ANYONE with an inkling of common sense, a little pre-trip prep and a solid smartphone or GPS can easily handle driving in Italy. Here are the top Italian driving tips to hit the roads like a pro.
Driving in Italy is safe, fun and a must if you really want to see the land. With a car, nearly all of Italy’s historic, cultural and natural jewels will be yours for the picking. And trust us, hidden gems such as Italy’s South Tyrol region are not to be missed.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Key road rules for driving and parking in Italy
- What you legally need to drive in Italy
- What to do in case of a roadside emergency
- Rental car tips and Italy rental car insurance requirements
- How to easily handle tolls on the Autostrada
- Money and time-saving tricks
- How to easily navigate Italian roads & more
What Side of the Road Does Italy Drive On?
One of the top questions we receive about driving in Italy is what side of the road do Italians drive on. Well, we have some good news for some of you.
Italians drive on the right-hand side of the road (the same as the U.S. and much of Europe). And equally important, the steering wheel is on the left side as well.
If you were fretting about making a mistake on the road due to it being different in that respect, your biggest mental hurdle to driving in Italy is behind you.
What Do You Need to Drive in Italy?
Another common question we receive is whether there is a special “Driving in Italy” license that must be obtained before hitting the road.
By law, Italy requires foreign drivers to be over 18 and possess an International Driving Permit (IDP). While not technically an Italian driver’s license, this document translates your current driver’s license into a format that allows authorities to easily identify you.
Note: Drivers with a valid license issued by any EU member country do not need an International Driving Permit to drive in Italy
How to Obtain an International Driving Permit for Italy
Obtaining an IDP is easy, cheap and needs to happen before you head to Italy. Don’t worry: you do not need to pass any tests. If you are a U.S. resident only two organizations are authorized to issue IDPs: American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA).
To apply, go to one of the above links and print out the application form. You’ll also need two original passport-size pictures (easily available at places such as Walgreens), your valid driver’s license and $20 for the permit processing fee.
By visiting a local AAA branch office you can obtain your IDP within 10-15 minutes. If you choose to apply via the mail allow 4 to 6 weeks so plan accordingly. Once issued, your IDP is valid for one year.
If you are Canadian, visit the Canadian Automobile Association website to obtain an IDP. U.K. residents can discover where to apply for an IDP by visiting here. Update: Italy recently confirmed that U.K licenses issued before January 1, 2021 can be used in Italy until the end of 2022. If you are Canadian, visit the Canadian Automobile Association website to obtain an IDP. Australian residents should visit the Australian Automobile Association.
Helpful Tip: If you are driving in Itay as a tourist, we suggest keeping the permit in the glove box of your rental car so you do not have to worry about forgetting it in your hotel room.
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The Smart Way to Rent a Car in Italy
To get the best deal when renting a car in Italy, conduct online research using a consolidator site such as Auto Europe. Reserve a car before you depart on your trip. With sites like Auto Europe, you can browse multiple car rental options and easily sort by the best price and features.
We’ve had the best luck finding car rental deals through Auto Europe. They offer the most affordable choices, never add hidden fees and provide 24-hour assistance in English. In addition, Auto Europe provides free winter tires, which is required in some parts of Italy if you’re traveling between November 15 – April 15.
Rental car options in Italy default to manual transmission so unless you like cruising around with a stick shift be sure to select automatic transmission when searching. You’ll pay a bit more for an automatic, but the cost is worth it.
When it comes to vehicle size, we always opt for a smaller vehicle such as a Fiat 500. Sure with a smaller car, your odds of looking like a man or woman of international mystery are slim to none, but they are the most budget-friendly. Plus, they allow you to dart down narrow medieval alleys and park with relative ease — something that is especially critical when visiting Naples and other cities brimming with antiquity. The compact vehicles we’ve rented have never had an issue handling mountain roads when hiking in the Dolomites.
To save money with your car rental in Italy, pick it up and drop it off at the same location. For us, this means we book our flights in and out of the same airport. If you drop it off at a location other than where you picked it up, you’ll likely pay a premium. Check out these tips for finding the best flight deals.
Time-saving Tip: Request a Telepass Device When Renting a Car in Italy
If you expect to frequently use Italy’s toll highways known as “autostrade”, we strongly recommend asking the rental car company to provide you with a “Telepass” device for your car. The rental clerk may not think to offer it, but the device is available with some rental car agencies.
This electronic device sits on your dashboard allows you to breeze through tollways without having to stop and make a payment with your credit card or cash. You simply select the “Telepass” lane and the device will beep as you pass through. Toll charges are then automatically applied to the credit card you supplied to the rental car company.
The cost of renting the Telepass device is a few Euros per day, but it will save you time and the hassle of entering and departing the autostrade. If you do not wish to rent the device, we cover how to handle making toll payments below.
Obtain Car Rental Insurance Via Your Travel Insurance Plan
With regards to car rental insurance, the car rental company should include basic, mandated liability coverage for damage to anyone or anything outside the car due to an accident. Italy also by law automatically requires renters to pay for a collision damage waiver (CDW) and theft protection. This is not an add-on and will be included in your car rental rate.
By having CDW insurance the car rental company waives the right to collect a high deductible from you if the car is damaged. This greatly reduces the deductible you would owe if you’re in an accident or damage the car. It also covers most of the car if you are in a collision.
We do not purchase extra insurance as a part of our car rental agreement. Instead, we include it with our travel insurance plan. Travel insurance is the most important item to purchase before any trip abroad. You never
know what can happen while traveling in another country. And most health insurance plans don’t cover international travel.
Purchasing the right travel insurance plan upfront covers injuries, illnesses as well as accidents and trip cancellations that may occur. For only a few dollars a day we consider it well worth the expense for the peace of mind it provides. To compare the best trip insurance plans, we use InsureMyTrip. It’s fast and convenient.
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How to Drive in Italy
When it comes to navigating from one destination to the next, driving in Italy as a tourist has never been easier. The only way to confidently explore the country is with a solid GPS. Consider the following navigation options for a stress-free time on the road:
- Rent a Car with a Built-in GPS System – Odds are your rental car in Italy has the option to include a GPS navigation system for an additional cost or even at no cost.
- Use a Navigation App on Your Smartphone – If your smartphone will have reliable service in Italy, you can receive turn-by-turn directions through navigation apps like Google Maps. Within the last two years, this has been our preferred navigation option as cellular service has improved and the directions are as accurate as a traditional GPS. That said, we still bring our own GPS unit in the event we encounter an area without service.
- Bring a Stand-Alone GPS Unit – Bringing your own GPS unit not only saves you money but also makes departing to your destination easier. Why? Few things are more frustrating than trying to program a rental car’s GPS system when you’re jet-lagged and its default language is Italian or German. You can also save time in Italy by programming sights and destinations into your GPS unit before arriving.
Understanding the Basic Rules of Driving in Italy
Italians are competent and decisive drivers. By knowing the basic rules of driving in Italy, you can hold your own behind the wheel. Just recognize that they will rule the road. And that’s just fine. Driving in Italy as a tourist means you’re not in a race.
When traveling on multi-lane highways such as Italy’s autostrade, only use the left lane if you are passing. Just like in the U.S., the left lane is not the place to act like you’re on a Sunday drive. But unlike in the U.S., cars can come up behind you at incredible speeds on a regular basis. The best thing to do is just get out of their way by keeping to the right.
Even though Italians drive fast, all roads in Italy do have speed limits. On country roads the speed limit is 90 km/h (56 mph), on freeways it is 110 km/h (68 mph) and on the autostrade it is 130 km/h (81 mph). Your best bet is to obey the posted speed limit signs, but apply common sense. Go with the flow of traffic. We always do so without issue.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that Italy does extensively monitor speeds with highway cameras and will issue fines that hit you through your car rental company.
Stop signs and stop lights operate the same in Italy as elsewhere. But it is always illegal to make a right turn at a red light in Italy.
Many other road signs you’ll encounter driving in Italy are intuitive and universal. But some can be confusing so it’s worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the most common. We’ve developed Driving in Italy Cheatsheets you can download to your phone, tablet or print out for easy reference when you’re in your car. We use this guide on every trip to Italy and have found it a true stress reliever for the times when you get flustered on the road and can’t recall a specific rule, sign or guideline.
Italy has no shortage of narrow, winding roads. To help you see what may be coming ahead, mirrors are often posted on the side of the road by corners. Get into the habit of using them to avoid potential problems.
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How to Drive Italy’s Autostrade
Italy’s autostrade (autostrada – singular) are toll highways that require taking a ticket to enter and then paying at drive-up toll booths upon exiting, which happens when you pull into a city, town, etc. (gas stations are conveniently located right next to the autostrade so you do not need to exit to fuel up). Even though you have to deal with tolls, the autostrade makes driving in Italy efficient — allowing you to quickly get from destination to destination.
The autostrade are designated by green signs and with an “A” in front of a number. For example, the toll road from Verona to Bolzano is “A22”. Here’s how to simply use the autostrade while driving in Italy:
Entering the Autostrade – Select a lane with a white sign with the word “Biglietto” (ticket). When you pull up, grab the ticket from the machine and place it where you can easily access it later. The toll bar will automatically rise to allow you to be on your way. The lanes with yellow signs are for residents who have a Telepass, which allows them to zip through the toll without taking a ticket. Note: As mentioned above, you may be able to rent a Telepass device from your rental car company.
Exiting the Autostrade – When you pull up to the toll lanes to exit the autostrade you will see multiple options. As a tourist, you’ll want to select either the lane with the white sign showing a hand with a cash symbol or the lane with the white sign and cash symbol along with credit card symbols on a blue background.
The lane with the hand symbol indicates there is an attendant who will take your ticket and handle the transaction. This lane is cash only. The lane with the cash and credit card symbols is a self-service lane where you insert your ticket in the machine as indicated and then insert a credit card or pay by inserting cash or dropping in coins. The machine dispenses change if necessary. The type of credit card accepted is chip cards (most U.S. cards now have chips) from American Express, Visa or MasterCard. We typically pay with cash or coins in either lane, but have also used our credit cards without any issues. Entering a PIN is not necessary when paying by credit card.
Planning Your Trip on the Autostrade – Before leaving for Italy, it’s worthwhile to map out your road trips to determine if you’ll be using the autostrade and how frequently. It’s also helpful to see if there are viable alternative routes where you can avoid tolls. The tool we use is ViaMichelin. ViaMichelin calculates estimated driving times, fuel costs as well as toll costs.
Additional Italy Road Rules & Driving Tips
Here are some more key rules and tips you should be aware of before driving in Italy:
- Buckle Up – Everyone in the vehicle must wear seat belts.
- Headlights – Headlights are required to be on at all times when on two-lane highways.
- Drinking & Driving – Italy has a 0.5mg blood alcohol limit for drivers. A glass of wine or two can put you over the limit. Watch what you sip or ensure you have a designated driver.
- Children – Leave them at home. (just kidding!). Children under the age of four must be secured in an approved child safety seat. Kids from 4 to 12 must be in a child restraint if they are riding in the front passenger seat.
- Emergency Accessories – Italy requires each vehicle to have a visibility vest for every occupant, as well as an emergency triangle in the vehicle. Your rental car company should automatically include these in the vehicle, but it’s worth double-checking with the agent at the pickup counter. If you forget and need to purchase a vest, they are readily available at gas stations and are inexpensive. No, you do not need to wear these while driving! Just put them on if you pull over to the side of the road and get out for any reason.
- Mobile Phones – If you plan to use your phone while driving, make sure you use a hands-free device. If you plan to text while driving, you are stupido.
- Zona Traffico Limitato or ZTL – When driving in a city or town do not enter areas with a sign that says Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). These are car-restricted areas such as city centers and plazas. Some ZTL areas capture your license plate number with a camera and you’ll receive a hefty fine if you mistakenly enter one. The fine will find its way to your credit card through your car rental company.
- Right of Way – At intersections, vehicles approaching from the right always have the right of way.
How to Properly Park in Italy
Parking in Italy can look like a plate of spaghetti. But knowing your options and what to keep an eye out for will make you much more confident.
Often you can locate free parking outside of towns and cities and take a shuttle to the center. This is ideal to avoid driving in a major city. It can be incredibly hectic…especially when you do not know the language or the local unwritten rules of the road. Plus, driving in a major city in Italy is really unnecessary due to excellent public transportation options.
But if you do need to enter a city we have always been able to find convenient pay lots with the help of our GPS. These lots are straightforward and operate very similarly to those in the U.S.
You take a ticket from a machine when you enter a pay lot. Bring the ticket with you when you leave the car as you’ll insert it into a pay machine before leaving. After you’ve inserted the money, the machine will spit the ticket back to you. Keep the ticket as you’ll need it to exit the lot.
When parking on the street white, blue and yellow lines designate parking places. White lines in most cases indicate free parking, but that can depend on the city so you’ll want to make sure it’s not permit parking only. Blue line parking spaces require payment at a pay machine. These spots require payment from 8 AM to 8 PM except Sundays and holidays when they’re free. Yellow markings are for authorized drivers only, such as the handicapped.
If you’re not sure about a parking space, just move on until it’s clear to you. The last thing you want is to have your vehicle towed.
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How to Handle Roadside Emergencies
During our visits to Italy, we have never had a roadside emergency such as running out of gas, a flat tire, a fender bender, etc. That said, it pays to know upfront how to handle such scenarios in case they happen.
When selecting which company to rent your vehicle from, make sure they offer 24/7 assistance. For example, Auto Europe prides itself on giving you peace of mind throughout your trip no matter where you decide to roam in Italy. If you need assistance, simply contact their support number at any time and follow their directions.
Another option is to call the Automobile Club D’Italia (ACI). The ACI provides 24-hour roadside assistance with English-speaking operators to all drivers in Italy any day of the week. Contact ACI anytime by calling 803.116 from a landline or 800.116.800 from an international number. The ACI offers tow and roadside service without requiring you to be a member.
If you are unable to connect with your car rental provider or the ACI, it’s comforting to know that all major motorways in Italy have emergency phones located every mile. If you need mechanical assistance or emergency help, these phones will connect you with an emergency center.
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Driving in Italy is An Adventure You Should Experience
Most vacationers visiting in Italy will never rent a car. That’s just fine if you’re only venturing into the major cities. But if you’re like us and want to devour all of Italy’s natural, cultural and historical nooks and crannies don’t let anyone talk you out of renting a car.
Yes, you may get lost for a bit or make a mistake that annoys another motorist. So what. Being anxious about driving in Italy for the first time is normal. But with this post and a little pre-trip prep, you will be cruising Italian roads with ease in no time.
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