Brian and I had been talking about going on a trip to Europe for our 1-year anniversary when we first got engaged, maybe even before that. We knew a trip to Italy and Germany would not be kid-friendly because of the potential long distances of walking to various restaurants, historical sights, etc, so we wanted to do it very early in our marriage. We are so glad that we did, and the timing could not have been any more perfect. I wanted to share with you in this blog post how we managed to spend <$3500 total on our trip together and how we could potentially have spent <$3000 for an even better trip. To be honest, the highlight of our trip was Italy and I had a sinus cold during our visit to Germany, so this post is focused on our visit to Florence Italy.
If you are like me, this is where you start when planning travel because saving here can be the most cost effective when planning to travel abroad. My parents are fantastic at finding travel deals and had heard us talk about wanting to go to Europe, so my dad forwarded me an email about a sale being offered by Iceland Air for travel from Chicago to "London, Glasgow, Frankfurt, and Munich" for $509, and it even happened to be for dates right around our 1-year anniversary 😃. Since it was the end of the December and the deal was set to end on Jan 2, Brian and I talked about travel dates for a couple days and bought our tickets before the new year! For 2 roundtrip tickets Chicago to/from Frankfurt, the total was $977 including tax! Our experience with Iceland Air ended up being a very pleasant one. The only negative we observed compared to other international airlines was that there were no complimentary snacks or meals, but we were able to purchase food onboard.
We definitely wanted to visit Florence, Italy, so in order to get close, we bought 2 roundtrip tickets Frankfurt to/from Pisa for $172 from Ryan Air. Now these tickets from Ryan Air are cheap for a reason. Think Spirit Airlines where you have to pay for carry-on, but worse. We didn't realize until much later that Ryan Air flew out from a smaller airport in Frankfurt different from the main Frankfurt airport, which cost us extra money and travel time because we had to take a 1.5 hour long bus ride ($66 for 2 roundtrip tickets) between the 2 Frankfurt airports (who knew they would be so far apart?!). I recently checked Ryan Air's website while writing this post and it seems that they may have added more flights out of the main airport, so maybe this wouldn't be an issue in the future. We ended up paying an extra $110 in unnecessary check-in fees because we failed to find a printer to print out our boarding passes before getting to the airport, so don't make the same mistake as us! On our return trip Pisa to Frankfurt, our flight was delayed by several hours for an unknown reason and we received very limited updates from the Ryan Air staff. Cheap tickets, but we might have preferred to take a scenic train across the alps instead of waiting in an uncomfortable airport, and this would have saved us the bus ride as well.
Brian and I are huge fans of Airbnb. We always try to immerse ourselves in a culture when we travel, to experience a city like a local as much as we can vs a tourist. Staying at an Airbnb instead of a hotel/resort is one great step in the right direction. We purposely seek out "super hosts" and spend a lot of time researching reviews whenever we travel. We are so so glad we did this, especially for Florence, because our host, Michele, had THE BEST recommendations. We purposely chose Airbnbs that included washer and dryers for laundry so that we didn't have to pack as many clothes.
This is what our spending on accommodations was (after taxes):
- $85 for 1 night in Pisa
- $257 for 3 nights in Florence
- $243 for 3 nights in Nurnberg
By planning our meals around recommendations from our Airbnb host, we were able to avoid marked-up tourist prices at restaurants and find sort-of hidden gems frequented by locals, so the food was more affordable and probably better! Michele even gave us a helpful tip that in Italy, a trattoria is typically more casual and affordable while a ristorante is usually fancier and more expensive (sort of like bars vs fine dining in America). Despite eating out for lunch and dinner nearly every day, we really didn't break the bank in this category because the food was very affordable! This was surprising to us considering it is probably the best food we have ever had.
For example, we had multiple affordable meals at Trattoria da Rocco. For an appetizer (4.5 Euro), main dish (5.5 Euro), soda (2 Euro), and dessert (3 Euro), it only cost us $16/person (the exchange rate during our trip was 1 Euro = $1.0909). It is hard to believe that I would spend more money at a Chili's back in the USA, and this was a world-class meal including delicious Tuscan style chicken and a tiramisu leagues above any in the US.
Another example, our host recommended that we try a traditional Florentine T-bone steak at I' Brindellone, so of course, we went. The steak was 1.2 kg (42 oz) for 36 Euro which comes out to $40 for a steak definitely big enough for the 2 of us. The same quality and size steak would easily cost over $100 back in the US, but instead, it was $20/person for the juiciest, tastiest steak I have ever had in my life.
Sights and attractions
We only ended up paying $72 total for sight-seeing. These were all the things that we got to see for free:
Leaning Tower of Pisa:
Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore:
Piazza della Signoria:
Ponte Vecchio bridge
Just walking the streets was beautifully picturesque:
These are things we paid for:
Galleria dell'Accademia ($41.67 for 2 people):
Giardino Bardini ($17.50 for 2 people):
Travel on land was very easy in Europe. We loved the trains! We took an easy train ride from the Pisa airport to Florence for $9 each ($36 total for 2 people, roundtrip). Thankfully we learned that Florence is actually Firenze in Italian; I would recommend learning the native names for cities of interest before you travel 😃 Italians who work frequently with tourists, like the staff at train stations, know a decent amount of English, so we didn't have too much trouble going up to the counter to purchase with cash from the cashier. The train was surprisingly fast and comfortable!
While in the city, we walked everywhere and only used a taxi once for a short drive from the Florence train station to our Airbnb because we had had a long day of travel and were carrying our bags. We definitely put our tennis shoes to use! It was a bonus that the style in Europe is to wear comfortable athletic shoes when in public (we would have stood out like sore thumbs as Americans with flip-flops even though it was a very comfortable 70 degrees F most of the time). We ended up walking from our Airbnb to the Florence train station when leaving the city, which was easy because we had packed everything for our trip into hiking backpacks.
When traveling by train within Germany, we really wanted to experience the high-speed German train. We took the ICE train between Frankfurt and Nürnberg which was $250 total for 2 roundtrip tickets.
Raisa and Brian's must-sees/dos
- Go to the Galleria dell'Accademia to see the David by Michelangelo (Tip: Make sure to buy tickets online to avoid the LONG line).
- Visit the Bardini Gardens on a clear day for a view of the entire city.
- Share a T-bone steak at I' Brindellone.
- Walk around the city and make sure to see the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) and Piazza della Signoria at least.
What we were glad we did
- Used public transportation
- Stayed in an Airbnb hosted by a super host
- Asked for help when we could use it (we wouldn't have found places like the Bardini Gardens if we hadn't asked locals on the street where to find a pretty view of the city)
- Visited in early May, the weather was perfect
What we might have done differently
- Planned big to-dos, like the Galleria, from home
- Used the app called "Mango" for conversational Italian instead of audio books
- Took a train instead of flying via Ryan Air
- Stayed in just Italy, maybe gone to Rome
- Woke up early to go inside the Duomo (buying tickets ahead of time)
How we could have saved more
- We could have stayed in one city for a longer period of time to maximize on the 1x cleaning fee for an Airbnb rental. Staying put would have also helped us minimize travel costs. When traveling to Europe, it can be so tempting to try to "see it all!", but if we had focused on one city, it would have been an overall more relaxing vacation. At the very least, we are going to stay in one country next time we travel to Europe.
- Another way we could have maximized the money of flying overseas would be to stay longer. Even though we saved on airfare, it always is a big chunk, so it would have been cost-effective to plan a longer vacation. However, this was not possible for us at this time because of limited vacation time.
Our overall thoughts
This ended up being the most fulfilling vacation I have ever gone on. It was amazing to go through so many adventures with the love of my life and we learned so much about each other, ourselves, and the world. A big lesson we learned was that even with a language barrier between people, a smile is universal. Europeans were very patient with us not being anywhere close to fluent in their language, and they did appreciate when we put in a little effort at least. We were very appreciative of their grace.
Follow more of our adventures on Instagram :)