Tips for cutting hotel costs in Italy

Shared baths, skipped breakfast, overnight trains, cold hard cash. You don't have to live in youth hostels and campgrounds (unless, of course you want to) to spend, easily, less than $30 per person per night on accommodations in Europe.

I'm already assuming that you're looking only at hotels rated three-star/moderate and below. These tips will help you whittle the rates down a good 10 to 40 percent below the asking price.

Before we begin, something that is not so much a tip as a point to remember: by and large, in the U.S. you're charged by the room. In Italy you're charged by the head count. This is why, as a frugal Assistant Scoutmaster who doesn't believe tent camping was invented with cold rainy nights in mind, I can take a group of Boy Scouts and cram 16 of them into one cheap motel room for $39.95 in the USA. But when I took them to Europe in the summer of 2000, I had to pay for lodgings on a per-scout basis (though I did usually get a "bulk discount").

What I mean is, while a four-bedded "quad" room will be cheaper than renting two double rooms, you are not going to convince the hotelier to charge even less for your willingness to squeeze four people into one double room. It just doesn't work that way over there.

Use a booking engine

It's sad, but the best booking engines can often undersell the rates the hotel itself charges by a good 5% to 15%. Notice I was "the best booking engines." This rarely means the big three (Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com) or the major hotel sites (like Hotels.com).

You need to use a true Italy specialist booking engine like Hostelz.com or Hostelworld.com (which actually lists more inexpensive hotels than it does hostels). I'm serious. That's why I've partnered with these sites.

On may last Italy trip, I found—and booked—every single hotel through either guidebooks included). » more

Check hotel websites

Not only will a hotel's own website (usually) give you the rack rates (the top going prices for each type of room, often broken down by season)—which will allow you to comparison-shop prices better at the booking engines—but it will also feature sales and promotions found nowhere else.

You can find some amazing bargains, especially in the off-season, offering up to half off the rack rates. On the other hand, I immediately mistrust any hotel that isn't willing to post its rates on its own website. What are they hiding?

Learn to Share

Cardinal law of European hotel rooms: you pay more to have a private bathroom in the room. If you don't mind sharing the common bathroom down the hall, you can easily save 25%–50%. Just like that. Just for being willing to carry your bathroom gear down the corridor, and for occasionally have to wait a bit for someone else to vacate the facilities.

In most places (aside from hostels), you usually share the hall bath with one or two other rooms—at most, four or five other rooms. Frequently you get it all to yourself; there was just no space to install a bathroom in your bedroom, so you have to use a private one out in the corridor. (Most hotels, especially in historic centers, were not custom-built but rather converted from existing buildings, many of them actually pre-dating the entire concept of indoor bathrooms.)

What's more, in the vast majority of hotels even the bathless rooms come equipped with at least a sink, they just lack the shower/tub or a toilet (and some even have the shower as well, just not the commode). That means for simple ablutions and the hand-washing of your clothes you're still all set. And don't worry, you can still hear nature calling from just down the hall. » more

Avoid Breakfast

I don't mean don't eat it, just don't eat it at your hotel. If you have the option of opting out of breakfast and getting something knocked off your hotel bill, do so. Usually hotel a breakfast costs anywhere from $5 to $15 per person, and—except in some farm stays, where it may be ample, hearty, and included in the already low prices—normally consists of croissants and/or rolls, maybe some packaged jams, coffee or tea, and some sort of weird European orange drink that tastes likes an early, and thankfully discarded, formula for Tang; it's wet, sweet, and vaguely orangey, but it certainly ain't juice.

TIP
Hotel breakfasts aren't the only rip-offs at the inn. Here's the skinny on some perfectly legal hotel scams:
Heck, you can get the same "hotel breakfast" (minus the definitely-not-Tang) from the corner bar for $5 or less. Plus, if you patronize the local bar, you get the chance to rub elbows at the bar with Italians on their way to work rather than share a hotel breakfast in a room filled with other tourists. Only on very rare occasions and in the very cheapest hotels do they charge you as little for breakfast as the local cafe would. Even if the hotel lays on a larger spread-slices of ham, cheese, teensy boxes of cold cereal-it's not truly worth the added expense.

If, however, your hotel insists that breakfast is included in the rate and you cannot opt out, then you have carte blanche to bring your daypack down to breakfast with you and load it up with enough extra food to make at least a decent mid-morning snack if not a light picnic lunch out of it. After all, the hotel did insist, and you are paying through the nose for it.

Rock Yourself to Sleep on an Overnight Train for $0 to $30

OK, first the $30 version. If you've got to traverse vast distances on your trip—train rides of more than six or seven hours—you can either (1) waste basically an entire day of your vacation getting from point a to point b, or (2) book a sleeping berth (couchette) for $20 to $40 on an overnight train, sleep while you travel, and end up both paying far less for accommodations that night than you would at a hotel and getting where you're going without blowing off a whole day.

Sure, you miss out on the pretty scenery, plus truth be told train bunks provide far from a comfortable and sound night's sleep, but all in all it's not a bad deal. Always book a second class couchette, which will usually land you one of six narrow bunks in a tiny compartment, because you really aren't going to get much more out of the pricier options anyway. There's even a way to do it for free. » more

Crowd the Clan into One Room

If you don't need the privacy, don't rent a separate room for the kids, as it will cost twice as much. An extra bed in your room will cost, at most, 35% more. Cots and cribs cost even less (sometimes nothing, if the kids are young enough).

Triple or quads (rooms with three or four regular beds already in them) are more expensive than a double room, but less expensive than one double plus one single, or two doubles, respectively.

You get my drift. If you find you do need a bit more privacy on occasion, ask if a hotel has family suites, where two separate rooms share a common door to the hall, or there are two bedrooms within the guest quarters.

Snuggle Up: Double Beds Cost Less than Two Singles

This is a rule of thumb slowly fading from the Italian lodging scene, but still in some hotels you will find that a room with a "double bed" (double or queen) will cost a bit less than one with two single beds, mainly because they have to wash only one set of sheets.

The Italian for "one big bed" is "letto matrimoniale." If it's two beds, they'll specify "con due letti." (In point of fact, a "double" bed often ends up being two singles pushed together with a queen-sized sheet stretched across both.)

Bonus hint: if the seam in the middle bothers you or the gap begins to widen as the cots underneath slowly slide away from one another under your weight, unmake the bed and rotate the pair of mattresses 90 degrees to that the seam is now horizontal

Be Cheap: Ask for the Least Expensive Room

Yeah, seems pretty obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people overpay for one room when another in the same hotel costs less just because it's slightly smaller, or doesn't have "the view" (of the lake or sea or cathedral or whatever), or isn't one of the recently renovated rooms. If they quote you one price, always ask "Do you have one that is cheaper?" Which brings me to:

Bargain with Them

We Yanks have earned something of a reputation for constantly asking for cheaper rates than those quoted or posted-or at least European hoteliers complain that we do so, and tend to chastise me, the travel writer, for continuing to recommend this tactic, even though I see locals doing it as much or more often than Americans do...but I digress.

If it's the dead of winter and the hotel is empty, try to haggle the price down a bit, maybe 10%–30%. Don't bother trying during major holidays, at the height of the high season, or when the place is booked solid.

Cold Hard Cash, Baby

If you pay be credit card, the hotelier will charge you the posted, official rate and then has to tithe a certain percentage of that to the credit card company for the sake of your convenience. If you pay cash, he gets to keep every last Euro of it, so he's likely to knock a few bucks off the price to sweeten the deal.

Always ask, after the price is quoted, "Is that the price if I pay with a credit card? What if I pay with cash?" Often the rate will magically come down. Also—though you didn't hear this from me—if you pay cash, it leaves the hotel free to underreport their income to the tax man.

The room may cost €80, and they'll claim they sold it to you for maybe €60, and then you have to pay just €70 in actual currency because, for them, that €10 is pure profit. This is considered a time-honored Italian tradition.

Stay with the Neighbors

Shack up in Padova instead of Venice, Prato instead of Florence, Sorrento instead of Naples. Not every major Italian city has a secondary city of significant interest in its own right that's close enough for this to work (for example: Rome), but some do.

This option is a bit of a triple-edged sword, if such a metaphor is possible. It is almost always cheaper to stay in a smaller satellite or nearby city than it is to stay in the major/popular one, especially during high season.

However, even though you are saving money, you are stuck staying in somewhere other than the big city you came to see, plus you've got to factor in the price of the train you take every day for that 20-minute ride into the big city (always stick to some place within a 30-minute train ride of the big city). Even so, you do get a chance this way to experience two cities, one smaller and far less touristed than the main one, which only enriches your overall experience.

This option is not for everyone, certainly not if it's your visit to the major city and/or you have only a limited time to see it, but it can be a welcome option if the main city is booked solid in high season or during some trade fair.

Shop Around

Call a number of hotels from the train station when you arrive. If the city doesn't appear to be full (if everyone has vacancies), don't settle for the first place with an empty bed. Find the perfect balance between where you want to stay (a sumptuous suite with a private pool overlooking the cathedral in the center of town) and what you want to pay (not enough to afford that).

Find out what the lodging market is like in town on that day, pick your ideal hotel, and then bargain. If you play it right, you can end up netting yourself twice the room at half the cost than the bozo who was on the train next to you, blindly follows his guidebook's advice, and grabs the first room he finds at the first price quoted him.

Look into Lodging Alternatives

Hostels, agriturismi (farm stays), affittacamere (rental rooms), campgrounds, B&B's, monasteries...there are so many of these budget options (roughly two dozen) I needed to create a whole separate section on this Website just to fit them all in. » more

Stay for free

There are at least ten ways you can spend the night in Italy absolutely for free, from CouchSurfing to home swapping, Barter B&Bs to hospitality exchanges, monasteries, house sitting, and more. » more

Tips & links

Lodging links & resources
Useful Italian
Useful Italian phrases and terms for lodging

English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a hotel un albergo oon al-BEAR-go
...a B&B un bed-and-breakfast oon bet hand BREK-fust
...a rental room un'affittacamera oon ah-feet-ah-CAH-mair-ra
...an apartment for rent un appartamento oon ah-part-tah-MENT-toh
...a farm stay un agriturismo oon ah-gree-tour-EES-moh
...a hostel un ostello oon oh-STEHL-loh
     
How much is...? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
a single room una singola OO-nah SEEN-go-la
double room for single use [will often be offered if singles are unavailable] doppia uso singola DOPE-pee-ya OO-so SEEN-go-la
a double room with two beds una doppia con due letti OO-nah DOPE-pee-ya cone DOO-way LET-tee
a double room with one big bed una matrimoniale OO-nah mat-tree-moan-nee-YAAL-lay
triple room una tripla OO-nah TREE-plah
with private bathroom con bagno cone BAHN-yoh
without private bathroom senza bagno [they might say con bagno in comune—"with a communal bath"] SEN-zah BAHN-yoh
for one night per una notte pair OO-nah NOH-tay
for two nights per due notti pair DOO-way NOH-tee
for three nights per tre notti pair tray NOH-tee
Is breakfast included? É incluso la prima colazione? ay in-CLOO-soh lah PREE-mah coal-laht-zee-YOAN-nay
Is there WiFi? C'é WiFi? chay WHY-fy?
May I see the room? Posso vedere la camera? POH-soh veh-DAIR-eh lah CAH-mair-rah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Is there a cheaper one? C'é una più economica? chay OO-nah pew eh-ko-NO-mee-kah

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