Italy has an extensive network of autostrade (toll highways), complemented by equally well-maintained but free superstrade (expressways). Save the ticket you're issued at an autostrada entrance, as you’ll need it to exit; on some shorter autostrade, you pay the toll when you enter. Tollbooths also accept Visa and MasterCard, allowing you to exit at special lanes where you simply slip the card into a designated slot.
An uscita is an exit. A raccordo annulare is a ring road surrounding a city; a tangenziale generally bypasses a city entirely. Strade, strade statale, strade regionale, and strade provinciale (regional and provincial highways, denoted by S, SS, SR, or SP numbers) may be two lanes, as are all secondary roads; directions and turnoffs aren't always clearly marked.
You’ll find gas stations on most main highways. Those on autostrade are open 24 hours. Otherwise, gas stations are generally open Monday through Saturday 7–7, with a break at lunchtime. At self-service stations the pumps are operated by a central machine for payment, which often doesn't take credit cards: it accepts bills in denominations of €5, €10, €20, and €50, and doesn't give change. Stations with attendants accept cash and credit cards. It's not customary to tip the attendant.
At this writing, gasoline (benzina) costs about €1.47 per liter and is available in unleaded (verde) and superunleaded (super). Many rental cars in Italy use diesel (gasolio), which costs about €1.31 per liter (remember to confirm the fuel type your car requires before leaving the agency).
Driving in centri storici (historic centers)
To avoid hefty fines (which you may not be notified of until months after your departure from Italy), make sure you know the rules governing where you can and can't drive in historic city centers. You must have a permit to enter many towns, and this rule is very strictly enforced. Check with your lodging or car-rental company to find out about acquiring permits for access.
Parking is at a premium in most towns, especially in historic centers. Fines for parking violations are high, and towing is common. Don't think about tearing up a ticket, as car-rental companies can use your credit card to be reimbursed for any fines incurred. It's a good idea to park in a designated (and preferably attended) lot; even small towns often have a large lot at the edge of historic centers.
In congested cities, indoor parking costs €25–€30 for 12–24 hours; outdoor parking costs about €10–€20. Parking in an area signposted zona disco (disk zone) is allowed for short periods (from 30 minutes to two hours or more—the time is posted); if you don't have an appropriate cardboard disk (check in the glove box of your rental car) to show what time you parked, you can write your arrival time on a piece of paper. In most metropolitan areas you can find curbside parking spaces, marked by blue lines; once you insert coins into the nearby parcometro machine, it prints a ticket that you then leave on your dashboard.
Fiats, Fords, and Alfa Romeos in a variety of sizes are the most typical rental cars. Note that most Italian cars have standard transmission—if you need an automatic, specify one when you make your reservation. Significantly higher rates will apply.
Most American chains have affiliates in Italy, but costs are usually lower if you book a car before leaving home. Rentals at airports usually cost less than city pickups (and airport offices are open later). An auto broker such as www.rent.it lets you compare rates among companies while guaranteeing the lowest price.
Most rental companies won’t rent to someone under age 21. Most also refuse to rent any model larger than an economy or subcompact to anyone under 23, and, further, require customers under that age to pay by credit card. There are no special restrictions on senior citizen drivers. Any additional drivers must be identified in the contract and qualify with the age limits. There's also a supplementary daily fee for additional drivers. Expect to pay extra for add-on features, too. A car seat (required for children under age three) will cost about €36 for the duration of the rental and should be booked in advance. In some areas, snow chains are compulsory in winter months and can be rented for €30–€60—it may be cheaper to buy your own at the first open garage. Upon rental, all companies require credit cards as a warranty; to rent bigger cars (2,000 cc or more), you may be required to show two credit cards.
Hiring a car with a driver can simplify matters, particularly if you plan to indulge in wine tastings or explore the distractingly scenic Amalfi Coast. Search online (the travel forums at Fodors.com are a good resource) or ask at your hotel for recommendations. Drivers are paid by the day, and are usually rewarded with a tip of about 15% upon completion of the journey.
All rental agencies operating in Italy require you to buy a collision-damage waiver (CDW) and a theft-protection policy, but those costs should already be included in the rates you're quoted. Verify this, along with any deductible, which can vary greatly depending on the company and type of car. Be aware that coverage may be denied if the named driver on the rental contract isn't the driver at the time of an accident. Ask your rental company about other included coverage when you reserve the car or pick it up. Finally, try not to leave valuables in your car, because thieves often target rental vehicles. If you can’t avoid doing so—for instance, if you want to stop to see a sight while traveling between cities—park in an attended lot.
Autostrade are well maintained, as are most interregional highways. Typically, autostrade have two or three lanes in both directions; the left lane should be used only for passing. Italians drive fast and are impatient with those who don't. Tailgating (and flashing with bright beams to signal intent to pass) is the norm if you dawdle in the left lane—the only way to avoid it is to stay to the right.
The condition of provincial (county) roads varies, but road maintenance at this level is generally good in Italy. In many small hill towns the streets are winding and extremely narrow, so try to park at the edge of town and explore on foot.
Driving on back roads isn't difficult as long as you're on the alert for bicycles and passing cars. In addition, street and road signs are often missing or placed in awkward spots; a good map or GPS is essential. If you feel pressure from a string of cars in your rearview mirror but don't feel comfortable speeding up, pull off to the right, and let them pass.
Be aware that some maps may not use the SR or SP (strade regionale and strade provinciale) highway designations, which took the place of the old SS designations in 2004. They may use the old SS designation or no numbering at all.
Automobile Club Italiano offers 24-hour road service; English-speaking operators are available. Your rental-car company may also have an emergency tow service with a toll-free phone number: keep it handy. Be prepared to report which road you're on, the verso (direction) you're headed, and your targa (license plate number). Also, in an emergency, call the police (113).
When you're on the road, always carry a good road map and a flashlight—a reflective vest should be provided with the car. A mobile phone is highly recommended, though there are emergency phones on the autostrade and superstrade. To locate them, look on the pavement for painted arrows and the term "SOS."
American Automobile Association. 800/2224357; www.aaa.com.
Automobile Club Italiano. 803/116; www.aci.it.
Alamo. 888/233–8749; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 800/331–1084; www.avis.com.
Budget. 800/472–3325; www.budget.com.
Hertz. 800/654–3131; 02/69430006; www.hertz.com.
National. 877/222–9058; www.nationalcar.com.
Sicily By Car. 091/6390111; www.autoeuropa.it.
Rules of the Road
Driving is on the right. Speed limits are 130 kph (80 mph) on autostrade, reduced to 110 kph (70 mph) when it rains, and 90 kph (55 mph) on state and provincial roads, unless otherwise marked. In towns, the speed limit is 50 kph (30 mph), which may drop as low as 10 kph (6 mph) near schools, hospitals, and other designated areas. Note that right turns on red lights are forbidden. Headlights are required to be on while driving on all roads (large or small) outside municipalities. You must wear seat belts and strap young children under 4 feet 11 inches into car seats at all times. Using handheld mobile phones while driving is illegal—and fines can exceed €100. In most Italian towns the use of the horn is forbidden in many areas. A large sign, "zona di silenzio," indicates a “no honking” zone.
In Italy you must be 18 years old to drive a car. A U.S. driver's license is acceptable to rent a car, but by law Italy also requires non-Europeans to carry an International Driver's Permit (IDP), which essentially translates your license into Italian (and a dozen other languages). In practice, it depends on the police officer who pulls you over whether you'll be penalized for not carrying it. The IDP costs only $15, and obtaining one is easy: see the AAA website (www.aaa.com) for more information.
The blood-alcohol content limit for driving is 0.05% (stricter than in the United States). Surpass it and you’ll face fines up to €6,000 and the possibility of one year’s imprisonment. Although enforcement of laws varies depending on the region, fines for speeding are uniformly stiff: 10 kph over the speed limit can warrant a fine of up to €500; greater than 10 kph (6 mph), and your license could be taken away. The police have the power to levy on-the-spot fines.