Roaming in Rome : Do-It-Yourself- Tour
I already posted our Rome trip on my other blog but I don’t think it matches the blog’s personality so I moved it here. I’m also updating this post so it will be more useful to anyone who plans to visit Rome and do all the arrangements by themselves.
I started planning for this trip as early as December of 2014 but the actual bookings were only made in February 2015 as soon as we got the visa. I booked the apartment in February and then purchased the fight tickets in March. I will try to tell things chronologically just the way I planned them. Note that this post is quite long as I want this to be as informative as possible.
Gibson and I decided to visit one European country and forego going to Philippines for vacation this year. We thought that the money we’ll spend in the Philippines can be used instead for our first European country visit. We just brought our parents to Dubai and spent time with them.
So we brainstormed which countries and cities to visit. I am very keen to explore Paris but Gibson was hesitant because of the terror threats happening that time in the city. As much as I wanted to convince him that it’s fine, I really don’t want to be blamed in case something goes wrong so I didn’t insist on my Paris dream (someday!). We also thought of Spain (Barcelona and Madrid), and Germany. He then mentioned Italy but I wasn’t interested. What’s so famous in Italy? I thought. Oh my! I was so wrong. When I started researching about the country, I was amazed on how many beautiful cities you can visit and each one has its own famous landmarks and charms.
We also decided which month to go. We didn’t want Cole to missed school so it has to be either one of his term breaks or summer. We thought Easter was the perfect time since it will coincide with holy week. We can maybe attend one of Pope’s masses and see him in person.
Now that we are set on a date, we have to decide which city to go. I compared Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome and researched the places we can visit and how accessible the landmarks by commuting or walking. I used Visit a City to arranged our itinerary. It’s a very useful site where you can select your preferred landmarks, see how far they are from each other, and make edits if it doesn’t suit your itinerary. You can also enter your hotel address and it will tell you where and how to start and end your day. Highly recommended website!
After thorough research, I realized that having two kids in tow will not allow us to easily jump from one city to next because of the luggage and time constraint. We were only there for 5 days (4 nights) so we can’t really drag the kids to train rides just to see these cities. And I didn’t want to book domestics flights and pass through immigration and luggage counters again. As much as I wanted to visit Venice and Milan, they are quite far from Rome and will take considerable amount of time travelling so we decided to just stay in Rome all throughout our Italy stay. I focused on planning a Rome itinerary for 4 days. Why only 4 days? Because our flight to Dubai was on our 5th day and I didn’t want to squeeze any touristy activity on our last day.
We applied for our visa in February and the process was pretty straight forward. I learned that the Italian visa application is being manage by CKGS Italy Visa Application Centre in Dubai. I went to their website and noted the step by step guidelines on how to apply. This is how we prepared it ourselves:
- I downloaded the guidelines and application forms.
- I started collecting the required documents for the family:
* Salary certificates mentioning the purpose of travel from both our companies (Gibson and I)
* 3 months Bank statements with bank seal for both of us
* Original passports
* 1 photo each. Photo specifications on their website
* Passport copies with residence visa page
* Confirmed hotel booking. I just did an online booking for 1 room in one of the Ibis Hotel in Rome. I provided my credit card and immediately cancelled it when we got the visa.
* Flight booking copy
* Medical travel insurance. If this is included on your medical policy, then just ask your medical provider to issue one for you. For us, we bought from AXA and it’s called Travel Schengen. For the four of us, we only paid 150 dhs. Everything was done online, quick and easy.
* Since we traveled with our kids, we prepared an NOC letter signed by me and Gibson stating that we don’t have objection for them to travel. I didn’t actually understand the logic but we submitted it anyways.
- I completed the application forms for the four of us.
- I booked an appointment online. Even children needs to go and show themselves up.
- On the day of our application, we went to CKGS office near Dubai mall, submitted everything, they took our bio metrics, we paid the fees and left their office in no time. We paid less than 1,200 dhs if I remember it correctly. It’s way more than what I was expecting since I didn’t include the 100 dhs transaction fee of CKGS per person. Plus there were courier fees, sms fees and whatnot on each of our application.
- Although they said that processing time can take 10 days, we received an SMS that our passports were on the way back to us after 2 days. I initially wondered if our applications were rejected. Why were they sending it too soon? Well, I can only wait and see. Since we had it delivered at Gibson’s office, I immediately asked him what’s the verdict. Of course, no suspense needed, we finally have our first Schengen visa!!! Yahoo!
As soon as we had the visa, I knew that I have to book the hotel and tickets if I wanted to get good rates. I’ve started checking different airlines flying to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport. I prefer straight flights but also considered having 1 stop-over if it can save us some considerable amount of money. I never really thought of flying Emirates as I know it’s quite expensive but I’ve checked anyways and surprised that they were offering promo fares that time. How lucky! We immediately purchased the tickets and paid 10,700 dhs for the four of us. Our Singapore Air tickets last December to Manila was more expensive than this. I therefore conclude that if you’re early, prompt or lucky, grabbing a ticket for a little more than 2500 dhs to any European country is possible.
I knew that an apartment would be ideal for us. As much as I want a low-cost accommodation, I cannot compromised on my family’s convenience and safety so the apartment should be in a central and safe location, and should have its own kitchen, A/C, comfortable beds, and shower heater. Based on several travel forums I’ve visited, I narrowed down my apartment search to Piazza Navona or Pantheon.
I then found an apartment called Home Suite Rome. They have rooms on 3 different locations and the one in Pantheon was the cheapest. I didn’t find any Pantheon location reviews although the feedback on their apartments are great. I just followed my instinct and booked it. The lady managing the apartment met us when we arrived and Gibson paid using his credit card. The total amount we fork out was EUR 910 which included the room rate, 10% vat, EUR 25 cleaning fee and the EUR 3.5 tourist tax per person. It was a little pricey but it was kinda expected because of the season and I made the booking almost 1 month before our arrival. There are thousands of hotels and apartments you can choose from depending on your budget. I used booking.com to compare prices and see the reviews.
So we were there from 1st to 5th of April and the Spring weather was just perfect. For sure some would appreciate summer or winter season, it’s just that I felt we were there at the right time, weather-wise. The temperature ranges from 6 to 18 degrees and it only rained on our last day of stay. But we really didn’t mind the rain. It’s a refreshing break from our climate here.
Our flight was at 9 am and we were at the Dubai airport T3 at around 7. To say that I was excited was an understatement. It’s also our first time to try the jumbo plane A380. We searched for our boarding gate and then ate some breakfast near the area. We also exchanged some Euros as we prefer to pay cash when travelling outside Dubai.
By the way, to help you decide how much to budget for pocket money, I’ll share with you how much we spent when we there. We budgeted 7,000 dhs to cover our meals, entrances, taxi, tours and the rest for souvenirs and shopping. But you know what? For our basic things (food, taxi and entrances), we only spent around 3,000 dhs. I then spent another 2k for souvenirs and leather bags, and then that’s it! It helped that we cooked our own meal at least once a day (either breakfast or dinner). Although, I think, if we pushed through with our initial plan of travelling to Pisa, the train fare could have eaten up a big chunk of our pocket money allowance. We didn’t go because the train fare was so expensive when I was trying to book it online a few days before our trip. I know that there are cheap fares if only we arranged it early. Well, lesson learned. Early bird catches the worm. 🙂
After around 20-30 minutes, we arrived at our ‘Home Suite Rome’ 🙂 And Gibson had a surprise, there’s no lift going to the upper floor!!! With 2 heavy luggage, his everyday gym session was put into test. Up until now, he still tells this ‘slight inconvenience’ every time. I think he was traumatized. Haha! But honestly, unless you are healthy and young, carrying your own luggage might be a challenge. But other than that, the apartment is amazing!
It’s a studio apartment which has a double bed, a sofa bed that can sleep 2, 1 bathroom with steam room inside (sosyal!), a fully functional kitchen, a dishwasher, coffee machine, microwave and small dining area. Really perfect for a family of four.
They gave us complimentary bottle of wine. No, the little madam didn’t have a sip.
After unpacking our stuff and resting a bit, we went immediately to Vatican to collect our mass tickets for next day’s Holy Thursday mass to be officiated by the Holy Pope himself.
To give you a background, attending Papal mass at St. Peter’s Basilica requires some kind of long-term planning. The ticket to attend the mass is free but you have to send a fax request to their admin office in Rome at least 2 months in advance. See the instruction on how to request here. Being the crammer that I am, I only requested for it less than a month before our travel. I thought I’ll give it a shot. So I sent a fax request one fine day with a note that it’s our first time to travel to Europe and we will be extremely grateful if we can attend a mass officiated by Pope Francis. In less than a week, we received a confirmation, We were asked to collect our paper tickets on Ash Wednesday before 7 pm.
We arrived at the apartment around 4:30pm, then we started walking to Vatican from our apartment around 5:30. The map said that the walking distance is only 20 minutes. I was quite confident that we will reach on time but I didn’t anticipate the many stop overs we did to take photos. How can you not be mesmerized by these views?
Before we knew it, it’s almost 7pm and the Papal office was already closed. What now? Gibson and I decided that we will still go anyway the next day and hope that they will accept the fax confirmation we received.
We again walked back to our apartment and stopped first to a grocery store where we bought some food items and had our dinner in our room.
That’s it for our first day. See this link for our 2nd day adventure