Italy: Budgeting a holiday

Rome: In hindsight, a group of six finding a sit-down restaurant on a Saturday in a tourist destination such as Venice—during a festival season, no less—should have been nearly impossible.

It would have been, probably, for a meal that was worthwhile. We had been looking for not 10 minutes when a friendly Italian woman beckoned us into her restaurant, a classic trattoria with old prints on the walls where the waiters wear button-downs. An unassuming group of naive Americans, we took her friendliness at face value. 

By the time we walked out, we realized we’d been swindled. The woman standing outside the restaurant wasn’t a friendly Italian woman. She was a businesswoman who duped a group of young tourists into wasting an evening on small portions of mediocre food offered at steep prices riddled with extra charges.

To my dismay, I don’t have an inexhaustible amount of money to spend here. More often than I anticipated, I’ve had to choose which things I’d rather delegate my budget toward. Before Ieft, I had realized that I’d have to make choices, but I hadn’t understood the extent to which I would struggle with them.

Much of studying abroad is about being adaptable. Considering that the Office of International Programs (OIP) recently released abroad placements for the Class of 2022, a number of students have already had to reconsider their plans because of the unexpected. And while many have been fortunate in their placements, everyone still has to figure out their finances. OIP doesn’t offer any help with that part.

There are a number of ways to go about changing currency. Existing credit or debit cards tend to be the most convenient for many people. If you’re getting ready to go abroad, call your bank to see how much it charges in exchange fees and ATM withdrawal fees and to tell them you’ll be leaving the country. First, though, look into the services your program might offer. At my campus, the business office will exchange U.S. dollars for Euros at the day’s exchange rate with no additional charges. Where you’re going will determine the most cost-effective way to exchange currency as long as you look into all of the options.

No matter how you get the currency, your financial practices are bound to change when you’re abroad. People spend their money differently—some would rather spend more on clothes, others food, others lodging. I’m learning to preemptively delegate my spending to different aspects of the semester, from shopping and traveling to museums and food. For every trip I’ve taken, unexpected dilemmas have arisen. Would I rather take a high-speed train to cut travel time down or save money taking an overnight bus from one city to the next? Do I want to be close to the city center and pay more for lodging, or stay far away but have to figure out public transit?

I’ve spent a lot more on travel than I had anticipated. I knew that I would be taking trips often, but I hadn’t taken into account the cost of transit within my own city, or getting to and from airports and train stations. International flights within Europe are generally less expensive than even domestic flights within the United States, but it’s certainly not pocket change.

Certain websites and applications, though, facilitate traveling on a budget. Google Flights, Hopper, and StudentUniverse suggest a number of flights for you and can track the fluctuation of prices for specific dates. Others, such as Omio and Trainline, show various means of transportation and the price differences between trains, planes, buses, and sometimes ferries.

I should have looked into the cost of traveling further in advance. In an ideal world, I would have made a tentative calendar of where I wanted to visit and the weekends I wanted to go. I would have tracked the prices for flights and trains on the aforementioned websites and applications. From there, I would have had a better idea of what prices are reasonable and what prices are not. 

Likewise, I knew I would be shopping a lot. The first week or so, though, turned into a mad dash to look more Italian. It was hard to avoid familiar stores like Zara and H&M, but it was worthwhile to hold off on buying the first thing I saw at any of these places.

This isn’t to say that I completely refrain from buying things that I could just as easily have gotten at home. On the one hand, I bought a jean jacket from an American business in Rome. Admittedly, I have worn it nearly every day since, but I certainly would have benefitted from waiting until I came back to the United States to buy it. The savings I’ve allocated for this semester and my luggage space have both encountered noticeable but non-fatal damage because of it.

On the other hand, I came to Italy hoping to bring back a leather jacket from Florence’s leather market knowing very well that I might not find the perfect jacket. Having planned ahead for it, I would have been disappointed had I not found it. That was a cost/benefit I had to do: I would have rather had the jacket (which I did buy) than the extra cash.

My friend Luke announced his semester’s temporary credo: “I’ll get the money back eventually, but these experiences won’t come again.” Aka, when in Florence. 

He’s right—constant reluctance to spend will only result in more deep-seated regret, whether it stems from purchases avoided or from those made too hastily. Saturday evening, I wasted my time on a meal that emptied my wallet more than it satiated my stomach. That’s an experience I’ll never forget. Later that night, though, we found solace in the side streets of Venice, the ones that cars couldn’t drive down even if cars were allowed in the city. In the post-parade delight, little local restaurants remained open and full of young people chattering in Italian. Sitting on the bank of a canal, I had a late-night snack bigger than my dinner at a fraction of the price. That’s an experience I’ll never regret.