One of my favorite ways to tour a country is by road tripping. I enjoy the freedom of going anywhere at any time, not being held to someone else’s schedule. When the #AdventurePartnerForLife and I started planning for our northern Italy road trip, however, we came across a couple of things that weren’t typical for road tripping in the rest of Europe. So, I thought it might be helpful to write about them. And to include some other road-tripping basics along with it. If you ever decide that road-tripping Italy is your kind of vacation, then take a read through these useful tips for driving in Italy before you go.
International Driver’s Permits
As an American who’s done a couple European road trips, you don’t need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) often, but Italy is one of those countries that you do need one. The good news is it’s really easy to get one. We just went to our local American Automobile Association (AAA) office and got one on the spot.
- Get your initial questions answered online.
- What they’ll ask you and what’s in a formal application.
- Locate your nearest AAA office.
- Understand Italy’s driving basics (scroll down to “Car & Motorcycle”).
In short, bring a current US driver’s license and $20. They’ll take your photo right there and send you on your way. Your international driving permit must be accompanied by a valid US driver’s license and is good for one year. Probably #1 on the list of tips for driving in Italy.
Credit Card Car Rental Insurance
The hubs and I never fork out the cash for additional insurance when we rent. This is because we’re covered through our credit card company, anyway. You might be, too. If you rent using said credit card, and if your credit card covers rental insurance in country X that you’re traveling in. We also travel enough (without incident) that we haven’t found separate travel insurance to have the desired return on investment. But if you prefer insurance for peace of mind, definitely check into this because it’ll save you a bundle.
Availability of Automatic Car Rentals
It’s not uncommon in southern Europe for a lot of car rentals to be manual. You’ll have to scroll a little longer through the rental options on your booking site to get to the automatics. Just make things easy on yourself and use a filter if you can’t drive stick.
A note as well that automatic rentals are always more expensive than manuals, sometimes significantly more expensive. It might be a good idea to reserve extra early certain times of the year (high tourist season, festival times, etc.). And, it’s cheaper to reserve ahead of time in general, as opposed to renting on arrival.
My favorite European car rental company has always been Sixt. They typically have competitive pricing and great customer service.
Oh—rent a super tiny car, too. American-sized cars are not at all practical in Europe. You’ll thank me later. Definitely another one of the top tips for driving in Italy!
Global Positioning Services (GPS)
You’ll likely want GPS. You can certainly add on navigation with your rental, but if you want to save money, use your phone.
- If you have free international data on your phone like the #AP4L and I do, this makes things easy. It’s just a little slow sometimes. (T-Mobile, by the way.)
- If you don’t have free data, download your directions ahead of time with your free hotel WiFi. The downside is, if you get lost, you have to find another WiFi source. Or, *GASP*, ask an actual human being for directions. (Don’t worry—most people speak English. Use Google Translate on your phone if they don’t.)
- Even if you do have free data, it’s a good idea to download your directions in the event you get into a no-coverage zone.
- Most car rentals now have navigation screens. Plug your phone in and see your directions on a larger screen.
Just know that driving in Italy isn’t like driving in the Sahara. No matter where you are, you’re relatively close to assistance if you need it.
Definitely confirm that your hotel or AirBnB has its own parking. And how much it costs. I would not bank on finding parking in any Italian downtown areas. Even in smaller cities we drove through, there wasn’t available parking anywhere near our hotel. A lot of pedestrian zones. Parking costs can really rack up, too. Sometimes 25€ a night. Keep those costs in mind as you select places to stay.
Driving in Downtown Areas
A fair warning that driving in any downtown area in Italy is not for the faint of heart. It was totally fine once we got onto the highways, but downtowns can be tricky even for the most skilled of drivers.
- Drivers are generally more aggressive downtown. This isn’t just Italy, obviously, it’s everywhere.
- The roads can be very narrow from an American perspective. (This is why you want a tiny car.)
- The parking spots can be very tight. (Also why you want a tiny car.)
- You’ll find a lot more traffic circles. And I’m not talking small-town, one-lane English traffic circles. I’m talking multi-lane, tons of cars going at high speeds kind of traffic circles. Know how to navigate them, especially with a lot of cars and a lot of lanes.
- There are a lot of one-way streets, and GPS isn’t always up-to-date on them. Be ready to improvise, if necessary.
- Make sure you have your international driver’s permit and US driver’s license with you. (Duh.)
Yes, there are toll roads in Italy. I’ve read mixed reviews on using US credit cards at the toll machines. Not all US credit cards have chips, which are prevalent in Europe. If you do have a chip, you may not have a PIN and you’ll need to sign for your purchase. Because of this, it’s probably not best to rely on your American credit card for the automatic Italian toll machines. That, and I’ve read that it’s not uncommon for the machines to be broken.
So, make sure you have cash. A solid amount. (The tolls aren’t cheap.) And make sure you don’t drive through the Telepass lanes. You’ll get a fine mailed to you through your car rental company. Accompanied by a fee from the rental place for having to process your ticket in the first place. I speak from experience.
There is a prepaid option called the VIAcard, but we didn’t personally try it out. I’m told you can pick them up at any gas station. They have a minimum deposit amount on them that you don’t get back until you turn the card back in.
If you want a real adventure, toggle the toll roads setting off on your GPS and explore all kinds of small towns and side streets. Just be prepared for questionable conditions of certain roads is all.
More Tips for Driving in Italy?
I’m sure the list of tips on how to survive driving in Italy is much, much longer in actuality. Any more to add? Comment away, or shoot me an email.
This list of top tips for driving in Italy isn’t meant to scare anyone. It’s simply the practical reality. Just be aware, be alert, and be safe. You’ll be fine. Now go have an adventure!