Where to start:
When I first started planning our Europe trip, it obviously started with a budget. You can find lots of information on how to prepare for any trip HERE! So at this point, I’ll assume you’re all caught up, and we can move on with Europe specific planning.
First off, you’ll need to set your time frame and determine your locations. Then you’ll need to plan your route and decide what types of lodging fit your budget and style. Simultaneously you should research flight options and activities and keep plugging all this info into your spreadsheet.
Obviously, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where we were going to stay. Typically down in Central America, it’s all about the hostel. But if you’ve read my budget travel tips, when you’re traveling as a group, hostels are not always the best value. Think about it, if the going rate for a bed in a mixed dorm is $10, you’ve already committed to spending $40, and you don’t even have your own bathroom. So it’s best to expand your search to everything from traditional hotels to renting private homes. We never stayed in a hostel during our European tour. Mostly we used Airbnb and Booking.com with a few random sites here and there. All the prices listed include taxes and fees.
POMPEII- Airbnb – $47 per night
There are several neighborhoods that you can stay in to enjoy the highlights of southern Italy. As with all lodging, you have to determine what type of transportation you have, what sites you are interested in, and overall what kind of vibe you want to experience with your stay. Initially, we were just going to stay in Naples, which is probably what most people do. It’s a large city, plenty of restaurants, shopping, and a major transportation hub.
But once I started learning about the surrounding areas, I realized that a smaller suburb like Pompeii would be a better fit. I don’t love being in the heart of a big city unless I can literally walk to everything I’m interested in. But to explore southern Italy the way we wanted to, we realized we were going to need a car, so that opened up a lot of other areas to stay. Specifically, we stayed in Torre Annunziata just on the outskirts of Pompeii. This location would allow us to stay central to Herculaneum, Pompeii, Matera, and Naples. Overall the neighborhood was great. Lots of food options and markets, although they really stretch out their siesta time at both. Very cheap too! It was a very centralized location, right off the main highway. I would happily stay here again.
We figured this part of our adventure was going to be pretty busy. We wanted to visit Herculaneum, Vesuvius, Pompeii, the Almalfi Coast, Matera, and maybe a quick tour of Naples. We didn’t pre-book anything for this visit, as it was the low season, and because our adventures were weather dependent, we wanted as much flexibility as possible. We had the advantage of time, if you don’t know by now, we really like to take things slow, so more often than not, we spread out our activities to keep it leisurely.
A few notes on activities. When you’re researching things to do in an area, it’s really easy to get lost in the mix. And it seems as though it gets harder and harder to find Official Websites. There are so many skip-the-line websites, and perhaps you decide that the increased fee is worth it, but first, you have to locate the base price on the official website to make that determination.
- Vesuvius – $60 – We made the drive from our Airbnb to the base of Vesuvius. You can only drive so far up the mountain, and then you can either walk or take a shuttle to the entry. During low season the parking is free, and it’s approximately $3 per person for the shuttle. CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AND INFO The shuttle bus takes you farther up the mountain approximately 2-3 miles. After you exit the shuttle bus, you will pay for your entry tickets and walk the short distance to the trail. Keep in mind there are no bathrooms anywhere. Once on the trail, it’s a steep climb to the crater. It takes about 20-30 minutes to reach the first lookout. There are a few souvenir shops and snacks and drinks for sale at the top. Once on top, you can walk about half the crater and enjoy the different vantage points. This is a must-see for sure! It’s an easy enough walk down, if not a little slippery, but overall it was a great short hike! All in all, it took us about 3 hours from the time we parked the car to make the round trip.
- Drive the Amalfi Coast – Free – We took advantage of our rental car and decided to drive the Amalfi coast. From Pompeii, it’s about a 3-hour loop without any stops. It was quite cold, so we weren’t interested in doing any beach time, but we wanted to see the breathtaking views and experience the famous road. We definitely got our money’s worth! The drive is not for the faint of heart. I would never consider driving it, but luckily my Hubby was up for the challenge. I definitely recommend making the drive, whether you drive the loop, stop for a quick bite, or head to the beach, the views from the coast do not disappoint. I wouldn’t, however, make the trip on one of the many buses that are available unless you are staying somewhere on the coast, but for a leisurely drive doing it in your own vehicle is a must!
- Herculaneum – $30 – The drive to Herculaneum was not as challenging as others might make you think. Other than a slight wrong turn, it was pretty easy to find the site, as well as parking. And as far as I could tell, there are no ZTL’s in the area, more on this down below. CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AND INFO Herculaneum is a relatively small site, we easily saw everything we wanted in just a few hours. We didn’t hire a guide as the onsite guides were asking for a minimum of approximately $75 for about 45 minutes. If you are interested in hiring a guide, I would look elsewhere, just based on my short experience in talking with the guides. I downloaded the official online guides, map, and itinerary, but it was a bit of a challenge to find your way around. There are lots of audio guides available in the app store that might be a good option, but overall if you have the patience to scroll through the online guide, you’ll get an overall idea of what you’re looking at.
- Matera – FREE – Matera is about a 3-hour drive from Pompeii. We opted not to stay in the area, but rather make the drive, tour the city and the caves, and head back to Pompeii. The cost of lodging was a bit pricey in Matera, and I didn’t feel we needed a ton of time to tour the city. Turns out, we accomplished everything we wanted on our day trip. The roads are very easy heading out to Matera, wide and well maintained. Arriving in the city is a bit confusing. There’s lots of information regarding ZTL’s, parking, and where to view the Sassi. We attempted to find a parking garage, but we later discovered that this lot was in the ZTL, and there was no way we were going to make it there. There is one main garage in the modern city that has plenty of space. We actually parked at the castle for free and didn’t have any problems. Of course, if you’re staying there, you’ll want to contact your hotel and arrange it with them. Once we parked, we walked in on the main road, and there was a little snack shop with a bathroom and free wifi. Matera is kind of weird. When you watch the vlogs and such, you are expecting something totally different than what you see, at least at first. Matera is very much a bustling modern town, but the moment you walk to the riverside of Matera, you are transported in time, and you find yourself in the old city. The city of caves. This is the Matera that everyone knows. It’s a very small, easy town to navigate. Once we had our fill of the actual village, we wanted to explore the area across the ravine, The Murgia National Park. This area was amazing. The central spot is Belvedere. When we were there, you could either walk the 1.2 miles to the lookout, or you could take the shuttle. At 5 pm, they let you drive your own vehicle down the road. We drove to a couple of churches and explored the caves. I was hoping to drive to the Belvedere lookout at sunset, this is the best time to view the town, but we didn’t quite make it. Our day in Matera was a little shorter than I anticipated. I would allow just a couple of hours to walk around the city, and maybe another hour or two to tour the caves. So time your day accordingly so that you can make it to Belvedere and view the city as it lights up.
- Pompeii – $35 – Once again, the drive was easy, and parking was even easier than Herculaneum. As soon as you exit the highway, you will see numerous lots charging approximately $10 for all-day parking. I definitely wouldn’t pay more than this. CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AND INFO Some even offer free parking if you eat at a particular restaurant, probably overpriced, but it’s free parking. There are some ZTL’s in the area, but they can be easily avoided. Pompeii is huge. The map is confusing, and following the itinerary can be a challenge. Again, I didn’t hire a guide, they were quoting a minimum of $100. If I were to do things again, I think I would hire a guide, but I would definitely find an outside source. I hate to say it, but there was just something about the onsite guides that I didn’t love. Airbnb experiences seem to have some really good options. We got around with the help of signs and such, and quite honestly, at the end of the day, all of the ruins kind of bleed together. The highlights of Pompeii are the castes, and these can be found by using the signboards.
We were fortunate enough to find a great little pizzeria literally just a few minutes up the steps from our Airbnb. Pizzeria Del Corso was amazing! The best owners and such amazing pizza and paninis. We relied on this restaurant primarily for dinner options and opted to purchase breakfast items at the market. Again, the area was very reasonably priced for food options. We did find the “siesta” to be somewhat of a hindrance, though. We are definitely not on siesta time. Luckily for us lazy Americans, it was McDonald’s to the rescue. You see, the markets and restaurants shut down between about 1 pm and 7 pm. And just because they open back up at 7 pm doesn’t mean they’re going to have food, that may take an hour or so. Definitely, not a problem, just a part of their culture, you just need to plan for food accordingly. Needless to say, we kind of got sucked into the McDonald’s vortex while in Pompeii. It was easy, convenient, and familiar!
We did not take any public transit while in Pompeii as we utilized our rental car the entire time. We picked up our rental in Rome at CIA and made the drive down to Pompeii. We had been warned about the roads, moreover the drivers, in Italy but for the most part, we did ok. The highways are wide and well maintained. They should be considering the tolls that are collected. Of course, when you get in a little town or something the roads get pretty narrow and indeed the drivers don’t slow down one bit. If you are a hesitant driver, I would not recommend driving in Italy, it is intense. But for someone who enjoys going fast and pushing the limits on the narrow winding roads, it looks like a lot of fun. Of course, I wouldn’t know because I had my eyes closed at least half the time!
- Dollar Rental Car – $145 – Expedia – I had a lot of hesitation with renting a car in a foreign country. My first questions was insurance. Of course, the rental company provides liability insurance, but you also need to cover yourself against theft, vandalism, and damage. I learned that my insurance, Progressive, did not cover any damage to the vehicle like it does here in the states. It’s my understanding the most US insurance companies do not extend to international rentals aside from maybe Mexico/Canada. Be sure to check your current provider. So then I was left with a choice to purchase an additional insurer like Allianz for approximately $11 per day, or the other alternative is to rely on your credit card benefits. Another option is to purchase directly from the rental company, but these rates are approximately $30 per day, entirely unreasonable. Information regarding renting in Italy makes things even more confusing as the rules have changed recently. I was not forced to purchase their CDW, I solely relied on my credit card benefits. Thankfully we didn’t have any issues, but my hope would be that the credit card company would come through. Just be sure to check the terms with your credit card provider. I was also hesitant about navigating the roads in a different language and parking. We used Google maps to navigate, it was easy, even in the little towns. Parking definitely would have been a challenge if we would have been forced to park on the street. That is not something I would feel comfortable with, especially in a rental car. I saw people actually slide their bumper along the wall in order to fit. That’s crazy! We just committed to taking extras time to find a suitable space and/or pay the extra money to park in a dedicated lot. We never found it to be a problem.
- Tolls/Fuel/Parking – $150 – We drove a lot in this area and got hit with a lot of tolls. I didn’t have a problem using a route that contained tolls because I felt this was usually a safer option and worth the money. Overall our fuel was fairly inexpensive, the cars here get excellent gas mileage, but the fact is it all adds up. If I were to do it again, I would have no hesitation about renting a car and paying the fees that comes with that choice, as long as hubby’s diving, of course!
- ZTL (Zona Traffica Limitado) – I had no idea what this was until I happened to come across a random forum when I was in search of a car park for Herculaneum. It’s just not something that had ever come up. Basically, these are zones, primarily in the big cities, Rome, Venice, Florence, maybe Naples, that are literally areas where traffic is prohibited, and you may face hefty fines if found driving in these zones without a permit, which as a visitor you cannot obtain. I saw these signs in Matera and Pompeii, although they could be avoided fairly easily. The bottom line is if you are planning on going to one of the bigger cities, I would do a little more research. These zones don’t show up on google maps or anything, so it may take a little digging, but as far as I understand, they don’t impact major highways, it’s more in neighborhoods to keep traffic off the streets.
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