Monday, June 6, 2011

When in Italy How to Snag a Cheap Room With a View

I pictured our first trip to Italy like the 1985 movie, "A Room With a View." I dreamed of hotels adorned in frescoes and antiques; cityscapes punctuated by duomos. Unfortunately, my imagination rarely matched my budget. Instead, the landscapes included freight elevators, parking lots and alleyways.

"What do you want for €50?" my husband said. But like Lucy Honeychurch, I longed for a view.

One night in Genoa, where yet another brick wall framed our window, we woke to the sound of a revving engine. Below, a man driving a tiny Fiat got stuck trying to turn a corner in a narrow passageway. We watched him slam his car into forward and reverse, moving only inches each time. We choked on the exhaust fumes infiltrating our room. Thirty tries later, he succeeded, putting off into the night.

Did traveling on a budget mean we had to suffer? We sat in bed cursing the driver until dawn, packed our bags and checked out.

Promising never to sleep in another dark, claustrophobic hotel, we searched Genoa for a low-priced room with a view. Our needs were simple--a clean, bright space with a window sill large enough for two. A family-run inn void of room service, television and telephone was fine. And if the view was worthy of a photograph, even a bathroom across the hall was OK. Price was our biggest obstacle; about €70 a night.

Here's how we did it.
  • Location is everything. We wandered the streets near rivers, lakes, and piazze where we had a better chance of scoring a room with at least a partial view. For instance, the street running parallel to the Arno in Florence is teeming with charming pensioni. We also found that buildings situated on a corner were usually a better bet than ones wedged between two buildings.
  • Think up, not down. In cities, many different pensioni are housed in one big building. We investigated the ones on the upper floors first where rooms looked up and over smaller, surrounding buildings and often included a view of distant duomos.
  • Don't underestimate one- and two-star hotels. The hotel rating system in Italy is based on services and quality of the facility. A beautiful hotel with vistas from every room may only rate two stars simply because it doesn't have an elevator, air conditioning or parking. In other words, the ratings have nothing to do with THE VIEW.
  • Ask to see another room. Often we didn't like the first room we were shown. But we weren't the  "Ugly Americans." Instead of making demands, we smiled politely and ask if there was "una camera con vista." It worked.
  • Ask a local. It's an obvious solution but one that's often overlooked.
When in Italy, how do you book a room with a view?

If you're looking to book a room before you leave:
  • Turn to the Internet to start your search. Carefully study online photos and reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor, CheapHotelsinItaly, and Venere but learn how to read between the lines. For instance, some negative reviews focus on the lack of service not the accommodations themselves which can include a killer view. (Just remember, when you stay in a one- or two-star budget hotel, you shouldn't expect 5-start treatment.) On the other hand, vague positive reviews ("It was wonderful!") tell you absolutely nothing about the property and should be considered suspect.
  • Consider B&Bs, pensione, and agriturismo, not just hotels. These properties are usually run by families and sometimes offer a better deal as well as a more intimate experience. By emailing the owners, you can get answers to specific questions such as, "Which rooms have a view of the town?" Can't write an email in Italian? No worries. Just use Google Translate. It's surprisingly accurate.
  • And speaking of Google....type the address of your prospective accommodation into Google Maps. There you can get the street view of the property and confirm if it is in fact "on the Arno."
One final note: A hotel room overlooking a piazza may have a glorious view but the noise from traffic below may prevent you from having a good-night's sleep. Proceed with caution!

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