Introduction: Living the Italian Dream

I’m going to do something a little annoying now and start a new trip report before finishing my existing ones on the Canadian Rockies or Spain. I’ve already got some of it written up so I thought I would release it so that my readers would always have something to read on Lazy Monday 🙂

Introduction: A Week in Italy
United Club Terminal E – Houston
United Airlines BusinessFirst MAF-IAH-PIT(DIVERSION)-EWR-FRA
Lufthansa Senator Lounge Frankfurt Airport
Villa La Perla Di Sonenga Panoramica, Menaggio, Italy
Great Drives: The High Mountain Passes to Switzerland
The Park Hyatt Milan
Radisson Blu Rome
Crowne Plaza Milan City Centre
Sheraton Milan-Malpensa
United Airlines BusinessFirst Milan (MXP) – Newark (EWR)

 

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2014 was a big travel year for me and my family. I unintentionally ended up having back-back trips lined up to Europe within 6 months. The task of writing down all of my adventures has been rather difficult due to the amount of travel I’ve done and constant jet lag from switching too many time zones really fast. Mixed with work in between, it has been a rather chaotic summer to say the least. Just to keep my thoughts fresh and my clean of the pressure of timely writing, I’m going to jump around a bit and write about various trips at the same time. Bear with me as I continue to strive toward catching up with all of my reports by the end of this year. Also in order to speed up the process, I’m not going to be churning out things in their natural order sometimes. I will start of each trip with a brief introduction and summary, but these will probably be more brief than usual.

Back in April of 2014, I saw some great deals from my home airport (Midland-MAF) to Amsterdam, Paris, and Italy. It just so happened that United launched a quick sale during that month where flights to Europe roundtrip in Business class were only around $1400 roundtrip for the July 4th travel weekend. This was a steal of deal at the time and my parents had long been searching for the proper venue for my sister’s sweet sixteen (which was on July 4th). It just so happened that my uncle and my cousins had a couple of days off around July 4th at the same time we were going. Fortunately, they were also able to snag similar tickets from Allentown, PA and we were all booked out on the same flight from Newark on July 3rd.

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Initially we had planned to cover Milan, Rome, Florence, and possibly Venice, but after our around the world trip, a few weeks earlier, Sasidhar was tired of traveling. He insisted that we take this trip at a leisurely rate and recommended that we spend the time in Lake Como and the Italian side of the Alps. Though I like to cover things at a fast pace, I agreed to slow down for this trip as well since our parents were tired of work and just needed some time to relax.

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On the Streets of Bellagio, Italy

As the departure date drew closer, my brother and I were frantically searching for places to stay around the beautiful Lake Como. It looked like a 3 star hotel room with no special view normally costs over $400/night in the summer, which was absolutely insane! At one point, I was ready to completely skip the hassle of find accommodations and just commute from Milan. However, that really wasn’t money saving idea because paying for 8 roundtrip train tickets from Milan – Como two times, costs the same as the difference in hotel price without the convenience. As a result we finally compromised and decided to rent a villa for 3 nights on Lake Como using this site. If we were to split the cost of the villa, it would come out to a very reasonable $300/night for every 2 people including taxes. And I say reasonable because the villa we booked was a penthouse, sporting absolutely awesome views of Lake Como:

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For getting to and from the villa near Lake Como, we booked a 8 passenger, Mercedes Vito van, which was surprisingly able to fit on the miniature streets. Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite the fun to drive car as our Audi A8 was while we were in Europe earlier this summer. In fact, the van pretty much started spitting out smoke as we traversed the Bernina Pass (that’s a story I’ll describe in depth later).

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After the three nights in Lake Como, my family, my aunt and uncle planned on moving on to Rome for a couple of nights, while my brother and his wife spent the night in Milan before departing back to the U.S (she had work the following day). This really didn’t completely work out in the end because my family ended up missing the flight to Milan after our flight from Houston-Newark was diverted to Pittsburgh for the duration of the afternoon on July 3rd. (Thunderstorms – ugh!) This forced us to stay in New Jersey for the night before moving onto Milan via Frankfurt.

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Initially we were supposed to drive to St. Moritz and take the Bernina Express roundtrip to Tirano, Italy, but my missed connection combined with the loss of my luggage (yes, again) got rid of that plan. In the end we just drove from Menaggio to St. Moritz and came back via the Bernina Pass. The entire experience was absolutely spectacular and I believe that everyone should do it at least once while in the area.

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St. Moritz, Switzerland

As a result of our flight troubles, there was a very small amount of time to spend with family and so I shortened my stay in Rome to spend an extra night in Milan. Initially, we thought about booking a stay using Club Carlson points at Radisson Blu Milan, but that’s only worth it if you stay two nights (if you have the Club Carlson Credit Card, the second night on a redemption is free). Fortunately, the next best thing, the Park Hyatt Milan was releasing tons of award space using Hyatt points and cash + points. We booked 2 rooms, using 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points each, and one suite using 15,000 Hyatt points, $150 cash, and a suite upgrade certificate from my brother’s recent Hyatt diamond trial. Rates at the Park Hyatt Milan exceed 800 Euros per night typically due to its location right across from the Duomo so this was definitely a good deal on points.

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The Duomo in Milan, Italy, right across from the Park Hyatt Milan

After a night in Milan, my family along with my aunt and uncle took the morning high speed train from Milano Centrale to Roma Termini, which took approximately 3 hours and made one stop in Firenze (Florence). The second class ticket cost us 86 euro each one way, but I ended up getting 2.2% cash back because I used my Barclay Arrival Plus Card. Unfortunately, the train was rather crowded so I could not capture too many pictures without disturbing the others around me.

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Milano Centrale Station

Once we arrived in Rome, we walked a few blocks to the Radisson Blu Rome Hotel to check in. I’ll certainly have more on this hotel later, but this property was certainly not the highlight of trip due to heavy water damage and bad room design. Not to mention that I got stuck in the elevator twice for over a half hour. As I said a nice story to tell later

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The Forum
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The Vatican at Night

In Rome, we walked to the Colosseum and purchased tickets for one of the hop on and hop off buses from there, which took us around to all the other attractions within the city, which include Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and the Vatican. The bus cost around $35 for each adult and $20 for children under the age of 16 valid for 72 hours, quite the savings if your hotel is not located next to the Vatican where you will spend a large amount of time. More information regarding the bus can be found here.

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Though we didn’t take a guided tour of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, I would highly recommend it since the group tours are able to make their way to St. Peter’s Basilica right after viewing the Sistine Chapel and avoiding the line in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I just went online and reserved our spot to enter the Vatican Museums only (I didn’t know that St. Peter’s had a separate line). Fortunately for us, we somehow avoided the lines at both places and even got to see the Pope during an evening prayer. To be honest, I’m still confused as to how we got pushed to the front of the line at St. Peter’s, but I’m not complaining. There are a variety of tours available and these can be found on any travel website like Expedia or Travelocity. Some even shuttle you to and from the Vatican, which can save money on taxis. My only tip is to read reviews and take advice from Rick Steve’s guidebooks and forums online.

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After spending two nights in Rome, we again took the Trenitalia FRECCIAROSSA back to Milan, from where we would head home. While my aunt and uncle left the day after we came back to Milan, my family still had a day left in Italy. We headed back to Lake Como via train (the tickets cost 14 Euro roundtrip) to explore the towns of Varenna and Bellagio, which we didn’t get a chance to see earlier. The train ride takes about 50 minutes and goes to Varenna-Esino train station from where you take a ferry across to Bellagio, or Menaggio (the ticket price is 7 Euros each way).

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Usage of Points and Applying for Credit Cards to Save Money:

Overall, I don’t believe it was that difficult to save money on this trip by using points. Just by applying for these three cards could save you a whole boat load of money: Barclay Arrival Plus, Club Carlson Visa, and Chase Sapphire Preferred. The 45,000 ultimate reward points earned from Chase Sapphire Preferred can cover 2 night’s stay at Park Hyatt Milan, while the $440 cash back on the Arrival card covered some of the cost of transportation. The 85,000 club carlson points could land you two nights at two different Radisson Blu hotels in Italy since they only cost 44,000 points per night.

Overall my experience in Italy with regard to credit cards is that they are widely accepted including smaller ticket kiosks and stands as well as certain taxis.

(Note: I don’t receive any commission from any of the links I have posted above)

Though points usage is always something to keep in mind, it is also important to enjoy the smaller pleasures not completely attainable using points, like my experience living in an Italian villa (albeit I still earned points by paying with my credit card). At the end of the day experiences are so much greater than saving that little bit in the pocket. After all, you only live once!