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Travel to Italy

Travel Insurance: I cannot stress enough how important it is to get travel insurance. It protects you against penalties in the event that you need to cancel your trip at the last minute. Three reputable companies are: Travelex (800) 504-7883 , Allianz Travel and Travel Guard International (877) 901-7599 [Note: for full coverage you must take out a policy soon after paying for your trip.]

Hints for Getting to Italy: Airfares  NOTE: We are all meeting in Florence, but here are options if you fly in early.
Most airlines have regular flights to Rome or Milan. Some have direct flights to Venice (Delta).  If you are heading to Tuscany, some airlines have seasonal non-stop flights to Pisa.  It might be worth checking that out, since it is a short train ride away from Florence, and the prices are usually more economical.  

The number of travel sites that will help you organize your airfare grows and changes almost daily.  Here are a few suggestions that we have found helpful:

  • Airfare Watchdog – Try this site that will keep an eye on the fares as they fluctuate and send you regular notices about your itinerary. It saves you time from constantly surfing the web for reasonable airfares.
  • Vayama – a new site for international flights that is easy and fun to use.
  • A fun, new site for finding airfares recommended by some travel writers is Mobissimo.com
  • Kayak.com will compare prices from a variety of other traditional internet based airfare locators like Priceline and Orbitz
  • Try going directly to the airlines’ websites. Check Expedia and Travelocity as a base to see what fares are going for, then go back to the airline website.  They often post discount “promo codes” on their home pages that you can use to purchase tickets. You can even Google “[airline name] promo codes” to find them.  Delta for example has flexible day option which will show you the prices for a whole month.  I used this and another to determine the cheapest day to arrive and depart Italy.
  • Check Airfarewatchdog.com regularly. They scan lots of sites for promotions. They often post unpublished discount codes.
  • Try to vary your departure days to travel off peak and see how that affects the price.  It also might give you to opportunity to spend a couple of extra days in Italy, “as long as you’re going…”
  • Don’t insist on flying direct. Many national airlines like TAP of Portugal offer lower fares when you stop in their hub city first.
  • Clear the cache (cookies) on your computer when searching for fares.  Many travel experts have reported that airlines and booking engines are using cookies to show potentially higher airfares on routes that you have searched often. So if you are researching an upcoming trip from Chicago to Italy and have checked airfares on the route frequently in recent days or weeks, the site "knows" you really want these fares, and "guesses" that you might be willing to pay a bit more for them.

 

Passport

A valid passport is essential for travel to Europe. The easiest way to renew is by mail or at a designated post office, as long as you have enough lead time. The current processing time is 4-6 weeks, expedited processing takes 3 weeks. Whether you are applying for a new passport or renewing your expired passport, this site has all the information you need.  You can also fill out your passport online and then print it out.  http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english.html

Very Important – If your passport expires 3-6 months from your date of entry, you may be prevented from traveling abroad!  In fact, most countries require that a passport be valid for at least 6 months beyond the completion of a trip. Check your passport early and renew well in advance to avoid trouble getting on the plane.

Applying for a New Passport

This must be done in person, either at a post office that offers that service or at a US State Department office.

  • Standard Fee:  $110
  • Processing time:  4-6 weeks
  • Expedited Processing: $60 surcharge, 2-3 weeks processing time
  • Fee for Mailing Passport to you:  $25 (or you can pick it up in person)
  • Required Documents:  proof of US citizenship – your birth certificate which must bear the original embossed seal (copies are not acceptable) and a valid photo ID (driver’s license)

Renewing Your Passport

This can be done by mail if your most recent U.S. passport:

  • Is undamaged and can be submitted with your application;
  • Was issued when you were age 16 or older;
  • Was issued within the last 15 years; and
  • Was issued in your current name or you can legally document your name change with original or certified copy of your marriage certificate or the government-issued document evidencing your legal name change.
  • BE AWARE THAT THERE ARE LOTS OF “AGENCIES” ONLINE TO HELP YOU GET PASSPORTS AND GIVE ASSISTANCE.  THEY OFTEN CHARGE FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF THEIR HELP, SO ONLY DEAL WITH US GOVERNMENT RUN SITES.  THAT WAY YOU AVOID PAYING THE MIDDLEMAN.

For more passport info visit:  http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/passports/renew.html

Keeping track of your passport, travel documents and cards is also important while traveling. Here are some tips:

  • Make a photocopy of your cards, passport and ID before you leave and put them in your carry-on.  
  • When you arrive at the hotel/Inn, put them in the safe so you have access to information in the event of theft.
  • Contact  credit card companies before you leave to tell them the dates and places you’ll be traveling abroad.  It avoids fraud protection issues that can impact your ability to use the cards while traveling.  (God forbid we can’t spend money!)
  • Check to see if your card charges foreign transaction fees.  Ask your credit card representative.  If you will be charged fees,  think about getting a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.  Barclay and also Bank of America both offer them.
  • Bring medical insurance cards and your healthcare savings credit card if you have one.  Also check to be sure that your insurance will be valid in another country.  If not, then purchase a separate medical insurance for very little cost.  Some credit card companies also offer insurance.
  • Always keep your passport in your hand…do not set it down or let it go out of your sight with employees of any restaurant or rental companies.  
  • Consider money belts or bra-wallets to increase the safety of your cash, cards and identification.
  • Keep your paperwork together and secure:  You can make a manila envelope as a travel file.  Keep your boarding pass there, and  put copies of your itinerary there and any travel emails sent to me by my carriers or travel companions.  That way you have one place to look when you want to refer to travel arrangements.  Keep this with you while you travel in your carry-on.  Also make a copy for a family member to keep at home.

 

Travel tips

Take your time to appreciate all facets of the place you are exploring.  This includes eating the local food, drinking the wine of the area and adhering to the timetable of the culture.  Suggestions about hot to travel slow:

  • Unplug – this might not be entirely possible given the electronically connected world we live in, but limiting your time on social media can help you enjoy your trip for yourself instead of constantly trying to interpret it for others back home.  It’s important to
  • Be where you are – the more you can let go of your own habits the more you will be able to recognize the cultural differences before you.  Pay attention to how a day unfolds in this new place, listen to how people interact, watch what is happening around you without trying to take control.  And always remember
  • You are a guest in their country – learning a few courtesy words like grazieper favore and prego can help in all social situations.  Try to be polite when you don’t understand something and always assume that the native knows how things work in his country better than you do.  “When in Rome…”

And if you are planning to spend a few days in Rome, either before or after the retreat, you might consider booking a personal tour with Carrie ChimentiWhether this is your first time or you have been to Rome many times before, she will customize your visit around your interests. 

 

Money

The Exchange Rate:  A vacation to Europe this year can be quite affordable.  It’s all about the exchange rate, which is pretty favorable to Americans this year. Check out the Currency Exchange Rate to know how much your dollar is worth abroad.  As you travel the rate can fluctuate.  When you take out money from an ATM or pay with your credit card, you will be given the most current exchange rate that day.

Credit Cards:  before you travel, get a card with No Foreign Exchange Fees.  Capital One was the pioneer in this area, but now many other banks offer this service.  It can really save you a lot of money when you get home and get those bills if there isn’t an additional fee tacked onto each sale made in Europe.  In any case, make sure you call your credit card company before you leave home and tell them that you will be traveling abroad, so that they don’t put a stop on your card for security reasons.  It can be embarrassing when you are about to buy that gold necklace on the Ponte Vecchio and your card doesn’t go through!

“Would you prefer to pay in Euros or Dollars?”:  this is a question often asked when you are paying with a credit card in Europe.  Although having the price immediately converted to a currency you understand ($$) sounds convenient, this option is rarely beneficial.  Most have found that the exchange rate the store (or hotel or restaurant) gives you is not as good as the one your own bank will use.  And paying in dollars doesn’t necessarily avoid the foreign transaction fees either.  Best pay in the local currency (euros) and have your bank perform the exchange.

Getting Money:  the easiest way is to use your ATM card in one of the many locations in towns and cities across Europe.  Note:  this is different than using your credit card to get a cash advance which comes with heavy interest fees.  When you use your ATM card (don’t forget your PIN) it comes right out of your bank account back home, but in euros.  No interest fees, no waiting in lines, and these are typically very secure.

Bringing Cash:  this is a less efficient way to travel.  Bringing American dollars is inconvenient:  no one will take American dollars in Europe, so you will have to find somewhere to exchange them for euros.  That means either waiting in line at a bank or using a touristy cash exchange office.  Both of these will tag on hefty service fees and probably not give you the best exchange rate either.
Some people like to get euros from their bank before they leave for Europe.  This is good in the short term, to ensure that you have some cash for a cab or a tip, but don’t buy a lot of euros in America.  The exchange rate is not favorable and the bank will again attach fees for this service that isn’t worth it.  There are ATM machines in most airports and train stations so that when you arrive you can immediately get cash in the local currency.

“Can I send my art supplies (heavy shoes, clothing, etc.) ahead of me?”

Obviously this will reduce the weight of your suitcase, but it will also probably reduce your painting time in Italy because most likely your supplies won’t arrive in time.  What your shipping company in the US doesn’t tell you (perhaps because they don’t know) is that customs in Italy is very strict.  They usually stop these shipments when they enter the country to determine if the goods are meant to be sold in Italy – even if the sender clearly states that these are personal materials for personal use. In order to clear customs they  require a written statement from you, the shipper, declaring that you don’t intend to set up business in Italy with your supplies along with your passport information.  All of this usually delays the materials beyond the start – or even end – of the workshop.  On top of that, typically apply an import duty onto the materials over and above whatever the shipping agency has already collected. They will arrange for courier to deliver the goods to you, but require payment upon receipt.  If you have already left the country they will not ship everything back to you.

So although in theory it would be more convenient to ship, in reality the materials probably won’t arrive in time and when they do there will be a hefty surcharge that would probably cover the cost of buying things in Italy (which I guess is their point, ultimately).

You can bring paints (not turpentine, which we will supply) on the plane in your checked luggage.  A small quantity in 3oz. containers of paint can even go in your carry-on luggage.

 

Do your homework if you want to buy travel insurance. Check whether your existing insurance (health, homeowner’s, or renter’s) covers you and your possessions overseas.

International driving permit - AAA

 If you plan to use your US mobile phone or smartphone in Europe, contact your provider to enable international calling or to “unlock” your phone. Consider signing up for an international calling, text, and/or data plan, and be sure to confirm voice- and data-roaming fees.