Advice and ideas
I spend a lot of time travelling to, from and around Italy, and since I am often on the move, I need to travel as light as possible. I’m very keen on gadgets and space-saving techniques, and am constantly trying to optimise my luggage to find the mythical perfect balance between being well-equipped for all eventualities while minimising volume and weight.
If you’re a frequent traveller you may not need any advice. But for those who’d like some tips on efficient travel, along with packing tips specially for Italy, in this article I’ll share some of my experience and theories.
- Planning a trip
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- Find and book hotels in Italy. With location maps and guest reviews.
Hold or hand luggage?
How big a suitcase are you prepared to lug around? If you are enjoying a luxurious holiday based in one place, the size and weight of your baggage may not be an issue, as long as it will fit your airline/train/hire-car limits. However, if you’re travelling from place to place or will be carrying your luggage around on public transport, the lighter and more compact the better. Don’t forget that when you are travelling by air, until liquid restrictions are relaxed, you can only bring products like wine, oils and sauces home in your hold luggage – or purchase them expensively at the airport, after security and carry them on board. If in doubt, you should check your airline’s luggage allowances and the up-to-date list of banned items.
If you travel regularly with one airline, buy a case which will maximise your hand luggage space while conforming to their requirements. I have a suitcase with four wheels, and have found it a blessing on smooth surfaces – it means you can ‘usher’ it along without taking much weight, so it’s ideal if you have back or knee problems. It has rotating wheels, so on rough terrain and cobblestones it can be pulled like a normal wheelie case. On planes and trains I can turn it sideways and push it along the aisle. The only drawback is that the trolley-type wheels take up part of your hand-luggage space allowance.
On buses and trains, holdalls and shoulderbags are the most practical items to stow, as there isn’t always much space for suitcases. However, the convenience does have to be weighted against the comfort of carrying a heavy bag. Rucksacks are useful, but they do scream ‘tourist’ and can be hard to secure or carry safely on public transport. Small rucksacks, used as day bags, can cause problems when entering museums – you may be asked to leave your backpack at the entrance. It’s a good idea to have a small subsidiary bag to keep your valuables with you. On some ferries, you may be expected to buy a special ticket for large luggage.
After many years, I’ve settled on the solution of one cabin-size 4-wheeled suitcase, which I check in, plus a 20-litre rucksack and a small cross-body bag. This allows me to travel on public transport and trundle my case around Italian cities without too much effort, while keeping my hands free during the journey with easy access to passport and valuables. My rucksack fits under the seat in front on an aeroplane, so I don’t have to worry about finding overhead locker space. I mostly fly with British Airways who allow two items of cabin luggage; otherwise I’d leave space in the rucksack to stuff in the cross-body bag when necessary. Occasionally for a winter longer stay (heavier clothes), I’ll opt for a slightly larger suitcase. On a very short break I’ll consider travelling with hand luggage only, though I find this a hassle due to the liquid limits and having to find space and lift my case on the aircraft.
Important things to pack
Guidebook, printouts and maps – a guidebook will really help you to get the most out of your travel – a Kindle or ePub guide won’t add extra weight to your luggage and will be always-accessible on your phone and device. I sometimes also photocopy or print out basic tourist information and maps, or save them in a document on my phone and e-reader. Information can sometimes be hard to obtain once you’re actually travelling, so consider researching important train times, opening hours and addresses before you go and saving on your phone or printing them out.
Hotel information – take a printout of your booking confirmation and your hotel’s address, directions and ideally a location map. Research in advance how you will get there, especially if you’re arriving in the evening. Sometimes I ‘rehearse’ my arrival on Streetview to check for safety and to enable me to find the way fast on arrival when I’m transporting my luggage.
Passport and photocopy – you’ll obviously need your passport for travelling. Hotels require photographic ID when you check in, so you will have to hand over your passport – don’t forget to get it back as soon as possible. Italians are legally required to carry ID cards with them at all times (but I rarely risk carrying my passport; I lock it in a hotel safe). A photocopy of your passport, kept in a different place or by a different member of your party, may be sufficient for your hotel’s paperwork and could be useful if you have any problems or your passport is stolen.
Dictionary/phrasebook – even in big cities like Milan and Rome, this could come in handy. Most guidebooks have a decent vocabulary section at the back. Consider photocopying useful pages or bookmarking a helpful website so you can carry the information around in a pocket. Public transport journeys and restaurant meals are times when a vocabulary list will be particularly helpful. I always suggest learning a few polite phrases in advance.
Euros – when obtaining these, try to get a good mixture of low denominations. Italian shopkeepers hate giving change, and a 50 note is never welcome for small purchases. Avoid any higher value currency. Be aware that Italians are still distrustful of credit cards, and some smaller businesses will only accept cash.
Other things I’ve learned are useful include:
Emergency provisions (cereal bar, dried fruit, nothing that would melt in summer) for travel delays and to save you from expensive mini-bar cravings.
Flip-flops (summer) or lightweight folding slippers for use in your hotel room, if your hotel isn’t grand enough to provide slippers. Carpets are very rare in Italy.
A small torch, useful for exploring caves and ruins, for black-outs or poorly-lit villages.
A compass – for quick orientation.
Small, sealable plastic bags – check they’re the right dimensions and you can use them for toiletries at airport security (some aeroports charge for bags) as well as for all kinds of other purposes – storing food and snacks, carrying sunlotion, waterproofing small objects and devices. I use small ‘press and seal food bags’ from Poundland; I keep my toiletries in them and have spares permanently stuffed in my suitcase. Larger versions can be useful for storing food in a hotel room, waterproofing folded clothes etc.
A whistle or personal alarm – if you will be in the mountains, alone in a city or any other situation where you may feel at risk. You can buy personal alarms with a smoke alarm function, or which alert you to your hotel door being opened (personally I prop a chair against the door).
Strong insect repellent and hydrocortisone cream for mosquito bites, roughly from May to October.
In the summer, take sun lotion and after-sun. I really rate invisible liquid sun protection sprays. They’re easy to apply, invisible and seem to last for ages. Buy a small spray bottle along with a funnel, and decant some spray so that you can carry it around in a plastic bag or pouch within your day-bag.
Again in the summer, a fan can be a life-saver on sweaty public transport. If you’re visiting beaches a lightweight travel towel can be useful.
A pale coloured folding umbrella which can double as a parasol.
Good sunglasses all year round (hopefully) – and in summer, a folding sun hat.
A ‘platypus’ folding water bottle. Make sure it’s completely empty to get it through airport security. These are great for filling up at drinking-water fountains and carrying around with you on hot days, taking up only the minimum space necessary.
A padlock with a combination – much easier than keeping a tiny key safe.
Squeeze it in
To keep within airline luggage allowances and for your own convenience when travelling, keep your baggage as small and light as possible. A suitcase with wheels paired with a shoulder bag or rucksack makes a good combination. Just bear in mind that budget airlines may require you to fit all hand luggage in one bag.
Compress clothing. Argos and Lakeland both sell functional plastic compression bags which massively reduce the space your clothing takes up. They’re especially useful with bulky winter clothing, and have the double function of keeping your clothing watertight.
Packing cubes. These are a good alternative to compression bags and I find them really good for keeping clothes and cables organised and separate. Although they don’t compress clothes, I find I can fit a lot in my case by arranging the cubes cunningly.
Buy miniatures of the toiletries you need, or decant them into smaller bottles. Boots and Superdrug sell ranges of small toiletry bottles and jars, including spray bottles which are ideal for liquid sun protection (as described above). In Italy the cosmetics chain Sephora sells useful travel miniatures and bottles, as do branches of Muji.
Hotels always supply some kind of shower/bath gel. It’s not always great but usually good enough to keep you clean. Sometimes they have separate hair shampoo and conditioner. In my experience you can leave shower gel out of your packing unless you have sensitive skin, and possibly even omit shampoo, but, unless you are bald, taking your own conditioner is pretty much essential.
There is almost always some kind of hair-drier in a hotel bedroom or available to borrow at reception. Travelling with electrical hair-care equipment is strictly for the high-maintenance tourist.
Think lightweight, multi-purpose and layering. Can you choose your footwear carefully so you only need two pairs? Can you smarten up an outfit for dinner just by changing your top or adding (for women) a necklace? How much toothpaste will you actually need? Ideally when you travel home you should have just about finished up your toiletries, and worn every item of clothing in your case – any excess was a waste of space.
If you’re travelling hand-luggage only: Read the airline’s rules and limits, especially with regard to liquid volumes and quantity. Some airports may allow short bladed-scissors – check this closely. If not, take a short nail file or emery board for any broken fingernail emergencies. If you need to buy or borrow scissors in Italy, the word is forbici. Wear a coat or jacket with large pockets and discreetly pop any excess articles inside. Occasionally on budget airlines I’ve travelled wearing two outfits with a book stuffed in my pocket, and have stripped off a layer once through all the budget airline checks.
Health, hygiene and safety
Tampons and sanitary towels can be purchased in shops including supermarkets, chemists and little general stores. The Italian words are assorbenti and assorbenti interni (tampons). They are expensive in Italy and shops aren’t always easy to find, so if space permits, I’d suggest bringing a supply from home.
The morning-after pill is theoretically available in hospitals, but it isn’t readily accessible. Plan ahead. Condoms (preservativi) are available in chemists and supermarkets, and from vending machines outside pharmacies.
Italy is quite a safe country, but as in any country, as well as following sensible precautions you may want to travel with a pocket alarm, especially if you are likely to be alone after dark in a large city.
For minimal packing, a bit of jewellery can be invaluable for dressing up an outfit for the evening or theatre. Cosmetics can be a good area for cutting down on luggage – think about the hot sweaty weather and stick to minimal make-up – a small palette of eyeshadow colours can allow for an effective day into night transition.
Although Italian women’s clothes can seem provocative to other nationalities, the reverse is also true. Strappy vest/tank tops and brief shorts are rarely worn by Italians and can attract unwelcome attention. In churches, in any case, you must cover your chest and shoulders as well as legs above the knee. A large scarf or sarong is incredibly useful for draping around you at such times, as well as for many other functions (picnic rug, a covering for sweaty plastic seating and more).
On the blog
> Really useful stuff for travel – more tips, and links to the useful travel products I won’t travel without
> Sample packing list – if you don’t know where to start
> Capsule wardrobe for Italy in summer – for women who’d like ideas on what clothes to take for a summer break
Useful Italian words for items you might need
toothbrush – spazzolino
toothpaste – dentifricio
scissors – forbici
comb – pettine
padlock – lucchetto
condoms – preservativi
nappies/diapers – pannolini
sun lotion – crema solare or latte solare
aftersun – doposole
antiseptic – antisettico
painkillers – antidolorifici
tissues – fazzoletti
plug/adaptor – spina/adattatore
On this site
Useful links & books