Why we are NOT on booking engines?

Posted on Oct 29, 2018 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

Some of our guests asked which button on our website they have to click on to book a tour. Well, no button, you have to write an email and we will discuss our plan first. Once we agree on a plan, we will give you instructions to send a confirmation deposit (through PayPal or by credit card/bank transfer),  to book online tickets if needed (if you prefer us to deal with that, we have a fee: read our policy here) and we will send you a final recap of the booked service via email again. Nothing is standard and this might sound “vintage”,  but it’s like that on purpose.

We prefer not to use  portals and automated booking engines (like Viator, TripAdvisor, Get your guide, Airbnb Experiences ….) because we want to get in touch with you prior to our meeting: choose a standard tour>click a button >insert card details >DONE  sounds very efficient, but erases all the “relationship value” of the communication prior  to the tour. This is the phase when you tell us this is your long waited trip or your honeymoon, when we learn about your children being fans of Percy Jackson, when husbands ask how they can celebrate their wife’s birthday during the trip (or viceversa), when  you express your “devotion” for Italian food and wine … in one word, when we create together your perfect trip, something personal and unique just for your party.

On top of that, we want to avoid any extra cost on middle-persons (or OTA): I suppose you know they charge from 15 to 30% for their mediation job and of course this ends up in an higher fee for your tour (and BTW, Tripadvisor is now an OTA like any other, we are listed there only because it’s the most practical way to collect our reviews, but you have to look  specifically for “A Friend in Rome” as they do not make a hierarchical list according to the value, they only advertise companies who sell through them at heir conditions and rates)

That’s why we need an email and the process can be a bit slower than with other companies…. it’s a choice, but we firmly believe in this choice.

How to reach Rome from Civitavecchia Port

Posted on Oct 29, 2018 in On your own, Planning Your Trip | No Comments

Many of our visitors are here on a cruise (or before/after a cruise) and need infos on how to reach the city from the harbour of Rome which is pretty far (approx 1,5 hr away form the city centre). Instead of creating a new blogpost, we are happy to share  here the useful infos provided by Linda of The Beehive Hostel & Hotel   on her page “Cross pollinate” about this subject.

With regards to our tours, we can meet you at the arrival of the train (two possible stations: Roma San Pietro or Roma Termini, depending on the itinerary we plan) or we can book a private transfer for you and coordinate with the driver to meet you in town at the first venue of our tour.

A good compromise to save some money is to take the train on the way into Rome and leave by private van. This is especially true in summer: in the morning is not hot and you still have plenty of energy to manage the port and the train, on the way back you are tired of the long day touring, the day temperature can reach 100 F and an air-conditioned transfer can be a good treat. Not to forget you cannot allow yourself being late and miss the train. And the ship!

Now that you have infos and tips, it’s up to you to decide, according to your needs and budget.

Good reads about Rome

Posted on Oct 29, 2018 in Arts and History | No Comments

When you plan a trip to Rome and when you leave Rome, you want to know more! And you often ask for good reads to deepen your knowledge about this incredible city. Here are some suggestions for you:

If you are travelling  to Rome with your kids, it’s a good idea to buy online Mission Rome by Catherine Aragon, an active booklet offering the chance to transform  your Roman Holiday into a scavenger hunt! We will be very happy to play and help your children in their mission during our tours. Let us know in your mail if you wish to play this game and we’ll plan the perfect itinerary to cover most of the sites included in the “hunt”.

Skip-the-line tickets: what you need to know

Posted on Sep 4, 2018 in Planning Your Trip | No Comments

Everybody is well aware by now the most famous tourist attractions need pre-booking in order to avoid long lines. And we will not even consider touring the Colosseum or the Vatican with you without “skip the line” reservations.

What you need to know is:

  • non only Colosseum and Vatican need pre-booking: Borghese Gallery is only accessible upon reservation and you need to buy those tickets  well in advance (and your guide too needs a reservation, so consider this and get in touch with us before reserving those tickets)
  • skip-the-line tickets do not exclude security check lines. It usually doesn’t take long (an average of 5 to 10 minutes, but every day is different and we cannot fasten this part)
  • a new regulation at the Colosseum does not allow more than 3000 visitors at the time inside the monument, so access can be blocked at any moment. An early start or a late afternoon tour are usually the solution, but we will suggest you the best option for your party and your time of travel.

How does it work with pre-booking in connection with our tours?

We borrow  the motto of the famous IKEA company : “Together we save money. You can do it yourself – but you do not have to”. Dealing with tickets takes time, no doubt about this. And talking with many of you during these last 10 years, we understood you appreciate us taking care of the tickets on your behalf to save time and to  be sure they are done properly (tickets are not refundable, if you issue wrong tickets, you have to book them again and you lose money)

We are always concerned about granting you the best possible rate for your tours, so we are still available to give you instructions to buy tickets online by yourself, if you want to.

But we agree it’s becoming more and more complicated with a lot of options, menus, card security codes  and so on…. So if you prefer we take care of the tickets, we can do that with an extra charge of 5 euros per person per ticket and we need the full amount for tickets to be sent in advance through PayPal together with the confirmation deposit. Just let us know your preference.

Rome à la carte

Posted on Oct 12, 2017 in Planning Your Trip | No Comments

Planning a trip is not easy: you always want to make the most of your time, you feel compelled to cover some “must sees” and you do not have time to dedicate to the planning because… well, generally you have a job, a family and some errands everyday…. That’s why we are here for you! We can let you save a lot of time and worries about details such as booking everything at the right moment and spend only what is really needed for what you  wish to do and see.

In order to help you planning your perfect “Roman holiday” (not only Princess Anne deserved that!) we created a short menu to give you some ideas and a bit of inspiration. In Rome there is more than what you expect and we are here to assist you and transform a dream into a real experience.

In more than 10 years we helped parents to spend quality fun time with their children of any age, honeymooners to flash up together, husbands or wives to prepare a special moment for their life partners… we love to help you build a lifetime memory and  “go the extra mile” with you.

Ergo… when you contact us, we will send you this “Rome à la carte menu” and you will indicate some of  your preferences by numbers (like ordering from a Chinese take away!) : this will facilitate our job in sending you the right proposal. Always useful to know if you have already been to Rome, if there are children, teens or seniors in your party and how many days at disposal do you have. And of course, give us enough time to plan together: better to contact us from two months to two  weeks ahead of your trip (even earlier if you prefer, we like advance bookings). And happy planning to everybody!

Tick the box

Posted on Sep 24, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

In 2005 I bought a travel magazine (ABTA Travelspirit) while I was waiting for my flight. I found this article by Pat Riddell so enlightening  I decided to keep it and recently I found it again … I tried to find it online to share it, but I couldn’t find it, so I decided to type it for you: happy reading!

Is sightseeing something we want to do? Or do we do it because we feel we ought to, asks Pat Riddel? 
It was while queueing among the masses to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at the Vatican that it occured to me . People weren’t really here to appreciate the Renaissance artist’s greatest work, they were here to tick off one of Rome’s sights from their list. Next up: St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum and the Pantheon. 
Had it just become a meaningless exercise? Wouldn’t they rather spend their time lazing in bed, drinking cappuccinos, buying designer clothes and living la dolce vita ? Does anyone actually appreciate the sights they travel miles to see? Or is it a case of ticking it off the list, telling your friends and planning the next one – Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower…
Do we go and see things simply because we think we should? Open the guidebook, identify the top 10 things to see, join the queues and, often, remain marginally unimpressed. Spending four days shopping in New York is as equally valid as devouring everything the Museum of Modern Art has to offer. The problem is you feel compelled to see everything you think you should see and leave no time to really discover the place. The people who say, “you really must see such-and-such” are often repeating the mantra that’s been drummed into them – it’s one of the tallest building in the world, it’s the greatest architecture ever seen, it’s a masterpiece, it’s culturally and historically significant, it’s a “must see”…

Well, maybe I’m being a little cynical. Why not consider finding the sights that mean something to you, rather than going along with the “received wisdom”. For everyone who just sees a pile of rubble there’s someone who sees an amazing ruin, a great ancient civilisation. For those who see “just another painting my two-year-old could’ve done”, someone will see one of the most important works of the 20th century.
 Having left Rome, we met a guy in Florence who tought the Pantheon was the most amazing thing the ancient city had to offer. Personally, I thought it was pretty impressive, but he, as an engineer, was astounded by the geometry of a perfect sphere in a building nearly 2000 years old.
I’ve gazed in awe at the sun setting – and then rising again the next day – at Uluru (Ayers Rock) while my companion looked on impassively. This, just weeks after I declared the Sydney Opera House as being “more impressive on the telly” while the same companion was dumbstruck by its sails set against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour (admittedly, I have changed my mind about this since).
Sightseeing can be arduos , it can be mind-numbingly boring – we should accept that and move on. But it can also be inspiring and moving. The only problem is: you don’t always know what will inspire and move you. Which means you end up joining the queue with everyone else, regardless.
 The eternal dilemma is whether you skip the crowds, miss whatever “sight it is and do what you really want to do, living in the knowledge that you missed something that might have blown your mind. Peraphs it depends whether you will return – a weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam will never be enough and the chances are, given the distance, you will return. Whereas the likelihood of returning to Auckland or Buenos Aires are remote – in which case you should make the effort. Alternatively is it a careful balancing act? Learning how to plan a day of sightseeing without wearing yourself out by the evening, otherwise you miss out discovering the restaurants, the nightlife and the people. Or maybe we should just blame the guidebooks and their top 10s and relentless detail of sights that are often not worth the time or effort. That’s it, then – let’s go burn some books!

Travelling with a teenager (n°3)

Posted on Sep 12, 2017 in Children, Time out to reflect | No Comments

Last “meditation” about travelling (see n° 1 and n° 2)  is coming from my personal experience as a  mother of a 14 year old boy and as a tour guide meeting a lot of families with children: when your travel companion is a teenager  you just have to keep in mind they do not have the same urge of “seeing it all”. You are travelling across the planet, you know how much this costs to you in terms of money and time and you are aware you might not have the chance to be there again soon. Of course this feeling is not shared by your children, they have their life ahead and they just want to enjoy their holiday (despite the presence of their parents, eheheheh!)

What I learnt about this specific situation is the following:

  1. the program of the day should not be packed, plan just one main activity and be sure there will be enough time to relax in the hotel or at the beach/pool… (of course there must be free wifi signal there!)
  2. better to plan the main activity in the morning, otherwise they will never get out of bed (but – if possible – do not plan a very early start, it is physically harder for them than for adults to wake up)
  3. teens get easily bored if they just have to stand in front of something or slowly walk and listen, listen, listen to a guide. They need to *do* something in order to feel involved: plan a trekking, a rafting (BTW the picture above is my rafting in Bali with my son, summer 2017), a bike tour, an art lab, a food tour or a cooking class if they like eating and are curious about food …whatever keeps them active. In any case this would not be a waste of time for you: it is a chance to see a country from a different prospective, meet more people (both local and other travellers), going places you haven’t considered which might turn out to be wonderful
  4. check if there are interactive museums, virtual reality experiences and everything exploiting modern technologies (check our blog post  about what Rome offers): teens generally appreciate these venues and it can be  a good break during a sightseeing day

Do you have any other tips? Let’s transform this post into a Decalogue, send  a mail to info@afriendinrome.it and I’ll be glad to update this post.

The guided tour guide (n°2)

Posted on Sep 4, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

As I anticipated in  post n°1, I learnt a lot about vacationing just by doing it in the last 20 years (in the picture: a tour I had on Mount Etna, summer 2016).  Of course my critical spirit was sharpened by  working in the travel industry and especially by becoming a tour guide in 2009. When you deliver travel services everyday, you start expecting a lot when you are on the other side …in short: we (tour guides) are the worst customers a tour guide might have! But we also exploit every personal trip to improve our own  service. And this is a list of what I learnt while I was guided:

  1. you do not always need a guide! Sometimes it is nice and inspiring to get lost and find your way just by asking people passing by… My rule here is to have a guide for max  50% of the time I spend in a new country. You need some “alone time” and a good guide is the one giving you advices on how to spend your time on own, after providing a general overview of the destination.
  2. on the other side: you might need a guide exactly when you think you do not need one! When you have been more than once in a city and you feel familiar there, that’s when a guide can take you discover the real, inner soul of that place.  As I always say, you need at least TWO trips to every place you visit: the first is just to get acquainted and inspired, the second is when you really enjoy!
  3. the most important requirement in a guide is a good command of the language you are going to use to communicate. A guided tour is a relationship – although very short – and if you cannot understand each other enough, well…. it cannot work!
  4. second requirement is honesty: I do not only mean he/she has to be fair with all the money issues and defend you when you risk to be ripped off in restaurants, shops, taxis and so on. I refer to “intellectual honesty“: facts about his/her country have to be presented in an unbiased manner as much as possible. Of course a guide has a personal perspective, but I do not want to just hear that everything works perfectly and all is wonderful and beautiful. I’m looking for “real life”, pros and cons.
  5. a guide should be punctual: again, I’m not just talking about being on time, but especially about being prompt, attentive, able to prevent problems and give good advices, quick in answers (even before meeting, in the crucial moment of planning) and well prepared on the agreed program.
  6. experience: a guide has to be an expert, having travelled extensively  the area covered by his/her services. He/she should know the best way to reach a venue, how long it would take, where my hotel is, where are the good restaurants….
  7. lastly, and this is not a requirement (as I respect privacy and discretion) but a wish: a guide is a living “component” of the country I’m visiting and learning a bit about his/her life is another way to understand this country. I’m always curious to know about his/her studies, travels, family… what he/she likes eating or doing in his/her free time and if these aspects are unusual or common in that country.

Once you have chosen the perfect guide, another hard part of the planning is choosing the perfect activity!!! Trust your tour guide, but he/she needs some help to know what you like.

  • You do not need to visit an art museum if you never do that in your everyday life. Be honest with yourself, there’s nothing wrong in disliking art and finding history boring. If you like markets and trekking, just to name something else,  tell your guide  and there might be wonderful opportunities (a personal example: in my recent trip to Bali, one of the main attraction was the Monkey Forest, everybody goes there, but I do not like animals and on top I was scared … so, I struck it through without ceremony)
  • Touristy things: everywhere you go there will be touristy activities; most of them are grounded on the history and traditions of the city you are visiting (for instance: a gladiator class in Rome or a Mozart concert in Wien), so do not spurn something just because only tourists would be there. But make sure of the quality of the show before spending money there: again,  your guide can be helpful.
  • “Oh no! Not another church”: this is a frequent feeling of our guests here in Italy… maybe they reach Rome after visiting Milan, Venice, Florence, Assisi….. tons of churches in every city!!! But they hide this feeling (sometimes they just blame the kids, “you know… they get tired….” ) and step inside the hundredth church with a fake smile, just to be polite. Well, you do not have to! I totally understand now, this trip in Bali was enlightening: first temple was amazing, on a cliff. And what about the second, on the shore of a lake? And the biggest of all, on the slope of a volcano? Awesome! But as a matter of fact I was more interested in learning about ceremonies, the dress code, the beliefs of modern faithful instead of visiting an endless row of shrines that – after a while-  looked all the same. If your guide is not filtering for you, be clear and tell out loud when it’s too much. The bottom line is you are on holiday and you have to *enjoy* what you do.

And now the last part of my recent “meditations” about vacationing: what happen when you travel with a teenager? Stay tuned!

What I learnt from travelling about travelling (n°1)

Posted on Aug 24, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

My first trip alone was in far 1996, to Paris! It was the first summer I had a salary  and few days of annual leave. I  immediately understood my “holiday time” was precious  and I had to plan the trip well. Now I just returned from a a wonderful trip to Bali, where I had time to think (and take some notes) about my philosophy of  vacationing. The result is the next three blog posts, this one being number 1 i.e. what I learnt in more than 20 years of holidays:

  • a holiday is a “resting time”: if you leave in a rush, you are boycotting this from the very beginning. I always grant myself some time (at least one  full day, but two, even three, would be better) before the departure to slow down, transform  the baggage moment in a fun activity, leave my stuff and house in order because I like getting back to a tidy welcoming home, dedicate some hours to my wellbeing. I also like to go to the airport or station well in advance, and start being mentally on holiday
  • the same applies when I’m back: I do not go back to my routine and to work the following day, but I always keep one or two days to restart slowly. This rule I gave myself implies  sometime a shorter holiday but I ‘d rather have a 10-day-holiday and ease up  instead of two full weeks out (of course this rule doesn’t apply to short breaks). When I’m back I spend time organising my pictures, assembling what I wrote during the trip, finishing the book I have travelled with and assimilating the experience
  • jet lag: as soon as I embark on a plane, I immediately set up my clock to the local time of my destination and adjust as much as possible my eating and sleeping time. It usually works very well (plane companies do not help, they serve food when is comfortable to them, therefore bring your own sandwich or snack to respect your timing)
  • accommodation: I try to select an apartment, B&B or hotel with great location (always a priority) and following the local style (furniture, size of the rooms, amenities….). If  everybody in Rome live in apartments I would not look for a private villa with pool… It is also important that the staff is local to have a chance to chat a bit with them during the stay. This way also the time spent resting in our room/hotel is part of the travelling experience.
  • eating: it is always considered important to “eat local” and try specialities. But it is also true that food is an intimate activity and we miss “our food” soon. I do not blame myself anymore if I end up looking for a tex-mex or a fast food or even a pizza (one of my first rules was “never eat pizza outside of Rome or Naples”!!!). But I’m aware the gastronomy of a foreign country is usually much more articulated than what I get to eat in some centrally located restaurants.  I had an awful soup with mysterious ingredients once in ChinaTown in NYC, I didn’t like it, but I remember that meal as a true experience much more than several steaks and french fries I had in fancy bistrot style restaurants of the City.
  • eating part II: I learnt a good way to know more about local food is to attend a cooking class agreeing to prepare a “real” local menu and not what tourists usually like. You can ask  your host to prepare his/her own meal together, what *they* like having for lunch And my goal in a cooking class is not to learn something I could replicate back home, but to enter a kitchen and see the cooking techniques, the tools which are used, the general approach to food: that’s why I prefer cooking classes held by non-professional chefs, but just local people who like cooking.
  • drinking: what I mean by this subject is “relaxing”. Where do local people go to have a drink and chill out? I ask my host, the hotel receptionist or the tour guide where they would go…  sometimes you  end up in a far attraction-less neighbourhood, well, that’s exactly the point.
  • moving around: every part of the world has different options which are more or less  suitable due to safety, distances and local habits. I am glad when the best way to explore is a bike and  I tolerate a car stuck in the traffic when the connections by  train+buses would be a nightmare carrying luggage. My rule here is to embrace the local means of transportation as much as possible with a net preference to a scooter: when you get on 2 wheels and zigzag in the traffic, you really feel like you belong there, you can easily cover distances which would be outrageous on foot  and get a great sense of orientation in the city. I am grateful I grew up in Rome on two wheels, as it is very unusual the traffic conditions can be worst, and I always feel able and happy to “jump into the jam”

And then it comes to “what you really do on holiday apart from getting there, sleeping, eating, drinking and moving around” ?  Of course the answer is “a GUIDED tour” !!! But not always… and even there…. I learnt some lessons. Follow me here! 

So virtual…so real!

Posted on Jun 5, 2017 in Children | No Comments

(Updated Jan. 2020)

It is becoming more and more common to have a technological support during an archaeological tour to better understand the site: we have always exploited the power of images to give you an immediate view of the aspect of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Circus Maximus in the Imperial Age.  Recently  immersive and multimedia experiences reached an incredible quality and we do recommend to book one of those “shows” during your stay to enjoy the brilliance of  marble floors, bright frescoes and glittering mosaic tiles of the luxurious interiors of the bygone days. According to us, this is not substituting the importance of a traditional guided tour, when you have an expert at your disposal to explain details in front of each monument and – above all – to interpret the historical, political and social importance of the buildings, which represent an “age” and a (lost) society with its vision of mankind.

In main archaeological museums of Rome you find now videos of virtual reconstructions, also on YouTube you find a lot (we have a dedicated playlist of good videos here), but if you are looking for the immersive experience, simply enquire us and we can offer you special tours “with goggles” in the city centre, at the Baths of Caracalla or Diocletian,  and we especially recommend the experience in ancient Ostia. If you are travelling with children/teens this is definitely a good idea (and by the way, there is a videogame museum in Rome, not too far from the Vatican, which might be a good break for them: it is called Vigamus and our 13 year old “tester” approved it…He also approved all the following list for you!)

If you wish to experience virtual reality independently, book one of the following:

  • Viaggio nei Fori: only from April to November as  it is outdoors enjoying the breeze of the night and the imposing ruins of the Forum of Caesar and the Forum of Augustus. In the first one, you walk through the area for 55′  while in the Forum of Augustus you’ll be sitting on a bench for approx 40′. A recorded audio explanation in several languages is provided and there are three shows each night. We loved both of them.
  • Domus di Palazzo Valentini: a fascinating path in a real ancient domus (noble residence) with virtual reconstructions and audio explanations. Not to be missed, your understanding of ancient Rome throughout the city will be increased a lot!
  • Domus Aurea: this visit is only available during weekends as a restoration project is going on during the week days. The tours help to support the huge expenses of the restorations. The site is the real Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace and during your group tour (approx 75′) you will stop in the “Volta Dorata hall” for a 3D immersion supported by visors. Amazing!
  • SUPER tickets at the Palatine hill entitle you to book the VR experience inside the Domus Transitoria, the palace of Emperor Nero destroyed by the fire of 64 AD. Also you have access to video reconstructions on the domus of Livia and domus of Augustus, still at the Palatine
  • L’Ara com’era: at the Ara Pacis museum during the evening it is possible to book the experience recreating the look this Augustan “Altar of Peace” had more than 2000 years ago, when it was painted in brilliant colors and surrounded by the empty “Campus Martius” instead of the hectic city!

We appreciate your help to update this list as soon as new experiences will appear and if you have a comment on these shows, we will be curious to know your opinion and feedback!