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When in Rome, Save Like a Roman : An insider shares her secrets for cutting costs on transportation, dining, shopping and sightseeing.

July 25, 1993|RUTH ELLEN GRUBER | Gruber is the author of "Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe" (John Wiley & Sons). She divides her time between Italy and East-Central Europe. and

ROME — As an American expatriate who has spent much time in Italy over the past decade, I have watched with alarm--and at times with horror--the combined effects on my pocketbook of inflation, unscrupulousness and wildly fluctuating exchange rates.

Less than a year ago, inflated prices and an extremely weak dollar had combined to make Italy one of the most expensive countries in Europe. Prices in Rome and other major cities were as breathtaking as their incomparable art and architecture.

Today, a sharp devaluation of the Italian lira, as well as the tightening effect of a countrywide recession, have eased the situation considerably for American visitors. But in many respects, Italy is still no bargain: It costs 80 cents or more, for example, to send a letter back to the United States; "moderate" restaurants are described in a leading local guide as those whose meals cost "under $30 for one"; gasoline runs more than $4 a gallon. You can easily spend $10 or more for a sandwich and beer at a sidewalk cafe.

The survival instinct has taught me, over the years, a number of tips on how to stretch my money. Many of these can be helpful to visitors, and some general rules apply to traveling in other European countries.

Some money-saving maneuvers can be taken care of even before you leave home.

For example, you will save considerable money by booking your rent-a-car from the States. If you rent one in Italy on the spot, it can cost more than $100 a day for even a tiny subcompact.

Bring with you any cosmetics and medicines--even aspirin--you might need. Everything is available in Italy, but there is no such thing as a big, cut-rate drug store or discount generic prices. Medications must be purchased in pharmacies, where simple aspirin costs more than $3 for a package of 24 tablets. Even condoms can cost up to $1.30 apiece. Likewise, bring guidebooks and other reading matter with you. You can buy English-language books and magazines at bookstores and newsstands, but a simple paperback mystery can run you over $10. Guidebooks to Italy published in the U.S. or England cost about twice their cover price at home.

Get a long-distance calling card such as AT&T, MCI or Sprint in order to make calls home. Direct dialing from Italy to the States costs about $3 a minute--even more if you call from your hotel room where you are subject to extra charges. Calls charged on your long-distance card cost one-third to one-half the direct-dial Italian price. (Long-distance access numbers are printed daily in the International Herald Tribune.)

Aside from hotels, main tourist expenses in Rome include getting around, eating, sightseeing and shopping--and there are ways to save money on all of these.

TRANSPORTATION

A taxi into Rome from Leonardo da Vinci Airport at Fiumicino will cost about $50 for the 30- to 45-minute ride. But a train into town costs only $4. Transport can be difficult from the downtown terminal (Ostiense), however: The nearest subway (Metro) station is a bit of a hike if you have luggage, and bus and taxi service from the terminal can also be erratic.

If a taxi does come along, bear in mind that it costs more than $4 just to get inside a Roman taxi. The meter only starts running after 3 kilometers, which makes a short trip very expensive. And you now must pay an extra 1,500 lire ($1) if you take a taxi on Sunday, and an extra 1,000 lire (67 cents) for each bag you put in the cab's trunk.

Public transportation is one of the only bargains in Rome. Bus tickets cost about 60 cents each, and the same ticket can be used on any number of buses within a 90-minute period. Subway tickets also cost under $1, and you get a discount if you purchase 10 at a time.

DINING

Restaurant food and other refreshments can be outrageously expensive in Rome, but there are still ways to manage.

First and foremost: Don't sit down . That is, don't sit at a table where you are served by a waiter. Table service at a bar or cafe can double or triple the cost of your caffe , cappuccino , tramezzino (sandwich) or campari soda . Most bars and cafes display a price list behind the cashier's desk that lists costs both at the bar and the table. Check these. I once forgot to look and ended up paying $10 for two thin sandwiches and a beer.

At a number of cafes you can pay for your drink or sandwich at the cashier, then carry it yourself to a table for no extra charge. (There's usually no sign, so ask the cashier if this is the policy.)

As far as sit-down restaurants go, look at the menu before you order. Many restaurants display their menu on the door or window. Until recently, all restaurants added a cover charge to the bill, a coperto usually noted at the top or bottom of the menu. In "moderate" restaurants, it usually runs between 1,500 and 3,500 lire ($1 to $2.33) a person. But this summer, to encourage business, about 100 Roman restaurants decided to do away with the coperto ; this is indicated on their windows.

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