Driving in Italy: Surviving The Organised Chaos

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So you’re going to Italy for that big upcoming trip and you want to see more than the big cities right? You would like to see some of those cool looking overlooked destinations your read about on a travel blog somewhere.

Renting a car is the easy part, but what about driving in Italy? Sounds scary. You’ve heard stories of those crazy Italian drivers, lousy, narrow roads and confusing street signs, but how bad is it really? These are all reasonable concerns I shared too, but the good news is that it's really not that bad. Be confident and drive Italian and you will blend into the organised chaos of Italian driving just fine.

Renting A Car

Going online and booking a car rental is the easy part, most rental companies are global and picking out one you recognise is no problem. Go with one you know and/or trust, or if you’re looking for a deal using websites like Expedia or Travelocity are good options too. I will often use a booking engine to see who has the best deal and then go directly to that companies website and book. I do this because in my experience I've found that booking directly with the company has its benefits. If something goes wrong they are more likely to work with you and find a solution rather than have you go back to whomever you booked with because you used a third party.

Booking engines may sometimes offer a slightly better rate, but be sure you understand all the terms and conditions that go with it. Making any change to your reservation could void your deal and completely change the great price you thought you were getting. On this trip I went with Sixt because I had a great experience with them in Germany, a fantastic upgrade and a good rate.

When booking your Italian car consider it's size, Italy does have a lot of very narrow roads and going with the same massive SUV you drive at home would add a lot of unnecessary stress to your drive (unless scraping between historic buildings in San Gimignano or squeezing past a bus on a steep, one lane road in Lake Como is your thing).

Choosing a diesel-powered car may also be worthwhile as it costs less at the pump and you will get better mileage. Power and performance is also an important consideration in a country where everyone seems to be speeding all the time. I learned this the hard way because I was given a Fiat Panda for my rental car. If you’re unfamiliar with this car, a Fiat Panda is a small, featureless vehicle with next to zero horsepower that runs on very high RPM’s and therefore has a healthy appetite for a car of its size. I drove nearly 1200 miles and stopped for fuel 4 times! Each time it cost me between €50-60/tank.

Also keep in mind the extra charges/fees that come with your rental, Italy requires excess insurance on their rental cars which may or may not be included in your quoted rate. Not all credit cards will cover you for insurance in all countries so be sure you contact yours prior to booking. Italy also requires snow chains be provided in all rental cars over the winter months which will typically be included in the cost of the rental.

One last thing to add is the International Driving Permit. It’s easy to get, costs around $50, is good for a year and rumour has it you will be asked for one should the police pull you over in Italy. Hopefully you won’t need it, but good to have. The only policing I noticed on the roads in Italy was autovelox (see below) which will not ask you for identification of any kind.

Our Fiat Panda - small, funny-looking and powerless.

Our Fiat Panda - small, funny-looking and powerless.

The Roads

Great, you have your rental car and you’re ready to go, but which way? There are about 80 road signs pointing you in every direction and that’s just leaving the airport car park. Compared to driving in the US, Europe has many, many more roadsigns everywhere and Italy has many, many, MANY more on top of that. Satnav is a good idea, whether you choose to bring one or rent one, it will be your best friend when driving. We used Google maps on our phone and it made things a lot more manageable.

The Italian freeways (autostrada) don’t typically tell you what direction it’s going but use a city name instead. For example, the A1 will say Milano-Napoli, the A10 will be Genoa-Ventimiglia, A21 Torino-Brescia and so on. Smaller highways and regional roads are the same so if you’re not great at Italian geography it could get interesting really quick.

Another tricky bit we found was that often roads will combine and what you knew to be the A1 that you were on is now labelled as an SS or E type highway (regional highways). It’s actually not, it's just shared and still the A1 but you will see a lot of signs for these other highways. 

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The Autostrade are always tolled. Cash and cards are accepted. Just enter the lanes with the signs saying “biglietto” take your ticket and off you go. You are charged for what you use and upon exiting the autostrada you will get another toll plaza. Enter the lanes with the money signs and pay. Rates, roadworks and weather conditions can be found at their official site.


A great alternative to the autostrade are the non-tolled regional highways. They are often a combination of highway and city roads. They go through towns and have many roundabouts, but also are much more scenic and relaxing driving options to the straight-line and hypnotising drive of the autostrada. Free is a good price too!

The Signs

The sheer number of road signs in Italy can be overwhelming, there are many more signs that US drivers don’t see or probably recognise. Some you will know, most you will not, cities, circles with a slash through it, circles with an X, triangles with blue waves, triangles with an exclamation, triangles with a blinking light, a blinking light, the variations are endless.

What I find the most entertaining are the signs that tell you are on a poor road. I often wonder what the cost of putting these signs up versus just fixing the bad road. This to me is the equivalent of a road sign that’s fallen over and rather than fixing it, putting up another sign next to it warning that the original sign has fallen.

Despite the abundance of signs, the ones you need never seem to be there and you can easily miss your turn. There seems to be an enormous number of missing street signs in city and town centres.

This is nothing compared to some of the signs we encountered.

This is nothing compared to some of the signs we encountered.

Italian Driving Style

What about the Italian drivers? They’re nuts, aren’t they? Well yes, but skillfully so. Speed limits seem irrelevant unless there is an autovelox (speed camera) nearby. Drive the speed limit and you will instantly have someone millimetres from your rear bumper who will overtake you at the first possible opportunity.

Lane lines may also be optional at times. Turn signals are for foreigners and if you are timid and think someone will let you in, you will be waiting a long while. Be confident and drive as Italian as you dare. Italians are not defensive drivers, they are confident, skilful and seem to expect unexpected things so if you see a gap in the roundabout go for it (though this can be a problem if you are driving a Panda with negative horsepower).

Unlike driving in the US, Italians are very disciplined on the freeways. Do not drive in the left lane except to pass or you will see nothing but the windscreen of the car behind you with an impatient Italian at the wheel.

Example of an "autovelox" speed camera. Image courtesy of www.belvederenews.net

Example of an "autovelox" speed camera. Image courtesy of www.belvederenews.net

Parking

Parking in any city is a chore. It can be difficult to find and expensive. Italy is no different, but many of the smaller towns and cities we visited have good facilities just outside the city walls. The best advice I can give on parking is if you’re visiting Lucca, use the free parking lots and walk in. Trust me, you won't regret it.

In all driving in Italy isn’t that difficult. Be confident and attentive and do as the Italians do and you’ll be fine. Also, get something other than a Fiat Panda if at all possible.

Have any entertaining stories about driving in Italy (or anywhere else for that matter)? Let us know in the comments!

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