Lessons learned after a week in Italy

I don’t write trip reports because I don’t like reading trip reports. On the other hand, while in Italy I discovered a few things I wasn’t expecting, which might prove useful to readers planning their own trips. So here are my top 6 travel-hackery takeaways from my 8-night trip to Italy.

1) The Hilton Molino Stucky Venice is an incredible place to stay in Venice

I did a fair amount of research on this property before arriving, but I was pleasantly surprised at every turn:

  • It’s incredibly easy to get to. Many reviews and comments about this property point out that the hotel is located on an island, not in “Venice proper.” The “island" is just another one of the landmasses in the Venetian delta, and while it’s not connected to the other island by a bridge, there’s a simple public water transportation system that connects you there directly from the train station and, I believe, the airport as well. If you catch one of the express waterbusses it’s a ride of perhaps 15 minutes from the main Santa Lucia train station.
  • We had buffet breakfast in the restaurant included. Trip Advisor has dozens if not hundreds of reviews from Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members who were told they would only receive breakfast in the executive lounge, which would indeed be disappointing, since it’s basically just eggs, bacon, and yoghurt. Some of those reports are as recent as December, but as a Diamond member we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which has a staggeringly wide assortment of hot and cold dishes, salads, breads, and meats. I have no explanation for the discrepancy, but that was our experience.
  • The rooms are quiet. Some people complain about noise from the street and from the boats moving around the canals, but we found the windows to provide great sound insulation when closed. It may be much louder during the high season, with revelers coming and going all night long.
  • The views are superb. The side of the building facing the water is in the shape of a “U,” and some people with rooms in the “depressed” part of the “U” complained that they had only obstructed, not clear, views of the city. This may be a bigger problem in the corners, but we were located in the center of the depression and didn’t find our view hurt in any way by seeing the sides of the building. We had a perhaps 160-degree view instead of a “full” 180 degrees.

2) The Radisson Blu es. Hotel in Rome is a very pretty disaster

At 66,000 Club Carlson points ($13,200 in purchases on the US Bank Premier Rewards personal or Business Rewards small business credit cards) for 2 nights in a premium room, this hotel seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was.

The hotel’s owners clearly invested a great deal of money in design, but without paying the slightest attention to function:

  • The room’s outlets require a keycard to be left by the door, so it’s impossible to charge electronics during the day without leaving a key behind.
  • The entire hotel was heated to 70 degrees or so, including the bedrooms (and the minibar). To cool off, we opened the door to our room’s balcony, and tiny insects soon covered every surface.
  • Behind the bed was a “control panel” with buttons labeled with various functions, like controlling the room’s shades. None of them worked as described (our room's shades didn’t even appear to be electric).
  • On our second day, there was apparently a brief power outage and the hotel’s internet stopped working for the rest of our stay. This wouldn’t have been such a problem, except…

3) It’s preposterously hard to get online in Italy

My vague understanding is that this has something to do with Europe’s internet security laws, which require those providing internet access to verify the identity of their customers. Even with that being said, I’ve never had as much trouble getting online in any other European country as I did all over Italy.

My favorite example: the high-speed train we took between Milan and Venice had free on-board wireless internet. All you needed to do was register, and you’d receive your login credentials…via e-mail!

4) You probably don’t need to book train tickets in advance

I booked all our train tickets in advance through ItaliaRail.com, which is useful for scanning for the cheapest departures each day (and purchases are correctly coded as travel with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard). Once in Italy, for the sake of comparison I checked the prices for same-day tickets, and found they were identical to the advance purchase prices I’d secured online.

One possible exception is if you’re able to find “Two For One Fare” tickets, which are only available on advance purchases. That’s a way to secure real savings, if you’re able to book the trains on which those tickets are available.

5) You probably don’t need to stay at the airport when departing Rome

We had a not-particularly-early morning flight from Rome to Philadelphia, and I thought it would be convenient to stay in Fiumicino, the suburb of Rome where the airport is located. This turned out to be totally unnecessary: the train from Rome’s Termini train station to Fiumicino airport takes just a touch over 30 minutes, and runs every 20 minutes. We ended up having a lovely dinner in Fiumicino on our last night, and paid just $14 for our hotel there thanks to Expedia’s Cyber Monday sale, but in general I’d suggest spending the night in Rome and having a nice dinner there, instead, unless you have a very early morning flight and want to stay at one of the two Hilton properties attached to the airport.

6) Checking in for US (and Israel?)-bound flights from Rome is an insane process

We left Rome on a US Airways-operated flight, which meant we had to check in at Fiumicino’s Terminal 5. Terminal 5 is a giant warehouse with the sole function, as far as I could tell, of handling check-in for US airlines and El Al, the Israeli national carrier.

The procedures in Terminal 5 are what you might come up with if you were taken on a 30-minute tour of a US airport and told to replicate as much of it as possible from memory.

The first step is presenting your passport. This has nothing to do with checking in for your flight; it appears to serve solely to verify your identity. The same person who checks your passport gives you a handful of plastic bags and instructs you to put all the electronics, batteries, and for some reason cables which you plan to carry onto the flight into these plastic bags for security screening.

After pulling out all your electronics and bagging them, the second step is not passing through security. Rather, now you can finally proceed to the airline check-in counters, all while juggling your plastic bags filled with electronics. I don’t know how the other airlines handle this, but the US Airways counters were being overseen by a woman who appeared to be deliberately screwing with the passengers. Before my eyes, she told a passenger to put her carry-on into the bag sizer, turned back to her computer, and then when the passenger told her it had fit replied, “I didn’t see it.” The sooner this airline vanishes from the face of the earth, the better.

Finally you can head to security, which was, after all this rigamarole, much easier than passing through security in the States. We didn’t even have to take off our shoes!

After all this, you hop on a bus that takes you to a completely normal terminal with flights departing all over the world, which is why I suggest Terminal 5 only exists to satisfy the US that some semblance of our security procedures are being followed for US-bound passengers. The fact that you could trade luggage or boarding passes with someone who checked in at the other international terminal appears to have been lost on them.