How to rent a room in Italy

Rental rooms in Italy are called affittacamere (singular: affittacamera), and they can be had for as little as $30 a night.

A room at the Residenza del Proconsolo, an affittacamera in Florence      The view from A room at the Residenza del Proconsolo, an rental room in Florence

Residenza del Proconsolo is an affittacamera (rental room) in Florence with lovely accommodations bang in the center of town that come with thrilling views of the Duomo just a few yards away. » more
Traditionally, affittacamere (rental rooms) in Italy consist of just a spare bedroom or two in a private apartment or house. Occasionally, however, you will find five or more rooms that essentially operate as a B&B or small hotel yet are officially registered as an "affittacamera."

As one of Italy's least regulated lodging categories—the law only stipulates no more than six rooms in no more than two apartments in one building—affittacamere can run the gamut from efficiency apartments to plush accommodations serving hearty breakfasts to a bare room with an old cot and gruff owners.

That said, the simple rooms can be some of the best: insanely cheap, with sea views and homey furnishings overseen by a kindly widow who delights in sharing her stovetop espresso and packaged biscuits while telling tales of Italy as it once was. If she asks you to pretend, should anyone ask, that you're a friend of her nephew's in town for a visit, just go with it; she's merely engaging in the millennia-old Italian art of avoiding taxes.

The cultural adventure of feeling like you've been adopted by a Italian family for a few days isn't the only reason to rent a room in a private home. It also costs about half what you would pay at the impersonal hotel down the street.

Rates for two generally range from €20 to €200, but most often fall between €40 and €100. Just don't expect to pay these mom-and-pop operations with your credit card; for the most part, these transactions are cash-only.

The Rental Room Hunt

Rarely do affittacamere show up on booking engines. Local tourist offices always maintain a list, which increasingly is available on their Web sites. Perhaps a quarter of rental rooms have Web sites of their own; most are booked the old-fashioned way: over the phone, or after seeing a sign in a window and ringing the doorbell.

I've found memorable ones simply by stopping at a local bar, asking to borrow the pagine gialle (yellow pages), and flipping to the "affittacamere" section (also ask to borrow the TuttoCittà, the intensely detailed map booklet that all Italians get with their phone books, so you can cross-reference addresses to find a prime location)

The three most effective ways to find a private room in Italy are:

  • The Web. Some, but not all, local tourist office Web sites list rental rooms. Rarely, however, are these lists more than a string of addresses and phone numbers—Web links if you're very lucky. There are also plenty of private booking sites and B&B agencies that include rental rooms, including:

  • Touts. These annoying guys descend on bag-laden tourists at train stations and ferry docks hawking their "Verry boo-tee-ful room! Very central! You come see, yes?" I find touts in cities to be a crapshoot at best, scams at worst, and I avoid them unless I'm truly desperate. On Mediterranean islands, though, the ferry dock touts are generally honest, and their rooms are as good as you'd find on your own. Ask to see photographs first, and get them to write the price down on a piece of paper—proof against sudden "inflation" at check-out time.

  • Shoe leather. The old-fashioned way often works best: Start pounding the cobblestones, looking for polyglot signs in the windows that read "Chambres, Zimmer, Rooms." Like cheap hotels, rental rooms tend to congregate near the train stations.

    Even better, grab the printed list of private rooms and B&Bs from the local tourist office and use it as a guide. In small towns especially, head for the busiest pub or café and simply ask if they know of any rooms; that's how I found my view of the Italian Riviera coastline in the Cinque Terre village of Vernazza for $30. If the barkeep doesn't know, ask to borrow the yellow pages and look under the local term for "rental room," a trick that once landed me a frescoed apartment in the Apulian town of Trani for $40.

Becoming Part of the Family

There's no guarantee you'll be staying in that prototypical B&B: a huge Victorian mansion full of chintz and doilies. These days, just as many rental rooms are in modern city apartments or isolated farmhouses, but a friendly, homey atmosphere tends to prevail.

Sometimes they'll ask, "Why don't you join us for dinner?" Other times, they'll just hand you the keys and ask you to try to be home by midnight. Still, in most cases you'll have more interaction with the owner and her family than with the desk clerk at a hotel.

During a visit to Sicily's Egadi Islands, where the tuna industry is such an integral and ancient part of the culture that there are 10,000-year-old cave paintings of men hunting tuna, I rented a room from the widow of the man who had once managed the processing plant.

My hostess regaled me with surprisingly interesting tuna-related facts that turned out to be relevant to the current state of affairs on the island, the ecology of the surrounding seas, and the future of Italy's economy.

I also got a lesson in practical Italian economics: I was instructed to tell anyone I met that I was a friend of hers, just visiting, not a guest. Guests, you see, pay money while friends stay for free—at least as far as the tax man knows.

I stayed two nights with my new friend. I never paid a bill, but to thank her for her "hospitality," I gave her a gift—which happened to be the local equivalent of about $25.

She gave me a tin of tuna.

Tips & links

Rental room links & resources
Other lodging links & resources
Useful Italian
Useful Italian phrases and terms for lodging

English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a hotel un albergo oon al-BEAR-go
...a B&B un bed-and-breakfast oon bet hand BREK-fust
...a rental room un'affittacamera oon ah-feet-ah-CAH-mair-ra
...an apartment for rent un appartamento oon ah-part-tah-MENT-toh
...a farm stay un agriturismo oon ah-gree-tour-EES-moh
...a hostel un ostello oon oh-STEHL-loh
     
How much is...? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
a single room una singola OO-nah SEEN-go-la
double room for single use [will often be offered if singles are unavailable] doppia uso singola DOPE-pee-ya OO-so SEEN-go-la
a double room with two beds una doppia con due letti OO-nah DOPE-pee-ya cone DOO-way LET-tee
a double room with one big bed una matrimoniale OO-nah mat-tree-moan-nee-YAAL-lay
triple room una tripla OO-nah TREE-plah
with private bathroom con bagno cone BAHN-yoh
without private bathroom senza bagno [they might say con bagno in comune—"with a communal bath"] SEN-zah BAHN-yoh
for one night per una notte pair OO-nah NOH-tay
for two nights per due notti pair DOO-way NOH-tee
for three nights per tre notti pair tray NOH-tee
Is breakfast included? É incluso la prima colazione? ay in-CLOO-soh lah PREE-mah coal-laht-zee-YOAN-nay
Is there WiFi? C'é WiFi? chay WHY-fy?
May I see the room? Posso vedere la camera? POH-soh veh-DAIR-eh lah CAH-mair-rah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Is there a cheaper one? C'é una più economica? chay OO-nah pew eh-ko-NO-mee-kah

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