Below are some tips we hope you will find helpful in planning for your trip, packing, and once you arrive in Florence. These are based on the experiences of past Site Directors and other teachers and are to be used as you see fit.
Your passport (and several copies of it) is the only form of ID you need to take to Europe. Leave your driver’s license at home (unless you are driving to or from Griffin Hall or the Houston airport or plan to rent a car in Europe or plan to rent a car in Europe). You don’t want to have to replace it if you lose your wallet/purse or get pick pocketed.
You will receive a student ID when you arrive in Florence. Carry your student ID and a copy of your passport with you at all times. Leave your original passport in a safe place in your apartment unless you are told you need it for a trip.
You should only need your original passport when traveling to other countries in Europe, when traveling with your Eurail pass, and possibly when staying in hotels. Otherwise, the passport copy will suffice.
Money and Credit/Bank Cards
Cash is the most economical way to pay for things in Europe. Travelers’ checks, while safe, are difficult to cash. Debit cards also work in Europe as long as your pin number doesn’t begin with a zero. But, just as some places do not accept credit cards, not all places accept debit cards.
Take two credit/debit cards with you in case one doesn’t work. MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted cards in Europe. Discover is typically not accepted. American Express cards can also be problematic in Europe. Some credit card companies charge a foreign transaction fee for every transaction you make on your card in Europe. This can be as much as 3 percent, so plan your credit card transactions wisely. Credit cards with chips are required for some transactions, such as ticket kiosks at the train stations.
BEFORE you leave, notify your bank and credit card companies of the dates and locations that you will be traveling abroad. Let them know you will be in Italy but that you may also be traveling in other parts of Europe. This will prevent them from freezing your account when you make purchases in Europe.
Make copies of the fronts and backs of your credit/debit and ATM cards. Leave a copy with someone in the US and take a copy with you to leave in your apartment. This makes it easier to cancel or replace your cards if you should lose them or if they are stolen. When you arrive in Italy, leave the copy in a safe place in your apartment. Do not keep it in your wallet with your cards.
When in Europe, if possible, leave one credit card in your apartment and keep one with you in case you lose your wallet/purse or get pick pocketed.
You do not need to worry about exchanging US dollars for Euros until you reach Europe. However, if you don’t feel good about leaving without at least a few Euros in your pocket, you can exchange money at an international bank. One caveat to this recommendation…if the value of the dollar against the Euro gets stronger at any point prior to leaving, you might want to go ahead and exchange funds. It has ranged from 1.06 to 1.40 during the summers while we have been in Italy. It has been consistently below 1.12 since 2016. The bank will charge you an exchange fee, so just get a minimum amount and wait to exchange money in Europe. When in Florence (or anywhere in Europe), don’t exchange money at just any exchange place. Check to find out what fees they will charge. We can recommend some places in Florence that charge the least amount for exchanges.
The most economical way to exchange money is to use an ATM card to withdraw funds from your US bank account. Your bank will charge you approximately $3 for every transaction. You will likely have a limit as to how much you can withdraw daily. You should check with your bank to determine what the limit is for you. Also, remember that the limit is in US dollars and you will be withdrawing Euros. So, depending on the exchange rate, if your limit is $300 per day, you may only be able to withdraw approximately $200 Euros. Post Office ATM’s typically have the best exchange rate.
If you have a pin number for your credit card and it functions as an ATM card, you can use it in the ATM machines in Europe also. However, you should check with your credit card company to determine the charges for each withdrawal. They are usually higher than the amounts charged by your bank for using the ATM card. If you obtain a cash advance on your credit card, it is NOT the same as using it as an ATM card and it will cost you substantially more.
Please keep in mind that we are NOT traveling to a third world country – everything you have in the United States can most likely be found in Italy. However, many items may be different from that which you are accustomed to, and, in some cases, they may be a lot more expensive than in the States, particularly because of the exchange rate.
Light-weight luggage with sturdy wheels is highly recommended. You will need something small (like a back pack or small carry-on) for weekend trips.
If you use locks on your luggage, make sure they are TSA approved for air travel. Otherwise, they may be cut off for inspection at the airport and your belongings will not be protected. It is recommended that you use a padlock on your backpack as well, particularly if you are carrying it on your back.
Weigh the pros and cons of each packing decision carefully. DO NOT pack more than two pieces of luggage – one carry on and one checked bag. Airlines limit the number of bags and the weight of each bag you can take with you. You WILL buy items in Europe and you will need space to take them home; so leave space in your luggage to do so. Airlines are typically more restrictive on weight requirements when you are returning to the United States than when leaving. If you bags combined exceed 35 pounds when leaving the US, you will probably be overweight on the return flight. You can check the airline’s baggage allowances online once the airline is announced. Basically, most allow one checked bag where the height, width, and length combined do not exceed a total of 158 cm and the weight of your combined bags does not exceed 50 pounds. You can also carry on one piece of luggage and a small personal item like a purse or backpack. (All are included in the total weight.) Each piece of hand baggage may not be larger than 55 x 40 x 20 cm and may not weigh more than 8 kg (approximately 16 pounds) total. It is less expensive to pay for a second checked bag (approximately $100) than to pay for an overweight bag. Liquid and gel based products cannot exceed 2 oz. and must be enclosed in a zipped plastic bag. Sharp items, such as manicure scissors, razors, etc. are not allowed in carry-on luggage.
Most importantly, you and you alone will have to carry ALL of your baggage upstairs to your apartment. There are NO elevators. Some apartments are only one flight of stairs up but others are as much as six flights of stairs. The stairs are typically steep and shallow. So, practice carrying your packed bags (all of them) on your own up several flights of stairs and then decide if you need to leave some things at home!
You might want to take one towel with you in case your apartment is not furnished with them and for when you go to the beach. If needed, you will be able to buy more in Florence. Wash cloths are not common in Europe, so bring your own.
You may want to take your preferred allergy medications (Claritin, Zyrtec, etc.) with you. The medication you find in Italy may not be what you are used to in the US, thus it may take longer for you to receive the intended effects.
You may want to also take ibuprofen, Aleve, aspirin, etc. or anything you would typically take for pain. You will be doing lots and lots of walking and you will have aches in areas of your body you didn’t even know you had! You may also want to have Benadryl in case you get a rash or are unfortunate enough to get bed bugs.
I also recommend bringing a couple of doses of Imodium, Tums, Pepto Bismol, etc. You will be adjusting to an array of exciting new foods and one never knows how you will react.
Try to think of any medications you use such as Neosporin, Icy Hot, nose spray, eye drops, contact lens solution, etc. While you can purchase these or similar products in Italy, they will be significantly more expensive and not exactly like what you are accustomed to using. I recommend small travel size containers rather than the large economy sizes.
Prescription medications can be purchased in Italy, but it is safer and easier to bring what you need with you. Also take copies of your actual prescriptions (at a minimum, the original container with medical information on it) with you in case you need to get more while in Italy. That way the pharmacist will be able to see what medication you are taking and get something as close as possible for you. Also, pack medications in their original containers in your carry-on baggage – not in checked luggage.
Take the proper medication with you if you are prone to motion sickness. We often travel by bus along narrow winding roads. Italian drivers have a way of getting people sick even when they aren’t prone to motion sickness. It wouldn’t hurt to take along some non-drowsy medication, such as Dramamine or the patches for motion sickness.
PACK LIGHT! I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it is so very true. You want to leave room for all the wonderful souvenirs and clothing you’ll want to take home at the end of the trip. And, shipping to the US is EXPENSIVE.
Be sure to pack at least one change of clothing in your carry-on luggage – you never know what will happen! It’s a good idea to take an extra pair of underwear and an extra shirt with you when we go on ‘day trips’. People often get motion sickness, even if they have never experienced such before. It’s just better to be safe than sorry.
Check the forecast before you pack. You will want to pack a light jacket or windbreaker, as well. While it is typically very hot in Florence, the weather can change within minutes and drop into the 40s or 50s. There are often cool/cold days in early summer. It is best to be able to layer your clothes so you can be comfortable at all times.
Backpack with Small Lock
This will come in very handy when making trips to the market, overnight trips, and souvenir shopping. It may just be my preference, but a backpack is much easier to maneuver through a crowd, when jumping on and off a train, and the comfort is superior to that of grocery bags. The lock, of course, is to avoid being ‘pick-pocketed’.
Aqua Socks / Water Shoes
Protect your feet when you go to the beaches. The beaches in some areas of Italy are not sand beaches; they are composed of tiny pebbles and rocks. The environment is beautiful, but not great on your feet. You may want to take ‘aqua socks’ with you.
Wash Cloths / Small Hand Towels
If you can’t live without wash cloths for bathing, pick up a pack of 6 or more at a discount store or dollar store and take them with you. Remember to take them with you, along with a zipped plastic bag for carrying wet wash cloths, when you travel away from your Florence apartment overnight. Hotels and hostels do NOT have wash cloths. You can toss them at the end of the trip.
These add a lot of weight to your luggage! Unless you have allergies or sensitive skin, you can purchase these at the 99 cent store or supermarkets/mini markets in Florence. You may want to take one or two purse sized packs of facial tissue (and get more when you arrive; many bathrooms when traveling in Europe will not have tissue). Also, you should only take enough travel sized items, such as shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, shower gel, lotion, shaving cream, etc. to last a few days. You will be able to buy all of these in full size containers at the 99 cent store within the first few days of your arrival. The travel containers are also handy when taking overnight trips while in Europe.
If you want to take things such as nail clippers, manicure scissors, nail files, etc., remember to pack them in your checked bag and not in your carry-on bag. They are not allowed in the flight cabin. They can be somewhat expensive to buy once you arrive.
We will be spending a lot of time walking outdoors and standing in lines outdoors. If you are not accustomed to the sun exposure, you will benefit from applying sunscreen at the start of the day – no one wants to start the trip with a sunburn.
We will be doing A LOT of difficult walking. It isn’t like walking the sidewalks at UL or the streets in Lafayette. The streets are cobblestone. The sidewalks are narrow, so you are constantly going up and down from the sidewalk to the street and back. Flip-flops and sandals may be comfortable…for a while. Try walking 2 miles in your shoes. If you are not miserable afterwards, then those are the shoes to pack for Italy! Bring at least one pair of closed-toe shoes (like sneakers), as it will probably be chilly and rainy at least a few days during the trip.
High heels are not recommended. The Italian women have mastered the art of walking the streets and riding Vespa’s in them, but they will not be very comfortable if you are not accustomed to walking for miles in them on cobblestones.
There is no standard electrical main voltage throughout the world. Frequency--the number of times the current changes direction per second, plug shapes and sizes, etc., varies from country to country.
That being said, you will not be able to simply bring your hairdryer or curling iron to Italy, plug it in, and be good to go. If you try doing that, you will probably fry your appliance, blow a fuse, and possibly start on fire.
If you decide to bring items that require electricity, be sure to bring a good quality adapter/converter that fits all European countries or you will also need adapters. And no, not all converters are created equal. You need to make sure your converter can handle the wattage of whatever appliance you want to plug. Your cell phone charger may only require low wattage while your computer or hair dryer may require high wattage. You can buy these in Italy, but they may be pricey. I have an all-in-one adapter made by American Tourister that costs about $20 that I have used each year on all my electrical appliances and gadgets. It’s worked well for me. It doesn’t say it is a converter but I have used it successfully with my flat iron, computer, phone, etc. Be aware that they also sell just adapters and just converters, but you need both or an all-in-one variety.
You may want to bring your phone on the trip so you can call loved ones before departure. If your phone has global access, it may be possible to simply buy a SIM card in Italy that will allow your phone to use pre-paid wireless minutes (that you can purchase in Italy). If you will use your phone, remember to pack your battery charger.
You can also purchase a pre-paid wireless pay-per-minute phone in Italy (approximately 40 Euros), or share such a phone with one or more roommates. Incoming calls to your Italian phone number are usually free. You usually only pay for outgoing calls. Please note that none of these options will be inexpensive – but they are not outrageous, if handled properly. Depending on how much you will use your phone in Italy, you should budget approximately 100-200 Euros for the Italian phone and service. You can usually sell your Italian phone back to the phone store for approximately 15 Euros.
If you choose to use your US phone and US SIM card, you may want to sign up for an international roaming plan with your provider. If you are using data, such as email or applications on the web, there is a separate international data plan you may have to obtain from your provider. The total cost for both (at least with AT&T) is about $30/month and well worth it. You should know that each time your turn on your smart phone abroad, it updates. So, even if you think you are not using the phone for calls or data, you are using data if you turn it on. There are numerous hot spots throughout Florence if you want to use wifi rather than obtain an international plan.
Obviously there will be numerous opportunities for taking still and video pictures. Be prepared with extra memory cards and batteries. Don’t forget your battery charger. It might not be a bad idea to purchase an additional battery, for those with rechargeable batteries, since we don’t always remember to recharge our batteries every night.
Wireless internet access in apartments is more popular in Italy than it has been in the past. Most apartments will have wireless internet but they don’t always work and sometimes take a few weeks to get set up. Just remember – a laptop will require a converter, is extra weight, and must be taken out of the case every time we board a plane. While computers are convenient for calling home using SKYPE, downloading pictures, etc., you must decide if it is worth the extra weight to take it with you. You may want to share a computer with roommates in your apartment.
I highly recommend that you purchase the meal voucher plan. The plan gives you 15 vouchers for meals at a number of nice restaurants in Florence. Each restaurant typically provides you with two courses and many provide a beverage as well. This is typically equivalent to a minimum of 15 – 20 Euros and will save you a substantial amount of money when in Florence.
You can save money when in Florence by taking snacks and/or a sandwich with you on day trips. While it is exciting to try new restaurants in all the various locations, you may be hungry before we actually get somewhere where you can eat. Bringing snacks, including beverages, is a particularly good idea when traveling on trains, as the food and beverage cars are quite pricey.
Most, if not all, of us will not have air conditioning in our apartments. Some will have fans. Some landlords will make them available while others will not. Nonetheless, you can get together with your roommates and purchase a fan for about 20 Euros. It will typically be sufficient to keep you cool at night until and unless the temperature rises into the 90’s or higher. In that case, you will take lots of cold showers!
You will not always realize that you are becoming dehydrated. Carry bottled water with you to your classes and on trips. You may not always be near a store or vending machine where you can purchase beverages. Dehydration is one of the most common causes of students becoming ill on study abroad. Remember that alcohol consumption leads to dehydration, so you need to rehydrate with water. If you are not a fan of mineral water, make sure to look for “naturale” on the water bottle. It is safe to drink tap water in Florence but most restaurants serve (sell) bottled water.