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Driving in Italy is essential if you want to visit smaller towns without a tour. We knew we wanted to do some wine country touring in Tuscany, so a rental car was definitely in the cards for us.
Here are 7 things to know before you rent a car in Italy. (There’s a slight skew for a U.S. audience but most of this is relevant for all drivers, especially non-EU ones!)
1. You must have an International Driving Permit
To drive in Italy, you must either have an Italian driver’s license or one issued by a European Union country. If you don’t have one of those, you need to get an International Driving Permit.
In most cases, you’ll need to show both your U.S. license and your IDP to rent a car in Italy. (Rental agencies are not required to ask for them, though. But just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean the cops won’t if you’re stopped!)
The International Driving Permit, which translates your driver’s license info into multiple languages, is valid in more than 150 countries around the world. (The most glaring opt-out is China, hence why I did not participate in driving on my northwestern China road trip.)
To get one, all you need is two passport photos, your regular U.S. driver’s license, an IDP application, and $20. If you do it in-person, it only takes approximately 10 minutes for the whole process.
IDPs are valid for one year.
But what if you’re already in Italy without an IDP in hand? Other countries are not allowed to issue International Driving Permits for U.S. licenses.
Instead, you must get a notarized translation of your license. Here’s a sample list of translators from the U.S. Consulate General in Florence.
If you’re in Italy for longer periods of time, you can also mail your application into AAA.
Regular turnaround time is at least 4-6 weeks, though, and even expedited service will take up to 10 business days after your IDP application is received and processed. So that’s really only an option if you’re overseas and realize you need an IDP for a future road trip.
2. It’s best to know how to drive manual
If you’re like me, all you’ve ever driven is an automatic. But as you may know, manual cars are still the dominant type in most of the world.
While you can shop around and look for an automatic rental, you’ll find it much easier to book a car if you know how to drive manual.
You may even find it essential.
Two of our friends went to northern Italy recently and booked an automatic car. They arrived at the rental car office only to be told that while their reservation was for an automatic, that location didn’t have any in the lot that day.
Thankfully, one of them did drive manual growing up, so she begrudgingly drove the manual. Otherwise, their options would have been to wait until an automatic car was returned or find their way to a bigger city where they might have more options. Yikes!
Decide at this point that you’d rather not drive? Good thing Italy’s tourism industry is well-developed and there are plenty of small group and private tour options to choose from instead.
3. Be ready to pack it in
Yes, I know this is more or less a uniquely American thing, but I never fail to feel like a giant when I get into cars in other countries. (Nepal is probably #1 on my list of “places where I hit my head and knees in cars all the time.”)
Fortunately, we’re relatively light travelers, so we didn’t have too much problem fitting ourselves and our stuff in the car. If you tend to travel with more luggage, however, keep in mind that space is limited in most rental cars in Italy.
Say hello to our little Fiat. I can’t imagine a family of four who packs on the heavier side making it work with one of these cars!
4. Be aware of ZTLs
As with driving anywhere new, you should definitely familiarize yourself with Italian road rules and signs before getting behind the wheel. We loved this site’s straightforward, sometimes humorous, rundown.
You should also download an offline translating app like Google Translate to help you make sense of road signs along the way.
But of all the things to know, you should 110% be familiar with and be aware of ZTLs. Zona Traffico Limitato means Limited Traffic Zone, but in many cases, it really means no cars period.
ZTLs exist in the historic areas of many cities and towns, and the signs will often specify when the restriction is enforced and whether there are exceptions.
Rental cars are almost never allowed inside ZTLs during enforceable hours, so don’t go in just because you see someone else do it or because your GPS says so.
If you’re staying in a ZTL area, ask the folks at your accommodations whether they have a ZTL pass for you. For example, one of our hotels in Siena offered a ZTL pass that would allow us to drive in and unload our luggage if we wanted to.
Last note on this topic: don’t try to break the driving laws in Italy just because you don’t see any police around.
Italy has traffic cameras all over the place, and if you drive through a ZTL or otherwise break a law, you’ll likely find a ticket and a fine in the mail sooner or later. They have 360 days to send you the ticket and can collect the fine beyond that deadline. (Our fingers are still crossed that we didn’t accidentally break any laws!)
5. Set your parking disc
This is a nifty little thing we should implement in the U.S.!
Basically, this disc parking system, which is popular in the EU, helps local governments manage free parking spaces that have time restrictions.
Let’s say you find an area that has 2-hour free parking. You park, turn your parking disc dial to the time, and then you make sure to move your car before those two hours is up.
In other words, the little blue disc allows for auto-regulation of parking limits. An enforcer would simply have to check the times on the discs to know if someone has overstayed their welcome. (Why are our parking cops still using chalk on tires???)
6. Have cash for gas stations
Italy has both self-serve gas stations as well as ones with attendants.
If you find yourself at a self-serve station, make sure to have cash in smaller bills.
If you have a true chip-and-PIN card, you should be okay. But for most Americans, true chip-and-PIN cards still aren’t part of our wallets. (Even the high-end travel credit cards are still mostly just chip cards.)
The machines won’t accept cards that aren’t chip-and-PIN, which means you’ll need cash. Except the machines generally don’t give change, either. So that means you should have pretty exact cash.
Try to calculate how much gas your car needs, convert it to liters, and then estimate how much money to put in the machine. It’d suck to put in 50 euros and only need 23 euros worth of gas!
7. Download offline maps
This last one really applies to all travel, whether you’re driving or not!
Download offline maps using Google Maps or Maps.Me to make sure you’re never stuck and unsure of where to go.
If you don’t heed this advice and get stuck, well, at least Italians are super generous and helpful on the roads!
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