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Italy has an extensive network of autostrade (toll highways), complemented by equally well-maintained but free superstrade (expressways). Save the ticket you are issued at an autostrada entrance, as you need it to exit; on some shorter autostrade, you pay the toll when you enter. Viacards, on sale for €25 and up at many autostrada locations, allow you to pay for tolls in advance, exiting 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, while a tangenziale bypasses a city entirely. Strade regionale and strade provinciale (regional and provincial highways, denoted by S, SS, SR, or SP numbers) may be two-lane roads, as are all secondary roads; directions and turnoffs aren't always clearly marked.
Gas stations are along the main highways. Those on autostrade are open 24 hours. Otherwise, gas stations generally are open Monday-Saturday 7-7, with a break at lunchtime. At self-service gas stations the pumps are operated by a central machine for payment, which doesn't take credit cards; it accepts only bills in denominations of 5, 10, 20, and 50 euros, and does not give change. Those with attendants accept cash and credit cards. It's not customary to tip the attendant.
At this writing, gasoline (benzina) costs about €1.33 per liter and is available in unleaded (verde) and superunleaded (super). Many rental cars in Italy use diesel (gasolio), which costs about €1.18 per liter (ask about the fuel type for your rental car before you leave the agency).
Parking is at a premium in most towns, especially in the centri storici (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 you incur. It's a good idea to park in a designated (and preferably attended) lot. And don't leave valuables in your car, as thieves often target rental cars.
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 a cardboard disk (check in the glove box of your rental car) to show what time you parked, you can use a piece of paper. In most metropolitan areas you can find the curbside parcometro: once you insert change, 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, so if you need to rent an automatic, be specific when you reserve the car. Significantly higher rates will apply.
Most American chains have affiliates in Italy, but the rates are usually lower if you book a car before you leave home. A company's rates are the standard throughout the country: rates are the same for airport and city pickup; airport offices are open later. An auto broker such as AutoEurope.com can allow you to compare rates among companies while guaranteeing lowest rates.
Most rental companies will not rent to someone under age 21 and also refuse to rent any car larger than an economy or subcompact car to anyone under age 23, and, further, require customers under age 23 to pay by credit card. Additional drivers must be identified in the contract and must qualify with the age limits. There is likely a supplementary daily fee for additional drivers. Upon rental, all companies require credit cards as a warranty; to rent bigger cars (2,000 cc or more), you must often show two credit cards. There are no special restrictions on senior citizen drivers. Book car seats, required for children under age 3, in advance (the cost is generally about €36 for the duration of the rental).
Hiring a car with a driver can come in handy, particularly if you plan to do some wine tasting or drive along the Amalfi Coast. Search online (the travel forums at fodors.com are a good resource) or ask at your hotel for recommended drivers. 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 that you buy a collision-damage waiver (CDW) and a theft-protection policy, but those costs will already be included in the rates you are quoted. Be aware that coverage may be denied if the named driver on the rental contract is not the driver at the time of the incident. In Sicily there are some roads for which rental agencies deny coverage; ask in advance if you plan to travel in remote regions. Also ask your rental company about other included coverage when you reserve the car and/or pick it up.
Autostrade are well maintained, as are most interregional highways. Most autostrade have two lanes in both directions; the left lane is used only for passing. Italians drive fast and are impatient with those who don't, so tailgating (and flashing with bright beams to signal an 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; consider parking at the edge of town and exploring on foot.
Driving on the back roads of Italy 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, so a good map or GPS and lots of patience are essential.
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 call; keep that number 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 cell phone is highly recommended. There are also emergency phones on the autostrade and superstrade; to locate them, look on the pavement for painted arrows and the term "SOS."
Automobile Club Italiano. 803/116 emergency service. www.aci.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, 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 into car seats at all times. Using handheld mobile phones while driving is illegal; 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 requires non-Europeans also 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 will be penalized for not carrying the IDP. Obtaining an IDP is simple and costs only $15; check the AAA Web site for more information.
The blood-alcohol content limit for driving is 0.5 (stricter than U.S. limits) with fines up to €5,000 for surpassing the limit and the possibility of six months' 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, and your license could be taken away from you. The police have the power to levy on-the-spot fines.
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