While you’re in Italy it’s super convenient to hire or buy a car to get around. Of course, you may have heard that the public transport system is very good, which is certainly true in most cases, but in many rural parts of the country it’s almost non-existent and the timetables are famously flexible with unexplained cancellations and changes occurring all the time!
Therefore, it’s highly advisable to have access to your own means of transport and for longer trips, a car is by far the best option. Driving in Italy can be a little daunting at first because the local drivers can be fairly reckless and often disregard the rules of the road. However, as long as you’re a bit careful until you get used to driving on Italian roads, you’ll be absolutely fine.
I have written another article on driving in Italy that focuses more on the requirements for driving based on where you are from, steps on how to get a driver license, the different types of highways and some of the basic rules to keep in mind while driving. You might want to check it out also.
You Need To Have An International Driving Permit In Italy.
If you’re a foreigner (including expats or tourists who do not have an Italian drivers license), who is planning to drive in Italy you’ll need to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to legally hire or buy a car; but don’t worry, they’re very easy to get hold of provided you have a valid driver’s license in your home country.
You can apply for your International Driving Permit while you’re still in the US from either the AAA (American Automobile Association) or the AATA (American Automobile Touring Alliance). Applying in person is extremely easy and it shouldn’t take more than about 20 minutes; and costs between $20 and $50.
Of course, if you’re already in Italy then a quick trip to your local AAA or AATA office is not really an option but instead you can get a notarized translation of your existing American Driver’s License at a US Consulate. Alternatively, if you can afford to wait a month or two, you can apply for your IDP by post from the AAA or AATA back home.
Once you have your permit it is valid for a full year in Italy, after which you’ll need to acquire an Italian driver’s license. Your International Driving Permit is also valid in the rest of the European Union so if you want to explore the continent you can do so by car.
Can You Drive A Manual Gear Shift?
In Italy, and most of Europe for that matter, it’s quite uncommon to drive an automatic car, with most people opting for manual gear shifts. This means that if you’re buying or renting a car you’ll have a tough time finding an automatic car and even if you do you’ll probably have to pay more for it.
Driving a manual car is not as hard as it seems but if it’s your first time driving one then it’s a good idea to practise for an hour or so on some quiet roads! Larger cities do tend to have more automatic cars to rent, to cater to the foreign tourists, but if you’re in rural parts of the country then you are unlikely to find any automatic cars available for rent or purchase.
Italian Cars Are Tiny!
Compared to the average car in the United States, Italian cars and even family saloons are tiny in comparison. This can be extremely useful when you’re driving around the many small winding streets that most towns and cities are full of but when it comes to packing your luggage, and yourself, into the vehicle it can present serious difficulties.
This means that it’s going to be a lot easier if you pack light for any road trip you’re planning in Italy because otherwise the car will quickly fill up and you’ll have an uncomfortable ride. You can hire larger vehicles, such as a van, but getting around some of the narrow roads might be trickier. This is, however, a compromise you’ll have to decide on for yourself.
Be Aware Of The Limited Traffic Zones And Road Signs.
One unusual feature of the Italian rules of the road are the ‘Zona Traffico Limitato’, or ZTLs. A ZTL is a ‘Limited Traffic Zone’ in which cars are prohibited from driving during certain times of the day. Normally, there are exceptions, but the exceptions only apply to residents of the area and so rental cars are generally banned.
The ZLTs usually apply to historical town centers and certain parts of major cities. If you are renting an apartment in a ZTL area then you should ask the owner for a permit which authorizes you to drive a car within the zone. Luckily, most hotels that are located in ZTLs will offer you a pass which allows you to drive to their car parking facilities without breaching any regulations.
If you don’t speak Italian then you might find that the road signs are difficult to understand but a good tip for making sure you don’t accidentally break any rules is to use your Google Translate offline app to give you a quick translation.
Use An Automatic Parking Disc.
Italy has a great system which allows wardens to easily check whether your car has overstayed the legal parking time limit. For instance, there are many parking spaces in Italy which have a time limit for free parking, such as 2 or 4 hours per stay. A parking disc is a small blue disc which you put in your windshield and set to the start of the timer.
Then you can leave your car in the parking space and just make sure that you return in time to move your vehicle! If a parking enforcer, or warden, comes by they simply need to check on the timer to see how long the car has been there and that you’ve not overstayed the allotted time. Unlike many other bureaucratic systems in Italy, the parking disc system is extremely sensible and easy to use!
Always Keep Some Cash On You For Gas Stations.
In Italy you’ll find that there are both self-serve gas stations and ones that have attendants. If you’re filling up in a self-serve gas station and don’t have a true Chip-and-Pin card then the automatic machine won’t accept a credit or debit card with a standard modern chip. This means that you’ll need to be able to pay in cash to avoid future problems with the police!
To add to this, most machines don’t accept coins or give you change either, making them very inconvenient. That means if you put in a 100 Euro note for 20 Euros worth of fuel you’ll be 70 Euros out of pocket. Therefore, you should have a good amount of small notes in your wallet so that you can cover these types of unexpected expenses that you’re bound to encounter at some point while driving in Italy without wasting money because you can’t get change.
Download Or Print Out Maps.
It’s easy to rely on online Google Maps to get you around Italy but in many parts of the country the Wifi coverage is poor or non-existent. As a result it’s always a good idea to either download your maps so you can access them offline or else print them off and keep them in your car. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a printer in your suitcase, especially if you’re a tourist in Italy, but you can just ask at the hotel reception where they will be happy to print off your maps for you. Alternatively, you can buy official Map books of Italy, although you need to make sure they are a recent edition so you have an up to date version.
Always Get A Telepass For Toll Road Booths.
Italy is crisscrossed with toll roads in a complicated network that can be quite hard to plan in advance for. These roads are very high quality and rarely backed up with traffic so they’re a great way to get from place to place quickly. However, you do have to pay to access them. Different toll roads have different owners and charge different fees which is usually based on the distance that you’ll be driving whereas in other cases you pay a fixed fee for access.
One thing you can do to make your life easier is to get a Telepass Box for your car. This covers the cost of all toll roads and routes as well as giving you a summarized list of the tolls you’ve paid so you can keep a track of your expenses. The Telepass is connected with your bank account and automatically deducts payments as you go.
Before you can access a toll road you need to pass through a barriered toll station and unless you have a Telepass you’ll have to stop and get a ticket and then pay on your way off the toll road. However, if you have a Telepass then the barrier will automatically open for you and then calculate the cost as you leave the toll road, conveniently charging it to your credit card.
This allows you to bypass congestion and saves you the trouble of having to pay in cash as you leave the road. To get your own Telepass Box you simply need to register online and a Telepass Box will be sent to you for free. Your Telepass will allow you to travel in much more comfort without the constant hassle of calculating the costs of the tolls as you try to enjoy your travels in Italy.
As well as working on toll roads, Telepass also works on ferries, including the popular Villa San Giovanni to Messina route and from the mainland to Sicily and back. Your Telepass Box also works in many other European Union countries including France, Spain and Portugal among others.
Driving In Italy Should Be A Joy Not A Headache.
Driving in Italy is a wonderful experience and will allow you to really explore the back roads and rural parts in style. However, there are some quirky features of the road system and a few things that you need to keep in mind in order to ensure that your road trip is smooth and goes without a hitch.
Once you’ve mastered the basics though, and picked up the main tips, your journey will be a pleasure and you’ll soon forget that you’re driving in a foreign country as you immerse yourself in the beautiful scenery of Italy.