Driving in Italy is an interesting experience and varies greatly depending on which part you are in. There are significant advantages to hiring a car in Italy.
- You can get to more remote, off-the-beaten-track villages and attractions that would be difficult to reach by public transport.
- If there are a few of you it is often the cheapest way to travel.
- You can carry more stuff! As a serious over packer I find this very useful!
- You can travel at your own pace rather than relying on the organised tour brigade.
- It can be very rewarding. Italy has a very interesting and picturesque landscape begging to be explored.
That said, driving in Italy can be daunting. Italian drivers have an intimidating reputation and in some parts deservedly so, but with this simple guide you can enjoy driving in Italy with ease.
10 tips to Driving in Italy
Italians drive on the right and over take on the left.
Traffic lights work the same as most of the world but if you are from the US or Canada remember that you CANT turn right on a red.
Zona traffico limitato and zona pedonale are pedestrian areas where cars are either not permitted or limited.
In Italy, driving is not permitted with a blood alcohol content over to 0.5g per litre, which is the same as most of Europe.
Speeding. Speed limits are shown by a red and white circle with the number in kilometers in the middle.
The speed limit is enforced by many automatic speed cameras. If you have hired a car and get caught speeding the ticket will be sent to the hire car company (who have your credit card details) and Italy being Italy fines can be sent several months or even a year after the incident took place. The same is true for parking tickets. So don’t think you’ve escaped just because you’ve left the country!
Driving Permits. In theory you should have an international driving license to drive in Italy but this is very rarely checked. If you live outside the EU it is worth getting in your home country before driving in Italy just in case you have an incident.
2. Hiring a car
Hiring a car is pretty straight forward but remember that the nearly all the cars are manual so if you are only familiar with an automatic you’ll need to take this into account.
If you are intending to hire from one location and return to a different location you will likely be charged a one way fee which will be paid at the location that you drop off.
Many hire companies reserve the right to charge a cleaning fee which includes excess sand in your car so it is worth visiting a garage with a vacuum cleaner before returning the car.
You’ll also be expected to return with a full tank or the same amount of fuel you started with – do this as they will charge you more than the fuel station would do if they have to do it.
Watch the excess! Many hire cars charge a crazy excess should you damage the car or if it is stolen. Reducing this excess can cost several hundred euros often doubling what you thought you were paying for your hire car when you get to the counter. Check your travel insurance – our travel insurance covers quite a good portion of these extortionate excesses making the different only €200/€300 euros should the worst happen.
We’ve hired with several different companies on our journey so far, Europcar and Rentalcars.com but our firm favourite for price and customer service was Hertz.
3. Using the horn
Italians are fond of sounding the horn! In fact while I’m sat here writing this blog I’m listing to the ‘car horn soundtrack’ in the street below.
However, it doesn’t always signify that you’ve done something wrong. Italians will sound their horn when they see someone they know and as a thank you if you’ve given way to them. They will also sound their horn as a warning. For example instead of waiting for you to reverse they sound their horn to let you know they are there and will then often squeeze past you. They are an impatient bunch and will also sound their horn loud and long if you’ve done something to upset them or are just generally deemed as being in the way but don’t take it personally – it isn’t unusual!
4. Italian roads
Bear in mind that aside from the highways, most Italian roads were built for horses and carts then bikes, small cars and mopeds and they really haven’t progressed much since. A lot of the roads are incredibly narrow (especially in towns) and very uneven with broken tarmac in places. In general the roads in the north tend to be in much better condition than the south.
Roundabouts are very popular in Italy and Italian drivers, particularly in the south do not give way. You need to be forceful at a roundabout otherwise you’ll be sat there for hours and will hear plenty of the loud and long sounding horn mentioned earlier!
Don’t drive in cities. As with most large cities in Europe, driving is not a good idea and Italy is no exception. You’ll often move around more quickly and cheaply by using public transport or walking. Check out our visit to ‘Rome with Kids’ to see how we explored the whole city on foot!
5. Watch out for tolls
If you are by a city which requires getting on and off the autostrata you are going to pay a lot in tolls. We drove from Rome to South Tyrol which cost us €45 in tolls and the return journey to Naples (2 hours further) cost us €60 in tolls. While staying in Naples we easily spent €5-€10 a day in tolls.
On the islands of Sardinia we didn’t see any tolls and in Sicily there are two toll roads but free alternative routes as well.
6. Fill up regularly
Particularly if you are visiting the islands (Sardinia and Sicily) or more remote areas of Italy fuel stations are few and far between. They are also not always open! We found this out the hard way!
Fuel in Italy is fairly expensive all over but it is very expensive on the islands. Fuel stations vary between self service and a managed service but are mostly self service and often not manned at all.
It goes without saying to check what fuel you need to put in your car but you may be surprised to learn that ‘gasolio’ is actually diesel and ‘bensina’ is the word for unleaded gas.
7. Best and worst days of the week to drive
In the summer months Saturday can be a busy day to drive as this is the changeover day at most hotels and holiday facilities. Sunday is a good day for driving in Italy as it is by far the quietest day on the roads. Service stations and bathroom facilities are not particularly great and tend to be very, very busy on the autostrata.
Monday is by far the worst day to drive. This is the day the trucks are all on the road and beware! They rarely indicate and will move into your lane without warning. We had a very intense drive from Verona to Venice on a Monday morning that I’d rather never repeat.
Parking in Italy is pretty simple. White marked bays are free, blue are paid for usually by a meter on the street and yellow are either reserved for permits or for disabled users.
Most hire cars come with a small time display attached on the windshield. You move the wheel to show the time that you arrived in a paid area so that any parking attendant can check how long you have been parked in that spot.
Mopeds riders are meant by law to wear their helmets and follow the rest of the laws of the road but quite simply few do. Particularly in and around Naples you’ll see whole families including very young children balanced on a moped, you’ll see tourists that are far to busy admiring the views than watching the road, and you’ll regularly see riders take their lives in their own hands weaving between cars within inches.
While the romantic notion of riding around the Amalfi Coast on a Vespa, the wind blowing in your hair may see appealing the reality is very different. If you value your life, don’t hire a moped!
10. Road tripping with kids
Most hire cars will offer the option to book a booster seat with your car hire. We carry our own travel car seats by Mi-fold which pack down to nothing and give the children free movement within the car.
This was important for long journeys where the kids were in the car for 8-10 hours. I never thought my kids would manage such long journeys. Back in the UK they would barely ride for 2 hours without hearing the inevitable ‘are we nearly there yet’. It is testament to just how beautiful and visually entertaining driving in Italy is that both kids were perfectly happy with a few snacks, travel games and an audio book for not one but two very long journeys.
OK so I have to admit that I’ve not been the driver on our Italian tour. It is often far cheaper to hire a car with one main driver. Lee can handle much longer driving stints than I can and I am far better than him at navigating so it makes sense that for the most part Lee is our family designated driver. So let’s hear his thoughts to summerise driving in Italy.
‘My biggest tip for driving in Italy would be patience. If you give other roads users a lot of space and don’t assume that they’ll extend the same courtesy to you you’ll be fine. The north is definitely more enjoyable to drive around than the south. If you are nervous or aggressive driver I’d stick to the north! There’s a lot to be said for driving in Italy from the access and freedom it gives you but it is an experience’.