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Friday, May 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Travel Wise

Forget the Sopranos, watch out for shady grannies in Italy

Seattle Times staff columnist

ROME — Thinking of a trip to Italy soon? You won't be going alone. The land of Leonardo and caffè latte ranks among the top foreign destinations for Americans, travel writers included.

Having just spent several weeks showing relatives the major sites, followed by some time reporting on new destinations in the south, I'm more excited than ever about the possibilities beyond tourist-clogged Venice, Florence and Rome.

Now here's the part you don't hear much about: In almost every Italian city that attracts large numbers of foreign visitors, traveler scams abound, to an extent unlike in any other Western European country I know.

I found much less of this in Naples and in the southern towns and villages of Molise and Apulia where locals still seem to view tourists more as curiosities than walking wallets, but that may change as these areas are discovered.

When it comes to the big Italian cities, forget the Mafia. Keep an eye on people such as the grandmotherly type with the heavy thumb I spotted near the Vatican pricing her pizza by weight rather than the slice.

Shortchanging is common. So is overcharging. One news report carried a story about a tourist from Hong Kong being billed $1,251 for a beer on the swank Via Veneto in Rome where beers usually cost around $13.

He bartered the price down to $640, then paid, according to the report, telling police he was scared something might happen if he didn't. "Hidden costs" creep in for everything from sitting down at a table to drink a coffee or a beer to increasingly higher "bread and table cloth" cover charges in restaurants.

Still, we go, as we should. Italy ranks among the top five destinations for U.S. residents going abroad, and for the past three years has been the most popular international destination for Americans on package tours, reports the United States Tour Operators Association.

There's no country in the world that offers a more magical combination of food, art, culture and the chance to meet and talk with local people simply by sitting down at the next table or stopping to ask directions.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for avoiding paying more than you need to, especially in light of the ever-sinking value of the U.S. dollar.

Count your change: Short-changing works like this: You use a five-euro note to pay for a one-euro bus ticket or any small item at a magazine kiosk or tobacco store. Instead of handing you four, one-euro coins, the clerk throws down a pile of small change. There are people in line behind you. Everyone's in a hurry. You don't bother to count the coins, and may never realize you've been shorted. The clerk collects an extra euro per customer.

Resist offers to pay with a credit card "in your own currency:" Some hotels and rental-car agencies are offering to convert charges from euros to dollars on the spot as a "convenience." They profit by processing the bill through at a 6 to 7 percent lower exchange rate, and pocketing the difference as their fee.

Never pay a street vendor's first, or even second, asking price: My sister-in-law was shopping for glass rosaries outside the Vatican Museum. She first saw them at a stall for $23 each. When she seemed interested, the vendor immediately lowered his price to $10. She ended up paying about $5 each.

Watch the scales: Pizza is usually sold by the slice at snack shops for about $1.50 to $2 — a good deal — but beware of vendors who price their slices by the weight. I ended up paying $7 one day because I didn't notice the price was per kilo, not per slice. It was good pizza with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil, but not worth $7.

Check the price to sit down: Always determine the cost of a beer, soft drink or coffee before sitting down at a café table. Most cafés have different prices for standing at the bar vs. "a tavola." Italians are used to paying a little more to relax at a table, but some cafes in tourist areas jack up the prices three times as much. Look for or ask for the "lista dei prezzi" or price list, which by law must be posted. Some cafés have begun to blank out the "a tavola" price. If that's the case, ask a waiter.

Say what you want: Specify what size beer or drink you want. Otherwise expect to be served the biggest and most expensive. Same goes with gas. With gas at $7 per gallon in Italy, I made this mistake only once, paying 95 cents more per gallon for premium because I didn't specify regular.

Avoid the tourist traps: Avoid places like the one I spotted near the Pantheon in Rome with a sign advertising that "We have homemade ice cream." Signs such as "English spoken here" and "Menu turistica" — a set menu and price — may sound comforting, but usually they're code for "We charge more for inferior quality and hope you won't know any better."

Fleeced in Venice

Remember that the difference between a good deal and a bad one in Italy is often just a matter of veering a block or two out of the tourist areas to the restaurants, bars and cafés that the locals frequent.

I'm still bristling about being fleeced $30 for three beers and an iced tea at a pretty canal-side cafe a few steps from the train station in Venice. I should have known better, but the relatives were tired from traveling, and I was in a hurry to find a comfortable place to sit down.

All was made up for a few hours later when I found the friendly little Osteria Vecio Forner around the corner from our hotel in Dorsoduro, a residential area across the Grand Canal from Saint Mark's Square, known for its "bacari," little sidewalk bars where locals gather in the afternoons to nibble on snacks called cicchetti and sip wine.

We found stools near the marble bar and lunched on a buffet of snacks with $1 glasses of fizzy Prosecco.

Then, rebuffing a gondolier's offer for a half-hour ride at the "student price" of $75, we paid $1.30 each to climb into a traghetto, a kind of poor man's gondola used like a public bus to ferry people across the Grand Canal.

My sister-in-law panicked for a moment when she saw people standing up in the boat as it crossed the canal to pick us up. But it turned out that there was room for everyone to sit, not in fancy chairs like the ones in the tourist gondolas, but along two worn wooden benches.

I handed our boatman a 10 euro note for six tickets. He barked in Italian at someone who tried to change seats, then used his oar to push us off from the pier for a five-minute ride across the water and a million-dollar view, correct change included.

Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in Travel. Comments are welcome.

Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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