I’ve been to Italy three times so far (yes, I’m a little obsessed) and I’ve rented a car every time. I was initially intimidated by the idea of driving in Italy but it ended up being mostly easy. I definitely had some hiccups along the way – I wish I had some tips for driving in Italy before I went. Don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made!
I’ve broken this post up into four major sections: (1) commonly asked questions before driving in Italy, (2) practicalities when renting a car, (3) advice once you’re on the road, and (4) the four MOST important pieces of advice when driving in Italy. If you read nothing else, read section 3!
Commonly Asked Questions
Before I give you my tips, I wanted to answer a few questions that are important before driving in Italy! My tips may answer them in more detail, but these questions seem to keep popping up.
Which side of the road do you drive on in Italy?
In Italy, you drive on the right hand side of the road. Just like in US (and most of the world!).
Are there tolls in Italy?
Yes, the autostrade (main highways) tend to be toll roads. I have a tip about toll roads in Italy below!
What are roads signs like in Italy?
Road signs in Italy are pretty similar to road signs in the US. You don’t really need to read Italian to understand the signs.
Is it possible to drive in Italy with an American driver’s license?
It is possible to drive in Italy with an American driver’s license, but you’ll need an International Driving Permit before doing so. Read that tip below!
Practicalities when renting a car
1. You need an International Driving Permit (IDP) before driving in Italy
This is basically a driver’s license translated into a lot of different languages. It helps breach the language barrier in the event you’re pulled over. Honestly, I think it’s mostly just a formality – I’ve never had to use mine. Head over to your local AAA and they will get you set up. Fill out a quick application, get a photo taken, and pay the fee and you’ll be good to go.
2. Your car will be a manual unless you specified otherwise.
If you want an automatic, pre-select it when you’re reserving your rental car. Otherwise, getting an automatic when you show up may be difficult.
3. Your car may have an auto shut-off feature.
If you’re stopped for long periods of time the engine may shut itself off. Don’t be surprised – it’s a way Europe helps manage emissions.
4. The vehicles are small. Be mindful of party size & how much you’ll pack when selecting a car.
What I mean: don’t spring for the Fiat 500 if there are four of you in the party. When I visited with a friend last year, we rented a Fiat 500 Cabrio convertible. Our backseat was taken up with our luggage and our “trunk” was filled with purses and other carry-ons. That little car was filled to the gills and there is no way we would have been able to fit a third person, let alone a fourth. Plan appropriately … but trust me, you also don’t want a huge car either! (more on that below)
5. It may be worthwhile to splurge on higher-end collision coverage.
Check your credit card before you leave and understand what your rental coverage is. When in doubt, it may be worthwhile to splurge on the higher-end rental coverage. When I took my language class at Il Sasso, at least two of my classmates had been in accidents. Two! They just got backed into in some small parking lots, but still. I had a number of situations where I was secretly glad I had the higher coverage, even if I didn’t use it.
6. Ask how to return your car to the airport … before accepting the keys.
You would think Rome has a 24/7 type of airport, but unfortunately, I discovered that’s not quite true. When trying to return my rental at 3am the day of departure we were unable to get the car into the parking garage. The garage was double gated and security wasn’t very helpful. My friend snuck by the gates to try and get some help… the Italian police were called … eesh. Good rule of thumb: just return it during daylight hours because then you know the garage will be available and staffed.
7. You’re going to want GPS. Pre-plan what GPS device you’ll use.
The rental counter will offer you a GPS device for something like 14 euro a day. Total rip-off! You’re better off just paying your home carrier $10 a day to have unlimited international data (cheaper, AND you get to use your phone with no hindrance). If that’s too steep, check out my post on staying connected abroad to understand what other options you have.
Advice for once you’re on the road
8. Highway driving is easy – or at least similar to the US!
Seriously. Italian highways are just like American highways. If you are able to stay mostly on the highways, you’ll have no issues driving in Italy.
9. Know the standard speed limits, just in case they aren’t posted.
I would sometimes drive for an hour without seeing a speed limit. So, for your reference, the speed limits (generally) are:
- 130 kmph on major highways
- 110 kmph on non-major highways
- 90 kmph on local roads
- 50 kmph on urban roads
10. The higher speed highways (autostrade) are toll roads – and toll roads can get a little quirky. The high speed highways are toll roads, and it’s important to know how toll roads work in Italy
The toll roads are like 95% easy. My first time in Italy, however, we made a big mistake: we followed the rest of traffic through the TELEPASS lane, and continued our merry little way down the road. A couple hours later, we went to exit the highway and had no pass, no language skills, and a very frazzled toll attendant. Oops.
Don’t do that. The “TELEPASS” lanes are for automated tolling. It’s like the EZ-TAG in Houston: your TELEPASS is detected and your account automatically debited. No, you as a tourist need to go through the manual lane.
When entering a toll road, just go through any non-TELEPASS lane and accept your ticket. DO NOT lose this! And don’t mix it up with any other tickets you’ve taken. Keep it safe for when you exit the Autostrade.
When you go to exit, there will be a bunch of lanes. Again, ignore the TELEPASS lane. If you are paying with a credit card, go through the lane that has a credit card symbol. A machine will speak rapid, robotic Italian at you. Enter your ticket, follow the on-screen prompts, enter your card, and leave when the gate opens.
If you’re paying with cash, go through the lane marked with bills and coins. These lanes are usually manned so you can get assistance if you’re confused. Some lanes accept both credit cards and cash, so I recommend going that route your first time, just in case.
And, on that note… you need to be carrying local currency before you hit the road! If you want to learn about money abroad, check out my post here.
11. Merge lanes are much smaller than in the US.
Seriously, they’re small. Just be prepared and use it as a yield lane when in doubt.
12. Italians have unique driving habits.
There are some cultural quirks that you’ll notice when you’re driving in Italy. They aren’t bad or good, just little things to pay attention to when you’re on the road.
- Italians like to straddle the line. I don’t really get it – maybe it’s to keep them from getting passed?
- They will approach you from behind VERY QUICKLY and then change lanes. It stressed my friend out when we traveled together, so don’t be surprised if it happens to you.
- Italians like to speed. And they’ll get irritated if you get in the way of them speeding.
- If they’re annoyed with you, they’ll flash their headlights or turn their blinkers on to tell you to get out of the way. A cop even did that to me once!
13. There are a TON of convenience stores dotting the highways and they have a lot of amenities.
These things are magical. Ample parking, gas pumps, snacks, drinks, a sandwich & coffee bar, and nice restrooms. If you’re hungry, pull over to one of these and get some snacks. The coffee & sandwich bar follows standard Italian coffee bar etiquette, so if you’re unfamiliar with it, check out my post on ordering coffee in Italy here.
The 4 MOST IMPORTANT pieces of advice
14. Italy patrols speed with the Autovelox and Safety Tutor systems – so don’t speed!
There will be little signs just before the Autovelox or Safety Tutor alerting you to their presence. It’ll be a blue sign with an image of a cop holding his hands up, and these little boxes measure your speed and can send you a speeding ticket months after you get home. I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket, yet, but I also just got back.
15. The hilltop towns can have super narrow, tiny little streets. Be careful!
Remember how I said above that the cars are small and don’t fit much? There’s a reason the cars are small. I’ve only visited Umbria and Tuscany but both regions are famous for their hilltop towns. Some of the towns have adequate roads but some have tiny little bike lanes pretending to be roads.
My friend and I decided to venture to Cortona to see the house in Under the Tuscan Sun. This was fine and dandy until we went to return to the hotel. There were lanes that had literal inches of clearance from our tiny Fiat and there were turns that required 4 or 5 point turns. Very stressful. This is why higher insurance is valuable.
16. Be mindful of ZTLs (zona traffico limitato) and DO NOT enter them.
ZTLs are designed to limit traffic in the historic centers of cities. You should NEVER enter a ZTL unless your hotel tells you it’s ok. Even if they tell you it’s ok, it’s very important to provide them with your vehicle information (make, model, & license plate number) so that it can be registered with the local police. But generally speaking, avoid entering a ZTL at all costs. Stop, turn around, and annoy the locals if need be – every entrance into a ZTL will incur a fine. This is what the signs look like. They are very well marked!
17. And, MOST MOST MOST important – getting gas can be a complicated experience in Italy!
Ok. Two important components of getting gas.
1 – the gas station may be self serve or it may be serviced with an attendant.
The self serve will have a central machine that you pay at after selecting the correct gas pump. These accept credit cards in theory but my card was never accepted. Moral of the story: you need cash.
The attended gas stations should accept cards, as well, but this never seemed to work for me. Again, moral of the story: you need cash. I almost ran out of gas because I was running so low on cash and I couldn’t find a station that would accept a credit or debit card. Don’t make the same mistake as me!
2 – and most important – it is VERY EASY to put the wrong kind of fuel in your vehicle.
BENZINA is GAS. If your car is NOT a diesel, it needs BENZINA.
GASOLIO is DIESEL. If your car is a DIESEL, fill it with GASOLIO.
See how that’s confusing? It’s basically backwards from the American naming convention. To add more confusion – the BENZINA typically has a green pump (much like diesel in the US). For this reason, the attended gas stations are nice… they won’t screw it up. 🙂
Please don’t let this list intimidate you. I had companions the first two times I drove in Italy but I was completely alone for my most recent trip. I promise you, it is not only doable but also quite enjoyable. You can only really enjoy the Italian countryside by car … so take the leap. Views like this await you 🙂
If you’re visiting Italy, I recommend my posts about my trips there. I have visited both Umbria and Montepulciano in Tuscany and fell in love with both locations. And if you want to learn Italian in Italy, I can’t recommend Il Sasso enough.