with laundry facilities), and ate one or two delicious restaurant meals per day. Most importantly, we stuck to our budget.
Traveling isn’t cheap, but with careful budgeting, research and planning, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Luckily, I've done a lot of the work already, so you don't have to! Keep reading to find out how to save on transportation, accommodation, food and activities and have your perfect vacation-for-two in Italy on a budget.
Saving on Transportation
Look for cheap flights. If you’re planning a multi-city trip, like we did, look up which destinations are the cheapest to fly into and out of on Expedia, and plan the order of your stops accordingly. If you’re flying from elsewhere in Europe, like we were, Ryanair is your best bet for super-cheap tickets, as long as you don’t check luggage (very doable even for long trips if you plan a couple of stops where you can do laundry). If you’re coming from the US, unfortunately you’re going to need to spend more on flights—but check out budget airlines like Norwegian Air, and use Expedia to track ticket prices over a period of several days before buying, to try to snag tickets on a day when the price is low. Ideally, you'll want to buy tickets about two months in advance.
Once you’ve got your flights nailed down, buy train tickets in advance to get the best prices. It’s very easy to take trains between cities in Italy; with the Trainline app you can get tickets right on your smartphone, even for the no-frills regional trains.
Do research on Google Maps to see if you can walk to your accommodation when you arrive at the train station. Don’t assume you need a metro pass for every city; if you’ve booked centrally-located accommodation (which, in my opinion, should be a priority), you can plan scenic walks to most places you want to go. In Bologna, we didn't spend a cent on transportation within the city. Save the subway and bus travel for specific outings that are farther from your accommodation; it’s all about planning!
Saving on Accommodation
Check out AllTheRooms: it’s a great database that condenses the accommodation offerings of many websites into one list of search results (it includes hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, Homeaway, B&Bs, and many more). The key is to be very specific with your criteria, and don’t be flexible about the price. It might seem like there’s nothing out there for $50 or less per night, but keep trying: we averaged $46 per night. I’d recommend looking no further than 2 miles from the city center, at least as a starting point; it’s not worth it to have cheap accommodation if you have to take a bunch of buses every day to see anything. Set your maximum price to $50 and see what comes up. Order the search results by best review—you don't have to skimp on cleanliness or safety to find an affordable place (we only stayed in places with excellent reviews). You can also play with the other settings to see what different items come up.
If nothing’s coming up with your strict search criteria, then congrats, you’re setting a high bar, just as you should! Try relaxing certain criteria just a little bit and see what comes up. AllTheRooms is a great resource for seeing what sorts of accommodations are generally available in or around your price range. But if you're not having much luck, check out private rooms in hostels on Hostelbookers and studio apartments on Airbnb; you'll sometimes find more relevant results directly on these sites than appear on AllTheRooms.
Side note: I would recommend Airbnb much more highly than Homeaway (a similar site). Airbnb lists all costs upfront, whereas Homeaway makes you contact the host directly and wait for a reply with a quote—which can be much higher than what’s listed on the website. You can’t really trust what comes up in a search, so it can be a waste of time.
In general, we found that Airbnb studio apartments were the most affordable option that included a kitchen (so we could save money on food). Look for Airbnbs well in advance: we really lucked out with some wonderful apartments, but the ones we snagged were already almost fully booked 2 months in advance. Book as soon as you know your plans to get Airbnbs with great reviews (most of them have good cancellation policies, too, so it's better not to wait).
Though we used Airbnb for three out of four cities, it's still good to cover all your bases by searching in AllTheRooms first; in different locations, the options are different. Venice is tricky because there really is no affordable accommodation on the island itself. We ended up staying at Camp Jolly, which is definitely the most affordable option for a private room close to the city. Camp Jolly provides a cheap shuttle service into the city and it’s a nice, clean facility with friendly staff. (Tip: if you are staying there and you take the shuttle into the city, just walk from where the bus leaves you off instead of paying for the People Mover—it’s only a 5-10 minute walk. We did this by accident the first day but it turned out to be the right call.)
Saving on Food
The biggest money-saver is eating breakfasts (and some other meals) in. Look for accommodation with a kitchen or kitchenette if at all possible (look for apartments/entire properties on Airbnb instead of rooms—this also gives you more privacy!). We usually ate yogurt, fruit and bread for breakfast. Even if you can’t find a place with a kitchen, buy some dry breakfast foods to keep in your room (this is what we did in Venice). Plan to cook some dinners, too (definitely with some fresh pasta from the grocery store).
Grocery-store picnic lunches are also a great way to eat cheaply while you’re out and about. Our go-to was bread, prosciutto, cheese and fruit or vegetables (you can even wash them in one of the public water fountains!).
Eating out can also be pretty affordable in Italy (we love the cheap house wine), if you know what to look for. The key is to get slightly away from tourist hubs, and suddenly prices become much more affordable. Remember, also, that the best restaurants aren’t the ones with waiters outside harassing you to come in.
In Venice, it can seem like the entire island is an expensive tourist hub. Check out restaurants on Rio Tèra Lista di Spagna or Fondamenta Cannaregio: these streets are close to Tronchetto Island, where you’ll probably need to go to get back to your accommodation, and the restaurants in this area are much more affordable. We also walked into the town of Marghera from Camp Jolly to get some cheap and delicious pizza one night (the town actually had a really nice suburban feel).
Be picky: definitely look for restaurants with entrees under €10. (There's never a lack of restaurants to choose from.) The menus are arranged in courses (antipasto, or an appetizer, primo, which is a pasta course, secondo, which is a meat or fish course, and contorno/insalata, which are sides of vegetables or salads). You'll see Italians eating all of these courses in turn, but it's also completely acceptable just to order one dish. If the restaurant is a pizzeria, order one pizza per person and that will be plenty of food (usually pizza is the best value option). If we weren't in the mood for pizza, we often ordered one pasta each and shared an antipasto. As another money-saver, you can always skip the tiramisu (though make sure to have it at some point) and go for street-vendor gelato instead!
Unfortunately, asking for tap water at a restaurant just isn't done; I never saw a single person drinking tap water at a restaurant. Even though I'm a huge fan of saving money, I'd shell out the extra couple of bucks for a bottle of still or sparkling water to share. The expectation when you dine at a nice place in Italy is that you'll pay for water, and you don't want to be a rude tourist.
[Along those lines, make sure to learn a few basic Italian phrases to use before you go. You will definitely be able to get by in English, but it never hurts to know at least the basics. In other words: don't expect people to know your language without at least making some attempt at theirs.]
Wandering around in search of a good-looking restaurant with a reasonably priced menu is a perfectly legitimate way to find a dinner spot. We also did some internet research, usually when we were looking for a restaurant in a specific area—reviews tend to be a good indicator of quality, but don't get caught up in reading too many of them.
Saving on Sightseeing
It's easy to spend exorbitant amounts of money on sightseeing in major Italian cities, but there’s also so much to do and see that’s 100% free. We chose to look at major sights like the Colosseum from the outside rather than going in, saving money and time waiting in long lines. In Rome, there are so many incredibly beautiful churches on every corner that you can go into for free—take advantage of these! And do a little Googling to find small, free museums off the beaten path. Not only does this save money, but it also gives you a brief respite from crowds of tourists.
In the Cinque Terre, be aware that you need to pay for a hiking pass and factor it into your budget. We spent one day hiking the major trails, and then two days relaxing by the water. Plan ahead like this so you don’t need to pay for extraneous train tickets ($4 one way) or hiking passes. Also consider the cost of train tickets when picking where to stay; it can be hard to find accommodation in the Cinque Terre, but persevere—we ended up finding a wonderful Airbnb studio apartment right in Riomaggiore. Don’t underestimate the importance of being in a central location and in a town you can spend at least a day exploring (without having to pay for any transportation).
It's easy to wander the streets of these beautiful places and find nice places to sit and people-watch without spending a cent. In Bologna, walk through the Parco di San Michele in Bosco up to the church, where you'll see a beautiful view of the city. In Riomaggiore, walk up out of town (away from the water) to see small farms and vineyards carved into the hillside. Get lost (a lot) walking along Venice's beautiful canals. I can only speak for the places I visited, but I'm confident the same holds true for other cities and towns.
The most important part of planning an affordable trip is making a budget and sticking to it. I kept track of all purchases by typing them into a note on my phone right away. You have to decide what your priorities are: we prioritized food, but if you're more of a shopper or a museum fan, it would definitely be possible to eat out less than we did. When you're traveling in a couple, the good news is that you can often spend the same amount for a private apartment with your partner as you would for a bunk bed at a hostel. Ditch overpriced hotels, plan ahead and you can enjoy an amazing trip to Italy for a fraction of the cost.