The Essential Guide to Italy on a Budget

Italy is consistently near the top of the world’s most traveled places and rightfully so. There are plenty of ways to see the country, whether it’s a tour of Rome or soaking in the sun on a sandy, Sicilian beach. Whichever mode you choose, seeing Italy on a budget is very possible!

There are a lot of factors that go into a successful budget trip: when to visit, where to stay, eating out, etc… In this post, we talk about how you can visit Italy on a budget and still fully immerse yourself in this wonderful country!

If you’re still planning your trip to Italy but don’t have all the details worked out, then you’ve come to the right place! Check out our taste of Italy itinerary, which samples a big chunk of the country in two weeks’ time.

When to Visit Italy

Rolling hills of tuscany with vineyards as seen from San Gimignano

Let’s be real. Every time of year is a good time to visit Italy. However, visiting during peak tourist season might increase your expenses. Visiting during the shoulder season (mid-late fall and early spring) is our favorite time to go.  Not only is it cheaper but there are less crowds, which can drastically improve your experience.

Accommodations, museums, tours, many attractions will be offering discounted prices and that’s great news for budget travelers. Take advantage of these by researching them in advance to see what deals are available!

On the other hand, some attractions will be closed. Closures are the biggest risk with traveling during non-peak times. This is especially true in smaller towns and villages, whose visitors greatly decrease in the offseason.

It’s up to you and your preferences as to what time of year you go. You can budget your way around Italy any time of year but you might have to jump some hurdles!

Budget Transportation

Car driving towards an olive grove

Firstly, let’s cover the ways to get around the country and compare the costs and convenience.

Getting Around Italy

Like most European nations, getting around Italy is a breeze! Granted, there’s always the chance of train workers going on strike, buses running super late or some kind of mishap that could affect your plans. Yikes!

Trust us, you’ll be okay. When it comes to transportation abroad, we’ve experienced our fair share of problems and we just want to advise you to be prepared! If one mode of transportation fails you then there are plenty of other options! With that said, let’s talk about how to get around Italy on a budget!

Trains

One of our favorite methods of travel in Italy is the train! The entire country is connected by railway and you should utilize it! Whether you’re day-tripping next door (a day in Siena?) or heading down to the beautiful island of Sicily (you totally should), Italy’s TrenItalia will get you there for a good price.

Of course, be mindful of your luggage at all times and make friends with those around you. Who knew the older Italian man seated next to us knew the same card game we did?! He couldn’t speak any English and our Italian is awful but we managed to get a few successful hands in!

Pro Tip: Buying tickets well in advance is a good idea in most European countries. Buying early isn’t always a guarantee to be a major money saver but it’s good practice to keep an eye on ticket prices as soon as they’re available. We’ve made the mistake of putting off buying train tickets and paid a lot more because of this!

Check Rental Car Deals

The best way to see a country? By car!

We’re huge fans of renting four wheels and wandering the back roads of a new destination. Truthfully, we were a little afraid of renting a car in Italy. We had heard/read some things about how narrow the city streets were and how local drivers had rules of their own.

Even so, we tried our hand behind the wheel and are so glad we did! Our trip wouldn’t have been the same without our rental car and instead, we would’ve had to rely on tour groups, spend more money and lose precious time. We found an amazing deal on Kayak.com that let us rent a small, automatic car for just $14 USD for 2 days! That’s an insane deal.

Renting a car on a budget is a great idea but only when the price is right! For example, renting an automatic transmission car in Scotland for several days was almost $200. That’s super expensive compared to our rental experience in Italy. Of course, your destination has a lot to do with your budget!

Pro Tip: Manual transmission rental cars are typically much more affordable than automatics. In the States, practically everyone drives an automatic. In Europe, Italy included, everyone practically drives a manual. So, if you’re able to drive a stick shift then your budget will go even further! Planning your trip well in advance? Try to learn before you go! Seriously, a manual car will save you money! Don’t forget, a more fuel-efficient car means spending less money on gas so keep that in mind!

Buses

It sure seems like a lot of people in Italy, especially travelers, avoid the bus. Why is that? Well, Italian buses aren’t really known for being on time…or even showing up sometimes.

That said, we had some good experiences on the bus but overall, we would recommend avoiding them. To clarify, we’re not talking about Flixbus, a bus service that has routes all over Europe. We’re strictly talking about Italian buses that operate between cities or within municipalities themselves.

The plus side to taking a bus? Buses in Italy are super cheap! For instance, our base in Tuscany was Poggibonsi, a smaller Italian town with train/bus connections and we utilized the bus a couple of times, once to a small vineyard and the other to San Gimignano. So, no matter what you’ve heard about Italian buses, we can safely state that we’ve had an okay experience!

Pro Tip: Many buses offer cheaper fares if you buy the tickets at a ticket stand as opposed to on the bus.

Getting Around Italian Cities

Florence at sunset

We’ve talked about getting around Italy as a whole with a budget in mind. Now let’s talk a little bit about getting around these fascinating cities while keeping more money in your wallet for fun!

Walking

One thing that’s great about Italian cities (and the rest of Europe) is they were built to be explored on foot. Walking is a great way to see all the sights and discover hidden gems all on a budget!

For bigger towns or cities like Florence, Milan and Rome, a little planning might be necessary. We had just one day in Rome and wanted to see as much as we possibly could, so we ended up walking 17 miles. That might sound insane and yes, we were exhausted, but we wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Again, you might think that walking 17 miles is crazy but we had a plan in mind before we went on our adventure. Our route took us from place to place without retracing our steps.

Granted, don’t think we had every single detail planned out. The beautiful part about walking and wandering, besides it being free, is that you’ll stumble upon things you weren’t expecting, like a gelato shop, and another, and another…. Be flexible with your plans!

Public Transportation

In most European cities, we use public transportation but Italy can be hit or miss. While it’s more affordable than a taxi, rideshare, or renting a car, public transportation can be unreliable or inconvenient at times.

For example, we wanted to take a bus in Tuscany to a vineyard for an organic wine and olive oil tasting. The bus was 30-45 minutes late. Then there’s the Circumvesuviana, a train connecting Naples to the smaller towns surrounding it. While this train was affordable, it was overly crowded and stopped running early in the evening.

So, when it comes to public transportation in Italy it’s best to do your research on that city’s system. Always buy a ticket from an official location and watch out for people posing as the authorities checking tickets. If they start asking for money and you don’t see any official identification, they’re probably a scammer. Again, that’s unlikely to happen but we just want to make you an aware traveler!

Budget Accommodation

Location

If you’re looking for a budget stay in Italy, it’s best to look outside the touristy areas and city centers. This will likely make your walk longer or require you to take public transportation but you’ll find far more affordable stays than you will in a centralized location.

Staying in lesser-known places is good for your wallet! Whether you’re in a smaller town with a short commute into the bigger cities or just staying in a non-touristy neighborhood, it’s cheaper to stay away from the action. Check out our post on where to stay in Tuscany (besides Florence) so you can revel in the wonders of this region while avoiding all things pricey and touristy!

Airbnb

Our go-to for budget accommodation is Airbnb. You can usually find a private room or an entire house/apartment in many Italian cities for a great price. This is an especially good option if you’re traveling as a couple or with a group. For solo travelers in Italy, this might not be the most cost-effective.

There are a ton of pros to Airbnb but a few cons as well. One of our favorite perks of Airbnb is meeting our local host and getting some great tips for the area. Staying in an Airbnb outside of the city center also immerses you among the locals, which we think is priceless! If you’re considering Airbnb for your budget trip to Italy, check out our post on the pros and cons of Airbnb. We share many personal experiences of homestay travel.

Hostels

If you’re a solo traveler, wanting to meet other travelers or even part of a big group on a budget, then hostels are the way to go! Hostels are cheap and you can often find a reasonably priced bed in a centralized location. Many hostels also include breakfast and other amenities like a kitchen and laundry facilities but you’re often stuck sharing rooms and bathrooms with other travelers. If you plan to stay in a hostel, be sure to bring a padlock so you can secure your belongings while you’re out exploring. One of the biggest tools and best places to start for prospective travelers is Hostel World.

TrustedHousesitters

Cat under a chair in the backyard of an Airbnb

House sitting may not be the most conventional form of travel but it’s one of our favorites! TrustedHousesitters totally transformed our time abroad.

TrustedHousesitters is a service where you, as a sitter, can apply to watch over a house and/or furry friends. Many of these sits require you to take care of animals but we’ve found that you typically have enough free time to do some exploring in between cuddle times with the furry folks.

It appears most sits are in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States but TrustedHousesitters has been growing in popularity and more sits have been popping up around Europe and the rest of the world. With that said, it’s important to frequently check for new sits and take a lot of care into applying!

Keep in mind that a lot of these sits might require you to have some form of transportation or might be away from the city center. So, you may have to rent a car, use public transportation or be open to the idea of exploring what’s around you. We did several house sits in the UK and Netherlands and saw parts of the country we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

There were times when our house sit was a homerun and others where we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere with not a lot to do. You definitely have to do your research ahead of time but for free accommodation, it’s hard to pass up! If you’re new to the idea or just simply curious, read up on our guide to TrustedHousesitters and see if it’s for you!

WWOOF

Vines of grapes at Villa Spoiano

While we’ve yet to try out WWOOF ourselves, we’ve heard great things and have been itching to try it! Why is WWOOF a great budget option for staying in Italy? Because you get to stay on a farm and eat for free (at least monetarily).

Imagine staying on a beautiful farm with a vineyard and olive grove in Tuscany or caring for sheep in Sicily! While this requires some manual labor, it’s a learning experience and a way to meet new people, practice your Italian and try fresh, local cuisine. And hey, you still have free time on the weekends, depending on the farm you choose, to explore the areas around your stay.

Eating in Italy on a Budget

Margherita Pizza from Pizzeria Giuliano in Naples

The reason we love Italy? The food! Even better, it’s pretty easy to eat your heart’s desire on a budget.

How to Eat and Save

The same rule applies to Italy that applies to most everywhere else: eating in city centers and tourist zones will be more expensive. So, first and foremost, avoid eating in the main piazza! Granted, some city squares have amazing scenery, like the Piazza del Campo in Siena, so it’s hard to pass up that meal and a view. But your budget will go so much further if you just head a block or two or maybe a few away from the city center. You’ll also find more locals eating away from the city center and that’s a really good sign for your taste buds! If you really want that experience of eating on the main piazza, pick up a sandwich or piadina and enjoy the view on a bench or some nearby steps (but not the Spanish Steps in Rome!).

The time of day is also an important factor when it comes to eating. Breakfast (a cappuccino and cornetto alla ciocolatta at an Italian bar!) and lunch will be cheaper than dinner. So, if you fill up earlier in the day and then do an earlier or lighter dinner, your wallet will be happy. Granted, dinner doesn’t have to break the bank. Vino della casa (house wine) will almost always be a bargain, so alcohol won’t drive up the bill.

You can’t go wrong with street food! This is especially true for Naples and Sicily, where street food is a must-try and very affordable. They’ll fry just about everything and yes, it’s amazing! In fact, we’ve put together a budget-friendly guide to food in Naples, so take a peek and see what awaits! Hint: it’s delicious!

Lastly, if you really want to live like the locals (and save!), head to the grocery stores and local markets for fresh produce and foods you can eat on the go!

Tap Water and Public Fountains

One of the best things about Italy is the abundance of public water fountains and clean tap water. Unless you prefer the taste of Evian, it’s not necessary to spend your money on drinking water. Many Italian towns and cities offer public drinking fountains where you can fill up your reusable water bottles for free! Just keep your eyes peeled because they come in all shapes and sizes!

While tap water and public fountains are free and clean, you’ll find that most restaurants charge for water. But don’t fret! You can usually get a large bottle or carafe for a couple of euros. Ordering tap water in Italian restaurants is a faux pas and will likely result in you not getting any water.

Budget-Friendly Sightseeing

You can find affordable experiences on Tripadvisor and Airbnb (like this organic wine tasting in Tuscany). At first glance, many might not seem budget-conscious but you should always dig a little deeper for hidden gem experiences for affordable prices.

Free Walking Tour

As is the case with most major cities around the world, a free walking tour is a must! It’s always a good idea to Google “free walking tour” with your destination and see what results pop up. Odds are you’ll find a free walking tour that’s meeting the very same day!

Are these tours really free? Yes! Although you might be kind of a jerk if you don’t pay anything. The idea behind these tours is that visitors pay what they deem fit.

We’ve experienced outstanding tour guides and also some average ones. That said, we’ve always tipped at least 10 euros per person (at the moment, this seems to be a fair minimum).  What a great and affordable way to get your bearings of a city!

Your tour guide will literally walk you through history that’s centuries, sometimes even thousands of years old. Not only will you get a layout of the major areas but you’ll have 2-3 hours with a local guide whose knowledge of local eateries and things to do is invaluable.

So, take the free walking tour, meet some fellow travelers, and most of all, get as many tips as you can from your guide! Especially for those fellow food enthusiasts out there, ask them where to eat!

City Cards

We’ve found with City Cards that some can be a great way to see all the sights on a budget but it can also be hard to tell if they’re a good deal just on the surface. For example, Florence has two cards. One of them, the FirenzeCard, seems like a really good deal while the other does not. Other cities, like Siena, require you to pay for the pass in order to get into the Duomo and other sights, so you don’t have a choice there. Siena’s card is worth it though, trust us.

Keep in mind that city cards require you to pack a lot of sights into a little bit of time in order to make them worth their cost! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Exploring Italy is an amazing but exhausting endeavor because there’s just so much to see!

Churches and Free Art

Michelangelo's Horned Moses is Rome's San Pietro in Vincoli

Italy has an abundance of churches and cathedrals. While there are many that charge to see famous frescoes and works of art, others allow free entry for you to enjoy the architecture and art within.

Some churches house hidden gems of art created by renowned artists that you can see for free! In Rome, you can see Michelangelo’s Horned Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli or view some frescoes done by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo’s Duomo.

We highly recommend going into as many as you can because none of them disappoint!

If you’ve seen enough churches then a simple stroll through Italian towns and cities is like walking through an outdoor museum; walk around the Orsanmichele in Florence and appreciate the statues inserted in its outer walls or enjoy beautiful fountains like the Trevi in Rome and more, for no cost!

Other Money Saving Tips

Phone Plans and Communication

Do you need a phone plan while traveling Italy on a budget? Whether you need a phone plan or not depends on your length of stay and/or your carrier.

Our opinion: you don’t need a phone plan for 7-14 days (give or take a little). Many public places in Italy offer free wifi so it’s easy to stay connected. GPS apps (like Google Maps) allow you to download city maps for offline usage and will still show your location dot.

Honestly, we say go off the grid and never look back!

But if you do need to stay connected or it gives you peace of mind then you should first look into the international plan offered by your carrier. Some, like Google Fi and T-Mobile, don’t charge extra for international data, phone calls and texts but the service may be spotty or slower depending on your location.

However, if you’re like us and need access to the web while traveling (the joys of teaching English online) and your carrier’s international plan isn’t budget-friendly, you’re in luck! Italy has many phone carriers that offer tourist plans that range from a few days to a month. Service can be unreliable depending on the carrier and what regions you’ll be visiting so it’s important to look at online forums and reviews. Too Many Adapters is our trusted resource for phone plan information, no matter the country.

Cash and Smart Money Tips

Trying to get an estimate for what the total cost of your trip will be? That’s a tall order to fill but a great free resource is Budget Your Trip. There are averages for every type of cost and every type of traveler in cities and countries around the world.

Another quick tip about money: don’t carry too much on your person at one time! A lot of travelers, in an effort to avoid ATM fees, like to withdraw a large sum once or twice. Pickpockets would love for you to do that! We haven’t been pickpocketed before but everyone has heard of that horror story so try your best to avoid it.

We don’t have to worry about ATM or foreign transaction fees with our Charles Schwab checking account. After blowing $20 on an ATM fee in Thailand, we did our research. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about those anymore! Read up on the rest of our smart money tips before you travel!

Summary of Traveling Italy on a Budget

Shops lighting up the streets of San Gimignano

Regardless of how you budget your trip to Italy, we sincerely hope you have a wonderful time. There’s a lot of info spread throughout this post and it might be a lot to process but we hope it helps make your budget trip a success! Give us a shout if you have anything to add or if you have any questions about Italy or travel in general!

Happy Travels!

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Pin showing Trevi Fountain, San Gimignano, and a stained glass window in Siena

Where Food Takes Us

We’re Darah and Garrett. Our life has been an adventure ever since we eloped in a pink Cadillac in Las Vegas. Now we’re running around the world, working online, and eating everything we can.

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