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Driving in Italy is fun.
And it is possibly the best way to explore its lesser known regions and towns.
If you have decided to rent a car for your trip to Italy it is a good idea to prepare yourself with information about how to drive in a country whose drivers and roads have a somewhat challenging reputation.
Over the past few years, we have done several Italy road trips using both rental cars and our own car.
We have had a few mishaps – including getting stuck and scraping our hire car on a recent trip to Sicily. But having a car has meant the freedom to explore and find exciting out-of-the-way places.
These are our tips for a driving holiday in Italy. Take note and enjoy your Italian road trip.
I can just see you winding along the Amalfi Coast road!
Car rental in Italy
Renting a car in Italy is straightforward, and there are many options including the usual global car rental companies – Hertz, Avis and Europcar.
We use Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals in Italy and Europe. One way car rental is one of the key requirements we have on our trips and we find that Rentalcars.com finds several options to do this in a cost-effective way.
They also provide a handy 24-hour service hotline should you run into difficulties.
How to choose a rental car in Italy
Sometimes it is the little details that can make a big difference to your trip. Here are our top tips for choosing cars to rent in Italy:
- Choose the type and size of car wisely and avoid large cars. Getting stuck in small streets is almost a rite of passage for anyone driving in Italy but you can make things a little easier for yourself if you rent a smaller car.
- Recent model Fiat 500s are common, surprisingly roomy and have lots of space in the boot/trunk to store luggage out of sight.
- Automatic transmission cars will cost significantly more to rent as the majority of cars are manual or stick shift.
- Prebook child seats as these may not be readily available. We also road tested these travel car booster seats and found them to be a reasonable alternative.
- Build in lots of time for car pick up and drop off when planning your trip as this can take a little longer in Italy especially around lunch time and on weekends.
Legal requirements for driving in Italy
You must be 18 years or older and have held a valid driver’s licence for one year to drive a car in Italy. If you do not hold an EU passport, you will need an International Driver’s Licence as well as your standard issue licence. You can get these permits from your local automobile association.
Minimum insurance requirements apply – see below
Italian road rules
Italians drive on the right-hand side of the road.
All passengers in motor vehicles must wear seatbelts and those riding motorcycles or moped must wear helmets.
The legal blood alcohol limit for drivers is 0.05%.
Speed limits that apply under normal driving conditions.
Motorway/Autostrade – 130 km per hour
Outside built-up areas – 90 km per hour
Built up areas – 50 km per hour
Italian law requires that you carry the following items in your car:
- Documents related to you- proof of identity, the car – proof of ownership/rental and your insurance documents
- Reflective jackets – you must wear these if involved in a breakdown or an accident or on a road where stopping or parking is prohibited
- A warning triangle
- Headlamp beam deflectors
Note – the items should be provided by your car rental company. If you are driving your own car, make sure you have them to hand.
Limited Traffic Zones (ZTLs)
One of the quickest ways to accumulate fines in Italy is to enter historic centres in your car.
Most old cities have Limited Traffic Zones or ZTLs that allow only residents with permits to enter within certain hours.
They are policed by camera and Italian authorities have up to 12 months to collect fines on these infringements. If you have rented a car the charge will be passed on by the car rental company along with a hefty administration fee.
The best way to avoid the ZTLs is to park on the fringes of cities and walk or take public transport into the historical zone. This article has interactive maps of ZTLs in the major cities.
Insurance for your road trip in Italy
Italian law requires all drivers to have full insurance coverage for liability, theft, and collision. This insurance is generally covered in the cost of your car hire. It is designed to cover damage caused in a collision with another vehicle and not single-vehicle damage.
Always make sure you have personal travel insurance to cover injury and personal liability. We use World Nomads for travel insurance in Italy and Europe – it’s quick and easy to organize cover online – click here for more info
Where drivers usually get stung is paying for excess charges – sometimes over €1,500 – as well as the car hire firms fees for administering the claim.
If you are worried about this and don’t want to be stung by the car hire companies high charges you can take out reasonably priced excess reimbursement insurance annually.
Navigation and driving maps for Italy
I strongly recommend not relying solely on digital navigation options, particularly in the south of Italy and Sicily. The roads are very small and some have not been mapped correctly – we learnt that the hard way.
Recommended road maps of Italy
Plan your trip before arriving in Italy using major roads and logical routes as the smaller roads are prone to pot holes and other challenges. Our relatives in Italy showed us how to shave an hour off a trip that was supposedly the fastest route in Google.
You can download your maps and use them offline if needed onto the Google app on your smartphone.
Road signs and other markers are fine on major roads and motorways so use them as generally they show the most logical and direct route.
Driving on the Autostrade – Italian Highways
I think this is where visitors are most afraid of driving in Italy apart from driving in the central zones of the big cities.
The key to driving on the Autostrade is to stay calm and in your lane. Yes cars will be zipping past you at alarming speeds but there is no need to join in.
Just stay in your lane and move to the right well before your exit.
Expect to pay tolls when using the autostrade or highways. You can either pay by cash or credit card. Debit cards are not accepted at some of the toll booths.
Estimate your toll costs by putting your destination into this toll calculator. Where possible pay your tolls in cash to avoid additional card charges.
Tolls in the north of Italy are significantly more than those in the south. We only encountered a few toll stations in Sicily.
Make sure you get in lane early for the toll booth if you want to speak to a person, not a machine.
Autostrade Italian highway rest stops
They may not look anything special but rest stops at service stations on Italian motorways and highways – known as autostrade – are very handy. You can always get a decent and tasty snack or meal, and the bathroom and toilet facilities are usually sparkling clean.
Signs on the autostrade let you know how far it is until the next service stop so you can plan breaks accordingly.
Unfortunately, unlike French highway stops we haven’t found many play areas for children or outdoor seating areas in Italian rest stops.
Parking in Italy: towns and cities
Finding a secure car spot, in a central location for a reasonable rate can be difficult in Italian cities.
Having learnt my lesson the hard way in Lucca, I now make a point of researching the best places to park in each city we visit. There is nothing more frustrating than wasting time driving around trying to find a car park when you are travelling.
We look for secure, underground car parks where possible. A simple Google or TripAdvisor search will help find these tips. There seems to be a bit more decorum when parking in these facilities than on the street where anything goes.
Parking on the street is possible however you may be limited in terms of time. Look for blue zones where the car spaces are marked in blue. You pay for parking either at machines or a nearby tabaccaio or tobacco shop and then display the ticket on your dashboard.
Do not expect people to park neatly. Haphazard parking styles are one of the funniest things you will see in Italy. Well, they are funny until you are wedged into your spot.
Keep your coins for parking. We did not find many places that accepted cards in the south of Italy in particular.
What to do if you have an accident
Firstly check that everyone is ok and if necessary call the authorities using the emergency numbers below. Accidents must be reported to the police within 48 hours.
If there has been damage to your or another car you must complete a CID, also called CAI Constatazione Amichevole di Incidente.
You must carry this in the vehicle and it will be provided by your car hire company.
Fire Brigade 115
Final common sense advice for your Italy road trip
Listen to and follow instructions if given by hotels or tour companies. Take it from me, they know better than Google!
Ask for help if you get stuck. If you find yourself wedged in between stone walls with the only option looking like doing some severe damage to your hire car, do ask a local for help. Italians are kind and helpful and used to helping visitors resolve driving issues in their country.
Obey the road rules even if it seems like everyone else is not. Revenue raising by collecting fines is not restricted to your home country. You don’t want your lasting memories of Italy to be a €500 fine.
Keep an eye out for scooters and mopeds as they weave in and out of traffic
Fuel is either gasolio (diesel) or benzina (petrol)
Use the mirrors on winding roads to check for oncoming traffic
Slow down and enjoy the drive
Driving in Italy is an excellent way to get off the beaten track and explore new areas.
All it takes is some planning, and you will be on your way to an incredible Italian adventure. You can find more tips for travelling in Italy here.
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