Final Thoughts and Thanks
Trip Start May 22, 2007
15Trip End Jun 04, 2007
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As promised, I will try to use this post to give some evaluation of the different travel arrangements that I used for this trip. I will also try to give an idea of how easily we moved about and were able to sightsee from the different locales.
Arrangement category 1: The Travel Agent. For a portion of our trip, we used the local travel agency which supports our college. They provided us with our plane tickets and our long distance train tickets in Italy. We decided to go the agent route for the train tickets so that we could book our tickets together. Since my Dad was paying his own fares, the agent was able to book all of the tickets at the same time and bill the different payment sources effectively. I think we may have paid some surcharges for the train tickets, but those were probably worth it. Both of the high speed trains that we rode were full, so having our tickets in hand was a good way to assure access to those connections. All in all, using a travel agent is an easy way to go, if you have the ability to book several parts of your trip ahead of time.
Arrangement Category 2: Expedia.com. I booked some parts of the trip ahead of time on Expedia using either the college credit card or my personal card. In all, we booked the hotels in Frascati, Pontedera and Ostia Antica this way along with the rental car in Pisa. I would rate this service to be average at best. The hotel in Frascati did not have our reservation. I don't know if they did not comply with Expedia's procedures, or if Expedia dropped the ball, but we got lucky that the property had the room and could accommodate us. If they had been full, we would have been stuck. The other two hotels went much more smoothly. Both required prepay and both had our reservations and the exact rooms that we had asked for. The only negative was the hotel in Ostia refused to give me a receipt for my stay, despite my explanation that I needed it for my expense report. They were quite rude. As for the car, the jury is still out on that. Expedia quoted me a good rate (too good to be true?) with Budget and made the reservation. Snooping on line before I left, I discovered that Budget does not serve the Pisa airport. I went to the website for Budget and entered my confirmation number. I was given directions to take my reservation to Avis at the Pisa airport through some partnership arrangement. Had I arrived at Pisa armed only with my Expedia confirmation, I would have been sniffing and fetching, trying to find Budget. BTW, the Pisa airport was packed. A real madhouse. It would have been a lousy place for a car rental scavenger hunt. At the end of the rental, Avis refused to honor the Expedia rate. My Expedia confirmation showed a total price of $190 (USD). I paid 322 Euro ($430 USD!!!!). I have called Expedia and filed a complaint. They have opened a case for me with Avis, but the issue has not been resolved, yet. If possible, in the future, I will try to let a local travel agent handle these things. As with everything in this modern world, as I try to resolve this issue over the phone, I get to speak to the nicest people in India...
Arrangement Category 3: Specific Internet Reservations Services. I pre-booked my entry and tickets to the Uffizi and my room stay in Montalcino through services which came up by Google-ing those sites. I used Tickitaly.com for the museum and it worked fine. They found me a time on the day I requested and the process to obtain the tickets and entry was effortless at the museum. I did pay a bit for the service. Each ticket was 6 Euro plus a 3.5 Euro reservation fee for a total of 9.5 Euro for each ticket. I paid 15.5 Euro through the service. That 6 Euro fee is steep, but I also had that difficult arrangement taken care of and could plan my train travel and hotels around it. I think it was worth it. I used Tuscany.net for my room in Montalcino. That was just fine. Their directions were clear and effective and the owner was expecting me. Although neither of these were mainstream sites, the service they provided was effective and it allowed me to pull these two difficult pieces of the trip together. Finding the room in Montalcino was the most difficult reservation of the entire trip. I was pretty desperate by the time I tried Tuscany.net. It could not have worked out better. Unless I could have stayed 6 weeks...
Arrangement Category 4: Things we had seen on the internet or in a guidebook. Almost none of this actually panned out. I had in my mind that I would buy regional transit passes to explore Rome and Naples. The transit agencies for both areas describe these passes on their websites. No one in Italy has heard of them. Forget about buying them in any of the places we visited. You may buy them direct from the transit agencies over the internet, so you might consider that if they would really help you and you have time before you go. Guidebooks are awesome for trip planning in a macro sense. They help you sort out the piles of places to go. They also miss really interesting places. As for smaller logistics items, I have always been led astray by the books about Europe. Instead, just find someone and ask. As Buck said repeatedly, you can go a long way if you know how to find the "kindness of strangers".
Pensione/Hotel Camera Con Vista in Frascati. This property is old and definitely no frills. Some might use the word 'shabby'. However, it was clean and the staff was good. The location is nice and convenient to the heart of Frascati. The downside is the traffic and reveler noise from the piazza. We were so tired that it did not bother us, but for a light sleeper, it could be an issue. A word of warning: the map shows it to be across the street from the Frascati train station. It is, sort of. Think three dimensionally. The 'street' is a flight of stairs that takes you up a 100' escarpment. As the crow flies, it is across the street. The crow does not carry 30 kilos of luggage to the top of an eight story building, however. Bottom line, it is a room with breakfast in Metro Rome for 105 Euro a night and the rooms do have a view.
Hotel Armonia in Pontedera. This is a four star property and was easily the best place we stayed. The property was immaculate. All assets and fixtures were new and fully functional. The staff was multi-lingual and very helpful, but a bit proper. The breakfast was wonderful. We did not get the usual hunk of bread and coffee that is so prevalent in Italy. This hotel clearly caters to a more European crowd (Germans?) and had amenities that reflected that clientele. If you are in that area, this hotel is a good find. It was the least expensive of the three hotels that we used during the trip.
Park Hotel Ostia Antica. If you are there, something has gone wrong with your trip. Do not go there voluntarily. The staff was generally clueless in the afternoon shift. In the morning shift, they were downright rude. The hotel looks clean, modern and new in the pictures on its website. It is none of those things. In addition to that, it is in a crummy neighborhood. I have stayed in the rough neighborhood of Rome near the train station. I would do that again in a heartbeat before trying to overnight in Ostia again. All that we saw of Ostia looks like industrial back alleys during a bad recession. This hotel was the most expensive single stay of our trip at 120 Euro. Its only advantage is proximity to the Rome airport at half the cost of the airport hotel. If I had it to do over again, catching the 8 am flight, I would budget the $300 for the last night in the airport Hilton. Oh, and the meal we ate in the hotel restaurant at Ostia had all three of us raiding the Tums bottle deep into the night. The highlight was an afternoon airport transfer (after dropping off the rental car) that was the single most terrifying van ride of my life. Words can not describe that experience. Build your own image: we bypassed a mile long traffic jam at 110 kph (70 mph) by moving into the oncoming lane of traffic and leaning on the horn to force the oncoming cars toward the ditch. We made the 20 minute run from the airport to the hotel without stopping at a single light or stop sign (there are about a dozen...)
Affitacamera Mariuccia in Montalcino. This was cheap. We only paid 44 euro for a double. We also only got a tiny room with a king size bed and a bathroom. We got what we expected and were very pleased. The room is clean, refurbished and comfortable. It is neat, eclectic and interesting. It is modern and medieval at the same time. Did I mention that it is purple? It is over a pastry shop and smells like chocolate and pastry. It is located on the main square. To rent it, you have to go into the wine shop across the street and talk to the owner. He will rent you the room and will sell you wine. He does not speak English. Who cares? He sells the best wine produced anywhere in the world according to the leading wine magazines. He can tell you, despite not speaking English, why he likes each wine and who produced it. When you have loaded your credit card in there (cash only for the room, BTW), wander across the street and gorge on pastry. If you lead a good life, are kind to people, avoid temptation and earn a reward, when you die, you will go to Montalcino.
How did we do on using the public transport to see sites scattered all over Italy? I give it mixed reviews. We spent a lot of time sitting in train stations. We almost never hit the transfers close and usually waited 40 minutes, or so, on each transfer. We also were going far enough out in the sticks to be forced onto the oldest/slowest regional locals. These trains were slow, filthy and often very hot. They also occasionally required a transfer of some sort to get to the site. At Pompeii, the CircumVesuviana lets you off across the street. That's close. To get from the train in Florence to the Uffizi is about a mile walk. Our hotel in Pontedera was about 800 meters from the station. In Frascati it was across the street and up the side of a mountain.
Frascati is workable for seeing Rome. It is not as convenient as staying a block from the Colosseo, but a hell of a lot more pleasant. Pontedera is not really convenient for sightseeing either Florence or Pisa. Both of those cities have their major tourist sites a bit removed from the stations. Montalcino should only be attempted with a car and is a good two hours drive from Florence or Rome. In all, we loved the small towns and were willing to put up with a bit of hanging in the stations not to be buried into the heart of the busiest cities in Italy.
A tip: if you are doing this sort of trip, don't move too often. When you do have to move from one town to another, spring for the cab from hotel/station and vice versa. The trains are very effective, but you do have to handle your luggage. Often times, just getting on a train meant a couple of hundred yards of walking in the station and a flight or two of stairs. Something to think about if you over pack like I did.
Thanks to everyone who has followed me on this trip. As of this afternoon, the blog has been viewed over 540 times! I am humbled that so many of you have been interested in my experiences. I hope that my words, photos and descriptions will help you to travel in a way that makes you happy. I am also really excited about Study Abroad with Cy-Fair College and hope that our students may be on the streets of Italy next summer.