Huahai and I have just returned from our first trip together to Italy. The trip itself was wonderful and unforgeable. However, it usually took a lot of planning for such an extensive trip, unless you hire someone else to do it for you or join a tour group.
We usually enjoy traveling at our own pace and explore the area; therefore, we (basically myself) always do our own travel planning. Unfortunately, as a very busy professional, I do not really have much time to do the planning. (Can you believe someone have actually spent half a year to plan a two-week's trip to Italy and produce a travel plan with 90 pages?)
Following my usual practice, I have spent a lot of time initially on online travel forums initially. I also got the aforementioned 90-page's travel plan and a shorter one from a friend. Then I have brought Rick Steven's book. Eventually, I have managed to come up with a travel plan with only two pages that working out pretty well. Here are some tips that I have summarized based on my experience with this trip. I wish that I have known them first before I started the planning. It would have made my life much easier without compromising the quality of the travel plan.
1. Buy at least one good travel book.
For European trips, I highly recommend Rick Steven's book, which contains very detailed information for each of the places. Then you can bring the book with you and do some of the detailed planning such as where to have lunch on the go. I bought this book only a couple of weeks before our trip. I wish that I have bought it before I even started the planning. It would have saved me a lot of time reading online postings.
2. Refer to travel packages for possible travel itinery.
While I do enjoy the freedom of traveling at our own pace, studying the sample travel packages listed at the travel agency's websites is a very efficient way to come up with a travel plan that covers the major must-seen sites. I would add one extra day for each stop, as the tour groups tend to travel at much faster pace than I would like. Rick Steven's websites also provide very good example routes for each city with free mp3 audo downloadable. Another good place to get some inspiration is Yahoo! trip planner, where you can view other people travel plans.
3. Book hotels well in-advance.
A good travel book typically contains some recommendation for accommodations. But the list is usually very short. I found Tripadvisor to be a great place to find accommodations with good value without broking the bank. However, top ones can sold out fast. Therefore I recommend booking the hotels as soon as the trip schedule is set. Of course, don't forget to use Kayak.com to find out how to get the best price. I booked the hotels about two months ahead of time, but many of the smaller nice budget hotels have already sold out.
4. Reserve museums in-advance or join private tours.
Check the travel book or online forums to find out whether any of the sites on the travel plan requires reservation and make the reservations ahead of time. Otherwise, you may find yourself stuck in a really long line for hours or even worse end up have to miss the must-seen sites. Joining private tours typically helps avoiding the long line but can be expensive. We only did the private tours when we were able to see things that we could not see otherwise (e.g. underground part of Colloseum is only accessible by joining one of the private tours). Many of the places can be reserved online. In addition, many hotels can help you make the reservations for free --- just send requests via emails with desired time and date.
5. Arrange only one or two must-do items per day, preferably in the morning.
I feel that vacation is a time to relax, not a time to check of boxes of to-do items on the travel plan. Therefore, it is better to do only one or two must-do sight-seeings in the morning and then simply add other items as you go depending on the mood. With a good travel planning book, it is easy to do such last-minute planning without stressing out yourself in planning or following the plan.
6. Arrange some resting days.
As a first-timer to Italy, I was surprised how much walking I need to do everyday. It is true that most of the things are either within walking-distance or reachable via public transportation plus walking. However, all these walking adds up! According to my pedometer, we walked over 10 miles in one single day just visiting museums! Unless you would like to walk miles and miles everyday, it would be better to arrange some days with activity that requires not too much walking so your feet can recover. I am really glad that between our visits to Rome and Florence, we stayed in Sorrento and did a few day trips involving bus tour, boat tour, a little bit hiking, and swimming. These resting days give us some space to enjoy Italy from a completely perspective while giving our feet a break.