Our Italian Adventure: Getting To and Fro. Flying Cheap or Not?
PART 28: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We are in Puglia in the summer and then back again in the winter.
Step 1: No frills airlines or full service? Driving or train? Renting a car or leasing or buying? Hotels, Airbnb, or others?
Step 2: When we decided to live in Puglia, following the 90/90 rule (90 days out of 180, we were faced with multiple decisions on how to get to our place in Puglia, near the city of Lecce. The first decision was about what city to land in from California.
Step 3: Arriving in Italy. Airline choices.
I recently retired from teaching, so our budget for living in Italy and California must fit our middle-class income level. We have commuted to Italy so often that we have learned what to avoid and what works for us.
When I was a student, and even later, my choices were guided by economics; whatever ticket was cheaper, I bought it. But the experience taught me that I paid for what I saved in money in other ways—time, hardships, challenges, etc. We now use different criteria, including convenience, to decide on a flight.
No frills airlines. Until Covid, we took Norwegian air direct to Rome from California. Though it is a no-frills airline, its planes have the latest technology since they use the Dreamliner. A smoother ride and more oxygen pumped into the cabin made it pleasant. It was fee-for-service, so food was available, the stewards were lively and kind, and the experience was positive. But the airlines ceased operations in our area when Covid struck.
Economy Lite is a category on regular flights that equals no frills, but in this flight category, we have found that one must research what is included and what is not. If I am paying extra to choose my seat, bring on a carry-on, get on board before others, etc., I should buy a regular ticket.
Non-stop: I don't want to name the specific airlines, but we wanted to fly non-stop to Italy on this last trip, so we chose the airline that offers that flight from Los Angeles now. To make a long story short, it could have been a better experience. I could not make any seat reservations for months; having no call center in the US, I had to call long-distance to Italy to try to work it out. The system wouldn't accept my credit card when we finally got the seats.
On the flight itself, the bathrooms were dirty halfway through the flight, the paper towel dispenser was empty, and the plane didn't look clean. Never again, we said.
European vs. an American airlines: When I get on the plane in California, I want to get off again when I am in Europe. Flying to New York or another US city makes the trip feel longer to me. Plus, on more than one occasion, my flight to a US city was delayed, and I either missed my connecting flight or made it, but with significant stress.
So now we only fly a European-based airline that will take us, for example, from Los Angeles to Zurich or Paris, and then, after a few hours, we are in Rome.
However, the only downside of a European airline is that some of them arrive in Italy in the late afternoon or evening. But with planning, this is entirely doable.
On our last trip, we landed in Rome in the early evening, picked up our car, and drove for a few hours until we reached an Airbnb in a beautiful town near the freeway. The next day, well rested, we continued our way to Puglia.
Jet lag, sleeping, and pacing oneself: When I arrive in Italy, I am anxious to "get started." I want to get to our destination, put my things in order quickly, shower, and then get out to explore. But there have been times when we have pushed the limits of jet lag to risky levels. We drove for hours and hours to get to our destination in Lecce or Tuscany after we got out of the airport, barely able to keep our eyes open.
After pushing these limits and trying to keep one another awake in the car while driving, we decided not to do that again.
We now adopt the mindset that our vacation/sojourn begins when we step onto the plane, not when we arrive at our lodging. So we have stayed at the airport hotel in Rome a few times (it's not that expensive if it is booked way in advance) and in towns right outside the city.
The point is: we have worked so hard to be able to do this, so let's take steps to keep it enjoyable.
Conclusion: what works and what doesn't? What works for us includes:
Flying on a European airline.
Staying overnight near the airport if the flight arrives later.
Experiencing the voyage as part of the adventure and pacing ourselves on our arrival makes for a positive entry into our months in Italy.
Step 4: Driving or train?
We live in Puglia (near Lecce), about six hours south of Rome, whether by train or car.
We have investigated flying into Brindisi or Bari, but the flights are inconvenient. Once we arrive at one of those airports, we must figure out how to get from Bari or Brindisi to our home.
Therefore, we now always fly into Rome. But how do we get down to Puglia once at the Rome airport? We have done it two ways: by car and train.
Car: In another blog, I explored how we leased a car (Renault) rather than rented; this was cheaper over three months than renting. Car leasing in Italy is available from the Rome and Milan airports, so we have been flying into Rome, picking up our car, and then heading towards Puglia. If one has jet lag, I would stop and do an overnight along the way. If driving straight through, it takes us about six hours; it is a scenic drive and works out fine.
I recommend this if you lease a car.
Train: The train from Rome to Lecce takes about six hours. We have used this means in the past and will do so on our next trip since we will not be leasing a car this time but renting a second-hand car through a local agency near Lecce (Note: the importance of connecting with locals).
There are a few challenges in taking the train from Rome that I want to note here.
First challenge: getting from the airport to the train station. There is a very convenient direct train from the airport to the train station, which I highly recommend. It is easy to find, but I note it under challenges because there was a delay the last time we took it. There were also two trains on the tracks, and we kept getting contradictory information about which one went to the central station. Since I speak Italian, I could navigate the confusion, and we ultimately got on the correct train. But I wondered if someone who didn't know Italian would have been confused.
There are other ways to get to the train station: bus, taxi, or private driver. For the bus: I am not fond of this because you can get stuck in traffic. Taxi: always make sure it is a marked taxi and that you pay only the amount advertised on the cab door. Private driver: never take a ride from someone who comes up to you at the airport. I did that the first time I went to Rome and regretted it. Use an agency or trusted referral (I have a trusted driver that I've used for some years now).
Second challenge: getting the train. I use the app or website for Italian trains and have my ticket to Puglia from Rome purchased way in advance (https://www.trenitalia.com). So we must get to the train station, locate our train and track, and then hop on. Simple. It is well worth going first class, which is inexpensive if purchased in advance.
Third challenge: arriving in Rome later in the evening. The next time we fly into Italy for three months, we are coming to Rome later in the evening, too late to catch the train to Lecce.
Having lived in Rome, I'm not too fond of the area around the train station, and it is known to be a higher crime area. I never lodged in that area, but our choice was to either lodge nearby or lug our suitcases to a better part of Rome and then lug them back the next day for the train.
Since safety in that area is an issue for me, the solution we came up with is lodging at a pensione run by a religious order of nuns! In a future blog, I will explain how we first came up with this lodging option, but to make a long story short, I did a search for monastery stays near the train station in Rome, found five or six, booked a beautiful one ten minutes from the train, and now we are set. Safety, affordability, and beauty, all in one!
So taking the train from Rome to Puglia is entirely doable, but I like to have the logistics worked out beforehand.
Step 5: Car: renting, leasing or buying?
In another blog post, I have more fully explored the options of renting, leasing, or buying a car in Italy and the requirements, advantages, or disadvantages of each. A vehicle in Puglia is a necessity and a significant expense, so it should be researched thoroughly.
Step 6: Hotel, Airbnb, or pensione?
We rarely stay in hotels anymore, and Airbnb is always our first choice. We both like having a kitchen and a washing machine when traveling, so we don't have to run out whenever we get hungry or need to wash clothes.
But sometimes a hotel is more convenient. On our next trip to Italy, we will fly back to California from Rome at 6 in the morning (we want to avoid rush hour when we arrive in LA), so reserving a room at the Rome airport hotel was logical.
A pension usually includes a simple room and breakfast. As I said above, we will stay in one run by sisters in Rome, which will be perfect for our needs.
But if I had to take a vote, my favorite is Airbnb.
Insights: All of our travel needs are different, and we all learn by trial and error what works for us. Streamlining our flight experience, being gentle with ourselves on arrival because of jet lag, and finding lodging that fits us is all part of keeping travel enjoyable.
Watch for my book coming around the 1st of the year: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." (https://www.bookdepository.com/Stories-from-Puglia-Mark-Tedesco/9781913680640?ref=grid-view&qid=1674418749349&sr=1-1).
More next time.