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The ultimate guide to ease your driving in Italy
If you’re planning a trip to Italy and wondering whether you should rent a car or buy train tickets, you’ve come to the right place!
I’m Italian, and today I’m going to share everything I believe you should know before hitting the road in Italy.
While driving in Italy is very different from driving in the United States or other countries, it’s certainly doable. But first, you may need to read these suggestions.
To begin, you should be aware that renting a car for your Italian vacation can be an expensive hassle, but it’s also a means to a greater independence and a way to get off the beaten path.
Driving in Italy: Do you really need a car?
Before we get into how to drive in Italy, let’s take a look at whether you need a car in Italy or you’ll be fine taking the train.
My first recommendation is that if you are traveling on a tight budget, you should consider taking the train.
To understand what best fits your budget, you’ll need to make a cost comparison that includes not only the cost of the car rental, but also the cost of gasoline, highway tools and parking. I recommend that you go to Via Michelin to calculate the road tools and average cost for gasoline for your specific journey. Then, using Trenitalia check the train cost and compare the cost of renting a car to the cost of taking the train.
Even if you have a family of four, you may find that taking the train is much less expensive.
Moreover, if you stick to the main cities you won’t need to drive in Italy. High-speed trains connect Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice, and an extensive network of local trains allows you to visit nearby areas such as Verona, Parts of Lake Garda, Cinque Terre and Lake Como. If you want to visit the Amalfi Coast, you can take a train and a ferry in summer, or a train and a bus in winter.
However, other parts of Italy such as the Tuscan countryside or the Dolomites, the Islands, and parts of the south, are more difficult to visit without a car.
In general, when traveling between major cities, the Italian railway system is very efficient, while traveling to smaller towns is more difficult. Despite the fact that many trains serve smaller towns, travel times are frequently lengthly.
Enter the cities you want to visit into Trenitalia and compare transit times as well driving times using Via Michelin. If taking the train from a larger city to a smaller one takes a certain number of hours because you may need to change trains several times, and driving only takes half the time, then consider renting a car.
If you plan to visit both cities and the countryside, I’d recommend renting a car only for the countryside part.
Driving in Italy: How are Italian roads?
So you’ve decided to rent a car for your trip to Italy. But what exactly are you getting into?
In Italy you’ll be driving on roads the fall into one of the following categories:
- Autostrade (Motorways) – these are Italy’s highways and are toll roads. When you enter a highway you must first pass through a ticket booth to take an entry ticket. When you arrive at your destination, you must pay the toll using the entry ticket. Cards and cash are commonly accepted, but be wary of the “Telepass lanes” (electronic toll collection system). Telepass isn’t usually included in car rental agreements, so don’t use the reserved lanes assuming you have it unless it’s specifically stated in the agreement. According to recent legislation, if the driver fails to provide proof of the exit point, he or she will be fined the toll from the point of entry to the end of the highway. Speed limit is 130 km/h (81 mph), it may be reduced to 110 km/h (68 mph) in the event of bad weather condition.
- Strade Statali (SS) – are Italian freeway or National roads and you don’t need to pay the toll. The Italian national roads are of various shapes and sizes, ranging from wide, straight roads to curved, narrow roads. They can be main state roads with a speed limit of 110 km/h (68 mph), which is reduced to 90 km/h (56 mph) in bad weather condition, or secondary roads with speed limits ranging from 70 km/h (43 mph) to 90 km/h (56 mph) depending on the road. There may be short stretches on both main and secondary roads where a maximum speed of 70 km/h (43 mph) is required, but this must always be communicated by road signs.
- Strade Provinciali (SP) – Provincial roads are Italy’s local roads and they range from large, well-maintained roads, similar to secondary state roads, to small country roads. Smaller roads have speed limits ranging from 50 km/h (31 mph) to 70 km/h (43 mph), depending on the road. Speed limit is always displayed with road signs.
Driving in Italy: 8 tips to drive like a local
Italians have a reputation for being crazy drivers, and you may encounter some, especially in cities. But, in general, I believe that we are great drivers, it’s only a matter of getting to know our driving habits:
- Italians are notoriously impatient drivers, we adore “la dolce vita”, but while we’re driving, we’re always in a rush and any minor hiccup annoys us. So drive with confidence and always be prepared to go at a traffic light when it turns green, or at a stop sign, or at a crossroad. To drive like an Italian you must be decisive, if you hesitate we’ll go around you, making it even more difficult for you to eventually get into the traffic.
- Unlike the rest of the world, Italians are more than willing to honk and do whatever it takes to overtake you if you commit the unforgivable sin of taking your time deciding which way to go. But we do use the horn for a variety of reasons other than being angry. If the horn sound is light, it means we are just warning you of our presence around a blind corner, or to let you know that we are on your right, so to prevent you from making risky maneuvers. The sound of a soft horn is also used to greet acquaintances in the south, so don’t be alarmed if the car behind you suddenly honks, as he may just be greeting someone. But this only happens in southern Italy!
- Driving in Italian cities is not always easy; you must be prepared to spend time stuck in traffic, getting lost, and driving in circles to find parking. To avoid heavy fines, you must have a basic understanding of road signs and be aware of restricted traffic zones (ZTL). Restricted Traffic Zones (ZTL) are urban areas that are off-limits to non-resident traffic. These are, in theory, well-marked with signs indicating which areas are off-limits. This is not always the case in practice. Expect to see signs for the ZTL only if you know where to look – don’t expect barred roads or highly visible signs separating the car-free zone from the rest of the city. When you hear stories about people getting huge fines from Italy on their way home, it’s usually because they drove through a poorly marked ZTL by accident.
- If you’re driving in the city and realize you’ve accidentally entered a limited traffic zone (ZTL), don’t stop in the middle of the street looking for another way out, you’ll only clog the road. Because cameras are positioned at the entrance to the restricted traffic zone, and I’m afraid they’ve already filmed you and reported your license plate in order to issue a fine.
- Before stopping and leaving your car while driving in Italy, pay attention to the color of the road lines. White lines typically indicate free parking, but there are some exceptions; they may be reserved for residents or provide time-limited free parking with the use of a parking disc. Blue lines indicate paid parking, while yellow lines indicate parking for local government employees and people with disabilities.
- When driving on the autostrada (highway), stay in the clearest lane on the right. Only move to the left to overtake a slower vehicle and then return to the right. Don’t overtake on the right, it’s risky because many Italian drivers don’t check their shoulders when changing lanes to the right.
- On the Italian Autostrada (Highway) pay attention to the speed limit. There appears to be a widespread misconception that speed limits in Italy are excessive or that you can drive as fast as you want. This is not true and you should proceed with caution. As mentioned earlier, the speed limit on Italian highways is 130 km/ (81 mph), and it may be reduced to 110 km/h (68 mph) in the event of bad weather. Speed is monitored by cameras on the Autostrada, fines are issued automatically and mailed to drivers or car rental agencies. Any fine you receive as a driver will be increased by the processing fee charged by car rental companies.
- Always keep an eye out for scooters (mopeds or Vespas) as they weave in and out of traffic, get dangerously near to your car, and come out of nowhere. But don’t worry, Italians find them annoying as well.
Driving in Italy: Renting a Car
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably decided that renting a car in Italy is feasible and that you’ll be able to drive safely. If so, it’s time to book your car. And, of course, I have some advice for you.
- Schedule your car rental at least 8 weeks in advance. Prices vary according to available inventory, and booking 8 weeks in advance is recommended. There is still plenty of car availability, and prices have not yet begun to rise. If you prefer to book far in advance, I recommend checking back every 4-6 weeks to see if you can get a better rate.
- I recommend searching for the best car rental deals on Skyscanner, it is a search engine that helps you compare deals from trusted car hire providers. They have a large inventory and competitive pricing, as well as excellent customer service.
- Keep in mind that, while automatic transmissions are becoming more popular in Italy, the vast majority of cars on Italian roads still have a manual transmission, also known as a stick shift. If you don’t mind driving a car with a manual transmission, you’ll have more car rental options and pay less than if you rent a car with an automatic transmission. If you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car, make sure to book one with an automatic transmission.
- Remember that you’ll need an international driver’s license to drive in Italy, though most rental companies won’t ask for it when you book a car.
- If you rent a car in Italy between November 15 and April 15, even if you aren’t going to the mountains or ski resorts, be aware that winter tires or snow chains are required. There are some places where these obligations are not required, such as Sicily, so make sure to ask when booking your car. The car rental company does not enforce this law, but the local police conduct random checks and anyone who is not in compliance may be fined.
- Unlike their wall sockets, Italian car cigarette lighter sockets are compatible with North American sockets. So bring your car charger or GPS (loaded with Italian maps, of course) and know that you can charge it in your Italian car.
- If you have children, you are aware that regardless of age or weight, Italian law requires all children under 150 cm (4’11”) to be restrained in a car seat or booster seat.
- Have cash on hand for parking. Cards are accepted in larger parking lots, but not in pay machines or in smaller lots. Keep coins on hand at all times. Some locations offer “scratch-off” parking tickets, which can be purchased at a local tabaccaio (tobacconist) or newsstand. If you are staying in a city center accommodation, tell them you have a car and they may give you a pass to enter the ZTL (restricted traffic zone), or recommend where to park.
- Don’t leave anything valuable in the car. If you need to leave your luggage or other valuables in the car, make sure everything is hidden in the trunk. Car theft is a common thing in Italy, but thieves are opportunistic. They will not make the effort to break into your parked car if it appears to be completely empty, even if the trunk is full of items.
- When you go to the gas station, make sure you get the right kind of fuel. In Italy, cars run on either ‘unleaded’ gasoline (petrol) or diesel. Pumps indicate which type they are by using different colors, such as green for unleaded gasoline and black for diesel.
- Finally, depending on your needs, I recommend renting small cars. You will find it easier to drive on small Italian roads and find parking in the city.
I hope you found this guide helpful; please feel free to share it with anyone you think might be interested.