Traveling in Italy can seem confusing and intimidating for first timers, and for good reason. The hectic design of the cities, the chaotic layout of the streets (sometimes alleys they call streets), and the almost demolition derby styles of driving can make most people on the US side of the pond a little uneasy. I’m going to share some tips and tricks to getting around this beautiful country and not losing your mind in the process.
Staying In Italy
The options here are the same options you’d have anywhere else. Hotels, hostels, BnB’s, AirBnB, etc. This trip we decided that we would use AirBnB to find our places to stay. Here’s the good and bad about what we found.
First We’ll Start With The Good
One of the great things about using AirBnB was the cost savings. Going through AirBnB and renting apartments around Italy saved us literally hundreds of dollars every night. There were 4 of us on this trip so renting two bedroom apartments turned out to be much cheaper than renting 2 hotel rooms.
Payment & Communication
Everything except the €3/night city tax was paid through AirBnB and there was nothing else we needed to do. The AirBnB app also has a chat built in so you can get a hold of your hosts, and translation services are also built into the chat which makes communicating with non english speakers much easier. It’s not always the most accurate of translations, but it’s usually good enough to get the job done.
Although most might not want to drive around Italy, we did. Most of the apartments had private parking available which also saved us money on finding paid parking.
And We’ll Move On To The Bad
Dealing With People
First and foremost remember that you’re dealing with individual people and not hotel employees, this is their personal apartment, and they may not communicate everything that you need to know. So have a check list of what to ask before you get there. E.g. On our first stop in Venice we were staying in Mestre and our host initially agreed to meet us at the house at 11am (since we landed at 9am). But after we landed it suddenly became an issue to check in at 11am and now she’s saying we can’t check in before 4pm. She says we can park the car at the apartment if we want and wander around until then. Then at 2pm we got an angry phone call because we parked in the wrong place and she was there at the house wanting to know where we were. Yeah, people. This isn’t a slight against Italians, it’s just an example of how individual people can be. So here’s a simple list of things to either know or ask about before you get to your BnB.
- Is the house/apartment inside a ZTL*?
- Is there parking at the house/apartment?
- If so, where do I park the car?
- if not, is there someplace near by that I can park?
- How much is city tax?
- Typically they’ll let you know this ahead of time, but just in case this is paid as a per person per night and is paid in cash to your host.
- Where do we leave the trash?
- Most of Italy has gone to a three can system for trash. General trash, recycling, and compost and not separating your trash can cause you to incur fines from the host (since they’re either going to have to dig through your trash to separate it or get fined for not separating it). Make sure to ask where to leave your trash on your way out.
Eating In Italy
Yes, eat all the things but remember that some things are done a little differently there. There are a billion restaurants, sometimes right next door to each other. It’s not about who was there first, it’s who does it better and the competition can be fierce. Pizza isn’t always pre-cut for you, sometimes there’s no ice for your American drink, and table freebies aren’t generally free.
When / Who Do I Pay?
Some coffee shops, convenience stores, and bars will have a pay-first model which works out really well for these rapid order places. You go to the register first, let them know what you’re ordering, pay, and take your receipt to the bartender/barista at the counter and they make you your drink. This is going to be generally true at all AutoGrill’s along the AutoStrada as well as night clubs and busy coffee shops in larger cities. If you’re at a restaurant you’ll pay at the end of your meal like anyplace else, and if the server doesn’t happen to speak english, you can just ask for “il conto” when you’re ready and they’ll bring you the bill.
What’s This Charge On The Bill?
It might be called a ‘cover charge’ or ‘il coperto’ and it covers some of the typical freebies foreigners are used to just getting. Things like bread, breadsticks, table water, etc are covered by this fee and is normally no more than €2 per person. You may also see things on your bill like ‘servizio incluso’ which we in the US know as gratuity and is usually calculated at around 15%. So what does that mean for tipping in Italy? Should you tip or not? The answer to this is a firm “maybe”. Here’s a great article on tipping in Italy but in short, it’s a nice gesture but not necessary or expected.
This is not a typical thing to do in Italy. Asking for them to add or omit ingredients from their dishes can go from a little awkward to “Great…now I’ve insulted the chef”. If you don’t like what’s in the dish, order something else. Italians aren’t usually as accommodating as Americans are when it comes to their food. Which brings up restaurant menus. They’re typically posted outside the restaurant and will show you what you’re getting and how much they’re charging for it so you know before you even sit down. This is generally seen as acceptance of what the menu is and asking for something to change can be frowned upon. If you absolutely need a plate of risotto but have a mushroom allergy, you can ask the host before being seated if they’d be willing to accommodate (letting them know “sono allergico” [m] or “sona allergica” [f] “al funghi” [to mushrooms]), but it’s better manners to ask before sitting down and ordering your drinks.
Oh ordering cocktails… this was one of the highlights of our trip and one that became a running joke. One of our fellow travelers favorite drinks is Vodka and Sprite which here in the US is about as common as a Jack and Coke or a Seven and Seven, but in Italy they didn’t quite know what to make of it. So what he often got was 4-6 shots of straight vodka in one glass (usually over ice) and a thin can of Sprite to go with it. This exact same thing happened in every city we went to and cost him about €6. Worth every penny. So be patient with them if they don’t get your American drink order right on the first try, it might turn out better for you in the end.
For the beer drinkers out there, unless you go to an Irish Pub (which you can find in the bigger cities) you can pretty much count on one of three types of beer being served at restaurants. It’s either going to be Moretti, Peroni, or Heineken (which in my opinion is definitely the better of the three options). At the Irish Pubs you can find Guinness, other Irish beers, and ciders, but beware that the Guinness mixers might be different than you know of them. For example, here in the southwest a Snakebite is Guinness layered over cider while they call that a Black Velvet (a Snakebite is cider and grenadine which turned out to be pretty good). The Black and Tan is what you’d expect (Guinness and Lager) and they may have some other local varieties as well. Just ask them to explain them and they typically will.
Driving a Car In Italy
Ok, so this one can be a little intimidating for sure. Italians are almost famous for their aggressive driving style and depending on the city it can go from aggressive to frighteningly chaotic. This article from Italy Explained can help you get acquainted with some of the most common road signs you’ll see while driving around but the first thing you should know is that an international drivers license is required to drive in Italy. Additionally, the rental car company may institute a per-day-fee for additional drivers. One of the most important things to know when you drive into a city or town is that there are places that you just cannot drive at all. These are called ZTL’s.
ZTL – Zona a traffico limitato (Limited Traffic Zone)
These zones are found all over the historic cities in Italy and the sign is a hollow red circle with the words “zona traffico limitato”. Cities like Milan, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Palermo, and a lot of others all have ZTL’s (only because it’s a small town doesn’t mean they don’t have one so you need to look it up well before arriving). The purpose of these zones is to lower emissions and congestion near historic city centers and it is strictly enforced. Don’t bother trying to sneak your car in, either. A lot of cities have ZTL cameras at the entrances that take pictures of every license plate entering the area and if it does not correspond to a permit on file then a ticket is automatically issued and rental cars are never allowed. Other towns may have Polizia or Carabinieri just waiting around their ZTL’s for you to attempt to drive through the area. The fines can be pretty steep depending on the city and time of the violation and if you’re renting a car, the rental car company will get the ticket and simply pass the fine along to you when they close out your rental.
Parking The Car
Well, that depends on where you’re staying, where you’re wanting to go, and what city you’re in. I’ve posted a few articles specific about certain cities (like Florence, Venice, and Rome) that will help you find resources. Some things to know is that you’ll generally see three colors associated with parking:
Yellow – This is for residents only. They’ll typically have a permit on their windshield or some other type of identification that allows them to be here.
Blue – paid parking. Look for a meter nearby as you’ll need to feed the meter and place the printed ticket on your dashboard. Not unlike how it works in the US.
White – This is the unicorn. If you can find this one, it means free parking.
Driving On The AutoStrada
Contrary to popular belief, the AutoStrada does have a speed limit and in some places (usually around major cities) it is strictly enforced. The generally accepted speed limit on is 130kph (or 81mph) making it not much different than a lot of the highways in the US (or at least here in AZ where it’s 75… and everyone goes 85). But the speed limit can vary from 130kph down to as low as 50kph depending on what’s going on around you.
Keep an eye out for those speed limit signs (they look like this). You’ll see them on the right side of the autostrada and should be adhered to more strictly than we typically choose to do here in the US. Also, keeping up with the flow of traffic is always a good suggestion.
Remember that the AutoStrada is a tollway, not a freeway. In most places you’ll pay your toll as you exit the AutoStrada and is based on how far you’ve travelled. But there are some cities (like Naples) where you’ll pay an entrance toll. When you start planning out your roadtrip, you can use the AutoStrada Toll Calculator to help you estimate how much it’s going to be at each toll.
Most toll booths will accept either cash, card, or TelePass. TelePass probably won’t be an option for visitors as it’s a monthly subscription the locals use to get between cities. Just to make sure you don’t get stuck, it’s a good idea to keep €10 – €20 in change with you in the car for the smaller toll booths that only accept cash.