On Your Own in Italy--With Help

Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at http://www.izon.com

The works of Michaelangelo, the canals of Venice, the Tower of Pisa, the streets of Pompeii. Whether you are exploring the whole country or making a quick stop on your way to somewhere else, Italy is a must. But during the peak summer period, budget travelers also have to deal with crowds of tourists, traffic, summer heat and lots of competition for budget accommodations. It can be overwhelming.

The Italian Youth Hostel Assn.--Associasione Italiana Alberghi per la Gioventu (AIG)--can help. For those who want to explore independently but want help with accommodations, local transportation and sightseeing information, AIG has developed "Go-as-You-Please" packages for 17 Italian cities.

For example, you can have three nights' youth hostel accommodations in Rome (the 334-bed Foro Italico Youth Hostel provides lodging in multi-bed rooms), plus breakfasts and dinners for $103. The package also includes a three-day travel pass valid for all bus lines and the subway, and your choice of a morning excursion to Tivoli, an afternoon excursion to Castelli Romani or a one-day "Stop-'n'-Go" ticket valid for a city tour. The Stop-'n'-Go city tours enable you to see the sites at your own pace. There are nine departures daily on four different itineraries, and you can stop and visit monuments as you choose, waiting for the next bus to come. You are given a leaflet with the routes and timetable.

A five-day version of this package with five nights' accommodation and a five-day bus and subway pass is also available for $163. The hostel is located at Viale delle Olimpiadi 61, and it features a bar, restaurant and garden.

AIG is affiliated with Hostelling International. In Rome your HI membership card is honored for additional discounts, including Hertz car rental (if you are over 25); purchases at Visa and Lebole department stores; and priority entrances and a free drink with your meal at Planet Hollywood. Students visiting Rome usually get a 30% discount at most municipal museums. The same discount is extended to travelers under 26 at the Vatican Museums (which also open their doors for free to everyone on the last Sunday of every month.)

A three-night package for Florence includes accommodations at the 322-bed Villa Camerata Youth Hostel at Viale Augusto Righi 2/4, in rooms usually shared by four to six travelers; breakfasts and dinners; and a daily ticket for public transportation, plus a Museum Card for entrance at municipal museums. The cost is $106; a five-night version is $177. The recently released 768-page third edition of "Italy," by Lonely Planet, comments that this hostel is considered "one of the most beautiful in Europe."

The Venice three-night package includes a stay at the 260-bed Youth Hostel Venezia at Fondamenta Zitelle 86, Giudecca. Here you can also expect to share a room with four to six travelers. The package also includes dinners and breakfasts and a three-day ferry ticket to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. The package price is $113.

"Go-as-You-Please" city packages are also available for Naples, Agropoli/Paestum, Bolongna, Genoa, Cortona, Lucca, Loreto, Matera, Bergamo, Savona, Asiago, Finale Ligure and Trento.

To purchase the package, you must be a member of a hostel association affiliated with HI. For membership information, call (310) 393-6263. To book a package, contact AIG Central Reservations, Via Cavour 44, Rome 00184; tel. 011-39-6-487-1152.

Here are a few other points to keep in mind when exploring Italy.

* Do a little research with your guidebook to schedule your visits to key sites. Many museums are closed on Mondays, and businesses (including banks) close for several hours in the afternoon (usually 1:30 to 3 or 4 p.m.).

* Internet services are available at AIG hostels in Bergamo, Florence, Loreto, Milan, Naples, Ravenna, Rome and Venice. You can purchase special Webby Cards at the hostels to use the computers.

* Most of the people you'll meet will be great, but there are a small number who prey on inexperienced travelers. Keep your valuables in a money pouch under your clothing where it can't be snatched, either by a person bumping into you or by motor-scooter grabbers.

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