Travel

Carla Bastos: Traveling to, from and around Italy in these crazy times

On a recent visit to the States, I was struck by the ever-evolving challenges of travel today. Chatting up fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada and England revealed wide-ranging but equally insane experiences. These days, it’s just not easy, and expats must be especially prepared.

On this trip I flew out of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport (Leonardo da Vinci FCO) for the first time. Situated in the town of Fiumicino, a commune of Rome, it is the busiest airport in Italy. Being a resident of Tuscany, I’ve always used the small, easily navigable Florence Peretola Airport (Amerigo Vespucci FLR). But, before I booked this flight, a conversation with a Canadian student compelled me to explore flights from Rome.

Expats such as I holding (or waiting for) an Italian permesso di soggiorno know that there is a ridiculously long waiting period. There was a time when, once applied for, the permit was issued within a few weeks. Now, people are waiting months. But, holding a receipt proving that you’ve applied for your permit and are not in country illegally, allows one to accomplish just about all everyday pursuits.

Except leaving the country.

As the young student learned, in order to leave Italy and return with only your receipt, you can only travel to your own country, and only on direct flights – which you won’t find leaving from Florence. You’re not allowed to visit or lay over in other Schengen countries unless you have a provvisorio granting an exception. Acquiring the provvisorio can also be tricky. It may be granted in days, weeks or months, and definitions of “emergency travel” may vary.

Lose those checked bags or the airline will

With a little research, I was delighted to discover direct and much cheaper flights to my U.S. destination from Rome. And the train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station goes directly to the airport, its final stop being only steps from Terminal Three where most U.S. flights depart. (The last train stop before the airport is Roma Termini, equally busy because it is the closest stop to the city center and most monuments and attractions.)

Having an early morning flight, I booked an Airbnb in the town of Fiumicino for the night before. My gracious host provided taxi service and a brief tour of this delightful, quaint and walkable town, belying the busy metropolitan vibe of its airport. A great respite before the long journey.

Travel guru Rick Steves has two hard, fast rules for his tours: No checking bags and no short layovers. Unfortunately, I’d learned these lessons the hard way, long before I knew of the Steves method.

I’ve been a staunch opponent of checking bags for close to 20 years.

Perhaps second only to Steves, I may be the world’s foremost expert at cramming two weeks’ worth of clothes and supplies into a carry-on and small backpack.

The wisdom of this longstanding rule of mine was proven yet again when I talked to one harried traveler from London. She had spent a few days in the States before returning for a brief EU stay in Italy, and then back to England. As we killed time over espresso at FCO, she lamented that her checked bag apparently hadn’t made the flight from New York. She’d been told it would be forwarded to her London address.

Good luck, I thought.

Big crowds, short layovers

A Chicago couple on my flight back to Rome bore witness to the no-short-layovers rule. They were longtime expats in Italy, but on this trip had made the mistake of booking their departing flight with a 55-minute layover in Copenhagen. Remember, whatever country is your final stop before leaving the EU is where you will have to go through passport control.

Not always – but far too often – the lines can be excruciatingly long. Couple this with the possibility of having to run to another far-away terminal to make your connection, and just like that, you’re out of luck. The couple from Chicago had missed their flight, waited 14 hours for another, then had to reschedule a stateside flight as well. (Even on domestic flights, a 55-minute layover is rarely doable.)

This journey was also a reminder that the madding crowds continue to grow exponentially. Last year at this time, it was all about post-COVID stir-craziness. I don’t know what the excuse is this year, but many airlines and airports are clearly not prepared to accommodate us.

In some cases, their efforts are pretty pathetic.

After 30-some years of frequent flying and often being on automatic upgrade lists but never making the cut, I was finally tossed a bone and upgraded to First Class – on a red-eye leaving Phoenix at midnight to connect at O’Hare for my flight back to Rome. Sure, I was looking forward to just sleeping. But I was not about to pass up my champagne, free drinks, and full-course meal with real silverware and china.

In these crazy travel times, you have to take what you can get.

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Read more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Carla here. You can also see her website here.

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Carla Bastos is an expat writer living in Italy.

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