Italy is a perennial favorite destination among our travelers, who generally prefer to get around by road (instead of train), so they can explore the charming villages in between the big cities. They then find themselves weighing the pros and cons of renting a car vs. hiring a driver. The rules and logistics of driving in Italy can be unfamiliar, even to the most seasoned traveler. So, if you’re planning to rent a car and set out on the autostrada, make sure to heed this advice, offered by Mara Solomon, one of our Trusted Travel Experts for Italy who specializes in large villas and estates of four bedrooms or more.
Italy has a system called Telepass, which allows drivers to pay tolls electronically via a transponder placed on their windshield (similar to the E-ZPass and FasTrak systems used in parts of the U.S.). Until recently, you had to have an Italian bank account to sign up for Telepass, but Europcar is now offering the option of renting a transponder along with your vehicle. This saves you from waiting in long lines at the tollbooths, and the tolls are automatically charged to your credit card; the rental fee is 35 euros, or about U.S. $40.
Traffic has gotten extremely heavy in many parts of Italy—particularly the Amalfi Coast, where there is only one road and it may take two hours to accomplish what should be a 25- to 30-minute drive. You can avoid the headaches on the road by taking a ferry (check here for schedules), though even then it’s wise to book online in advance. When you must drive, try to do so at lunchtime, when the traffic might be lighter.
Many Italian cities now limit the vehicles allowed into their historic centers; these areas are known as the ZTL, or zona a traffico limitato. Only those with resident permits or official licenses are allowed inside; all others risk being fined. “The signs are small, inconspicuous and in Italian of course,” Mara points out. Sometimes there is also a traffic light near the sign. If it’s red, the ZTL is in effect; green means you’re free to drive into the city center. If you are stopped by the carabinieri, politely explain the situation (perhaps you’re trying to get to your hotel) and they might let you pass—or they might send you back to park outside the ZTL. If your rental car is caught on camera illegally inside the ZTL, the fine can show up on your credit card bill even 12 to 18 months after the fact.
Italy’s beautiful hill towns weren’t designed with automobile parking in mind. Most of these towns—and certainly the ones that do any kind of tourist trade—have a parking area outside their walls. Be prepared to walk a moderate distance (usually uphill) from this lot to the town itself. Don’t expect to drive right up and park in front of the clock tower in Montepulciano. These lots, and most parking spots in urban areas, are not free. Find the kiosk or ticket booth where you can insert coins or bills—rarely credit cards—and purchase your time, then leave the receipt on your dashboard.
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