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Driving through Tuscany

We are planning an Italy trip for late June, early July. We will be in Florence for the 1st few days, after which we’ll have seven nights before spending the last night in Rome. We have been to Rome before so only plan on spending the last night there, but got a decent flight deal in and out of Rome.

We would like to spend those seven nights in Tuscany. As of now, we’re considering spending a few nights in each of Volterra and Montepulciano, hitting nearby hill towns from there, and then maybe return the car in Orvieto and spend the 7th night there before using public transport to Rome for the last night.

We enjoy the train and bus travel in Europe, but it seems there would be many connections and a lot more time spent travelling than there would be with a car. And judging by the message strings I’ve read, a car seems to be the best way to go. We’ve never had a car in Europe, and we’re a bit apprehensive.

We plan on staying in the actual towns and not out in the countryside, though that won’t keep us from stopping somewhere in the countryside along the way.

If we do drive, I will definitely come prepared with printed directions and maps to supplement any phone navigation apps. With that, any advice would be appreciated:

Are the signs on the countryside roads pretty clear?
Is operating gas pumps pretty standard compared to here in US?
Do gas stations accept credit cards, and would it be wise to use them there?

Regarding phone apps, if for some reason a GPS is not available from rental car service, I currently have Samsung S7 with Verizon. Will there be any issues receiving a signal and using data (other than usual data costs) driving throughout Tuscany?
Am I being overly worrisome?

Thanks in advance.

Posted by
11158 posts

I rent cars in Italy every year through this consolidator and select the zero deductible option with either Europcar or Hertz, two of the largest rental companies operating in Italy.

www.autoeurope.com
www.kemwel.com
(They are the same company now that they merge, but check prices in both. They work the same).

You need an International Driving Permit to drive in Italy. You can get one in minutes at any AAA office for about $25 and are valid for one year. Get one just before you go. Every driver needs one.

Posted by
11158 posts

All of Europe uses the International Road signage system.
The US adopted only some of those symbols (signs in America are in English rather than symbols).
Most signs are self explanatory symbols, but you need to learn some that aren’t too straightforward.
Print what you need.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_signs_in_Italy
http://italyexplained.com/driving-road-signs-italy/

Signs in Italy are clear, but sometimes they give too much info.
Italian signs indicate next towns in the itinerary rather than highway numbers. So when you plan your trip on a map, check the towns you will be going through.

Italian ancient historical cores of most towns have traffic restrictions. Only residents with permit, service and emergency vehicles can enter. Those zones are called ZONA TRAFFICO LIMITATO or ZTL (Limited Traffic Zones). You must park your car outside those areas and walk in. With a car it is best to find accommodations outside the ZTLs. Inquire with the hotels you select.
Read about ZTLs below.
https://www.italybeyondtheobvious.com/dont-mess-with-ztl-zones

Posted by
11158 posts

Gas pumps are manned from 7am to 7pm Mon-Sat with a 2 hour lunch break generally starting at 1pm.
Get gas at those times and you don’t have to worry about chip and pin credit cards in the automatic kiosks.
If you pump at night or Sunday, when nobody is around, the automatic kiosks accept only cash (no change given) or credit cards with chip and pin. Most cards in the US are chip and signature therefore are valid only on in person transactions.

Posted by
11158 posts

SMART PHONES
For international roaming plans inquire with your mobile phone provider.
If you have an unlocked phone you can also buy a local SIM card, which is the cheapest option (about 30€ for one month with plenty of data and minutes to go with it (4gb data or so)

If you have a mini IPad withSIM Card, a one month plan in Italy costs less than 10€ for 10Gb. You can also use the IPad for navigation if your phone is locked and your provider has expensive international plans.

TIM and VODAFONE are Italy’s largest mobile phone providers.

Posted by
1175 posts

We have made 18 trips to Europe, with 12 of them including Italy. The only time we have rented a car rather than using public transportation was four days in Tuscany, staying in Montepulciano. This was our second time in Montepulciano. We found out the first time that we could not easily visit the smaller towns we wanted to see by bus. When we drove, we did not have GPS but did have a good map. Since we were only on smaller roads (no autostradas), we did not find the driving harrowing. The worst part was making our way into and out of Montepulciano, with the narrow streets and tight corners (some with mirrors). But nothing drastic occurred. We did find the road signs confusing at first; Roberto has explained how they work.

Posted by
1244 posts

We have driven a rental car twice in Tuscany. We used the DK Eyewitness Guide Back Roads Northern Italy to get many great routes. The book offers good descriptions and ideas for places to stay and eat. With 7 days, your probably want to go to a few areas. We found having good map and GPS worked well. You may want to consider going to Pitigliano in southern Tuscany before Orvieto. In the past, Hertz was the only car rental company that allowed one way car rentals.

Posted by
1048 posts

We spent 10 trouble free days in Tuscany with a rental car. We loved it. You’ve gotten some good responses so far.

I had many of the concerns you’ve expressed and found it was a lot easier than I anticipated. We filled up twice, once in Tuscany and once on the way back to Rome. I kept 1/2 a tank just to make sure I wouldn’t have a problem at night, but that was being overly cautious.

I took our GPS with a Greece/Italy chip and it was helpful. I also took a good Michelin folding map. After a couple of days, we’d just check the map to get a general heading, then rely on the clear signage along the way.

I have a few thoughts to consider. Tuscany isn’t that big. Instead of staying in two locations, you could consider staying in a more central location. If you stayed near Siena, both Volterra and Montepulciano would be only an hour or so away. If you don’t mind moving, I can see the charm of staying in those two towns. We stayed at a winery B&B as our home base and loved it.

Posted by
2 posts

As a European, livingin Germany I can assure you that travelling and driving in Italy as well as in whole Europe is much easier , much more fun and definately more interesting than in US. People are friendly, drive much better, roads are much better and so are the cars. Police is friendly and helpful and people do help eachother and foreigners. The food is great andavood restaurant is not the one that servesbig portions, but the one with quality.
Distances are much smaller and all navigators work perfectly. You can not get lost and if you gogo Tuscany, by a online wine guide e.g. Gmbero Rosso. That will take you to the real quality wineries and not the ones inthe Turist guides or web. Do not base your trip on the web suggestions. Ask the locals for the places that do not have tourist menu in English.

We go to Nothern Italy every year, and always discover new places , restaurans, oil and cheese farms, wineries, local butchers etc. They usualy have eateries of their products on premises.
I would suggest to stay in the coutry and not in cities. Look for a B&B or a Azienda Agricola and just do tourz from the place I use Airbnb or booking.com to find them. Both are popular in Italy

One thing for sure. You will enjoy it 😁

Posted by
2 posts

One of the tricks I use for travelling abroad is a mobile hotspot. I bought a used one for about 15 Euro andI am sure you can get one in US for similar price. Make sure it is LTE(4G) capable toget max speed Everywhere i go, I buy a local SIM with a data plan , and then all devices connect on WIFI. All phones of the family, Ipad, laptops, even my son's game box. ..... the trick is that it allows you to stay with your original SIM, so that you can be reached on the phone

You may need some research on the best prices, and make sure you do not leave the shop before it works. Today Roaming costs in Eorope are 0 ( zero) so you may use it in other countries as well.

Posted by
191 posts

Many thanks for all the great responses and advice. It is all greatly appreciated and you all have made me feel much more comfortable with the idea of driving in Tuscany and am even now looking forward to it. We will also at least consider staying in a location in the countryside that is central to the places we want to visit and not too far from highway.

Posted by
88 posts

David, we rented a Fiat from a Hertz location in Florence, driving down through Chianti, staying in a B&B just outside Siena...then through Umbria, staying in Montone. Our car had GPS, but we used only Google Maps on our phones....we have Verizon and added the $10 (per day used) international plan. It worked absolutely perfectly..not one issue in two weeks driving on some of the smallest back roads you can imagine. We specified “no toll roads”, which kept us on regional highways and smaller roads. Google maps also alerts you to which exits to take in roundabouts...super helpful! We found the signs easy to follow...as others have said, it helps to know the towns along your route. Have fun!

Posted by
3393 posts

Buy a SIM card for Italy for one of your phones. Then, use Goggle Maps with your phone like I did for three weeks in Sicily recently.SIM also great to give you ability to call for reservations at restaurants or to make changes in your hotel reservations, if needed. You may want to leave other phone as is and get an international plan from your provider for emergencies at home.

Posted by
49 posts

Sounds like a great trip! I've been to Tuscany 4 times and if you're going outside of Florence, having a car is great because it's tricky to reach the interesting smaller villages by train or bus (though not impossible). We've rented a car the last two times (and my husband has gone back since and had a car) and we find driving easy, whether on the Autostrada or other roads. Everyone says you need an International Permit, but we've never needed one yet to rent a car.

Since you have a car, I encourage you to go to San Gimignano because there is no other place like it, Forte dei Marmi for a nice Italian beach day (and to look at the marble hills of Carrara behind), and Lucca for the perfect Tuscan experience. If you want to go a little out of Tuscany, Perugia is also worth a visit.

Posted by
1 posts

We've travelled to Tuscany numerous times & use Chiusi Terme train station as our hub - almost equi-distant from both Florence & Rome. The Avis office is walking distance from the station, but it's closed during lunch hour(s). Driving is very pleasant with Perugia and Cortona to the East and Montalcino to the West within an enjoyble drive. Siena is also about 40 minutes away. Our US iPhones set to roam provided turn-by-turn directions from Siri. Easy-peasy. Good luck.

Kevin & Paula

Posted by
191 posts

Thank you again. Yes, we will be visiting San Gimignano, as well as Volterra. Lucca is a possibility as maybe we can bus or train from Florence and rent car out of Lucca. I've been to Perugia and I agree, it's worth a visit, but will probably save it for another trip. Cortona is a possibility as well, when we head over to Pienza and Montepulciano. We're still working on the details.

Posted by
11158 posts

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT
This permit is just an official translation of your home driver's license.
It’s rarely required by the rental agencies, who are familiar with American licenses, but it’s required by law in case you get pulled over by police.

The fine is a minimum €400 if you don’t have the IDP (art. 135 of the Italian Motor Vehicle Code).
Remember that the rental car company doesn’t care if you get a fine. They are not the ones who are paying for it. You pay for all fines, as per the rental contract, and the rental agency also gets to add an administrative fee of at least 35€ on top of that, so the more fines you get the more money the rental company makes.

Posted by
4 posts

Amazon sells the used giant Michelin Toscana map for $5. Take it to a copy shop and make enlargements on 8.5x11 of areas to be visited.

Posted by
92 posts

You are absolutely doing the right thing to drive --- having the flexibility to spot a castle up on a hill and navigate up to it is priceless. Some of my best experiences were unplanned stops along a country road because there was something interesting either on a sign (monastery that produces its own olive oil and wine in Tuscany, and stunning palazzo/castles). I managed to get lost outside Montepulciano looking for a vineyard. I knocked on a door and a charming woman answered. After I explained in my Spanish accented Italian that I was looking for this particular vineyard she grabbed her handbag and told me to follow her. She drove me straight to the entrance. Turns out her family has owned the vineyard for 6 generations. She gave me the royal treatment and insisted I take a bottle of their Super Tuscan as a gift for coming to see them. Then she led me back out to the main road!

I highly recommend an Italian SIM card. Some of the smaller roads use what we would call mile markers down at ground level and if you are trying to find a particular small vineyard you may need that number to make your turn into the property. But most vineyards welcome you during their operating hours (avoid 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.).

One of my adventures included a stop on a small country road to get a photo of the most brilliant rainbow I've ever seen. As I backed out of the dirt track in fields of vines I put my front passenger tire firmly in a ditch that wasn't visible due to leaves and debris. The rear of my car was up in the air about 2 ft. The driver's door was up in the air about 3 ft. My first reaction was panic. Then I remembered I was in Italy! There were two farmers on their 3 wheel Apes who arrived first on the scene. One helped me climb out and the other surveyed the situation. Another 3 cars had pulled over for the same photo and all of the adults came over to help. It took a while but we managed to pivot the car up, then down and then pulled it out with the help of 10 people. Shouts of "Bravo!!!!" "Bravo!!" came from the small crowd of onlookers. Then out came wine from somewhere and we all clapped each other on the back and toasted to the rainbow. Now that is Italia -- can't imagine that happening in Dallas or feeling safe and comfortable that two big men should come help me.

Ahhhhh ...... Have a wonderful trip!
Caterina

Posted by
191 posts

Thanks Caterina, great story.

And thanks again to all for the helpful responses.

Posted by
114 posts

By all means drive in Tuscany. It is really the only way to explore the area. Parking in towns will be challenging at times, but that is part of the adventure. Minimize your hotel locations.

I am old school (and older), so I would recommend a stand alone gps. Also take a paper map for planning.

While all the guide book towns are great, with a car you can find smaller and equally charming and historic towns to visit.

Posted by
191 posts

Thanks Bob. Will try to get GPS for rental. And will definitely have a map. I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday and liked the Michelin Central Italy map, but I see on Amazon there's a Toscana map, Italian edition. I would imagine the Toscana map could be a little better, but not sure I want the Italian edition.

Thanks rzolezzi for enlargement idea.

Posted by
49 posts

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT

Thanks for your post, Roberto -- that makes so much sense. My husband has been pulled over by the police when his Italian aunts in the backseat told him to go the wrong way down a one-way road and then advised him to "act dumb and only speak English" but then they were giving him directions in Italian while he was talking to the police officer, so he just got a finger shaking and we turned around and moved on. Whew! Maybe we'll go through the trouble to get the permit next time, just to be safe.

Posted by
380 posts

We did the hill towns in Tuscany a few years ago. I loved doing it by car. The roads between the towns are very good and scenic. It gives you the luxury of just pulling over to look at some of the views and managing your time how you like. My only advice is make sure you have a GPS. I drive a lot in Europe when we travel. The GPS saves lots of headaches and maybe save a divorce about arguing about directions.

Posted by
1165 posts

I just posted a link on the technology page that might be of help.
Technology in Europe
Review section on SIM cards and downloading google maps onto you iPhone or device before you leave home.

Don’t use your Verizon International plan for GPS data. GPS can eat up data like crazy. Our second trip to Tuscany we used our Garmin. But one morning Europe maps- Poof- dispappeared from the Garmin. We were driving from Montalcino to Orvieto. So we turned on our Verizon Data to get directions. The Verizon plan gave us a measly 100mg, and overuse triggered another $25 charge for another 100MB. Turns out that short drive on data cost $50 in additional Verizon charges. That was before I knew you can download google maps for the area you are in and do not need cellular data.

I would not spend the money to rent a Garmin from car rental company. Don’t forget to take car charger for your phone.

Posted by
818 posts

Forget the expensive GPS - just use your smartphone with Google Maps or Waze. Last year, two months after the event, our GPS in a brand new car didn't know the Genova bridge was down! Download offline Google maps of the area as a backup and you'll be fine. A paper map of 1:200,000 is useful for planning and looking for nearby attractions

Posted by
260 posts

Also, Italians are much, much, much better drivers than Americans. A few stylistic differences, but once you understand those, you will admire their skill and relax. I am in far more danger driving a car or crossing a street here in St. Paul, Minnesota.