Arrivederci, tourist traps

From eating with locals to bypassing the Colosseum crowds, Isobel King learns a thing or two about conquering Rome.

ITALY'S tourist hot spots can be overwhelming at the best of times, with excessive crowds stretching Italian tolerance to the limits. Don't always count on smiling service and spontaneous advice.

If you're planning to travel independently and especially if your Italian isn't up to scratch, you might benefit from some of the tips garnered from my recent trip – many learnt the hard way.

Trains

Buy in advance There's only one way to organise your train travel in Italy; jump online before you leave and book it direct on the Italian railways website, Trenitalia. Just print out the bar-coded confirmation page and take it with you to show the conductor.

You'll get the best bargains by booking in advance and spare yourself the madness of trying to figure out how it all works once you're there. Queues at the big rail stations are horrendous in summer and the information and booking lines are often lumped in together, so don't expect any quick answers.

There are touch-screen ticketing machines but you can pay a premium for same-day travel and might not necessarily get the time you're after.

And don't forget to check if your ticket needs validating at the yellow ticketing machines on platforms (the ticketless ones we bought online didn't). There's a hefty fine if you forget and get caught.

Decoding the electronic departures board This one has many people stumped, like the American girl at Rome's huge Termini station who insisted all trains to Florence had been mysteriously cancelled that morning. She'd been there for several hours. Indeed, there was no sign of “Firenze” on the electronic departures board despite the fact many of us staring up at it had tickets on the Florence-bound train at confirmed times.

Likewise, in Florence, when hordes of us were trying to make our way to a small country station nearby to see the Mugello motorcycle grand prix, many ended up missing their train because they couldn't decipher from the electronic board what platform it left from.

The answer is simple: go by the train (treno) number displayed and make sure it corresponds with that on your ticket and don't be distracted by anything else, like a destination you've never heard of – that's simply where the train ends up. Then just look at what platform (binario or bin) it leaves from.

More detailed train schedules are posted around stations for those happy to scrutinise the fine print.

Italian SIM card

Global roaming might be convenient but the risk of “bill shock” is high, so a smart option is to bring your own unlocked, compatible GSM phone and buy a local SIM card. If there's two of you and you go with the same service provider, you'll invariably get incentives such as free or discounted calls and/or text messages between phones. We went with one of Italy's main providers, TIM, and €20 ($26.50) bought the SIM card and enough credit for two weeks of generous texting and calls.

If you're arriving into Rome's Termini station, there's a TIM shop up on the first floor so you can get yourself sorted pronto. Otherwise, you'll find outlets all over Italy.

An added bonus of having a local mobile number is that you're more likely to be called back when you're making a booking or reservation.

Restaurant bookings

Don't make the mistake we did and pop into a restaurant with a great local buzz, make a booking for later and assume you'll get one of those great tables out front.

On two occasions in different Italian cities, we were shunted into gloomy back rooms clearly reserved for tourists and handed English-only menus. On both occasions we walked out in disgust to an indifferent shrug of the shoulders from the staff.

We had much better luck when we had our hotels do the booking for us, with clear instructions we didn't want the tourist treatment. Clearly, the locals have a lot more sway.

Roma pass

If you're in Rome for more than a few days and want to take in the main attractions, don't even think about anything other than a Roma pass. For €25, you get free public transport, free entry to the first two attractions, then discounted entry fees on as many others as you can take in over the three-day duration of the pass.

Its greatest value for me, however, lies in the fact it enables you to bypass the long, snaking queues into hugely popular attractions such as the Colosseum.

I felt like a celebrity as I breezed to the front of the line and joined the dozen or so people being checked through the dedicated Roma pass barrier, mystified why anyone would bother fronting up without one.

It's a good idea to plan the attractions you want to use your two free visits for; it makes sense to pick the most expensive ones on your list.

Vatican tours

The Vatican – including the Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basilica – is one of the few attractions not covered by the Roma pass. For that, I booked a three-hour tour through Presto Tours, a company that came highly recommended.

There were just three in my group, with Mitra as our guide, a Swedish art historian who's been taking tourists through the Vatican for almost a decade.

She can answer any question and also seems to know every guard, so we were often able to duck under ropes to escape the seething masses that now pass through the Vatican each day.

I'm not exaggerating when I say the general admission queue was at least a kilometre long on the hot July afternoon I visited, so save your sanity and be sure to go with a personalised tour. You are ushered straight in.

Trip notes

Train tickets

Buy tickets online at the Trenitalia website (trenitalia.com) and as far in advance as possible to take full advantage of specials. Check the “offers and deals” section of the website for current promotions.

Roma Pass

You can purchase the pass online at romapass.it and collect it on arrival from a nominated pick-up point. The pass is just as easy to buy once you're there. It's available from any tourist office in Rome and most news stands and train stations. It costs €25 ($33), is valid for three days and gets validated the first time you use it. See the “FAQ” section of the website for a full rundown of how the pass works and venues and discounts included.

Presto Tours

This specialised tour group prides itself on the calibre of its guides, who are hand-picked for their areas of expertise. It offers several different tours of the Vatican, from the €54 semi-private tour I did, to a seven-hour intensive tour for €250. If you're tempted by a night tour of the Vatican, keep in mind not every section is open and you won't get to see St Peter's Basilica — which is unmissable! Book online at prestotours.com.

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