Rome (3.5 days), Florence (6 days, including two day trips: Chianti Wine Tour & a cooking class in Bologna), Venice (3 days), and Milan (1 day). We flew open jaw, arrival into Rome, and flying out from Milan.
My husband and I have always wanted to go to Italy (since neither of us have been there, except my husband who was there very briefly for work). We thought about going there for our honeymoon last August. However, I didn't have enough time to plan for the trip last year, while juggling a wedding planning, a new job, relocation, selling a house, buying a house, etc. So we decided on a "mini-moon" to Napa for 4 days instead so we could go right after the wedding. Luckily, a few months later we found great deals on tickets using our frequent flier miles to Italy, so we booked those tickets for June -- and my planning began.
I'm definitely in between the "fast & furious" and "slow travel" modes. My husband loves museums, arts and you can find him taking pictures of everything with his Nikon, while I prefer to just sit in cafe and people-watch, while taking in the view. Overtime, I have also grown to really enjoy the smaller towns more, with less crowds & it tends to offer a more authentic experience. I think that when I leave the "manicured tourist world", I get to really enjoy the locals and culture.
I get asked about this quiet frequently by my friends who are interested to plan their own trip, so I am going to talk a little bit how I usually plan my trips. I have never used a travel agent to plan any of my trips. I don't mind researching for the destinations reading guide books and the internet.
Tour groups are convenient for travellers who don't mind to be on a structured schedule during their vacation. I took a Contiki tour once, because I decided, a month before the scheduled departure date, that I wanted to go to Europe. So I booked one of their Superior tours, which at that time, they only took care of the hotels, transportation, some of the meals, offered some optional day tours and provided guides at destinations. They didn't really take us through all of the major attractions, so it was partially flexible to your own discretion.
For this trip, we did not purchase any new guidebooks. We got literally a pile of old books from friends who had been there before and we just estimated their prices printed to be about ~10% higher since they were from 2006.
I rely heavily on Fodors.com travel board for recommendations, tips, and answers to my questions. I have found the folks on Fodors to be kind, informative, and helpful during my six-years patronage on the board.
I use Rick Steve's guidebooks for tips & tricks on getting into major attractions, making reservations with them, hotels and some of the "budget-minded" ideas (i.e.: Where can I find a grocery store? Where can I find a laundromat?). I don't personally care with his restaurants' recommendations.
All of the guidebooks that I have purchased have been Frommer's. I like their writing style, with a little bit of history in each destination & some commentary on the attractions. I also found their restaurant recommendations to be more to my liking, although they tend to cost more than Rick Steve's.
Here's a list of some of the things that I try to plan for:
-Accommodation (as soon as I have the dates and a general idea of where I'd like to go, I book the hotels. The better-valued hotels tend to sell out months in advance, especially in Europe, during the high-season).
-Major attractions (that can be reserved ahead of time, so that I don't spend my vacation time standing in the line for hours at a time. Some places even must be reserved, or you will not be able to get in at all, like the Last Supper in Milan)
-Other special activities (for this trip, our Chianti Wine Tour with Tuscan Trails & cooking class with Casa Illara)
-Transportation to one destination to the next (train stations location, timetable, where to buy tickets, seat reservation, etc)
-Transportation within the city (I research to understand what my options are: walking vs. bus vs. metro, etc)
-Transportation to and from the airports at arrival & departure. This is one of the areas that I splurge by reserving taxis ahead of time.
-I also try to have an idea of the areas surrounding the hotel, and where everything is in respect to my hotel.
For this trip, my husband and I each took a 21-inch roller bag: mine was a Delsey Helium (light at 7-lbs when empty) & his was a Swiss Victorinox-brand. I also carried a leather cross body-purse which I can throw around my shoulder, while my husband had a small backpack which carried his camera, our guide book, and bottled water. We did a load of laundry halfway through our trip.
-I used my ATM card the entire trip. Not only that it has a better conversion rate, most places in Europe prefer cash (if not, they only accept cash), and they tend to have penalty for credit card purchases.
-I called my bank before I left and gave them the schedule of where I would be during my trip. I ask them to flag me when there is a suspicious purchase made outside the destinations that I had scheduled. You can also ask your bank to decline any transactions above a certain amount, just in case the card is stolen/lost.
-My husband and I felt safe the entire time during our trip. We were alert, just like we would when traveling to new places, but we did not cling to our belongings like a paranoid tourist. We did not have a money belt, or fanny pack.
Next: Individual Cities' Trip report, starting with Rome.