Budget travel in Rome: 6+ ways to save money

The Forum - budget travel in Rome

Last Updated on February 9, 2024 by Ellen

Is budget travel in Rome even possible? Heck yes! We have more than six ways for you to save money — while getting the most out of incredible sites like the Vatican Museums.

Let’s face it: Italy, and Rome, are expensive. Yet, here are several famous tourist sites where we stretched our money on a budget travel adventure in Rome.

Now we’ll share our secrets so you can save money, too!

Budget travel in Rome: 6+ ways to save money

Vatican Museums

We have three tips to get the most out of your time and money on this “must-see” site.

  1. Buy tickets from the official source
  2. Go with the self-guided audio tour
  3. Schedule an early entry time to ‘skip the line’.

Follow these important guidelines to save money — and to get more time in front of the Sistine Chapel than tourists who are pushed through the room on organized tours.

Buy tickets from the official source

Don’t buy your tickets from the guy on the street corner wearing a badge that reads “Official Tour Guide.” He tacks on his finder’s fee. The Vatican does not have ‘guides’ in the street.

Also, tour companies found in storefronts tack on their fees. You will pay more if you buy from anyone other than the official Vatican site.

Don’t buy tickets for a tour group. You will be herded through the museums on a time limit — like cattle.

I saw large tour groups rushed through the Sistine Chapel in 10 or 15 minutes, while I stood marveling at the masterpiece for nearly 90 minutes.

Because we were not rushed, we also had the opportunity to pray with a priest from Nigeria who announced the offer at the top of the hour.

Think about that a second. You’re probably planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip of budget travel in Rome. Do you really want to be rushed by one of the greatest works of art — ever?

The official website to book your visit is here.

Go with the self-guided audio tour

We bought the self-guided audio tour through the Vatican’s site, and it was so worth it the few extra dollars for the audio explanations. We paid $36 each.

The ticket price included the ‘skip the line’ privilege.

Schedule an early entry time to ‘skip the line’

If you want to get through all of the Vatican Museums, go as early as you possibly can. Our entry was for 10:00 a.m. (spouse is not a morning person) and I feel like we rushed through some rooms to see all the art. We did not have time to wander the gardens.

Extra tip for self-guided audio tour visitors: Go to the designated reservation line at your entry time. Exchange your reservation for tickets on the first floor. Go up the stairs to get your audio tour gear on the second floor. This path was not clearly marked and the first floor was loaded with large tour groups.

The Pope’s General Audience

Pope Francis holds what’s called a “General Audience” each Wednesday when he’s in town. The event is at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

He guides followers with a special message of peace or love or faith, and sometimes has current events commentary.

If you research how to get tickets for this, it’s not exactly easy. It involves ordering months in advance, and fax machines, and correspondence with the Vatican. Tickets are mostly used for large groups who travel long distances from all over the world to get to The Vatican.

Go without tickets — here’s how

On the day of the General Audience, we showed up early to beat the crowd, because there usually is limited room on a first come, first in basis.

We arrived just after 8:00 a.m. and we went through security, and into the seating area. Perhaps we were simply simply lucky. And maybe you don’t want to chance it, and you’d prefer formal tickets.

In our case, it worked out. We were lucky.

Maybe blessed. Check out my photo:

Pope Francis waves at Ellen.

I didn’t realize the Pope rode around to greet people before his message. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time (trying to leave the fenced area for the bathroom).

Tedly got a bunch of great shots with his fancy camera, including when he zoomed in on Pope Francis blessing children.

And my pano shot gives you an idea on what it’s like from the square:

If you don’t want to try your luck like we did, request tickets ahead of time. Try this site here for instructions, but note it’s not an official site (I could not find any official information on the Vatican’s site).

Extra tip: Even if you have tickets, if you arrive too late, you may not be able to get in. So go early regardless of your ticket status.

The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palentine Hill

We did not buy advance tickets for this. In late April, we arrived at about 8:30 a.m., and waited on line for about 30 minutes.

We bought basic entrance tickets. We stretched our money on this one with Rick Steves’ free app.

Steves is a European travel expert, and friendly to the idea of budget travel in Rome. Although he is sometimes corny, the Colosseum audio tour was helpful and I learned quite a bit.

As part of the basic entrance tickets for the Colosseum, you get to visit the nearby Roman Forum and Paletine Hill.

Big tip: Do not skip the Roman Forum and Palentine Hill!

Once many people see the Colosseum, they split. But the Roman Forum and Palentine Hill are great spots to visit. It’s quite something to walk around on these sites, and the view from Paletine Hill cannot be beat. We went right after the Colossuem on the same day.

And guess what? Rick Steves has an audio tour for the Forum, too!

After all that walking in the hot sun, we plopped down on the grass in the shade on the Hill and took a little nap. We weren’t the only ones. It was a gorgeous spring day and it felt so good to lie on Earth.

If you do want to buy advance tickets to the Colosseum and Forum/Hill, the official site is here.

Search for Rick Steves on your app store.

Extra tip: Visit the Colosseum one day, and go back to visit the Forum/Hill another day. Tickets are OK for 24 hours, at the time of this writing. Or, do them all in one day with an early entry. We fit all three sites into about eight hours, our 30-minute nap and initial wait in the line included.

Budget travel in Rome: best picnic spot

The day we visited Domus Aurea (a must-see active archeological site, reservations needed), we decided to picnic nearby. It happens to be close to the Colosseum.

It was the best picnic I’ve ever had.

As budget travelers, we often bring snacks to our sightseeing tours and take breaks in parks. This time, we loaded up with a full meal at a nearby grocery store, and Tedly found a great spot overlooking the impressive ruins of the Colosseum and part of the Roman Forum.

Locals dressed as ancient Romans came with the view.

There are many cafes around the Colossuem if you want table service and higher prices. But we were happy to munch out with our asses on the ground.

So where is this spot? On the wall to Parco Ninfeo di Nerone, across from the Colosseum.

Extra tip: Check out the map below. It pinpoints our perfect picnic spot.

map of the best place for a picnic in rome across from the colosseum

The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Wow. Just wow. Budget travel in Rome just went golden.

The ceiling and all decorations inside this magnificent church are real gold – not gold-plated. The precious metal was gifted to the Vatican by Spain from the New World.

Just the amount of gold alone would make this place impressive. But it also has other incredible feature including: part of the manger. The Vatican calls the wood “The Holy Crib”. It’s in a crystal urn at the main altar.

Just off to the side of the main altar is the grave of Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The church also features Bernini’s famous “hidden” spiral staircase with no center support – the first of its kind. (You can only see this with a guide because it connects the church to apartments in use.)

The first “Sistine Chapel” is in this church.

And here’s a really cool fact.

The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is where Pope Francis goes to pray. Our tour guide said he’s gone there many, many times. The Pope prays at the iconic image of Mother Mary.

We took a short tour of the second floor front balcony, the papal room, and we also saw Bernini’s famous staircase. It cost five euros, or about $6.25, and lasted 30 minutes.

Entrance to the church was free, but keep in mind there might be a long line because you have to pass through a security point with a metal detector to enter this beautiful place.

There are so many other wonderful churches – you can’t go wrong with just walking into any one you pass on your Roman explorations.

St. Peter’s Basilica — top dome

For $10 you can climb 551 steps to the top of the basilica that will give you a view over St. Peter’s Square, and also of the Vatican Museums.

The views from the top are so worth it!

We spent close to an hour up there. For another two bucks, you can ride the elevator more than half way up.

On the way to the roof, you can stop by an indoor, upper level railing to view the basilica from high up. The mosaics in this area are impressive.

Extra tip: Note the shadow blocks some of St. Peter’s Square in my photo. We were there in the late afternoon, so you may want to go earlier.

Extra ideas for budget travel in Rome

There also are many other free places to visit: the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, other decorative fountains and bridges, parks, a walk around the ruins of “Teatre di Marcello” (built before the Colosseum). That’s just as a small sample.

3 final ways to stretch your money

  1. We rented a tiny one room studio that was more like a hotel room than an apartment, since we were only in Rome for nine days. We were only there to sleep and shower anyway. Usually we rent apartments with kitchens.
  2. Walked, walked, and walked some more. We had to buy subway tickets to get from our room to the places around the center of the city. But once we were in the heart of Rome, we walked to everything. This way, we spent only about $7.25 total each day on public transportation (two people round-trip).
  3. Tedly bought beer at the corner store and enjoyed a cold one one our walks around town, instead of frequently visits to pricey cafes. (You are allowed to drink in public places in Rome, but not too many people do it.)

This blog entry would be four times as long if I covered everything we did in Rome. Whatever you plan to do in this city, you’re likely to see and experience amazing art, history, and the warm, gregarious Italians!

And while you’re likely gonna drop serious cash, it’s best to accept beforehand so you can fully enjoy the moment.

I mean, really. It’s Rome.

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8 thoughts on “Budget travel in Rome: 6+ ways to save money”

  1. Smart, Clever point of view for visiting a somehow complicated city like Rome. I wonder if, as happened some years ago, entrance to the Musei Vaticani is free on Wednesday afternoons

  2. Once Upon A Backpack

    Wow! You two got so close to the Pope! Thanks for the tips and can’t wait to visit Rome!

  3. Life Travel Soul

    Rome is one of our must see travel destinations – these tips are very helpful. Thanks?

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