There’s nothing like a road trip in summer.
Though a road trip is typically thought of as a classic American institution, a road trip in Italy can be just as great. Yet I’ve noticed that most travelers to Italy do anything possible to avoid driving in Italy. I understand; the roads are small, the traffic dense and the driving sporty.
But the best way to explore outside the big cities of Italy is by car.
Don’t get me wrong, Italy has a well-connected rail system that can get you most places, but my Italian friends and I tend to err on the side of road trips. There’s little that can give you the comfort, freedom and accessibility that a car can.
So if you’re even minimally interested in getting out of the major cities, it’s time to get over your fear of driving in another country and consider an Italian road trip.
Here’s What You Need to Know:
Book your car before coming abroad
You can rent a car once abroad, but you’ll likely get a better choice of vehicle and a better fee if you book before your trip. The easiest way is to go online.
Specify if you want an automatic car
Most Italian cars are stick-shift, so you’ll have to specify if you want an automatic car. Since there are fewer requests for automatic cars, they typically are in short supply and will likely cost a bit more. If you drive manual, stick with that, if not, it’s just another reason to book ahead.
Get an international driving permit
You can legally drive in Europe on a valid US driver’s license, but some countries, like Italy, require a translation of your document. Technically, US driver’s should have an international driving permit to drive in Italy. An IDP is an official translation of your US license. It’s true, many car rental places won’t ask, and sometimes police officer’s won’t ask, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. With an IDP, your US driver’s license is valid for the extent of your tourist visa. After a year in Italy (illegal without a visa) you’re expected to obtain an Italian driver’s license.
Get used to a different driving style
It’s not the Formula 1, but Italian driving does tend to be more aggressive than in the United States. You don’t have to adopt the sporty style, but you do have to stay out of the way of those that want to drive that way. Hold your road rage at bay: Cars will tailgate you, even at 130 km/hr; No one is going to give you three-cars length worth of space to change lanes, so be prepared to push your way in and expect others to do the same; breaking is typically last minute and no matter what, there will always be someone going faster than you.
Avoid driving in the big cities.
This means Rome, Napoli, Milan, Florence and even some of the less-frequented cities like Genoa, Torino, Palermo…you get the idea. These are hectic, high-traffic zones difficult to navigate if you don’t know the area well. Often you’ll find areas closed to traffic with a high-fine attached to those who accidentally enter. Some areas, like Venice and Cinque Terre, are entirely car-free – you’d have to pay to leave it outside and take the train in anyway! All these places are best visited by train, which will typically take you directly into the center of town.
Beware the ZTL
Areas closed to traffic are called ZTL for zona traffico limitato. A limited traffic zone, they’re open only to those with special permission (not you) and fines run from 70-100 euro for crossing into the area, even if it was an accident, even if it was only for 20 seconds, even if the signs are only in Italian and you don’t know any Italian. I always wonder how non-Italian speakers handle driving in areas with limited traffic zones, but these zones are just another reason to not drive in big cities. That said, pedestrian-only areas are typical in Italian cities, big and small, keep an eye out for ZTL signs and plan to park your car before heading into the city.
Pay attention to parking lines
When looking for parking, the easiest option is to look for the blue P – parking signs and follow the indications until you get to the parking lot. Though it’s pay parking, it’s often the quickest and surest option. It’s not your only option, however. When parking in Italy, pay attention to the parking lines: yellow is for residents only, blue is pay (look for an atm-like structure where you pay by the hour and be sure to put the receipt in clear view), and white lines are free parking spots!
Be sure to have GPS
American roads are typically large, straight and clearly marked. Italian roads are not. Often built atop 2,000 year old roads, Italian streets tend to be narrow, winding (even the highways), and poorly marked. The small concrete placards on the side of buildings that serve as Italian street signs are impossible to see while driving. Highways don’t always have immediate exit and entrance ramps, meaning a mistaken exit can add on up to 30 minutes of driving time until you’re able to turn around and head in the right direction and roads can split in two with just a moments notice. Even Italians don’t often know the names of the roads they drive on, so asking for directions is nearly impossible. Your best bet is to download an offline map or ensure that your rental car comes with a navigator – you’ll be thankful to have it!
Save your coins for highway tolls
If your car is full, a road trip is almost always less expensive then a train trip, but beware that all Italian highways and freeways have toll booths. The tangenziale, or by-passes, are typically a flat rate of 1.70 or 1.90 euro, while the freeways are can be much more expensive based off of how far you are traveling. Keep a stash of coins at hand – you don’t want to have a line of cars behind you and realize you can’t pay! When coming up to the toll booth, you’ll either have the option to get a ticket (save that until the next toll booth when you’ll have to pay) or you’ll simply pay right then. Avoid the yellow T signs, those are for people with special passes, and look for a hand giving coins or self-service coins. You can look online to plan your route and calculate the cost of Italy’s toll roads before your trip.
Watch out for the speed cameras
You won’t see any highway patrol in Italy – they have technology to do that. Cameras on the side of the road or posted above the road are common on Italian streets and highways. If you get a ticket, you’ll have to pay it when returning your rental car.
Gas stations typically have both serviced and self-service pumps. Perhaps the easiest is serviced, but these tend to be closed at lunch times and after-hours (from 8 pm – 8 am, depending on the pump). If there’s a worker, pay what you owe after pumping. If you’re on your own, pay at the machine before pumping.
Eat at an Autogrill
The Autogrill is the king of road side rests. Italy’s chain of rest stops, the Autogrill offers sandwiches, coffee with croissants and fresh orange juice. Those looking for a more structured meal can stop at one of its restaurant stations to get chicken, pastas and salads. The food is actually good! Besides getting gas, using the restroom and eating, travelers can also shop for some road snacks, games, books, travel souvenirs and entire hocks of ham. When in Italy, I guess!