If you have cause to drive in Italy — and if you want to visit the hinterlands you likely will find yourself navigating the hills and valleys in a rental car — you may be daunted by the prospect of an otherworldly road experience. I know I was. So here’s a small guide — based, mind you, on only two weeks experience — for North Americans looking to take the plunge.
First, rent the smallest possible car you can that will fit your party and its luggage. There are 2 or 3 classes of rental cars smaller than the smallest possible car you can rent in the U.S. or Canada; get one of those if you can. You’re going to find yourself driving through impossibly narrow streets and alleys at times, and if you rent that comfortable-looking Volvo sedan you’re going to regret it. You’re also going to pay about double what you’re used to for gasoline in Italy (albeit in more fuel efficient cars), and you’re going to want the maximum parking flexibility. So go small.
Of course when you’re speeding down the autostrada at 120 km/h in your tiny SMART car with trucks all around and BMWs zooming by you doing 180 km/h you’re going to feel tiny and vulnerable. But that is a good feeling to have, because you are tiny and vulnerable, and there’s no use trying to insulate yourself from that with bigger doors or better shocks.
You’ll have all the regular chains — AVIS, Hertz, etc. — available to you at most airports, plus European or Italian agencies as well. The past two times I’ve gone looking, booking through easycar, which often acts as a broker for others, has resulted in rates 50% lower than anything else I’ve found. Your mileage may vary.
Next, get familiar in advance with the basic Italian road signs: knowing the difference between “Do Not Enter” and “No Parking Here” is really useful. As is knowing words like “Exit” and “Entrance.” If you get an International Driving Permit from CAA or AAA you’ll likely get a handy booklet about all this; study it a little on the plane ride over.
You will find yourself paying a lot more road tolls than you are used to. Make sure you leave the airport with some cash. Generally you’ll enter a toll road and receive a ticket from an automated machine and then, when you exit sometime later, you’ll pay the poll either to a person or a machine. The machines take bills and coins and have English text, and it’s pretty easy to figure everything out. Just be sure to stay out of the lanes marked “Telepass” — you don’t have one of those. Just use the lanes marked with a graphic of cash and you’ll be fine.
As to driving itself, it takes some getting used to. The best mindset to enter with is that you’re going to become part of a living traffic organism. If you come to understand how that organism works, and what other parts expect from you and what you can expect from them, you’ll do okay. If you try to drive like you’re in Summerside then you will get quickly frustrated (and will likely attract the wrath of other drivers).
Of course the only way to actually learn how the organism works is to join right in. So expect some early wrath enduring and just try not to do anything too stupid you’re first time out (you can always take the next exit instead of veering across 3 lanes and over a median).
In general it’s safe to assume that absolutely anything is possible, and indeed likely. Spaces you wouldn’t think that delivery truck could squeeze into — it will. The car that looks like it’s pulling out to pass you on a blind mountain curve actually is.
The traffic wants to flow; anything that stops the flow will be rejected or routed around like a foreign invader. You never, ever stop for pedestrians, even at crosswalks. Get used to roundabouts, and understand how they work, because there are thousands of them, and the flow demands you glide through them without hesitation.
While driving on the highways and super-highways will be familiar to you — with the exception of the very, very, very fast drivers and the 120 km/h speed limit — driving inside cities, town and villages is likely a breed apart from anything you’ve ever experienced. Italian cities evolved long before the automobile so they’re not optimized for it. There are more one-way streets, more “turn right, then left, then right, then left, then U turn” moves required. And, as I suggested above, narrower streets than seems physically possible.
The best way to know if something is possible — “could my car actually fit in that tiny space” — is to watch what others are doing. Indeed that’s the best way to learn everything you need to know.
Once the driving stops, the search for parking starts. In my experience almost every community of any size (with the possible exception of Milan) has parking available somewhere. Usually your best tactic if you want to see the centre of a given town is to get off the highway and follow the signs for “Centro”. Then you look for the big white-on-blue “P” signs, which will generally lead you to underground parking garages (in towns and cities), or community parking lots just outside the village centre (for smaller places). Sometimes you’ll pay for parking, sometimes you won’t.
If you’re booking a hotel in your next city along the highway, ask if they have parking. Suburban hotels likely will have their own lot; downtown hotels sometimes have a garage of their own, or an arrangement with a nearby garage, but you’ll likely pay 15 to 25 EUR a day for the privilege (although we only paid 5 EUR a day in the off season in Genoa).
Of course it’s possible — very possible — to visit Italy without a car at all. You can take the train, or the bus, between major cities, and even into the hinterlands. But by doing so you will miss the joy of taking a random exit off the highway and finding yourself, 5 km up the road, in the middle of a 1000 year old village with a great view of the Alps. The next time we’re in Italy we’ll likely not rent a car; Florence, Rome and Venice beckon and there’s no reason to have a car there. But this trip I’ve certainly glad we had one, as it allowed us to see parts of the country that would have otherwise been unaccessible to us.