Here's my report, which answers all my posted questions :)
- Low Fare + option includes seat selection, meals, 1 check-in bag. Flying international coach is rough but hey, we can't afford the upgrade :-/. Food was not really edible, so make sure you bring your own snacks and drinks. Flight was smooth and since we checked in via the kiosk and the flight was not full, we did not have issues with our carry on luggage size.
Arrived on time by noon but getting out of the airport took awhile. Mass (wide) lines that eventually form into single file.
On the way out near the train station we got our sim card for 35 Euros, 4GB from TIM. Perfect for 12 days.
Stayed in Hotel Colomba, right above the Leondardo Museum. Great location, free breakfast was good, nice service/staff. Would suggest you request a room away from the lobby since we heard lots of noise staying near there (room #4).
FLORENCE is totally walkable, everything on the map looks farther than they really are. We covered the same areas many times. It's all about art and history with a mix of shopping.
- Must eats: Known for steak florentine and of course Gelato everywhere you go in Italy.
- We took a day tour by WalksofItaly ($200) that picked us up in a Mercedes van and covered Siena, San Grimingano and lunch at Poggio Winery - if you can afford it, do it!
Train from Florence to Milano Centrale was about 1:40 minutes
MILAN is a more modern city (fashion capital) and great for shopping and getting design inspiration.
- Stayed in the Best Western Felice Castia which seems to be in a business location. Not as close to the main sights as we thought but about 10 minutes walk from train station and 5 minutes from subway/metro. Subway was convenient (Duomo only 3 stops away, 1.50 euro)
- Must see: Duomo and rooftop terrace (go at opening to avoid lines). You can then shop/eat in the fancy shopping area Galleria Vittorio Emanuele across the street. Check out a store called 10 Corso Como, great shops in a modern plaza. The neighboring Brera area was lively with a mix of shops and restaraunts also.
- Eat: Milan is known to have great seafood. We enjoyed branzino and royal king shrimp. Pave is a hipster type coffee shop with amazing pastries, try the ham croissant sandwich!
ROME: Fast train from Milan to Rome Termini station was about 3 hours. Comfortable ride with Italo.
- Rome is "grittier" than the other two cities. Think of New York on steroids. Tons of people/car traffic on narrow roads, cobblestones are dangerous so pay attention to where you step to avoid tripping or stepping in poop. May be a bit hectic for older travelers unless you go with a tour that gets you to the top spots quickly. Yes there is lots of garbage but still cleaner than our city of San Francisco these days. Not a lot of homeless or pan handlers around.
- Stayed in Hotel Miami, very good location. Room was small and old as expected, staff at front were very helpful.
- Must see: Colosseum, bought tickets online (this is your ticket in) and we bypassed many long lines and got in about 10 minutes (arrived around 10am). There are lots of people, tours, and tour guide offers all over.
- The next day we used the same printed ticket for Roman Forum and Palantine Hill. Lots of great photo ops here. Took a cab up to the Capitoline Museum area since it was getting warm to walk.
- We watched a new show about Michaelangelo and the secrets of the Sistine Chapel. Highlighted the details of the artwork we would see the next day, too bad we couldn't attend an English show.
- St. Peter's Basilica - awesome free attraction. The line was out to the street around 4:30PM but moved quickly and worth it. Pictures/videos don't do it justice.
- Vatican and museum - facing the Basilica, walk around to the right of the building and up the street to get to the museum entrance. We booked a night tour and it wasn't crowded (tickets online you trade in for real tickets after going through security line). You must sit down and enjoy the Sistine Chapel! No photos allowed here.
- Must eat: pasta, gnocchi, lasagna, porchetta, cured meats, wine (even house wine in Italy is amazing). We ate at Ai Tre Scalini twice.
- Be prepared for unpredictable weather! When the forecast said rain, it did not rain. When it said clear skies, it poured! "Umbrella angels" will appear and be prepared to haggle yourself an umbrella. Waterproof shoes was a great tip. We got caught outside a store awning waiting 45 min for a taxi to arrive.
- Use Mytaxi app. Since Uber black may be pricey and Lyft does not exist there, MyTaxi was convenient. Pay attention to the driver using the route on their phone - we got scammed when they didn't hit "start" and they took the longer way. Pay attention to regular taxis turning on the start price as well. Sometimes it started at 3 euro, others it started at 7.50 euros!
- Don't rely on purely Tripadvisor reviews. We picked many highly rated, 4 star + places and were sometimes disappointed. Others with less reviews ended up tasting better - just look for more locals than tourists.
- Pickpockets - we were very careful with our belongings and did not feel unsafe, even when walking around 11pm at night. There are many tourists that look like easy prey so just don't be one of them :)
- Bottled water seems to all have minerals. Maybe this helped us used the bathroom since we barely ate any veggies and were carbo-loading :).
- Mosquitoes were not an issue in early-mid May for us. It was humid though so bring some repellant just in case.
- Hotels all charge a per person tax (4 euros per person, per day) after you checkout. Most ask to be paid in cash so tack this onto your hotel budgets.
- Rome's FCO airport has lots of duty free shops so plan for some time there for souveniers/gifts. On the way home we had to go through a manual check from Norwegian and our carry on bags did not fit in the box so we had to check in.
- Tried to use Romecabs but they were booked and referred Rome-chauffers, highly recommend spending 50 euros to get you to the airport over a taxi costing 48 euros.