So you've given some thought on whether to rent a car in Italy, and decided to go for it. You'll have more freedom, but I do think there are a few things you should know (in no particular order), as I shared with a recent coaching client.
1) Italians have different driving habits than we do so make sure you are aware of them. You can read about Italian driving habits you should know here.
2) Gas is more expensive. The price of gas is of course published in Euros, but it's also sold by the litre not the gallon. And when it comes to numbers, Italians flip periods and commas. If you want to figure out what Euros per litre works out to in USD per gallon, here's how to calculate the price of gas. Or, you can enter your route on ViaMichelin and it will tell you how much to assume for gas and tolls.
3) Definitely get a GPS with your car rental. But where possible, rather than entering an address, use GPS longitude and latitude coordinates of your destination. Addresses are just not as reliable, particularly when (for example) navigating the hills of Tuscany. You'll frequently see that countryside attractions like vineyards will put their GPS coordinates on their website next to their address.
4) If at all possible, avoid driving in the historic centers of Italian cities. Most cities have "limited traffic zones" (referred to as ZTL zones) monitored with cameras which will snap a photo of your license plate and send you a ticket in the mail (via the car rental company). More information on limited traffic zones here. Also note that your GPS will not know where the ZTL zones are.
5) Study up on your road signs – many road signs are different, and you also need to know what the color of a sign means.
6) The law says that foreigners driving in Italy need an international driving permit. You can get one quickly and easily at AAA in the US and Canada.
7) Parking can be expensive and a huge hassle in Italy, so pre-plan where you're going to park beforehand, rather than just thinking you'll figure it out. Parcheggi.it is a good resource for finding public parking lots around the country, and always ask your hotel about parking – don't assume it's free.
8) Here's a great tip on not getting lost while driving in cities (since I know you may not be able to completely avoid it): follow a taxi. If you want to get to your destination without getting lost or stuck in a ZTL zone, keep your eye out for a taxi stand, pull over to the first taxi in line, give the taxi the address of where you're going, and follow the taxi. Trust me, it's well worth the cost.
9) This may be common sense, but never ever leave any thing of value visible in your car, and if you're going to park your car on the street overnight, ask the hotel about the area. Car break-ins are extremely common in Italy.
10) To calculate driving times, use www.ViaMichelin.com rather than google maps. ViaMichelin will also give you estimated fuel costs and toll charges.
Update: After reading this post, John Helm, an architect living in Italy, added some of his own excellent suggestions about driving in Italy on his blog. You can read his comments here: http://johnandluisa.blogspot.com/2011/03/tips-for-driving-in-italy.html
Photo by eye of einstein
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