If you rent a car in Italy, chances are you might have occasion to drive on an autostrada. An Autostrada (plural autostrade) is an Italian toll highway, usually the quickest way to get between two cities by car. The maximum speed on the autostrada is 130 kilometers per hour, although in built-up areas or in work zones the maximum speed can be reduced. While the idea of driving on the autostrada is intimidating to many visitors to Italy, the reality is a lot less scary. It's just important to follow some common-sense rules for highway driving.
Rules of the Road
Here are some basic tips to follow for a (relatively) stress-free trip on an Italian autostrada:
Drive on the right: On every autostrada, there is a minimum of two lanes running in each direction, and often three or four. One drives in the right lane on the autostrada and moves to the left lane briskly and temporarily, and only to pass. If you dawdle in the left lane, you will soon be surprised by a faster-moving car right on your bumper, pressuring you—and possibly flashing its headlights—for you to move over.
Keep an eye on the exits: Before you set out on your trip, map out your journey and know which exit you need to take to reach your destination. Florence, for example, has several exits, some of which will take you well out of your way if you're trying to reach the city center. While many rental cars come with navigation systems or drivers can elect to use their smartphones for map directions, it's still helpful to know where you're going well ahead of the moment you need to exit the autostrada.
Choose the right toll booth: When it's time to exit the autostrada, remember two things: Choose the correct side of the tollbooth lanes and, where possible, choose to pay a live attendant rather than an automated machine.
At bigger toll plazas, the autostrada may connect to several roads going to different destinations. So if you need to get to Siena, for example, and there may be 8 different tollbooth lanes from which to choose. As you approach the tollbooths, look for indications for Siena, and choose a tollbooth on the Siena side of the toll plaza.
For ease of transaction, choose a tollbooth lane with a sign overhead that shows a hand giving money—this indicates a tollbooth with an attendant who will take your money and give change, if required. Signs indicating money but no hand are for automated toll collection machines, which can be a bit nerve-wracking for first-time autostrada drivers.
At machines or staffed tollbooths, credit cards are accepted.
Other Tips for Your Trip
Expect sticker shock: Italian autostrade are fast and well-maintained, but expensive to drive on, especially for long trips. The toll to get from Rome to Florence is around €18. To get from Reggio Calabria to Torino—basically from one end of Italy to the other, the toll is about €75.
Take the scenic route: If you don't like paying the tolls on the autostrada or don't want the stress of highway driving, you can usually find a road labeled "SS" on your map, paralleling the autostrada. Those are "strade statali" or state roads. The speed limit is 70-110 km per hour when it's clear for a stretch, and 30-50 near towns. They are twistier and usually far more scenic than the autostrada, but they can be very slow.
Autostrade are marked by signs with an "A" followed by the autostrada number on a green background, other roads are marked with road numbers on a blue background (as you can see on the photo).