Since I have visited Italy quite a few times, it feels very comfortable and familiar to me. Until we get in the car. Then suddenly it is clear that we are in another country. A place where highway norms are not the same and the designation of “road” can be used quite liberally. Driving in Italy in some parts is no joke.
Granted, I’ve driven in Ireland and that was harder, where I had to contend with both narrow roads and driving on the opposite side. And Glenn has traveled in India and the Middle East and didn’t even attempt to drive there. So driving in Italy isn’t terrible, but you need to be alert and keep in mind a few tips.
I have driven through Tuscany and into Florence (with a stick shift none the less!) And on our recent trip, we picked up a car in Naples and drove around Tuscany, ultimately dropping off at the Rome airport. These experiences definitely taught me a few things about driving in Italy that I wanted to share.
Tips for Driving in Italy
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- Purchase full insurance coverage with your auto rental. I typically use Auto Europe to find the best deals from multiple providers.
- Make sure you book your rental a few months in advance, especially if you want an automatic! Inventory is limited, especially of larger, automatic cars in high season and you will see prices go up dramatically as it gets closer to your arrival. (See other tips for renting a car in Italy.)
- If you use EuropCar or Hertz, see if you can check in online in advance of pick up. Otherwise, expect to spend at least 30 minutes with the check out process. I have no idea why it takes so long, but both times we have picked up cars in Italy, this was the case.
- Don’t assume you can upgrade or change your car on site. Maybe if you are renting at the Rome airport but all the city offices and smaller city airports have limited inventory and other cars are allocated. For example, you may not be able to pick up an automatic at certain offices or you may have to drop it off at a certain location so they can get it to the next customer.
- You don’t need an International Driver’s License but it will help with translation if you are stopped on the road. You can obtain one at most AAA offices. (Note: your rental agency may require it though, please ask first.)
- Pick up a car on the outskirts of a city or at the airport when possible, driving in city centers can be a nightmare and many have restricted zones that are permit only, at least during certain times. After driving out of Rome and Naples, and dropping off on the outskirts of Florence, I can assure you that unless you are very confident with city driving AND have a good navigator, driving in the city is not going to get your vacation off to a great start. Major stress until you hit the open highway!!
- Be willing to spend a lot more to rent a car with an automatic transmission. Unless you drive stick every day on hills and in city traffic, you will be more comfortable in a foreign place with an automatic.
- Pay attention to how much luggage fits in the car when deciding what size to rent! The station wagon is your best bet if you will have large bags. For a family of four, plan on packing carry on only because the trunks just aren’t big enough to fit four large bags.
- When you head out on the highway, don’t expect people to stay in their lanes. Just don’t. It drove my husband crazy for days. But people don’t stay neatly in their lanes. Get used to it.
- It is helpful to learn a few basic Italian words (like uscita means exit). You can find these and many traffic sign definitions in a good travel guide.
- Big highways like the A1 will have tolls. Unless your rental include a toll pass, look for the white signed-lanes where they take cash or credit card. Note that many of these are unmanned and you will have to pay by credit card at a machine and they do not take cards like American Express so bring a Visa or MasterCard.
- When you are driving on the highway, you will notice signs with cameras. Yes, that means the roads are patrolled by traffic cameras so watch your speed! Trust me, I’ve gotten tickets through mail/email in both Iceland and Martinique and the car rental company may also hit you with an additional fee. Not fun!
- If you are visiting some of Italy’s hill towns, like Siena, Assisi, Orvieto, Pienza, etc., it is easiest to park outside of the city walls. Public parking lots are fairly well marked. You will need to pay to park and some towns have larger lots with a cashier or kiosk that takes a credit card. However, others (Pienza in Volterra in particular) have smaller lots with a parking station that takes coins only. So save up your coins because you will need them. At these lots, you will need to pay for a certain amount of time and then put the receipt on your dashboard. At the larger lots, you pay when you leave for how long you were there.
- It is always helpful to have a paper map handy. When we were driving around Tuscany a few years ago, a road was closed and Google sent us on a detour that went up and over a mountain on an increasingly smaller road. I was convinced we were going to be stranded somewhere but we had no choice but to keep following Google as we had no idea where we were and no cell coverage so if we turned it off, we wouldn’t be able to get it back again until we returned to coverage.
- When you are staying in the country or visiting a vineyard or agriturismo, it doesn’t hurt to ask for directions instead of just relying on Google Maps. There was one time in Tuscany when we ended up at the back gate of an agriturismo with no one around to open it. To get to the front entrance would mean driving back down the mountain, around it, and up the other side. We had no idea though because we were just following Google.
- Don’t be surprised in the countryside when the road turns into a narrow dirt lane with only room for one car. It doesn’t mean you are on the wrong track, in fact it is pretty normal. Just go slow and if a car comes in the other direction, one of you needs to look for a spot wide enough to pull off and let the other past.
- Enjoy the view! The nice thing about no one being around on those little roads is that you can take in some amazing views without anyone tailgating you to drive faster. Use those small pullouts to stop and take pictures. Plus you never know what you might encounter in the road (like donkeys!)
- Don’t plan on driving in Rome, Florence, Naples, or the Amalfi Coast unless you are very confident and very brave (with a great navigator and thick skin!) We have always hired a driver or cab for the Amalfi Coast because those roads are so narrow and crowded, with steep drop offs and no where to park. Even the roads in the Dolomites look pretty crazy. If you don’t believe me, just check out my friend Jurga from Full Suitcase’s Instagram, yikes!
- Also see these tips if you are visiting Sicily by car.
- Know who to call when something goes wrong. After picking up our car in Naples, we drove only five minutes before the low tire pressure light came on. We pulled off in a panic with people yelling at us for blocking the gas station. We called the Hertz office but we had already signed off on the car so we were on our own. Our choices were to change it ourselves or call their roadside assistance line and wait for them to come out and help us (while people are yelling at us in Italian to move and there is no where to safely pull over on the crazy, busy streets of Naples.) We really lucked out that there happened to be a tire repair station across the street and I was able to communicate enough to get the tire plugged for a mere 10 euro and 30 minutes. Keep the roadside assistance number handy folks!
- If you are dropping off in Florence, plan to drop off either at the airport or the train station. Just keep in mind that the rental car drop off at the Florence airport is not well marked so be sure to get the address and put it into your GPS/Google Maps.
- If you are dropping off in Rome and flying out the next day, we found it extremely convenient to stay at the Hilton at the Rome airport. You can drop off your bags, then drop off the car and walk back to the hotel. Then, in the morning, there is an airbridge that connects to the airport with an easy five to ten minute walk. If you are dropping off the car and then heading downtown, you can drop off downtown or it may be easier to drop off at the airport and take a taxi or the train into the city center.
Good luck and safe travels!! Be sure to check out my other Italy travel tips!
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