Driving in another country can be stressful and ominous compared to commuting in your hometown. Laws, signage and overall demeanor on the roads can be completely different, but don’t let that deter you from taking on the open road and having a completely flexible itinerary. Be prepared, be cautious and most importantly be confident. It’s also helpful to know how to drive a manual, but not necessary.
First and foremost, plan ahead by getting yourself an international drivers permit or IDP. You can obtain one through AAA for a small fee, but it can take a couple weeks for it to arrive if you don’t get one on-site at an AAA office. If you search the Internet you’ll find that there are different opinions on if you actually need this or not. The answer seems to be that you should have one for each driver, but some rental counters won’t ask to see one before handing over the keys. That being said, if you get pulled over or in an accident without it then you could face some serious penalties. My advice is to get it ahead of time because it’s fairly cheap and could be worth it.
I can’t speak for the rest of Europe, but in northern Italy, southern Austria and western Slovenia, the roads were well maintained and appropriately marked. You will find that most signage will point you in the direction of the next big city rather than using north or south. Being on the same side of the road is helpful and relieves some stress as well as being on the same side of the car. From my experience, drivers will only merge into the left lane to overtake a vehicle so once you pass a slower car make your way back over into the right lane. Also, be aware that there are tons of toll roads in the area and your options are to purchase a telepass which is available at most gas stations that are directly off the highway or pay as you go with either a card or euros. Make sure to study up on some of the signage you might see, but if you know a bit of the language then you will most likely be able to figure things out just fine.
One of the main reasons I wanted to drive rather than hop on a train was because your schedule immediately becomes way more flexible. Knowing that Austria, Slovenia, and Italy were going to be absolutely gorgeous, I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to pull off and take it all in. Our destinations also would have required a bit of creativity had we not had a car since they were off the beaten path.
Driving on the highways were cake compared to driving in the cities. Arriving in Florence was a bit of a shock for me, but with a GPS leading the way we were able to navigate the streets fairly well. The skinny roads and zippy motorbikes were another challenging entity for me, but a switch had flipped in my brain that I needed to remain calm and confident making the drive less stressful. Don’t hesitate, be confident and stay aware and you will be just fine navigating the European roads of northern Italy.