By Walter Sanders
Few things are as exciting … and daunting … as getting behind the wheel and driving in Italy.
I’ve been doing it since the early 1970s and have racked up tens of thousands of accident-free kilometers while living in or visiting Italy. The vast majority have been exhilarating and carefree.
I relish driving in Italy. I’m a confident driver. I like the unique opportunities that driving in Italy give me to explore areas that would be otherwise inaccessible given normal public transportation or group travel.
Of course, driving in Italy is different than driving in North America: the language, some streets that you might consider lanes or alleys, a highway system that is both luxurious and rearview-mirror-terrifying at times.
But most of all, the drivers are different. At the risk of generalizing, I have found Italian drivers to be skilled, resourceful, creative and, at times, aggressive. We could all learn from Italian drivers.
My theory is that the vast majority of Italian automobile drivers have graduated from the motor scooter ranks. The two wheel experience makes them situationally aware, clever for opportunities, and gives them the survival skills to stay safe.
So, are you itching to drive in Italy? Read on.
Cost of Driving in Italy
Renting a car in Italy can be expensive. Daily and weekly rates are high, and you would be well advised to work with a reputable provider that clearly presents costs and options and minimizes the risk of unpleasant surprises at return time.
At the time of this piece (June 2019) a mid-size for a week ranges from $191 to $249 U.S. for a seven-day rental for a manual transmission auto with deductible insurance. You will pay incrementally more if you want a car with an automatic transmission and no deductible insurance.
Fuel is expensive as well. The pump says 1.60€. But that’s 1.60€ for a liter (roughly a U.S. quart) or more than $7.00 U.S. a gallon.
Parking expenses (in or near major cities) can add up as well. Often 15€ or 20€ ($27 or $36) a day. If your visit is urban-centric, don’t get a car.
Itinerary for Driving in Italy
Create an itinerary to maximize car usage … and choose a car that maximizes your itinerary opportunities.
We recently returned from a 10-week trip to Italy. The itinerary included Sardinia and Sicily … both places where public transportation is not as evolved as central and northern mainland Italy. Bam, we needed a car.
A portion of the trip was shared with Martha Bakerjian of Martha’s Italy and James Martin of Wandering Italy and Wandering Sardinia. So we chose a car large enough for four and room for some luggage. Thanks to James’s recommendation, we leased a Peugeot 308 station wagon. (More on leasing later.)
The car had enough internal room for all of us to be comfortable. Yet it was small enough on the outside to not cost us an arm and a leg on the three overnight ferries we took during the course of the trip. And it had the power to climb to some gorgeous hill towns in Liguria, Sardinia, Sicily, and Molise.
To Stick … Or Not to Stick?
Full disclosure. I’m a manual transmission guy. Driving a manual transmission is a life skill everyone should learn, master, and practice.
Why? Because if you can drive a stick, you can drive pretty much anything.
I still remember the story about four Americans who booked a big, automatic transmission sedan for a two-week driving adventure in Italy. They were drooling about getting off the beaten track. On the second day of the rental, the designated driver was involved in an accident that rendered the car undriveable. The only replacement available? Of course, a manual transmission. The driver couldn’t handle stick and they waved to hill towns from the highway.
State Licenses and International Drivers Permit
I always get an International Driver’s Permit (via AAA and valid for a year), but have never been asked to produce it at the rental counter or during the occasional police traffic stop. The authorities I’ve encountered want a passport and a state-issued driver’s license. Will I continue to get an IDP for my foreign travels? Probably, but for no better reason than “just in case.”
Highways in Italy
By and large, the state highways (blue signs marked with SS … strade statale or sometimes called superstrade) and autostrade (green signs) are a pleasure. They are well maintained and the signage tends to be clear.
The autostrade are toll roads. You get a biglietto (toll card or ticket) from a machine when you enter, and pay for the ride when you exit the autostrada. The exits are mostly automated. You insert your biglietto, then pay with credit cards (carte) or moneta (cash). Don‘t exit in the Telepass lane, the radio frequency lane … much like the U.S. EZ Pass system. Your EZ Pass does NOT work in Italy.
You can refuel along the autostrade and sometimes along the superstrade highways. You can grab a snack or a caffe along the way. The Autogrill establishments on the autostrade are a tasty delight, especially compared to the fast-food rest stops on American toll roads.
You will learn very quickly about passing lanes on the autostrade. They are meant strictly for passing. You will be initially shocked by two side effects of the passing lane. If you linger too long in the passing lane, the drivers behind you will be on your back bumper in a nanosecond, flashing their brights and sounding their horns. When someone passes you, they will pull into your lane immediately. The initial American reaction is rage: “That jerk just cut me off!!!” No, that driver is going faster than you, and wisely cleared the passing lane. Use the passing lane to pass, then get out of the way.
Driving in Italian Cities
If you will be spending the majority of your time in major Italian cities, renting a car will be problematic. All the large cities maintain and enforce Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL – Limited Traffic Zones) which largely preclude rented automobiles. Automated cameras capture license plate data. Fines add up quickly, and are traceable via your auto rental agency.
In Rome, Venice, Milan and other large cities, use the train between cities, and your feet, public transportation, ride sharing, or taxis within.
Many smaller towns have not yet embraced ZTL. Pay for parking at a lot or look for public parking designated by the following street parking painted lines: white means free parking, yellow is for residents only, and blue indicates paid parking by meter.
Retract your side mirrors when parking on the street. Be vigilant when opening your car door as motor scooters and bicyclists abound on the narrow streets.
Roundabouts are common in Italy. Yield to traffic coming from the left
Ferries in Italy
If you’re driving in Italy, and wish to experience some of the country’s beautiful islands you have limited options. You can rent a car upon arrival on the island or travel by ferry with your rental. Ferry bookings are painless online.
You’ll need the make and model of your automobile. It is also important to have the length of the car in meters or millimeters as you are charged by the size of the car. If you’re booking in advance you can complete the targa (license plate number) requirement by just inserting “rental.” You will have to add the actual license plate number on the boarding document, so take a picture of the license plate and keep it handy in your phone as you might be directed to a port office to enter the license plate into the operator’s computer system.
If you’re traveling on an overnight ferry, don’t forget to book the cabin or chair of your choice. No need to bring all your luggage … just stuff for the overnight and perhaps your electronics.
It’s also handy to take a photo of the door from which you exited the parking deck upon boarding. It will be easier to find your car upon leaving.
The loading and unloading processes are astounding. You have walkers, bicyclists, people on scooters and motorcycles, every kind of car on earth, vans, small trucks, medium trucks, big trucks, semi-trailer trucks, tanker trucks, cement trucks, motor homes, busses, and people with pets.
You are waved into one of the lines on the pier, then guided on board. Quarters are tight. The ferry from Livorno in Tuscany to Porto Aranci on Sardinia was packed because of the approaching Easter holiday. My passengers left the car near the exit/entrance as recommended by the attendant … then I retracted my side mirrors and squeezed into my spot. I’m a relatively fit 174 pounds, but I had to do some sideways shuffling to get out of the mammoth on board parking garage. The two other ferries on the journey had spacious parking in comparison.
We booked Tirrenia from Livorno, Tuscany, to Porto Aranci, Sardinia and from Palermo, Sicily, to Naples.
From Cagliari, Sardinia to Palermo, Sicily, we took the Moby Line.
Rentals, Long Term Rentals, Leases, GPS in Italy
Use a reputable firm for car rentals. I like Autoeurope. Buy the insurance.
If you’re renting for more than a couple of weeks, consider a lease. The French government subsidizes their automobile industry by offering brand new Peugeots or Citroens for purchase/buy back lease to tourists. The package is attractive because it includes no deductible insurance that covers everything, you have access to 24/7 road service, and you enjoy unlimited mileage. You return the car at the end of the trip. Then the car is sold to a buyer who avoids paying VAT (Value Added Tax) because the car is used.
I recommend getting a GPS, not infallible but quite helpful on highway interchanges and roundabouts. Keep your phone at the ready with your favorite map app.
My only harrowing GPS experience this trip occurred when I drove from Lucca to Montebeni near Fiesole (outside of Florence) to visit my friend Massimo. In the old days I had often driven there heading northeast from Florence and got to know the options quite well. This trip, the GPS was guiding me in from the west.
The highway portion was a snap and then my GPS screen indicated a winding route to the destination. As you get off the beaten path in Tuscany you will often find narrow roads, lined with stone walls protecting farm land or homes. Some are only one small car-width wide. If someone is coming the other way, one of the drivers must find a driveway entrance or indentation in the wall to squeeze into for the other person to pass. I was on one of those roads.
As I climbed into the hills the roads became more narrow … and even narrower. I retracted my side view mirrors (yes, it was that tight) as I entered a stone-walled path. The GPS said I was just 500 meters from my destination! I skillfully negotiated every twist and turn, windows down peeking at the walls only inches away and ignoring the automated sensor “Obstacle” warnings sounding and flashing on the GPS screen.
I cut the sharpest corner yet … and there it was.
An excavation site, a huge hole surrounded by orange plastic netting as high as the walls and as wide as the lane. Water mains? Etruscan ruins? Who knows? No one was working at the dig.
I was trapped. I couldn’t get out of the car. I had only eight inches or so on either side. My only choice was to back down the path, negotiating every bend.
I’m a stubborn guy and take pride in my driving skills. I was determined to back down the path without scratching the car, burning out the manual transmission, or losing my mind.
It took patience, persistence, perspiration, and about 35 minutes to reverse to a cluster of three homes where I could finally back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, turn around and reload.
I made it to Massimo’s for lunch and apologized for being late. “Traffic.”
Have you driven in Italy? Share your experience here!