Driving in Italy

Tips on everything from renting a car in Italy to Italian road signs, road rules, and saving money on car rentals

Large cars have trouble driving in Italy
There are two reasons not to rent a large car in Italy. First, gas is expensive enough (around $6 to $8 a gallon) without having to feed a big engine haul around an oversized chassis. More importantly, the winding Italian roads and narrow ancient streets of its medieval towns were built with pedestrians and horse carts in kind, not wide-bodied luxury sedans.
The wind in your hair, the autostrada stretching before you, the freedom to explore at will, the fact that speed limits are fairly optional... A car is the only way to see all of Italy's nooks and crannies.

This section covers in depth tips on renting a car in Italy (and looking into short-term leases to save on rentals of longer than two weeks), everything you need to know about the rules of the road in Italy, driving tips, and Italian road signs, a primer on the metric system as it pertains to driving (converting kilometers to miles and liters to gallons), and tips for saving money on car rentals.

You can click on those links above for detailed information on each subject, or just scan the quick take of top tips listed below, a collection of all the vital info you really need to know for renting a car and driving in Italy.

Top 10 car rental tips

  1. Book from home. Don't wait until you're over there to rent a vehicle. It is invariably cheaper to rent a car from the United States. Most major European rental agencies are now part of, or affiliated with, the big U.S. agencies (Hertz, Avis, etc.), so going direct to the Italian ones doesn't yield a better deal. » more

  2. Use an aggregator to determine a base fare. Research the going retail rates at various major rental outfits, booking sites, discounters, and travel agencies by using a meta–search engine called an aggregator: RentalCars.com, AutoSlash.com, Momondo.com, Vayama.comLink, Kayak.com, DoHop.com, Mobissimo.com. Then see if you can beat them with a consolidator (next step). » more

  3. See if a consolidator can beat those prices. Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com) - offers consistently lower prices than the Big Five, Auto Europe actually works a bit like an airfare consolidator, so you still pick up the car at some local European office of, say, Avis or Europcar...you just end up paying less for it. This is almost always my first choice when I need to rent, and since they now do leases as well, it's the best one-stop-price-shopping for the best option. » more

  4. Always get the full rate. Rental companies love to stick it to you with low initial per-day rates, then add on all sorts of bells-and-whistles at the last moment (insurances, taxes, road fees, one-way charges to pick up in one city and drop of in another, etc.). Italy has an annoying law that require you to buy the CDW (collision damage waver) and TP (theft protection) from the car rental company. You just have to suck that one up. But any for any other insurance—or if you're visiting other countries on your trip and can arrange to pick up your rental elsewhere—buy any other insurances separately, from a third company (use the comparison site www.insuremytrip.com). This will be cheaper and, from an insurance point of view, a bit safer. Also, don't forget to inspect the car before you drive off. If any pre-existing nicks, scratches, dents, or other damage is not indicated and initialed by a local employee on your rental form before you leave, you will be liable for it when you return the vehicle (oh, and they will charge you an arm and a leg, believe me; even with CDW, you will still have a deductible to satisfy before the insurance kicks in). » more

  5. Don't rent more than you need. We're talking both the time you'll need the car, and the kind of car you'll need.
    • First, rent for as short a period as possible. Don't rent a car for the full two weeks if you're spending your first four days in Rome. You don't need a car in Rome (driving is insane, street parking impossible to find, and garages expensive). In fact, you don't need (or want) a car in any major city: Naples, Florence, Milan, Palermo, etc.—and you literally can't drive one in Venice. Public transport in cities is fast, efficient, and cheap (see Tip 6 below for more). Arrange to connect major cities by train, and just rent the car for the shorter period when it is truly useful (hilltowns of Tuscany & Umbria, say, or exploring Sicily or Apulia).
    • Second, don't rent more than you need when it comes to the car itself. A smaller car will give you better gas mileage, cutting down costs (and make it easier to navigate the winding road and narrow streets). If you can drive a manual, stick-shift is always cheaper than automatic (and also gives better gas mileage). » more

  6. Forget driving in cities. See above. Not only are many cities—notably Florence and Romeimplementing a ZTL ("Zone of Limited Traffic"), which makes driving into the historic center either impossible or expensive, it just makes no sense to have a car in a city. Avoiding having a car in the city also also niftily helps you avoid the airport pick-up surcharges, since the ideal itinerary has you picking up a car at a downtown office on your last day in one city (rather than at the airport when you arrive, only to drive the thing downtown and garage it for several days), and then dropping it off as soon as you arrive at the last big city. Congratulations. You just shaved several days (and several hundred dollars in rental and parking fees) off your rental period. » more

  7. Look into short-term leases. If you're renting a car for 17 days or longer, look into a short-term lease. All things being equal, this will usually cost less than a similar rental (especially as the period gets longer; at 30 days or more, only a fool would rent rather than leasing), plus it comes with all insurances, no deductible, and a brand new car. » more

  8. Consider a rail-and-drive pass. Just need a car for a few days of a longer trip (such as to tour the Tuscan hilltowns in the middle of a longer trip spent taking trains between the big cities)? Look into the Italy Rail n' Drive PassRailpass that get you several days of unlimited rail travel along with several days of car rental. You can add car days as needed to customize the pass to fit your schedule. » more

  9. Follow all driving rules and regulations and road signs. OK, so everybody else speeds in Italy. That doesn't mean you should. You should drive defensively and cautiously. Yes, Italian drivers are aggressive. Do not attempt to imitate them. See, they know the rules of the road—both the meanings of all the road signs and official regulations, and the unwritten rules of how people drive in Italy (like how you should slow down and drive a bit on the shoulder to let a larger, faster car pass you, even if he insists on doing this on a blind curve of a meandering, two-lane country road). You do not know these rules, and that is a formula for trouble. Also: obey all no-parking signs. Italian cops have gotten brutal about ticketing (and even towing) illegally parked cars (and any unpaid tickets will find their way to you via the car rental agency, which will attach a whopper of a fee for their troubles, along with the probable late penalties on the ticket itself). Also know that an increasing number of Italian cities—notably, Florence—are closing off their historic centers to non-resident traffic by use of automated ZTL zones and traffic cameras—again, the fines will find you. » more

  10. Leave the driving to someone else. A rental car is great—but not always the right choice, even when you need to take a road trip in Italy. The truth is, if you plan to take a classic daytrip or excursion (to the Tsucan hilltowns from Florence, down to Pompeii from Rome, along the Amalfi Coast, around Lake Como) you can often hire a privte driver and guide more cheaply than it would cost you in rental fees, gas, tolls, and sight admissions to do it on your own. Plus, thsi way someone else—who already knows where he's going—gets to worry about the logicitcs, traffic, parking, etc. You just have fun and see the sights. Also, this is the only truly fair way to tour wineries, since otherwise the driver in your family or party would have to abstain. » more

Tips & links

Car rental & driving resources
  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: Autostrade.it (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA): Aci.it
  • ZTLs: Ztl-italia.blogspot.com (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)


Useful Italian phrases for car travel
car automobile (ow-toh-MO-bee-lay)
macchina (MAH-keen-ah)
gas benzina (ben-ZEE-nah)
diesel gasolio (gah-ZOH-lee-oh) / diesel (DEE-zell)
Fill it up, please al pieno, per favore (ahl pee-YAY-noh, pair fa-VOHR-ray)
Where is... Dov'é (doh-VAY)
...the highway l'autostrada (lout-oh-STRA-dah)
...the road for Rome la strada per Roma (lah STRA-dah pair RO-mah)
to the right à destra (ah DEH-strah)
to the left à sinistra (ah see-NEEST-trah)
straight ahead diritto (dee-REE-toh) / avanti (ah-VAHN-tee)
keep going straight sempre diritto (SEM-pray dee-REE-toh)
thank you grazie (GRAT-tzee-yay)
please per favore (pair fa-VOHR-ray)
yes si (see)
no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? (PAR-la een-GLAY-zay)
I don't understand Non capisco (non ka-PEESK-koh)
How much is it? Quanto costa? (KWAN-toh COST-ah)

» more
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  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: Autostrade.it (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA): Aci.it
  • ZTLs: Ztl-italia.blogspot.com (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)

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