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In 2016, I told Heath that I had a new goal in life: RV in Europe.
Fast forward three years and we are finally in Italy making it happen!
RVing in a foreign country can be pretty intimidating. In fact, we chose Canada and New Zealand as our first foreign countries to RV in because:
A) RVing in Canada is basically the same as RVing in America. All you have to do is drive over the Canadian border. It is literally the easiest way to travel internationally.
B) They speak English in New Zealand so while the culture, road signs, camping etiquette, and everything else is completely different than in America, we can at least read and understand everything.
Not so is the case in Italy!
We just picked up our RV in Venice this week from a Czech-based company (I’ll share more about the rental company we chose below!) and everywhere you go in Italy you will hear not only Italian but also German, French, and a whole host of foreign languages. It’s a culture shock in the best way—the way that includes eating lots of pasta, pizza, gelato, and cannoli!
We’re spending a whole month in Italy and a little over half of that time in an RV. This is our first big trip with Ellie who will turn five months old next week and is currently teething 😬And to make our time here even better, we’re caravanning with our friends Peter & John of RV Geeks. The first thing we’ve learned about RVing in Europe is that we absolutely NEEDED to have friends with us like Peter and John.
Because our RV is a manual transmission which neither Heath nor I knew how to drive. I told Heath before I booked the rental that it was a manual and he waved me off saying he could easily learn how to drive a manual…
Let’s just say at one point Heath stopped on a hill, opened his door, and called out to Peter in the RV behind us to please take over driving.
It’s only been slightly terrifying.
Luckily for us, Peter is an excellent driving teacher and Heath is feeling way more confident after a week of practice (aside from being a great teacher, we also learned that we enjoy travel more with friends. We aren’t just using Peter for his driving expertise!).
We’ve been filming while we are here in Italy and I’m excited to edit and share some videos soon, but I first wanted to share a little info on what it took to plan our month-long adventure in Italy! In this blog post I cover everything we had to do before we got on the plane:
- Figure out visas
- Book our flights
- Book an RV rental
- Plan our route
- Learn the language
- Prepare for driving in Italy
- And pack!
Visas and Schengen
If you’ve ever looked at traveling to Europe, you’ve probably heard the word Schengen thrown around. And, so I don’t butcher it, “[t]he Schengen Area is an area comprising 26 European states that have officially abolished all passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders. The area mostly functions as a single jurisdiction for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy.” (Wikipedia)
Basically the same rules apply for a significant portion of western Europe, Italy included. So instead of googling “Italy visa requirements”, searching for “Schengen visa requirements for an (insert your country of origin here)” will get you the best information.
Schengen is completely different than the European Union (EU), so some Schengen countries are a part of the EU and some aren’t. It’s an important distinction to note, especially if you’ll be crossing borders in a motorhome.
Visa requirements are the first step to figuring out proper international travel. Last year before flying to New Zealand, at the last minute I realized that Australia had a visa requirement. Since we had a layover there, we needed visas. You don’t need a visa for New Zealand, so I hadn’t even thought to research it for Australia! Sure enough, when we landed this was one of the first questions we were asked.
So if you’re flying to Italy (Schengen) and have a layover in London (not Schengen), then you will want to research visas laws for both countries. Our layover was in Paris (Schengen), so we didn’t have to worry. They stamped our passports in Charles De Gaulle Airport and we didn’t even go through customs in Italy.
If you are a US or Canadian citizen, you can travel freely in the Schengen for up to 90 days without a visa. (This will actually change for Canadians starting in 2021.) Longer than 90 days will require a visa, or you can leave the Schengen area for 90 days and then return. (More info at SchengenVisaInfo.com)
Since we will be in Italy for 30 days, we do not need a visa. We hope to visit Vatican City and San Marino as well—neither of which are countries included in Schengen—which do not require visas for US citizens.
Fun fact: There are two independent countries within Italy: Vatican City, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, and San Marino, located east of Florence and a mere 24-square miles in size. They are two of the smallest countries in the world. (If you look really closely at the map above, you can see them noted as light blue circles.)
For years I’ve heard people say that the cost of flights is a deterrent for international travel. Now that I’ve paid for our motorhome rental + some Airbnbs, I can definitely say that y’all are wrong. Lodging is way more expensive! Especially if you’re staying longer than a week.
I would say flights are the easiest thing to save money on or get for free. As lovers of travel, all of our credit cards are linked to some sort of travel benefit. We primarily use Southwest Premier credit card (Visa) and the Delta Skymiles Platinum card (American Express). I won’t go into too much detail about travel hacking here (because I’ve already shared a blog on the details of how we fly for free here!) but essentially we very rarely actually pay for flights because we’ve earned so many points from our credit cards.
But this time we found a new awesome way to save money on flying.
Normally flights from America to Italy are at least $1,000 per person. But we got our flights for less than $500 per person.
In case I didn’t emphasize it enough, we got our flights for 50% off! Saving over $1,000 easily.
Saving money on flights is one of my favorite things. It means more pocket money for gelato!
We were able to save so much because of a service called Faredrop, created by our friends Kara and Nate. Faredrop finds cheap flights, so you can input your local airport and get deals specific to you. Nearly every day we get emails and text messages from Faredrop telling us about flight deals. (And nearly every day Heath and I are like ooh roundtrip to Iceland for $300? I WANNA GO!)
When we got this email, Heath called me instantly.
“Babe, I have roundtrip tickets to Venice in my cart and I’m about to check out.”
$472 for round trip flights to Italy?! THAT’S INSANE!
We booked flights within the hour, saved over a thousand dollars, and it was easily the best decision we’ve made all year.
I highly, highly recommend signing up for Faredrop (affiliate link) if you’re planning any type of international travel in the near future. You can try it for free for 30 days when you use our link 🙂
Picking an RV Rental
Heath and I have rented a handful of RVs over the years. In the states, we usually use Outdoorsy and wouldn’t you know it? They just recently expanded into Italy! (And all over Europe actually.)
Because we know the team over at Outdoorsy (they’ve sponsored our RV Entrepreneur Summit in past years) and because they are a known quantity, we wanted to rent with them. But our research showed that they didn’t have any motorhomes for rent near Venice where we would be picking up. Womp womp.
Back to the drawing board.
We were running into a few issues in searching for a rental.
- None of the rentals we found came with basics like sheets, towels, and dishes—all things we would need. They would all be an additional fee to rent.
- We were going to lose two days of travel driving back to Venice to drop off our RV rental and then taking the train down to Rome so we could explore Italy’s capital city.
- We needed a rig big enough to fit a car seat for Ellie.
Finally, we found Anywhere Campers.
Their specialty? One way rentals! We could pick up in Venice and drop off ANYWHERE WE WANTED. (You can bet I regret having a return flight booked when I found out we were renting a rig that was allowed to freely cross borders all over Europe.)
Plus they came with sheets, towels, dishes, bikes, a grill—anything and everything we might need. We could even rent a car seat, but it wasn’t for babies as young as Ellie. Good to know for future rentals though!
We set our drop off location as Rome and booked the camper online easily. It was pretty pricey at over $100/day but since it was one of the few rentals that allowed for a one-way trip, it is totally worth it!
You can get a sneak peek of our motorhome rental on their website and we will post a tour video here in a couple of weeks!
Ask anyone about things to do in Italy and they can prattle off dozens of cities and historical landmarks and must-sees without breaking a sweat. Which, astonishingly enough, made planning our route increasingly difficult. We’re only in Italy for a month! There’s absolutely no way to see it all.
I plotted out everything we would possibly want to see in Italy and we would need months to see it all (Oh well, I guess we will just have to return again soon!).
Since we are flying in and out of Venice, we decided to focus on the top half of the boot. (Now that I’ve done more research, I’ve heard time and again from other RVers that the southern half of Italy is a little less tourist-friendly than the top half and that camping options are a little more sparse.)
Our RV route looks something like this:
Because we have a one-way rental from Venice to Rome, we can really explore all over the top half of Italy. We aren’t book ahead type people and this is our tentative map, not turn-by-turn directions. We like to keep our schedule open with lots of possible stops along our route. The thing about RVing is that you can easily plan as you go, picking up tips from locals and driving on if you aren’t ready to stop. Maybe we’ll skip Milan and spend a day in Verona to visit Juliet’s house. Maybe we’ll park on the coast in La Spezia and never leave. Who knows?
A few of the highlights:
- The Dolomites (where I’m posting this blog from/most beautiful place in the world)
- The “Italian Lakes” region surround Milan
- The Cinque Terre coast
- Wine country!
- Tuscan Hill Towns
You’ll notice there are a few major cities on our route. We do not plan on driving our motorhome into any major cities. Partly because we aren’t crazy, partly because of the zona a traffico limitato. Major cities have regulations regarding the vehicles that can enter certain areas—the ZTL as they call it. Enter one and you’re facing a hefty fine. So that’s a definite no for us driving our motorhomes anywhere near the cities. We will be avoiding cities until after we return our motorhome and taking the trains from Rome to Naples to Sorrento. (Alternatively, you could also park outside the cities and take a train in if you’re motorhoming and really want to visit Milan.)
We do not plan on leaving the country in the motorhome. A few people have asked if we will drive over to Switzerland or France or Slovenia. While we could in this particular rental, we want to focus all our attention on Italy this time around. We’ll have plenty of other chances to return to Europe and tour the 20+ other countries we are dying to visit.
Addressing the Language Barrier
One of the reasons we dipped our toes into international RVing in countries like New Zealand and Canada first was because we wouldn’t face a language barrier. With all the other adjustments and cultural differences, a language barrier would’ve added one more complication.
Now that we’ve:
- Learned the ins and outs of European RVs (i.e. the cassette toilets European rigs have)
- Mastered driving on tiny curvy roads in a large motorhome (except we are at least on the right side of the road in Europe, yay!)
The idea of adding in learning Italian doesn’t seem so hard.
As with most countries, you at least need to learn the basics. Grazie, per favore, ciao. If you can say a few words in Italian and make an effort to greet Italians using their own language, you’ll earn some respect. Italy is a huge tourist destination so showing respect for the locals goes a long way. From everything I’ve learned and experienced, if you do this, then anyone you talk to will be much more willing to take their time trying to communicate with you.
The more Italian you can learn before you go, the easier it will be to communicate. I’ve done three things to start learning Italian in preparation for our trip.
Duolingo is one of the most popular ways to learn a foreign language and the app is free. I’ve always wanted to learn Italian (raise your hand if you’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language but haven’t actually taken classes/done the work to learn it 🙋🏻♀️). As soon as we booked our flights to Italy, I knew it was time to get serious.
I chose Duolingo because I’ve seen ads for it everywhere and it actually made the whole learning a foreign language thing sound fun and not daunting. And I have LOVED it!
I only spend 10-15 minutes a day (which I would say isn’t enough, I wish I would’ve spent more time before now!) doing 3-4 lessons a day. Each lesson only takes a few minutes so it’s really easy to make time for studying. I do my lessons while nursing Ellie, that way I don’t forget.
You can pay for an upgraded version of Duolingo which unlocks quizzes, progress reports, and offline lessons, but I’ve used the free version. I’ve learned a good bit of vocabulary and a few common phrases, but the most helpful has definitely been all the lessons on food! It’s made grocery shopping and reading menus infinitely easier.
2. Google Translate
Google Translate, a classic.
Google Translate allows you to download languages for offline use. I’ve downloaded Italian so that we when we see road signs we don’t understand or need to translate something when we don’t have any cell signal, we’ve got an Italian dictionary right there on my phone.
We haven’t needed it yet, but Google Translate also has a conversation feature, so you can talk to someone and it will translate what you say into their language and vice versa. (So basically if not knowing the language is a deterrent or worry for you about traveling abroad, Google’s got your back.)
3. Change the language on my phone to Italian
For a few weeks, I set the language on my phone to Italian. So my weather app became meteo, my texts were consegnato, and my alarm did indeed make me sveglia.
Of course after I changed the language getting anything accomplished on my phone took twice as long as I tried to piece together and translate the words I see in English every day. Honestly, other than learning the days of the week from the meteo app, this wasn’t very effective.
Adding Italian as a language to my phone also added the Italian dictionary to the iPhone’s predictive text feature. So when I’m trying to practice Italian or Google something in Italian, the keyboard helps me out:
So now I can actually practice speaking—well writing—my Italian with Heath. This is great for putting what I’ve learned with Duolingo into action. It’s one thing to translate ho un cane on the app and another to text someone to let them know I have a dog. (Well actually I don’t have a dog, non ho un cane, but you get the picture.)
Those are three things I’ve done to prepare for the language barrier, but there’s no better teacher than submersion!
Driving in Italy
Italy has a reputation: best pizza, craziest roads.
Now that we are in our motorhome let me just say, Italy lives up to the hype. I couldn’t imagine the roads would be in smaller, windier, or steeper than what we drove in New Zealand on the left side of the road. Surely Italy couldn’t rival that?
THESE ROADS ARE WILD.
No guard rails.
Gorgeous castle surrounded by mountains that you can’t look at because if you look away from the road, you might die.
And on top of the tiny roads, you’ve got a whole set of new road signs and driving customs to learn. I downloaded a free ebook on driving in Italy to learn the basics. Most Italian road signs don’t have words, just pictures and symbols. So learning what these mean ahead of time is necessary!
In addition to cruising two-way roads smaller than an American one-way street, Heath is handling all our driving here in Italy because our motorhome is a stick shift. Heath got one lesson from a friend before we left the states but seriously, we would still be in Venice if it weren’t for Peter. He has totally saved the day in teaching Heath on the go and taking over the wheel when Heath had a minor anxiety attack driving into the town of Belluno.
If you’re going to motorhome in Italy, definitely definitely definitely learn to drive a stick before your flight. Heath’s first couple days of driving a stick were on Italian mountain roads. A trial by fire and now he’s feeling confident, but your life will be way easier if you can feel comfortable behind the wheel before you fly over!
Packing for a month in a country during the fall season isn’t easy. We started in the mountains where the lows dropped to the 30s and we’ll end in Sorrento which offers temperatures in the low 80s in October. So we need our puffy jackets and shorts. One of these days we will travel to a country in winter or summer when the temperatures are stable, but so far we always seem to travel in the fall and need to pack swimsuits and winter boots.
But packing for Heath and I is easy. It’s bringing the world’s cutest baby along for the journey that makes packing a little harder.
All of Ellie’s 3-6 months outfits are in a single cabinet in our motorhome right now. Since we are here for a month and babies grow like weeds, I brought everything that fit her + outfits that would fit her by the end of the month. The whole “they grow up so fast” adage is literal. She grows so fast! We brought enough pajamas and onesies to last almost two weeks without doing laundry (because who wants to spend the day inside doing laundry when you’re in Italy?!)
The biggest addition to our load was bringing Ellie’s car seat and her travel bed.
We almost didn’t bring Ellie’s car seat and considered renting one (there are a TON of baby gear rental options in Italy) but since we couldn’t rent a car seat in Venice and return it in Rome like we are with our motorhome, renting wasn’t an option. We considered just buying a car seat in Venice and leaving it with the motorhome rental so we didn’t have to lug it through airports and train stations, but since we were starting in Venice—you know, a city without roads—buying a car seat was basically impossible.
So it had to come with us! Hence the giant bag on Heath’s back.
In addition to a car seat, Ellie needed a place to sleep in our Airbnbs and motorhome. We got a Lotus Travel Bed by Guava which weighs about 15 pounds and comes with its own carrying bag…but as you can see, we did not have the arms to carry it! So it is concealed in our giant suitcase along with all of my clothes, Ellie’s clothes, and Heath’s clothes.
We got this specific bed, which is basically just a pack-n-play, because the side zippers open and closed. That way we could set up the bed on top of the beds in the RV and access Ellie without having to lean over the top of the bed. It was recommended to us by a fellow RVer who puts the bed in the loft of their Class C for their little one. So far it has been working out…okay. But I’m semi-regretting carrying it all the way over here!
In addition to all that baggage, we’ve got a diaper bag with the essentials and our camera bag carrying all of our vlogging gear. We look ridiculous with all these bags, but we packed as lightly as we could! Next time, I will definitely find a way to at least not have to pack Ellie’s car seat so we can simplify our packing.
Before you fly, that’s all you need to know! I’ll share more on getting cell service, internet, finding campsites, and all those little things that you need to know once you’re in Italy soon.