Know Before You Go: Italy

Know Before You Go: Italy

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Communications

INTERNET

Getting online in Italian cities isn’t difficult: public Internet stations and Internet cafés are fairly common, and Wi-Fi is widely available. Most hotels have Wi-Fi or a computer for guests to use. Many business-oriented hotels also offer in-room broadband, though some (ironically, often the more expensive ones) charge for broadband and Wi-Fi access. Note that chargers and power supplies may need plug adapters to fit European-style electric sockets (a converter probably won’t be necessary).

Italy is also looking to improve city Wi-Fi access; Rome, Venice and Turin are continuing to develop and expand services, some free for now, some at a daily or weekly rate for temporary access.

Paid and free Wi-Fi hotspots can be found in major airports and train stations, and shopping centers; they’re most likely to be free in bars or cafés that want your business.

Customs and Duties

Travelers from the United States should experience little difficulty clearing customs at any Italian airport. It may be more difficult to clear customs when returning to the United States, where residents are normally entitled to a duty-free exemption of $800 on items accompanying them. You’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit. When you shop in Italy, keep all your receipts handy, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased.

Although there’s no problem with aged cheese (vacuum-sealed works best), you cannot bring back any of that delicious prosciutto, salami, or any other meat product. Fresh mushrooms, truffles, or fresh fruits and vegetables are also forbidden. There are restrictions on the amount of alcohol allowed in duty-free, too. Generally, you can bring in one liter of wine, beer, or other alcohol without paying a customs duty; visit the travel area of the Customs and Border Patrol Travel website for complete information.

Italy requires documentation regarding the background of all antiques and antiquities before these items are taken out of the country. Under Italian law, all antiquities found on Italian soil are considered state property, and there are other restrictions on antique artwork. Even if purchased from a business in Italy, legal ownership of artifacts may be in question if brought into the United States. Therefore, although they don’t necessarily confer ownership, documents such as export permits and receipts are required when importing such items into the United States.

Electricity

The electrical current in Italy is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets accept continental-type plugs, with two or three round prongs.

You may purchase a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit, at travel specialty stores, electronics stores, and online. You can also pick up plug adapters in Italy in any electric supply store for about €2 each. You’ll likely not need a voltage converter, though. Most portable devices are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts)—just check label specifications and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.

Money

Prices vary from region to region and are substantially lower in the country than in urban centers. Of Italy’s major cities, Milan is by far the most expensive. Resort areas such as Amalfi, Portofino, and Cortina d’Ampezzo cater to wealthy vacationers and charge top prices. Good values can be had in the scenic Trentino–Alto Adige region of the Dolomites and in Umbria and Marche. With a few exceptions, southern Italy and Sicily also offer bargains for those who do their homework before they leave home.

Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens from the EU; citizens of non-EU countries rarely get discounts, but inquire before you purchase tickets, as this situation is constantly changing.

U.S. banks do not keep every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.

ATMS AND BANKS

An ATM (bancomat in Italian) is the easiest way to get euros in Italy. There are numerous ATMs in large cities and small towns, as well as in airports and train stations. Be sure to memorize your PIN in numbers, as ATM keypads in Italy won’t always display letters. Check with your bank to confirm that you have an international PIN (codice segreto) that will be recognized in the countries you’re visiting; to raise your maximum daily withdrawal allowance; and to learn what your bank’s fee is for withdrawing money (Italian banks don’t charge withdrawal fees). lBe aware that PINs beginning with a 0 (zero) tend to be rejected in Italy.

Your own bank may charge a fee for using ATMs abroad and for the cost of conversion from euros to dollars. Nevertheless, you can usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money inside a bank with a teller, the next-best option. Whatever the method, extracting funds as you need them is safer than carrying around a large amount of cash. Finally, it’s advisable to carry more than one card that can be used for cash withdrawal, in case something happens to your main one.

CREDIT CARDS

It’s a good idea to inform your credit card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally often. Otherwise, the credit card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a welcome occurrence halfway through your trip. Record all your credit card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen. Keep these in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost. But you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, because MasterCard and Visa generally just transfer you there; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.

North American toll-free numbers aren’t available from abroad, so be sure to obtain a local number with area code for any business you may need to contact.

Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill. Because of these fees, avoid using your credit card for ATM withdrawals or cash advances (use a debit or cash card instead).

Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.

Merchants who participate in dynamic currency conversion programs are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice—you can simply say no. If this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely by using American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.

Italian merchants prefer MasterCard and Visa (look for the CartaSi sign), but American Express is usually accepted in popular tourist destinations. Credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere, though; if you want to pay with a credit card in a small shop, hotel, or restaurant, it’s a good idea to make your intentions known early on.

Passports and Visas

U.S. citizens need only a valid passport to enter Italy for stays of up to 90 days.

PASSPORTS

Although somewhat costly, a U.S. passport is relatively simple to obtain and is valid for 10 years. You must apply in person if you’re getting a passport for the first time; if your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged; or if it has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago or when you were under 16. All children under 18 must appear in person to apply for or renew a passport. Both parents must accompany any child under 14 (or send a notarized statement with their permission) and provide proof of their relationship to the child.

There are 25 regional passport offices as well as 7,000 passport acceptance facilities in post offices, public libraries, and other governmental offices. If you’re renewing a passport, you may do so by mail; forms are available at passport acceptance facilities and online, where you trace the application’s progress.

The cost of a new passport is $135 for adults, $105 for children under 16; renewals are $110 for adults, $105 for children under 16. Allow four to six weeks for processing, both for first-time passports and renewals. For an expediting fee of $60 you can reduce this time to two to three weeks. If your trip is less than two weeks away, you can get a passport even more rapidly by going to a passport office with the necessary documentation. Private expediters can get things done in as little as 48 hours, but charge hefty fees for their services.

Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and/or yourself.

VISAS

When staying for 90 days or less, U.S. citizens aren’t required to obtain a visa prior to traveling to Italy. A recent law requires that you fill in a declaration of presence within eight days of your arrival—the stamp on your passport at airport arrivals substitutes for this. If you plan to travel or live in Italy or the European Union for longer than 90 days, you must acquire a valid visa from the Italian consulate serving your state before you leave the United States. Plan ahead, because the process of obtaining a visa will take at least 30 days, and the Italian government doesn’t accept visa applications submitted by visa expediters.

Tipping

In restaurants a service charge of 10% to 15% may appear on your check, but it’s not a given that your server will receive this; so you may want to consider leaving a tip of 5% to 10% (in cash) for good service. Tip checkroom attendants €1 per person and restroom attendants €0.50 (more in expensive hotels and restaurants). In major cities, tip €0.50 or more for table service in cafés. At a hotel bar, tip €1 and up for a round or two of drinks.

Italians rarely tip taxi drivers, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t. A euro or two is appreciated, particularly if the driver helps with luggage. Service-station attendants are tipped only for special services; give them €1 for checking your tires. Railway and airport porters charge a fixed rate per bag. Tip an additional €0.25 per person, more if the porter is helpful. Give a barber €1–€1.50 and a hairdresser’s assistant €1.50–€4 for a shampoo or cut, depending on the type of establishment.

On sightseeing tours, tip guides about €1.50 per person for a half-day group tour, more if they’re especially knowledgeable. In monasteries and other sights where admission is free, a contribution (€0.50–€1) is expected.

In hotels, give the portiere (concierge) about 10% of the bill for services, or €2.50–€5 for help with dinner reservations and such. Leave the chambermaid about €0.75 per day, or about €4.50–€5 a week in a moderately priced hotel; tip a minimum of €1 for valet or room service. In an expensive hotel, double these amounts; tip doormen €0.50 for calling a cab and €1.50 for carrying bags to the check-in desk, and tip bellhops €1.50–€2.50 for carrying your bags to the room.

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