I don’t pretend to be an expert in the ways of the Italian autostrade.
Truthfully, I have never driven in Italy myself …. that should tell you something. I’ve always sacrificed my daring husband or paid someone else to do the driving for us.
But in my many days of being co-captain, I’d like to share some helpful tips and, more importantly, point out some reasons why renting a car is one of the most amazing things to do while in Italy.
1. Driving enables you to see more, in a shorter period of time
In major Italian cities – and even the smaller towns – you can find most prominent car rental agencies. In renting a car from them, you will be given strict guidelines on when to return the car based on the time you are given the keys …. but that’s when the strictures end.
Having your own car opens up so many possibilities. It frees up your schedule and proves to be extremely beneficial in rural Italy – such as in Tuscany or Umbria, where there are endless “off the beaten path” destinations that you would otherwise miss.
For example, there are countless big bus companies that will take you from Florence to Tuscany and back in a day. I think those are great in certain circumstances, such as in the case of a short trip.
If you have a lot of time on your holiday, a car will allow you the freedom to stop at a family-run vineyard, have lunch or stay a night at an agriturismo, pause at a thermal spa, or stop to stare at a gorgeous landscape you’ve seen on postcards. It’s amazing to consider the things you miss when someone else drives you. You might not experience an Italian gas station, or a roadside restaurant, or you might not be able to take in as many medieval hilltop towns.
Our favorite memories are the result of our own ignorance of direction when driving throughout Italy.
2. Beware of ZTL zones
Zona traffico limitato are limited vehicular access zones. Should you travel in a ZTL, you will be fined BIG if the cameras find you traveling. In my opinion, dodging the many ZTL is the single most challenging aspect of driving in Italy.
ZTL are found in all major cities and are marked with a circle with a horizontal line going through. I HIGHLY recommend researching ZTL locations of any city you are driving through PRIOR to traveling to that area. I also recommend researching where public parking lots are located (often are located right before a ZTL).
When you rent your car, ask the rental agency to draw you a map of how to exit the city to avoid ZTL areas.
You will not know if you’ve violated the ZTL while on your trip. You will be fined based on your license plate, which will be sent to the rental car agency. This takes a very long time as things go in Italy.
Even still, you will not know of a potential violation until the rental car agency prepares an invoice to be sent to you, to cover their expense of paying the fine, plus a penalty. By the time this news makes it to your American mailbox, a full year may have passed.
3. If you are able to drive a manual transmission, know that you will have to maneuver FAR more frequently than in America
This is very simple. Italians do not follow their rules of the road. They have these glamorous cherry red vespas that seemingly swirl and zoom and zip without care.
It is because they really do not care. It’s a free for all.
That means you’re stopping, accelerating, swirling and stalling ALOT.
If you’re driving a manual, the ascent to a hilltop does not guarantee a paved road, a graded road, or any other hallmarks of safety. You will likely have to idle mid-turn up a hill, or drive along a cliff while dodging polizia blocking for “roadwork”. You might even find a detour, or two. Passage to your destination can seem impossible sometimes.
Just swallow your pride, and a few extra bucks, and get an automatic transmission. It’s not worth sweating obstacles that are made more difficult when fussing over a manual gearshift you’re unfamiliar with, in a smaller, beat up rental car.
3. Use Google Maps … on your cellphone
Yes, this increases data usage. It’s worth it, though.
I’ve never had an issue with cell reception on google maps while driving through tuscany or Umbria, or anywhere else while in Italy.
Yes, you can rent a GPS device from your rental car agency, but they are terrible.
4. Your rental car agency might require you to call, while you are in Italy, to confirm your car reservation.
When you land, or anytime before it’s time to pick up your vehicle, you might have to call to confirm the reservation BEFORE you pick the car up. I always call regardless of requirement to be on the safe side.
When you book your rental car, you will have to select your transmission preference at that time, to make sure it is available.
5. I strongly recommend getting one of the insurance packages on your vehicle.
Thankfully, we haven’t ever “needed” it, but there have been MANY close calls. Pay the extra $100 or so and have some insurance in case there is a fender bender, or you scrape your bumper somehow.
Parking lots and roads are CLOSE and TIGHT quarters in Italy. You have a huge change of scraping something.
Even more likely is the event of an Italian backing into your car while parallel parking, or while backing out of a parking spot. This is normal in Italy and isn’t something to call the cops over.
6. Take a picture of your car BEFORE you drive off the rental property.
I like to do this in case an Italian at your car drop-off location INSISTS that you are responsible for that dent, scrape or stain.
You never know.
7. Listen to the local radio in your car.
You will learnt he language, pick up on some phrases and enjoy international radio hits. All of these are good things.
8. Err on the side of “bigger” in assessing what kind of car to rent
Luggage is REALLY difficult to fit in the little euro-sized backseats and trunks.
On our last trip, we rented a Mercedes sedan and the trunk was NOT big enough. It fit just one of our larger suitcases (30″ spinner). That was …. interesting.
9. HAVE EXTRA EURO CHANGE ON HAND
In Italy, the toll roads are abundant. If you are given a ticket at the entry point of a toll autostrada, you will have to insert it and pay upon exit.
This requires having a few Euros on hand. I’ve never encountered a card-reader. So have a decent amount of Euros (both small bills and change) when you set off in a car.
10. Go off the beaten path
It’s exceptionally easy to get lost in Italy. While the main autostrade are very efficient, if you choose to get off the main motorway for a scenic route, or to access a vineyard, you will likely make a wrong turn.
Take heart, nothing is ever too far away, You will be able to regain your course. I promise.