The best way to find the most out-of-the-way places is by car. Here’s how to deal with the ordeal of driving in Europe.
DRIVING IN ITALY:
You’ll hear people say that driving in Italy can be intimidating, that the drivers are crazy, that you’re taking your life into your hands if you try to drive over there.
It’s all true.
But we’ve become quite comfortable with it, and really, it’s no worse than, say, New Jersey, or Tennessee when there is 1/16th of an inch of snow on the ground. It’s also the best way to reach a lot of the out-of-the-way places that we love so much.
Here are a few things to think about when getting around in your own car over there, starting with:
Picking up the car
The easiest way to rent a car is from your airport of arrival – look for the signs that say “Autonoleggio”. You will definitely need a reservation.
Opinions vary on whether or not you need an International Driver’s Permit (IDL), and you read all kinds of conflicting info on message boards. In reality an IDL is legally required to drive in Italy, a law they passed in 2004. If you are in an accident, or stopped on the road for a papers check, you’ll need to have one. They cost $15 and are available from the national Automobile Association (AAA in the US).
You will need two passport photos as well, you can take those yourself to save a few bucks. Print them on high quality photo paper or send them to a copy shop to be printed. You can use the State Department’s photo editing tool to make sure your photo will be accepted.
When you pick up the car, you’ll need driver’s license, credit card, and passport. We’ve never been asked to show our IDL but you should have that handy too.
The clerks at the rental agencies will certainly have decent English, so you can ask them a few questions, like:
What kind of car is it? Do you have anything smaller?
For us at least, the smaller the better. We pack light, and smaller cars usually mean better gas mileage. You’ll also be glad it’s small when you find yourself navigating the tiny streets of little towns like Petroio or parking in front of a roadside bar.
What kind of fuel does it take?
It will be either unleaded (“senza piombo”) or diesel (“diesel”). (Also note, when you get the car, which side the gas tank is on, and if it locks with the car key – this will save little embarrassing moments later on in the trip.)
When I leave/return, which signs do we look for?
Getting out with the car is easy if you know which highways you’re headed to and how to get there from the garage/lot. If you’re returning to the same airport, you’ll more easily find the rental return area if you know which exit, which terminal, which parking area, you’re looking for, e.g., “Exit 12 off of the highway, Terminal 2, Parking lot C”. Jot it down on your rental paperwork. The rental counters usually have a map of the immediate area as well – avail yourself of this.
Do we need to have snow tires/snow chains?
After a terrible snowstorm that stranded hundreds of drivers on the roads in 2011, Italy passed a law that all cars must have either snow tires or snow chains from November 15 – April 15. Rental car companies do not always automatically provide those; you must check to make sure your car is legal, or face a stiff fine if pulled over. Chains cost about 30€/week. Most cars are not equipped with snow tires at rental companies.
What about insurance?
Check with your credit card company before leaving home about what coverage they offer for rental cars. Some cards offer a coverage, so you won’t need to buy extra coverage at the rental desk (though they will always assertively offer it). Italy always requires a minimum level of CDW (collision damage waiver) coverage, and rental estimates will almost always include this. In Ireland and other countries, CDW is not required but they’ll want to know that your card carries some coverage if you decline their extra insurance. Credit card coverage plans are not valid in certain countries, including Ireland, where you’ll be required to pay for some CDW coverage. Again, check with your credit card folks first, so you know what to expect.
Whatever you do, take the extra minute or two to make sure you are getting – and not getting – exactly what you want. On one occasion we rushed through the process, and didn’t realize that we had “agreed” to extra insurance that we didn’t need or want – a $200 mistake.
Learn a few of the key street signs. (Look here for a good list of signs and their meanings.) Pay special attention to: One-way (“senza unico”), Don’t Enter (red circle with horizontal white line), and Zona Traffico Limitato (open red circle – don’t go in there either). ZTLs are designed to protect old town centers from too much traffic. If you enter a ZTL without a permit (you definitely don’t have one) your tag will be photographed and a few months later you will get a hefty fine in the mail. Always trust the white arrow on blue – that means “go there”. Brown signs indicate sights of interest.
Roundabouts or traffic circles are very common across Europe. Get used to these – look left and bear right, yield to vehicles already in the circle, follow the flow into the circle, and look for the sign pointing you to your next destination. If you’re not sure, go around the circle a time or two until you figure it out – there’s no charge for extra rides around. These circles are also a great way to U-turn when you realize that you’ve missed a turn a few roundabouts back. (We use this technique ourselves very often.) (back to U.K. roundabouts)
Driving the big highways – the Autostrade – is much as it is in the U.S. interstate system: There are exits with numbers, and signs indicating what towns/sights/road junctions are there. You’ll see service areas, usually with a bar/cafe, a store, and maybe a real restaurant or other shopping, as well as fuel. Slower drivers keep to the right lane; everyone else (90% of the drivers) will blow by you on the left.
Tolls, Rest Stops and Snacks
Some of the autostrade are toll roads, and there are occasional toll plazas, just as in the states. We like to look for the lanes where you can use a credit card (the signs say “Carte”); be sure to stay out of the Telepass-only lanes. Some of them give you a ticket (“biglietto”) upon entering a section, which you then present upon exiting. Just like the Jersey Turnpike, but with better views.
In general Italy does not have chain restaurants like we do in the States, with one notable exception: Autogrill. Autogrills can be found on the major highways, look for signs leading up to it that say “Area Servizio”. Some are relatively small, some are huge and cover the highway like a bridge. There will always be coffee, gas, restrooms and maps here. Autogrill has surprisingly good sandwiches and coffee, plus a big selection of pastries and other snacks. You can load up here on bottled water, artisanal potato chips, artisanal chocolates, fresh fruit and vegetables, and even sometimes even whole legs of prosciutto.
We’ve learned to avoid these on Sunday mornings as every time we’ve been there at that time they are completely slammed.
When you order a coffee in these rest area cafes, you must pay for it first. So you go to the cashier and tell them what you plan to order, then pay for it. Take your receipt to the bar, give it to the barista and they will make your order.
Maps are available at most gas stations and many stores – get one and familiarize yourself with whatever area you’re traveling in. You can also purchase them in advance from Amazon or wherever – we like the Michelin maps, which divide Italy into regions.
In the car, divide the duties: The driver’s sole job is to negotiate the streets and highways safely; the passenger does the map-figuring and direction-giving. Count on the fact that you will make time-wasting mistakes – it’s better to lose time than get in an accident. If you are confused about where you are or where to turn, absolutely *do not* stop in the middle of the road. Pull over and figure it out, or risk get rear-ended at the worst, and viciously cursed out and honked at at the best.
There are not many indications of route numbers like we’re used to seeing in the U.S. Instead, you’ll see signs directing you to the various towns in the area. Follow the signs to your destination; but also know what towns are near or beyond your destination, for those intersections when you don’t see your town. When in doubt, if you stop seeing your sign, try to just go straight, or as straight as the road allows. Often you’ll only get one sign for a long time – the thinking seems to be, “We told you way back there which way was Florence (or wherever), so just keep going that way until we tell you something else.” Put another way: If you are going from point A to point M, you might not always see signs for “M”, but you can follow signs to D, G, H, and L on the way to M. Also know that you might see signs to P or Q; if you follow those, the road will likely take you to M first.
Try not to worry too much if you get lost – that’s part of the experience when traveling anywhere new, and it’s also a good way to discover new and unexpected things. Just in case, learn a few words for directions, like: “sinistra” (left), “destre” (right), “dritto” (straight), “rotunda” (traffic circle), “semaforo” (traffic light), and most important, “dové” (where is… pronounced doh-vay). And don’t forget to use “per favore” and “grazie” (please and thank you) liberally as well.
In the countryside expect to see lots and lots of bikers. Bikers with old, vintage bikes; kids on bikes; elderly women on bikes; and most prevalent of all, large groups of men (5-30 people) in full-on biker gear riding bikes more expensive than your car. This is definitely a country in which they ‘share the road’, and riding close to bikers is considered rude and possibly illegal. In fact, you may even find bikers pushing *you* to drive faster, as we did once down a windy road in Tuscany. If you feel pushed or rushed, it’s always better to just pull over and let any car/bike pass you, then continue on your way.
Again, having a small car helps with parking as well as with generally getting around. Parking lots for some smaller tourist sights have small gravel or dirt lots, with little room to maneuver; and street parking spaces are often very narrow.
Signs for parking will say “parcheggio” or, more often, you’ll see a blue sign with a big white “P”.
In street parking or paved lots, check the color of the parking lines to see what to do there: White is free parking; blue is paid parking (there’s probably a little pay machine nearby); yellow is restricted – don’t do it. Pay parking lots vary in how they work – make sure you sort it out before you leave the car there. Some are flat fee; some have you pay for your choice of time, and give you a ticket to display; some give you a ticket which is then presented at the gate upon exiting. The most confusing (until you know the trick) is the one that gives you the ticket, but you insert it and pay at a machine in a booth right before you get back into your car. You then have a few minutes to get to the car, buckle up, and leave, inserting the ticket at the gate. If your ticket hasn’t been paid for, the gate won’t open, and you’ll have a bunch of irritated Italiani in the cars behind you, with nowhere to go.
TIP: We like to get a local newspaper and put it on the dash or in the back seat, to minimize how much we look like foreign tourists. You can also use it to cover up any stuff you don’t want noticed, like shopping bags or whatever.
These are just the basic highlights about driving in Italy; for more extensive and detailed information, check out this great Slowtrav page: http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/driving/index.htm
DRIVING IN THE U.K.:
For many Americans, the number one challenge of driving in the U.K. is the part where we’re driving on totally the wrong side of the road. By which I mean, Americans drive on the right side. Which is the wrong side. (This goes for any country previously controlled or influenced the old British Empire, including Ireland, Australia, India, New Zealand, Japan, parts of Africa. In Europe, then, this is of concern only in the U.K. and Ireland.) A close second challenge is driving on extremely narrow roads, which is another great reason to rent as small a car as possible.
We found that a good solution to the driving-on-the-left issue is spending a few more bucks (it’s now as much as a couple of hundred dollars more for a week) on a rental car that has automatic transmission. (Be sure to request an automatic specifically when you reserve the car, which you should do as early as possible.) While we love driving a little 5-speed car on the little roads of Italy, driving an automatic in England enables the driver to devote more brain-power to driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car.
It isn’t too hard to get used to it, though. Being the driver on the right side of the car, in fact, is a constant reminder of the opposite-ness of the whole experience.
So, for right turns you must yield to the oncoming traffic (rather than for left turns as elsewhere); it’s the left turns, then, are the easier ones to make. Note, however, that there is no equivalent of “right on red” in the U.K. (it would be left on red there). A red light is a red light, period.
As in other parts of Europe, roundabouts or traffic circles are common here in place of large stop-light intersections. (See Roundabouts in Italy, above). Remember that here the traffic flows in the opposite direction – from right to left, or clockwise. Approach the circle, look right and bear left, yielding to cars already in the circle. As in Italy, you’ll look for the signs directing you to your next destination, and you can signal your exit from the circle. Again as in Italy, don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to go around the circle an extra time or three, if you’re uncertain which road to take from the circle. The only people who will notice you doing that are doing it themselves.
Narrow lanes and hedgerows
Once you’ve mastered the idea of mirror-image driving, the next biggest challenge of driving in the U.K. is the extremely narrow country roads. The country has a network of highways and motorways (the equivalent of Interstates in the U.S., but remember the passing lanes are to the right, not the left) which are quite comfortable to drive. But when you work your way into more remote areas, as we love to do, the roads are reduced in size considerably, in some cases to a single car-width. You’ll often find yourself in the “hedgerows”; that is, a road on which your side mirrors are almost brushing against tall hedges on either side. These are not one-way roads, either – you must find a way to share with oncoming traffic.
How do you do this, when there’s only room for one? Well, the designers of these roads were thoughtful: As many of these roads are very straight for a long way, you can see an oncoming car from a good distance. Between you and that car you see coming your way, you will almost always find one or two little lay-by spaces or a brief widening of the road, where one of you can move over sufficiently for both cars to pass, though just barely. (You may have to pull your side mirrors in to make the clearance.)
Who yields, then, and moves over? It depends on where exactly the space is, but as a gesture of courtesy, you should choose to be the one to yield. It’s likely that the oncoming driver, though, will beat you to it if possible (especially if he’s a local), and will either wave you on or flash his lights. Approach carefully and slowly, and give a little wave of thanks to show your appreciation of his kindness and patience.
Driving on these kinds of roads can be stressful, but remember: The residents drive these hedgerow roads all the time, and problems or accidents in these areas are very rare, thanks to courtesy and common sense. You can rely on the locals to know what to do. Try to embrace to feeling of driving through these beautiful lanes; it is the hedgerows, in fact, that give the English countryside such a distinctive beauty and a timeless feel.
Also, watch out for cows. And sheep.
Most rules of the road are taken much more seriously in the U.K. than in Italy. Speed limits (measured in mph rather than kph as in mainland Europe) are no exception, so observe postings carefully. One good sign to know is the round white sign with a black slash, indicating the “National Speed Limit” and negating previous posted limits. This is 60 mph on single-carriageway (single-lane) roads and 70 mph on dual-carriageway roads and Motorways (like U.S. Interstates). Watch for reduced speed limit areas, especially when approaching towns, school zones, crosswalks, etc.
When in doubt, go along with the crowds. A double yellow line means no parking at all, forget it. A single yellow allows parking but only at certain times – look for signs for details. White lines are usually pay-and-display spots – look for a meter or ticket machine nearby. Pay parking lots vary in how they work – make sure you sort it out before you leave the car there. Some are flat fee; some have you pay for your choice of time, and give you a ticket to display; some give you a ticket which is then presented at the gate upon exiting. The most confusing (until you know the trick) is the one that gives you the ticket, but you insert it and pay at a machine in a booth right before you get back into your car. You then have a few minutes to get to the car, buckle up, and leave, inserting the ticket at the gate.
Unlike Italy, the numbers of any given road route are usually pretty well marked in the U.K. Nevertheless, we suggest a similar method of route-planning as we do for Italy: You’ll see signs directing you to the various towns in the area. Follow the signs to your destination; but also know what towns are near or beyond your destination, for those intersections when you don’t see your town. When in doubt, if you stop seeing your sign, try to just go straight, or as straight as the road allows. If you are going from point A to point M, you might not always see signs for “M”, but you can follow signs to D, G, H, and L on the way to M. Also know that you might see signs to P or Q; if you follow those, the road will likely take you to M first.
A note on auto fuel: Petrol (gas) is even more expensive in the U.K. than in Italy, which is already more expensive than in the U.S. If possible, ask the car rental agency for a diesel car (though that may not be available in an automatic). Diesel gets much better mileage in general. If you do this, though, make sure to fill up with the correct fuel at the petrol station; otherwise you’ll break down and be “right buggered”.
Even if you’re only traveling to the U.K., we suggest that you also read our section on Driving in Italy, above; much of the information pertains to driving in a strange place in general. Also, there are some nice pictures.
DRIVING IN IRELAND: Here’s a link to a lengthy article which contains a lot of good information about driving in Ireland specifically: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g186591-c2757/Ireland:Renting.A.Car.In.Ireland.html