Are you thinking about renting a car and driving while you are in Italy? Or maybe you are wondering if it is necessary to have a car while you are there?
As someone who rents cars in Italy several times per year, I can tell you there is nothing so freeing and fun as getting behind the wheel of a zippy little Italian car and racing through the hills of Tuscany, the olive lined roadways of Puglia or the lesser traveled parts of Lazio. With Italian music blasting, the wind blowing your hair while you glamorously look at the road ahead through an oversized pair of sunglasses – what could be more fabulous?
I can also tell you the heart pounding stress that comes with your GPS dumping you into the heart of a busy city, backing up a long line of cars because you got in the telepass lane at the toll booth by mistake or finding yourself deep, deep inside the one way street labyrinth of the storico centro in a medieval town that was built for horses not cars – going the wrong way (all of which I have done) can ruin a trip or at least leave you a nervous wreck.
My book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) has an entire chapter on all the ins and outs you seriously need to know before renting a car and driving in Italy. If you are planning on driving there I sincerely recommend you read it before renting a car or getting behind the wheel in Italy.
1. Before You Rent A Car
First things first, let’s look at your trip and see if you even need to drive while you’re in Italy. Start by mapping your trip and seeing if a car is necessary. If your trip is primarily major cities, for example you are going to Rome, Florence and Venice then no you definitely do not need a car. If your trip is going to be spent exploring outside of the cities look to see whether the places you are going are on a train route.
So much of Italy has really fantastic train access that frequently not only do you not need a car, but a car would be slower and more expensive.
If your travel plans include aimlessly roaming the hill towns of Tuscany, or exploring Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria or Sicily, then a car is going to be essential.
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2. Inside Italy’s Cities
You do not need a car inside the cities. In fact I emphatically recommend you do not get a car if you are inside the cities. Public transport is excellent, and in the big cities taxis are plentiful, so you can get anywhere you want to go quite easily.
On the other hand driving inside the cities can be treacherous, incredibly stressful and very expensive.
It is so easy to get lost and your GPS can be more of an enemy than a friend, especially inside old towns where the signal doesn’t always find you.
I was recently walking in Venice with some women who wanted to go to a specific restaurant that was at best a little wiggly to get to. Walking through the narrow calle the GPS would drop and a couple of times I had to take us back into an open campo to let the signal find my phone again. There was much eye-rolling and snorting from the peanut gallery who just didn’t get it that there wasn’t a consistent GPS signal.
This is just a nuisance when you are on foot, but when you are driving it can be really stressful and have you going down the wrong streets and getting into situations you cannot easily get back out of.
Parking inside the cities can be hard to come by. It almost always requires parallel parking super-proficiency, and the ability to not only parallel park in traffic, but with only an inch or two space at either end of the car.
There are parking buildings here and there but they can be very difficult to find and once inside the individual parking spaces are small and tight.
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ZTLs are very expensive traps for unsuspecting tourists. The Zona Traffico Limitato or Limited Traffic Zone is designed so that only cars with a special permit can go inside. These are normally, but not always, in the central heart of a city, as well as in small villages and towns.
Your GPS probably will not recognize a ZTL and will send you straight into the heart of it. With everything else that is going on chances are you won’t even see the warning sign. If you are on a one way street you can be inside the ZTL before you even realize it, or worse still you see it coming but have no way to get back out of it!
ZTLs are monitored with cameras that catch you the moment you cross into one. It will take months to arrive but suddenly you find yourself with a steep fine that nearly doubles if not paid within 60 days. You also get an “admin fee” from the rental car company, charged to your credit card.
In all likelihood it won’t just happen once – if you are not on top of it you can find yourself going in and out of ZTLs without realizing and find yourself with multiple fines. On an Italy travel forum that I was reading a traveler was fined over 2400 euros, a year after his Italy trip. He hadn’t known where all the ZTLs were and just drove in and out of them, somewhere near 24 times!
So even if your parallel parking skills are on point and you don’t get stressed easily, I sincerely recommend not driving inside the cities.
5. Discover New Towns And Villages
Having a rental car and driving around the countryside, discovering random little towns the tour buses don’t go to is one of my absolute favorite things to do in Italy.
The trick to it is to keep an open mind, decide ahead of time you won’t allow yourself to get stressed out, and then go have fun!
On my most recent trip to Italy I flew into Bari, picked up a rental car and then drove by myself across Puglia and Basilicata to get to La Rabatana
It was a beautiful and easy drive, except for one roundabout that had 5 exits, and that the GPS couldn’t decode. At various points I was going the wrong way, heading back to the airport, even driving through an olive grove! The only reason I made it to the correct exit from the roundabout was that the other 4 were wrong!
It was such a lovely drive though that I forgot to get stressed out. My feeling about driving around the countryside in Italy is so what if you get lost or go through some roundabout shenanigans – it’s all part of the fun. Getting lost just means discovering some incredible little town, and is actually how I have discovered most of my favorite secret places!
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6. Map It Before You Go
Another good idea is to print out maps of your route before you drive off. You can’t rely on GPS alone, and having a backup little map showing you how to get from point A to point B at least will give you a concept of where you’re heading.
Also, should you lose cell service/have no data/lose Wi-Fi/run out of battery you will be glad you had a back up plan!
7. Look For City Names, Not Route Numbers
This comes back to the way they sign things in Italy. You’re not looking for the A1 when you leave Florence airport, you are looking for the A1 Roma or the A1 Bologna. Once you get on that highway it may give you a variety of different route numbers such as the E185, SS125 etc that can get really confusing, so think directionally and keep looking for the name of the town you are going to.
From Florence I take the A1 Roma to whichever roads are taking me to San Gimignano – I don’t get too involved with the route numbers, I just keep looking for the San Gimi signs, which is a much easier way to do it.
If your little town isn’t likely to have much signage, at least know which big towns are in that direction.
If you don’t live somewhere that uses roundabouts they can be confusing. I grew up with them, so they are second nature to me, but if they are new or unfamiliar to you, here’s the deal:
Always yield (or give way) to the left. You merge into the traffic when there is a space.
There are no lanes in roundabouts, so stay in the space you entered.
Your GPS will tell you which exit to take, such as take the 3rd exit on the right. Sometimes this is a guessing game as the 2nd exit could be a dirt track or maybe just the suggestion of an exit. There will be vertically stacked signs for all the places off each exit, which makes having a passenger navigating for you so much easier!
If you can’t figure it out just stay on the roundabout, making loops until you see your sign. One time with my then 12 year old riding shotgun we looped around the roundabout about 20 times before we found our exit, which was one of about 40 signs all stacked up, and wasn’t easy to find the first 19 times! Really it’s all just part of the fun.
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9. Stay To The Right
Most of the motorways are going to be two lanes in each direction. The left lane is for passing, so stay in the right lane unless you are passing someone.
10. Watch For Speed Traps
There are camera speed traps along all the motorways/highways. Just as with ZTLs you won’t know you’ve got a speeding fine for months, and these fines are hefty.
I have learned the hard way that if my name and credit card are the ones on the rental car booking, no one else is driving. A year or so after a trip driving through Puglia I found that my friend who kept wanting to drive had been blowing through speed traps like a race car driver. Each fine was for 270 euros, each also came with an administrative fee from Hertz, and each fine was set to double if not paid in 60 days.
Luckily each fine indicated exactly where the speeding had happened, so I was able to show her that it was all her, but it took some wrangling to get the money wired to Puglia and off my card.
11. There Will Be Tolls
Be prepared for toll roads and toll booths. Just because they mostly take credit cards doesn’t mean the credit card machine will be working, so have coins ready.
Also as you are exiting the motorway into the toll area look for the yellow telepass sign and then make sure you don’t go in those lanes. My first time driving alone in Italy I got into the telepass lane, backed traffic up all the way to the motorway, couldn’t get out of the line, and was somewhere between a heart attack and bursting into tears when a nice fellow on a motorbike figured out what was up and came and rescued me.
I haven’t made that mistake twice!
You can’t guarantee that there will be a human working the toll booth, so have a variety of coins with you.
12. Don’t Trust The GPS
Well not entirely anyway. One time I had the people at Hertz program the rental car’s built in GPS system for me. Initially it was shouting at me in Russian, but once I got it to English it started giving me crazy directions. I was on my way to San Gimignano, a route I have driven a thousand times, so I knew it was giving me crazy-wrong directions.
On your phone the Google Maps GPS is the worst and will try to drive you off cliffs. Waze is good but will always take you on circuitous routes that may save you minutes but will have you arriving with a full head of grey hair, as it routes you through alleyways and side streets and hair raising turns. Apple Maps is perhaps the best, but Siri still doesn’t always get it right.
If you miss a highway exit it can be 30 minutes before you get to the next one to turn back. With that in mind, mapping the drive beforehand can be a really good idea, just so you have a general idea of where you’re going.
13. You May Get A Stick Shift
In Italy I actually prefer driving a stick shift, especially when driving through the hills. I spend a considerable amount of driving time in Tuscany, which in turn means a lot of time driving through the hills! A stick shift gives you so much more control as you are buzzing around the countryside and is much more fun to drive.
This past summer Hertz put me in an automatic station wagon, which apart from having zero coolness whatsoever, also was a pain to drive in the hills as it couldn’t down shift quickly enough.
But be advised that most of the rental cars in Europe are stick shifts. If you require an automatic you need to specify that when you book your car, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get one. If none have come back in when you are picking your car up you will be given a manual transmission.
14. Rent A Diesel
In my experience renting endless cars in Italy, diesels get much better gas mileage and diesel is much less expensive than petrol/gasoline.
Expect to pay between $7 and $9 per gallon on gasoline.
Whenever possible, book a diesel! They run quietly and efficiently and leave you with more money for shopping.
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15. Get Super Cover
You will have several insurance options with your rental car. Choose the Super Cover option. This comes with zero deductible, so if anything happens to your car you can walk away.
Most rental car companies have a 3000 euro deductible and will have you paying through the nose for the smallest scratch.
A cursory glance at cars in Italy will tell you that most of them are covered in dings and scratches.
The chances of someone bumping your parked car or opening their door into it are huge, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Super Cover is expensive and can add an extra 45 euros per day to your 20 euro per day rental, but can be worth every penny if you get so much as one scratch on your car.
16. Stop At An Autogrille
At least once while you are driving on the highways in Italy, stop at an Autogrille. These are something like our truck stops in the U.S. but oh so different!
Yes you can gas up the car there, but they also have a full espresso bar, a full bar, and really fantastic food.
Unlike the guaranteed gastric turmoil of the smelly rolling sausages and dubious foods at truck stops here in the states, the food at the truck stops across Italy is tremendous. From fresh panini to crisp salads and much more, a country whose culture is so deeply bound into their cuisine doesn’t tolerate bad food for hungry travelers!
Even after all these years of travel in Italy I still get a huge kick out of stopping at Autogrilles. Often we will buy breads and cheeses and fresh sliced prosciutto at a local village market to bring home for dinner then stop at an Autogrille on the way home and pick up salad to have with it. You will love it!
For more tips on traveling in Italy pick up my best selling book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) Available worldwide on Amazon. Join my Private Members Newsletter HERE for twice monthly newsletters giving you more tips and ideas to take your Italy trip from great to completely fantastic!
See you in the piazza…