How best to drag my family all over Italy this summer?
January 30, 2022 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I am planning to go to Italy with my family this summer. We will be 5 adults. We'd like to hit several parts of Italy, including the Piedmont region, Rome, and Sicily. Where should we fly into, and how best do we get between regions?

My entire adult life, my sister and I have wanted to go to Italy with our parents. We want to see the places our grandparents were born and walk in the village where my mother was a child.

I know, Covid. We are all vaccinated and boosted. We will wear a mask every second. We will be as careful as possible. We were supposed to go in 2020, and then 2021, and without being dramatic or going into the reasons, this year could be our last chance. So please, no comments convincing me not to go.

That being said... I'm at a loss of how to make this trip work. Hotels and activities and all will be discussed in later questions, I'm sure. But how do we GET there and then get to all the different places?

Ok we're in upstate NY, so I assume we'll be flying out of JFK in new york city. Sicily is the most important destination, but we'd also really love to visit Asti in the Piedmont region. And Rome would be great too. Which city/region should we fly into? And then how do we get from there to the other places? Rent a car? Take trains? Fly?

I've been to Italy a few times before but it was always just to one region/city (Rome for example) and we just used mass transit to get around. I want as little stress as possible for my parents. My dad in particular cannot walk too fast or far. My sister is suggesting fly into the North, rent a car, and then drive down. But as far as I know, there is no land bridge connecting to Sicily, so we'd still have to ferry over, if we dont fly.
posted by silverstatue to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to Sicily, but I spent 2 weeks in Italy in 2014 or 2015. We flew in/out of Rome, started our journey by taking a domestic Rome-Naples flight and then a bus to Sorrento, and then started climbing our way north using mostly trains, some buses. We stayed something like 3 nights each in Sorrento, Rome, Florence, and Venice. We rented a car one day, when we were staying in Florence, for a drive through the Tuscan countryside, but that was like a day trip, not strictly necessary.

It was an amazing trip, but it did require a lot of walking and navigating public transit while not speaking any Italian. The first 24 hours were particularly rough, what with an overnight flight from the US followed by a good 4-5 hours of further journeying within Italy. A car would have simplified things, although driving while jetlagged is not a great idea either.

It does look like there are car ferries to Sicily, so that shouldn't be the dealbreaker if you do decide to go with a car.
posted by basalganglia at 6:58 AM on January 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Re lodging-I am going to post an ask soon for some specifics for our trip that will happen, please God, in March-but we did get our lodging booked yesterday. We will be in Florence and Siena and decided to do Airbnb rather than hotels-five people, including tween, a teen and a young adult so hotels would suck-and i found places to be remarkable available and inexpensive, with lots of detail for many about accessibility/stairs/distance from train station etc.

I found the Rick Steves Italy forum to be invaluable for posting questions like you’re asking. Lots of very experienced travelers, some of whom live in Yalu, posting there who can really help walk through specific situations.
posted by purenitrous at 7:12 AM on January 30, 2022

Fly in and out of Rome (from JFK or Logan, compare prices), hang out in Rome, take a Ryanair flight to Palermo for $25 (1 hour), see Sicily, fly to Turin, rent a car to see Piedmont, train back to Rome (4 hours), fly home.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:15 AM on January 30, 2022 [10 favorites]

If you are taking an overnight flight and can swing it, pay for a hotel that day so that you (particularly your parents) can check in and rest/relax/chill immediately. Enjoy!
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 7:42 AM on January 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

This sounds a bit exhausting speaking as a person around your parents' age. You don't say how long you've got, but you're minimally talking about multiple traveling/transition days that involve the actual plane/car/rail travel; checking in/out; packing/unpacking; logistics to airport, car rental, tralns. If you've got two weeks, maybe two out your three destinations would be easier on your parents. Where's your ancestral town since you'll want to plan around that? I'm just giving you info on what we did on a similar trip. Someone upthread suggested asking this question on Rick Steves' site. Also ask on Your Sicily plans will depend on where your Sicilian ancestral town is and how long your trip will be.

Rome/Sicily as follows if you have two weeks:

JFK or Boston to Rome for a week to get over jet lag then dive into urban, fabulous Italy. Rent a 2-bedroom apartment so you don't have to eat out for every single meal.

We took a short, cheap plane ride from Rome to Cantania and rented our car there. We did a family research day en route to Siracusa--walked around ancestral town and cemetery full of dead people with family name--great day. Siracusa is just the most wonderful Sicilian small city where we spent three nights. We stayed in a B & B. We spent a lot of time at the fabulous operatic food market, saw the ruins which are everywhere, cathedral on the main piazza . Great walking around town.

If you go to Siracusa, get a B & B close to the biggest piazza so your parents can come and go at their pace. We took a day trip to Ragusa, another stunning Baroque town. Ditto Modica, built into fantasic cliffs. Alternatively, You could also go to Taormina and see Mt. Etna and stay there a few nights instead of Siracusa.

Then plan the rest of your Sicily driving so you can visit various Greek temples along the coast, Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento (tourist packed; we preferred the other two where no one was) wind up in Palermo, which has incredible mosaic cathedral, Monreale, and much more. Crazy place. Fly back to Rome. Use autostrada whenever possible since the coastal roads isn't particularly charming and packed with trucks and traffic jams. Slow going at intermittent scary speeds.

If you're going for three weeks, then Piedmonte region would be your third week. Again, factor in all days when you're driving or flying; checking in/checking out; getting to and from transit to lodgings. DarlingBri has the overall logistics though we liked winding up in Palermo rather than starting out there because of our family research visit. Palermo is like a mini-Rome in terms of intensity, noise, traffic, and we wanted a contrast when we got to Sicily.

We did not see Taormina, Mt. Etna, or Agrigento, which later elicited: "You didn't go to Agrigento? Why not?" Because we're slow travelers and preferred less well known, but still magestic but empty Greek temples. We didn't care about Mt. Etna. Plus we probably had a different ancestral town than yours. Again, ask on and Rick Steves Sicily and Italy boards.

Be mindful of your parents' age. Avoid packing in too much. Sitting in a cafe directly on an piazza watching Italians during their morning marketing or evening strolls is a deep and memorable Italian experience.
posted by Elsie at 8:02 AM on January 30, 2022 [13 favorites]

My dad in particular cannot walk too fast or far.

Apologies if this is obvious, but as someone with a dad in a similar situation, I'd make a point of planning activities with wheelchairs you can rent (likely museums, the major churches that get a lot of foot traffic) or consider buying/renting one for this trip.
posted by coffeecat at 8:49 AM on January 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We are going for two weeks. Unfortunately the two crucial parts (where my dad's family is from and where my mom's family is from) are the two furthest points - Asti and Sicily. Everything else is optional, but we need to hit those two places.

We dont need to do much! Any museum, historic site, etc, is all a bonus. But we need to walk through the streets of Asti one day and the streets of my mom's little Sicilian neighborhood one day. The rest of the trip could be sitting on a bench eating gelato and napping under a tree, and we'll still be happy!
posted by silverstatue at 8:50 AM on January 30, 2022

I think I would fly into Milan, rent a car from Milan airport to drive to Asti, then head south. You could stop in Parma, Bologna, Florence, or other, smaller places in Tuscany. There are some gorgeous little towns there, but you need a car. The north is easy enough to drive, the further south you go the more stressful it gets. So I'd drop the car off at Rome Fiumincino Airport and fly to Sicily from there. How close is her home town to an airport in Sicily?
posted by allnew at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Five adults and luggage? You're going to need a minivan or an estate (station wagon).

And if you drive, you will need an IDP (international driver's permit) which is basically your driver's license translated into European languages and authenticated. You'll need both to rent something in Italy.
posted by kschang at 9:45 AM on January 30, 2022

Well, pretty much all flights from the US to Italy are going to have Rome or perhaps Milan as port of entry. Everything from there on is going to be domestic travel of some kind and it's all going to be after an overnight flight. If you plan to connect directly I'd go to great length to make sure you have no more than one connecting flight because every connection will add a disproportionate amount of time to your trip length, another airport and more queues.

2nding the idea that you plan to spread out the travel days as best you can because it is not just the 1 hr flight - it is the packing, checking out, making your way to the airport/station, the journey and then making your way to your new accommodation the other end. It will by definition require some walking, some waiting and moving of luggage.

Unless it's a connecting flight - if I had to choose between a flight on a budget airline and a train I'd pick a train every time, even if it takes longer on paper. Train travel tends to be really chill once you're on the train. You can get up and walk around with ease, you can eat/drink/sleep/watch the world go by/play games. Just reserve seats with a table. You can take a taxi between hotel and station etc.

If you decide to drive know that Italian motorways have distance based fees which means that a lot of people prefer to take the slower surface roads. So that is not a bad way to get from one part of the country to the other. But driving in southern Italy can be interesting. For five adults plus luggage, you'll want a reasonably large car (by European standards). Roads are going to be narrow and windy in a lot of the areas you're planning to hit once you get off the motorway. And based on my observations, a lot of drivers in the US are not comfortable driving windy wide roads such as those to be found in the national parks in the western US. The small towns and villages in Italy will have roads that predate cars and things get tight. And there is also a 'Sicilian way' of driving with its own rules...So if you plan on driving round the south make sure you have at least one, preferably two drivers who are comfortable with the challenge.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm here to chime in and repeat the advice to prefer rails to airplanes. My travel experience is more in Germany and France, but in general the railway stations are central and easy to reach (by taxi, bus, streetcar, or what have you) and the pricing structure is predictable. Airlines, especially the budget airlines, are further out, and you have to be careful of luggage rules or end up charged fees that add up quite quickly. We're currently planning out a hoped for Europe trip and considering a flight from Paris to Dresden (which is otherwise 9 hours with one change of train) but otherwise rail, rail, rail.

The previously mentioned rick steves website will help you figure out whether you're better off buying individual tickets or getting a rail pass, but there seem to be more and more caveats to rail passes these days than in times gone by (seat reservations, non-covered train types, and non-covered commercial train lines). If you've got just two "big" travel days in 2 weeks, my gut guess is you're better off buying individual tickets. Looks like you have to manually head to raileurope to buy a pass, in the past I would use links from ricksteves to buy them.

(Do, do, do pay for seats on the train! It can sound silly to pay a few bucks when most trains have seats available .. but once in awhile they do not. I still remember a standing room only train, 3+ hours on my feet, probably between Frankfurt and Berlin. Get the seat reservation every time)

I don't know what kind of driving you're accustomed to at home. I'm in the midwest US in a town of under a half a million, and driving in Europe is nothing I want to do. The streets are narrow and busy, the signage is unfamiliar, and while it may just be 'different norms', the driving feels pretty aggressive overall. Even being a passenger in a private car can be distressing for me. I'm much happier on public transport. (Also, expect fuel to cost a lot more than in the US! this website suggests the current italy price of €1.78/l is equivalent to about $7.62/gal.)
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 10:47 AM on January 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

I’d be inclined to fly into Milan, then hire a car and noodle around Piedmont for four or five days. Then I’d get a fast train to Rome (which takes about three and a half hours), spend a few days mooching around the city, then take the sleeper train from Rome to Palermo (the train is shunted onto the Messina Straits ferry), spend four or five days there, then fly back to Milan and thence JFK - in other words, hire a car for the local legs of your journey, but take the train (and plane) for the lengthier bits.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 10:55 AM on January 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

The Italy and Sicily boards on and Rick Steves are your best sources for particulars. But if Asti is a must, fly to Milan an hour and a half away and take train to Asti. This would be a nice intro to Italy and is your ancestral city and you don't have to rent the van yet. After 3-5 days, train back to Milan and get a flight to Sicily to visit your mother's ancestral city, which you haven't mentioned. There are flights from Milan to Sicily to four different airports there. Choose the one closest to the ancestral town, rent a car, get to that town, then do some touristing around Sicily. Take a flight back to Milan or Rome and spend 2-3 days there. This is the overall transport, but you need to get your specs together for people to answer your questions and not have to go back and forth in Mefi. Other sites are better for all the questions you may have.
posted by Elsie at 10:59 AM on January 30, 2022

"so we'd still have to ferry over, if we dont fly"
It's more a shuttle than a ferry between Messina and Reggio di Calabria: goes every hour ; takes 30 minutes. An authentic trans-mediterranean experience. Passed me by, because I passed out zzzzzzz having driven down from Naples that day.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:21 AM on January 30, 2022

Yes on trains, and get the tickets in advance if you can. Less spontaneity, but the pricing structure for the high speed trains (both Trenitalia's Freccia and their slightly cheaper competitor Italo) works like plane tickets, with a small pool of cheap non-flexible ones available that sell out long before day-of. Tickets are on sale to mid-June currently, so summer should go on sale in the next month or two, and if you plan your itinerary well, you can get for example eXtra tickets on Italo from Rome to Milan for 35 euro rather than paying 90 euro full price. Does add up for five people.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:44 AM on January 30, 2022

If I were planning this with my parents, this is what I would do:

Fly direct to Milan, rent a car.
Drive to Piedmont, stay for a while
Drive back to Milan, return the car
Take a high speed train to Rome
Stay in Rome a few nights, this will probably be the most walking y'all will do, and any nice piazzas you find to rest your tired feet will probably cost you a pretty penny
Train from Rome to airport
Fly to Catania or Palermo from Rome depending on where you want to be in Sicily
Rent car at said airport
Return car to said airport, fly home via Rome

FYI there is a little spot in the Rome airport where you can take a shower, rest, catch some winks by the hour. I found it extremely handy when I was SO EXHAUSTED from all the travel and quite comfy and I had a looooong layover between connecting flights. I think it is called "Hello Sky". It looks like they have one in the Milan airport as well, so you might be able to book this whole trip in reverse if that works better for you, or use this to recharge before heading out for a long drive.

In general I found the train stations and airports in Italy to be quite comfortable, the public transit in Rome to be so unreliable and confusing that I just walked everywhere, and the buses and bus stations everywhere I went in Tuscany very good once you figured them out, but quite tricky for people who aren't familiar with the area, fluent in Italian or particularly comfortable with longer walks up steep hills.

My experience with Sicily was you just kind of need to rent a car. We didn't, but we had to negotiate an expensive ride from the Catania airport to our airbnb in Siracusa and then an expensive and VERY DIFFICULT bus ride back to the Catania airport, where I flew back to Rome and my best friend flew to Palermo for even more travel confusion. The "public transport" around Siricusa was soooo bonkers, and I have never bounced around in a vehicle quite like that. I've been on more comfortable white water river rafts. Just rent a car in Sicily.

I'd also recommend doing your research on Siciliy in advance and getting advice from people who have traveled there. It's not that it's dangerous, but I think the "idiot tourist" tax in Sicily is about as high, if not higher, than any other place I've been.
posted by pazazygeek at 3:10 PM on January 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Like other's have mentioned, I feel like two weeks is going to be too little time to do all three of your destinations.

I would skip Rome. If you fly into Milan you can rent a car, drive an hour and a half to Asti, and spend the rest of the first week in Genova, which is an incredibly cool city with a great deal of history, neat architecture and nice galleries. Genova is about an hour and a half from Asti and 2 hours from Milan.

Then after week one, hop a flight from Milan to Sicily (Ita Airways has flights too if you don't want to do Ryan Air). Spend a week in Sicily and then fly back to Milan before flying home.

Doing this would consolidate your international flights to one airport, which is more cost effective and will help you have a better sense of where you are going on your way home. It also gives you more time to enjoy your family vacation. Rome is great, but it also doesn't mesh with your need to visit two places all the way across the country. Traveling south by road would take longer than you might imagine because you have to cross the mountains. Even by train, Milan to Rome is 6 hours.
posted by donut_princess at 6:33 PM on January 30, 2022 [4 favorites]

Honestly Rome is miserable, especially with parents who are getting on a bit. I support the Milan <> flight to Sicily plans even tho I’m a total foamer (rail fan) in general.
posted by dame at 7:13 PM on January 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

But as far as I know, there is no land bridge connecting to Sicily, so we'd still have to ferry over, if we dont fly.

As the first comment pointed out, there are car ferries.
You just take your car on a ferry.

And if your travelling party was more able, I would recommend taking the train to Sicily. Yes!! Train from Rome to Sicily! The train crosses the straits on a this train ferry!! Watch the video!

There may be no land bridges to Sicily but there are a heck load of transportation options there other than flying.

I would definitely say you need a car in Sicily to see some of the smaller towns.
posted by moiraine at 2:29 AM on January 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh yes and there are overnight car ferries from Rome to Sicily, if you didn’t want to drive that much.

Very comfortable, would recommend.
posted by moiraine at 2:37 AM on January 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

I understand everyone saying "skip Rome" but nobody going to Italy for a once in a lifetime trip is going to skip Rome. If you're going to do Rome, it's very likely going to work out as the cheapest airport to fly in and out of in Italy. And two weeks is loads of time!
posted by DarlingBri at 3:14 AM on January 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would encourage you to maximise the 2 weeks as far as possible. For example, get an overnight flight to Rome on Friday night and then take a hotel room. Fly home on the Sunday. Then you have a 16 day trip, which for 3 destinations means 4 travel days, and 12 non-travel days. Spend 3-5 days in each of your 3 locations: Rome, Sicily, Piedmont.

For an evenly balanced trip I would probably start in Rome on Saturday morning, then fly to Rome-Sicily on Wednesday week 1, then fly Sicily-Turin Monday week 2, then train Turin-Rome airport Saturday week 3 staying in an airport hotel overnight and flying back to the US on Sunday. In Sicily and Turin I would rent a car. In Rome, I would figure out which two or three things were absolute must sees, and plan to do only those, with the rest of the time spent 'people watching' of various kinds.
posted by plonkee at 6:04 AM on January 31, 2022

I’ve travelled in Italy quite a bit with less mobile parents and found it vital to plan for a good amount of time where you let them relax somewhere eg lovely cafe in a square, nice Airbnb with garden or balcony, while you explore. Trying to keep together all the time when you move at two completely different paces ended up being frustrating and difficult for everyone, no matter how good the intentions. Work out what’s good for everyone’s schedules and the temperatures- I’ve done early morning walk or run while they have a leisurely breakfast, gallery visit in the afternoon heat while they siesta by the pool, etc etc. Also boat trips are a nice thing to do all together, the feeling of moving organically in the open air is lovely for those less mobile normally. We do a lot of these and have splashed out (ha) on some private ones which is even better, they often let you steer it for a bit which was a huge hit for the parents.
posted by tardigrade at 10:38 PM on January 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Sorry I left out the point I was actually making here! Which was: I agree with those saying this is a lot, especially with the summer heat to consider.

Re the idea of driving to Sicily, I would say just don’t. I’ve driven long distances in Italy (eg Naples to Milan in one go, Mont Blanc to Puglia over three days) I don’t mind it but I would not even think about any kind of distance especially in the south, on a family trip. Driving in Italy is not stress free even if you’re used to it. A few hours on motorways in the north is no problem, and short trips around rural areas can be fun adventures. But even these were not relaxing drives for the parents. Roads in the south, even motorways, are often pretty rough (bone shaking rough) and there’s a lot of chaos.

Obviously everyone one is different! But if this were me (and it has been, quite a few times):
If Rome is to be on the trip, fly there, get a nice hotel to decompress and recover. Flying will probably still be stressful with tests, extra paperwork etc on top of the usual. Especially with five people.

From the hotel, arrange one trip into Rome to do one thing. Lots of good schedules for the rest are already posted but I’d minimise time in Rome at the beginning and have a nice enough hotel that parents can just decompress and people watch in the immediate area rather than going to see any particular sight, if they want. Arguably one of the nicest things to do in Italian cities anyway! If you want more time in Rome you can change plans to get there earlier at the other end of the holiday if everyone is up for it. For that reason I’d probably do the flight to Sicily first, after Rome. Once you are back up from Sicily to Piedmont you can be pretty flexible with when you get the train back to Rome for the flight.
posted by tardigrade at 11:43 PM on January 31, 2022

One more thing … it would absolutely be easier and better in terms of the other two destinations to fly into Milan. And what’s maybe really special about this trip is the family aspect. Rome famously isn’t going anywhere!
So unless there’s a family connection in Rome too, I’d really think about Milan as an entry point. Or if Rome really is a must-see, maybe fly into Milan and back from Rome?
posted by tardigrade at 12:28 AM on February 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

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