How to Be a Gladiator in Italy: 5 Techniques to Kill Travel Expenses

Fourteen days. Fourteen pizzas. Eleven cones of gelato. Seven airplanes. Five extra pounds. Four cities. Three train rides. Ridiculously good limoncello.

My girlfriend and I had an amazing and picturesque European vacation to Italy. Now I feel that post-vacation depression because I know I can’t consume the massive amounts of wine and carbs that I did on the daily in Italy. It’s back to working out and green smoothies.

Being anal about a lot of things, and tops on that list is my finances, the very first thing I did when I got back was calculate how much I spent over the fourteen days in Europe.


That amount includes EVERY single thing: airfare, trains, buses, accommodations, sightseeing, food, coffee, and a fair amount of booze. That’s just $135 a day.

Maybe that seems like a lot of money for two weeks in Italy. On a recent forum on Rick Steves’ website people wrote how much they spent on a twelve day vacation in Italy:

  • $480/day excluding airfare
  • $5,000 excluding airfare
  • $200/day excluding airfare
  • $350/day excluding airfare

I was shocked because seeing the world doesn’t have to cost that much. So what do I do differently from other travelers?

1. Get Free (Well, Almost Free) Airfare

During the flight back from Rome I peeked at the itinerary of another passenger and saw that roundtrip airfare from Chicago cost them about $1,750. The same ticket for us was $167.

Most people hear frequent flyer miles and assume that the only way to earn them is by flying which is WRONG. The easiest and most lucrative way to earn miles is to sign up for credit cards that offer huge mile bonuses, meet the spend requirement to get the bonus (e.g. spend $3,000 in three months), and then book FREE travel.

I currently have 86,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I earned with sign-up bonuses which I will convert to United miles for free roundtrip airfare anywhere in the world: I can go to South America for 40,000 miles, Europe for 60,000 miles, or Africa for 80,000 miles.

The catch is that booking airfare on miles you’re still on the hook for taxes and fees so when I booked my trip (read how I did that here!) it cost $167.

2. Skip the Hotels

We spent the most time in Rome, and we knew we wanted to stay in the old center with its winding narrow streets filled with tiny restaurants, cafes, shops, and foot traffic. Of course everyone else wants to stay there too so that means paying a premium, which I have a sickness against (my girlfriend can attest to this).

The two CHEAPEST hotels that Rick Steves recommends in the old center are €140-€150 a night.

No way.

I happened to stumble upon Cross Pollinate which represents apartments in a handful of European cities so I emailed them requesting a sub-€100 apartment in the old center. They recommended a small apartment on the top floor of a building with an ENORMOUS private terrace that had sweeping views of the city. For €95 a night we immediately booked it.

[In case you’re interested in the Rome apartment we stayed at here’s a direct link to it. The couple who runs Cross Pollinate – Steve and Linda – are American expats and awesome to work with.]

3. Eat and Drink Well, but Smart

When traveling, deciding on what and then where to eat is when my girlfriend and I have the most arguments. I appreciate that I’m fortunate enough to travel half-way across the world to experience another country and culture, which means I’ll drink the delicious but CHEAP €3 half-litre of house wine. She’ll splurge.

“I’ll take another Aperol Spritz,” she tells the waiter. He walks away.

“You know that’s €10, right?”

“Yeah, I’m on vacation.”

“The two pizzas we just ate were €10. Total.”

“It’s fine, I’ll pay for it.”

“I’m just saying.”

I get it – we’re in another country, on vacation from our extremely busy and demanding lives, we SHOULD treat ourselves. So we compromise on having two splurge meals: in Positano at Da Vincenzo and in Rome at Taverna Trilussa (both ran us about €80 or $100).

When we weren’t dropping €80 on super-romantic restaurants with black-vested waiters we were eating and drinking well by using these tricks:

A) Aperitivo

I wasn’t aware of the Italian aperitivo tradition until my buddy Trav from Extra Pack of Peanuts mentioned it. Every day from about 6PM until 10PM bars will offer a table full of small dishes and anyone that purchases a drink at an inflated price gets to eat for FREE. During aperitivo at the bar Freni e Frizioni €6 got me a Peroni tap beer and plate after plate of decent food.

You can take your flimsy plate and pile it with as much food as you want PLUS go back as many times for refills. I’m in love.

B) Coffee

Never have coffee sitting down. Why? Because drinking your coffee at the bar is cheaper than drinking it at one of the cafe’s tables. No matter what cafe you’re in, every city has a regulated price: espresso at the bar in Rome was €0.90.

C) Water

There are public water fountains EVERYWHERE in Italy, in Rome alone there are 2,500. Bring a water bottle with you or buy a bottle of water there and re-use it, filling it up with the cold, safe, great-tasting water from the fountains.

D) Takeaway

Pizza or sandwiches to go is a cheap and reliable way to eat well. In Positano we would grab bottles of Peroni, olives, fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and baguettes and have a delicious meal on our terrace or at the beach.

4. Self-Guided Tours

If you’re vacationing at an all-inclusive in Mexico you probably don’t need a travel guide. But if you’re going to a new country and plan on exploring then you MUST have a guide book. If you don’t you’ll waste time and money not knowing what the HELL you’re doing: how to get around, how much things should cost, what to avoid, what to see, ways to save money, and in the case of sites, what you’re actually looking at.

We traveled with Rick Steves’ Italy 2014 travel guide which for less than $20 is a steal. One of the reasons I have a man-crush on Rick is the wonderful self-guided tours he provides in his books. Instead of hiring a guide or paying for an audio guide my girlfriend and I would trade-off being a guide by using his self-guided tours.

We did this for EVERYTHING: Pompeii, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Capitoline Museum, the Borghese Gallery, and St. Ignatius. The information within the self-guided tours is easily worth the price of the book alone. Thanks Rick!

5. The Roma Pass

To help save tourists money Rome offers a sightseeing pass called the Roma Pass. It costs €36 and is valid for three days covering admission to two sites, discounts for additional sites, and public transportation.

I thought the pass would save us money, but it didn’t. However, it did save us time because with the pass you also get to skip ticket lines, which at the Colosseum is INSANELY long.

We used the Roma Pass for free entry at the Borghese Gallery and the Colosseum/Forum and paid the discounted price of €11 at the Capitoline so in total we spent €47. Without the pass we would have paid €36 for the three sites so the wildcard is how much public transportation you use.

Since the bus costs €1.50 a ride if you’ll be riding more than a handful of times get the pass. We only hopped on the bus four times so we paid an extra €5, BUT we got to skip the long Colosseum line which was probably worth that amount.

Final Word

Italy was an AMAZING country to visit and it finds a spot right back on my travel list.

Taking the same vacation every year is a great way to insulate yourself from new experiences and to make sure you don’t try new foods, or force yourself to overcome language barriers, or learn about another culture and their viewpoints which may differ from our own.

So use these techniques to make travel affordable for you or your family and get out there and see the world!

I want to hear your travel tips for Italy in the comments!