Ciao! My husband and I just got back from our trip to Italy, and let me just say, it was very hard to say arrivederci to such a beautiful country! I can certainly see why Italy is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. The food, the wine, the history, the beauty…there’s just so much to love.

Even so, it’s good to be back home and jump back into my normal routine. Although I’m trying to get over jet lag, I’m eager to share a few things I found useful while traveling.

Let me just preface this by saying that before we left for vacation, I did quite a bit of planning and research. I figured, the more we prepared, the easier it would be when we reached our destination. Since it was our first time to Italy and we only had 1 week abroad, our goal was to see as much as possible while not feel like we were being rushed. We were on vacation after all! To me, that means getting away to pursue other enjoyments in life and most of all, to relax.

While cost was certainly a big factor for us, we were more interested in getting the best value (different from getting the cheapest price). That’s why we debated between venturing off on our own versus joining an escorted tour. Typically, we like to explore destinations on our own, but after weighing our options, we decided that a tour would be a better choice. I’ll explain more below.

Here are some ways we got more value out of our trip –both for our wallets and for our cultural expansion.

Time equals money. Sure, flights with several layovers may cost less, but when you don’t have much vacation time, it might be worthwhile to pay a little more for a direct flight. We had one transfer on our way to Italy, which was fine since we arrived in the morning, but it was still pretty exhausting since we were traveling from San Francisco. However, a few participants on our tour actually had 3 layovers! They didn’t arrive in Venice until around 10pm, essentially losing a whole day of their vacation!

Preparation is key, but a little spontaneity can be good too. Even if you’ve planned everything out, don’t be opposed to doing things a little differently. For example, I had a list of restaurants from each city (all with great reviews online) that I was planning to try. However, our tour manager ended up giving us suggestions of some of his favorite local spots. Although the places he mentioned didn’t have reviews online, we decided to try them anyway. We’re so glad we did, because they turned out to be the tastiest meals we had in Italy!

Cheap isn’t always the best way to go. There is a big difference between getting the cheapest deal and getting the one that offers the best value. Before delving into the planning process, I made a list of our top priorities – things we refused to compromise on.

  1. Top Cities – We wanted to visit as many cities as we could, but given our time constraints, we decided that Venice and Rome were our definite musts.
  2. Time/Logistics – We wanted our vacation to be as stress-free as possible. Some of our friends (who had been to Italy) told us they wasted a lot of time standing in line for various exhibits and figuring out transportation. That was something we really wanted to avoid.
  3. Comfort – Backpacking was fine during our college days, but for this trip, my husband and I wanted to travel a bit more comfortably. Our accommodations had to be clean, private, and convenient.
  4. Information – Even though we could manage to get to various places on our own, we were concerned about not having enough knowledge to appreciate things in their entirety. We wanted to learn as much as possible so that we could have a richer experience.
  5. Cost – Of course we wanted to see and do as much as possible without breaking the bank. That’s why, from the very beginning, we were diligent about creating a travel budget and even more diligent about sticking to it.

After we reviewed our priorities, we started to weigh the pros and cons of going to Italy on our own versus taking a tour. It soon became evident that a tour was the right choice for us. We searched for several months and finally found a package that met all of our needs and wants. Now that we’re back, we can say with 100% confidence that we made the right decision!

Spend smart. Whether you’re traveling abroad or enjoying a staycation, you should always be mindful of how you spend your money. Don’t go with the mindset of “spend now, pay later”. Trust me, it just isn’t worth it. Besides, some of the best travel experiences are free. The U.S. dollar may be weak compared to Italy’s euro, but my husband and I didn’t have to go broke in order to have a nice trip. We just had to practice smart spending!

Mind your manners and respect the local culture. In Italy, “Buon Giornio, Per Favore, and Grazie” go a long way. While in Florence, I remember cringing when an American woman yelled at an older Italian shopkeeper because he didn’t speak English. Hello…it’s Italy! Italian is the main language, NOT English. There’s no need to be rude. When you’re in someone else’s country, do yourself a favor – lose the ethnocentric attitude and spend time absorbing the local culture instead.

As you can imagine, there are many things you can do to prepare for a trip and make your vacation a success, but with these 5 tips, you can have a trip that’s not only valuable and memorable, but also budget-friendly!