Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures and experiences and makes the world a more tolerant place.
We’ve all heard the horror stories about driving in Italy. The aggressive drivers, narrow winding roads, and confusing traffic signs can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be as difficult as it all sounds. Make no mistake, there are some areas in Italy that you just don’t want to be driving in. But, to experience the true natural splendor of some areas you just have to get behind the wheel. Based on our three trips to Italy (involving five rental vehicles and covering a total of about twenty days, along with a few incidents along the way) I will try to make this whole process a little easier and less intimidating.
When to Rent a Car
My first rule of thumb is that I will not drive in any of the major cities in Italy. All of these cities have great public transportation and there is absolutely no need for anyone to have a rental vehicle while staying in Rome, Florence, Palermo, Naples, etc. If you've been to Rome you know that this is no place for the tourist to be driving. With cars, scooters, and people everywhere it seems like a bad nightmare to me to attempt this.
But, to experience the medieval villages of Tuscany, the Grand Dolomite Highway of Northern Italy, the heartland of Sicily, and numerous other beautiful regions of Italy you will benefit greatly by having a vehicle. One of the keys for us to getting around successfully in Italy was to use a GPS and to make sure that we had someone as the designated navigator.
The job of the navigator is extremely important as they assist in reading road signs, watching for traffic, and helping to follow the directions of the GPS. The use of a GPS is indispensable for getting around in Italy and I would not drive there without one. You can bring one with you, just be sure you load the Italian map onto it, or they can be rented as an option with your rental car.
Yes, it is true that Italian drivers can be aggressive, but for the most part they are competent. They will think nothing of getting right on your rear bumper, flashing their lights at you, and then speeding by you at the first opportunity. For me, the way to deal with this is simply a matter of not letting them get under my skin. If someone wants to pass me then so be it, but, I will not alter my driving unless they happen to put me in a dangerous situation. I should point out that this is not something that you will run into everywhere you go in Italy. Most drivers in Italy obey the traffic laws so don’t let one or two knuckleheads ruin your day.
Renting a vehicle in Italy is generally much more expensive than here in the United States. The price of gas is also much more expensive and is sold by the liter.
If you are touring Tuscany, I can tell you that there is nothing like having a vehicle so you can explore at your own pace, stop when you want to stop, and go where you want when you want. Most of the car rental companies that folks are familiar with here in the United States also rent in Italy as well as numerous European companies of which Europcar is the biggie. There are also broker companies such as Kemel and Nova that will search for the best deals for you and can sometimes provide some savings versus going through the auto rental companies.
Get used to roundabouts. Otherwise known as a rotary in the United States, these circular, one-way traffic intersections are everywhere in Italy. The thing to understand about roundabouts in Italy is that the traffic already in the rotary has the right of way. Do not let an impatient driver behind you force you to enter the roundabout until you are certain that your entrance is clear. When exiting the roundabout be certain that you have a clear exit to the right to leave. If for some reason you miss your exit, simply drive around the roundabout until you once again come to your exit. After your first few roundabouts, you’ll quickly get the hang of this and discover that it’s really not that difficult.
The roads in Italy range from the Autostrada, which is similar to a highway in the United States to very narrow, winding and undulating roads. In some of the small medieval villages, the roads are so narrow that you will wonder if your side mirrors are going to survive the journey.
You have to remember that almost everything in these villages is old, and as such the buildings stand today exactly where they were erected hundreds of years ago well before the invention of the automobile. These roads were constructed for horse and carriage traffic and not the vehicles of today.
If confronted with this scenario just relax, slow down, and maybe even fold in the side mirrors to give yourself a little more space. Even better yet is to avoid driving into any of the small towns and villages and to park outside the community you are visiting. Most of the Tuscan communities such as San Gimignano, Siena and Montepulciano have designated parking outside the walls of the city. Just look for the blue and white parking signs.
Driving on the Autostrada in Italy will be very similar to driving the highways here in the United States. Please make sure that you are aware that speed limit signs in Italy are in Km/hr, not mph. A quick way to make this conversion is to multiple the km/hr by .62 to get mph. A speed limit of 100 km/hr equates to 62 mph. The Autostrada speed limit in Italy is 130 km/hr which is equal to 81 mph.
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Most of the Autostrada’s in Italy are toll roads so be aware of this. Also, Italy has numerous speed limit cameras set up throughout the Autostrada system and if you get caught speeding you may get a ticket through the mail months later. Most Americans have this perception of the Autostrada as a race track for Europeans but that has really changed over the last several years since the new lower speed limits were put in place and the surveillance has been stepped up.
Limited Traffic Zones
Understanding the road signs in Italy is probably the single biggest factor that will keep you out of trouble. Italy is notorious for local-only driving zones. These zones are usually in areas where they want to keep the traffic to a minimum in order to help preserve sensitive historical buildings or monuments and as such are open only to local residents with a permit.
If you attempt to drive in any of the large cities in Italy it is very likely that you will drive through one of these zones and not even know it. Every car that passes a ZTL camera is photographed and then the license plates of the cars are compared to the ZTL passes on file.
Normally the way you discover you’re going to be fined is you get a charge on your credit card from your car rental agency. Each time you drive past a camera, the police will contact the owner of the automobile. In your case, it’s your rental or leasing agency. The agency will tell the police who was “in possession” of the car on that date and time. Then, according to your rental agreement, the agency will usually charge your credit card $25-$30 for each time they have to tell the police who you were. So if you get 4 charges on your credit card of $30 each, you can expect four registered letters coming your way! This whole process usually takes six to nine months and usually comes as a surprise to visitors who never even realized that they did anything wrong.
I have read stories of visitors getting confused and lost in Florence and inadvertently driving around in circles and going through the ZTL numerous times only to be whacked with 4 or 5 tickets months later. And while the rental agency may only charge you $30 to look up your information, the ticket for the ZTL infraction is usually more like 50 to 150 euros depending on the community you are in. Yeah, do the math, that’s more like $75 to $225 for each ticket.
International Driving Permit
Travelers driving in Italy will need to bring with them their driver's license and an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP is just a simple translation of your driver's license. You can get an IDP at any AAA (Automobile Association in U.S.) and it is good for one year. You will have to show your International Driving Permit if you are stopped by the police for a traffic violation or at a checkpoint and you may have to show it when you pick up your rental car.
There is nothing like learning some lessons the hard way, and our trips to Italy have not been without incident. In 2009 we were trying to park near Siena when we noticed the ZTL sign. We tried to turn around but a tour bus came up behind us and would not allow us to turn, so we continued on and hoped for the best. Sure enough, six months later the rental company charged our credit card, and three months after that came the citation from the Community of Siena for 150 euro. Ouch.
In 2010 we managed to avoid any parking violations but we must have driven through a speed zone and sure enough, six months later we received a citation for speeding. This time the damage was less but still cost us 100 euro. The lessons learned here will certainly carry forward as we prepare for our next visit. These incidents have not dampened our desire to travel the scenic countryside of Italy and the use of a rental car has given us the flexibility that we want. Hopefully, the third time is the charm and we will avoid any problems. Have a wonderful driving experience in Italy.
Ciao for now.
Questions & Answers
Question: We will hotel in Montecatini for our entire Tuscany trip. Should we take the train to Florence, Lucca and Pisa instead of driving? There will be six of us.
Answer: I would not attempt to drive in Florence. There are way too many areas that are off-limits except to locals, and it’s very easy to get a ticket. When you get a ticket in Italy, it shows up in the mail months after you have returned home and you wouldn't even know you did anything wrong. Even for Lucca and Pisa, I would just take the train if you are close to a station. The train station in Lucca is just outside the wall and extremely convenient. The one area where I would drive is through the heart of Tuscany where you can stop at some of the small medieval hilltop towns. The scenery in Tuscany is beautiful, and usually, the smaller communities are less crowded, and it’s easier to park. The best way to experience the scenery in Tuscany is definitely by car, but to experience it’s larger communities I would utilize the train.
Question: Do I need extra car insurance in Italy, or will my US policy cover needs?
Answer: It is doubtful that your US insurance company will cover you while driving in Italy. You should contact them, but most US insurance companies do not cover this. You can always get the coverage offered through your rental agency, but expect this to be pricey. What we always do is contact our credit card company as most major credit cards will provide coverage as long as you use that card to pay for the rental. A quick call to your credit card company will provide a definitive answer.
Question: Can I stay in the far right lane of a roundabout until I find the correct exit in Italy?
Answer: Yes, just stay to the right as you go around the roundabout until you exit to the right. I added a new image to the article that hopefully shows the process better.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio