There are many reasons why you should visit Puglia.
The food, the people, the beaches - it's all wonderful. However, the fact that a road trip is the perfect way to experience and explore this beautiful part of southern Italy is the biggest reason why every independent traveller should start looking at the cost of flights for next summer.
On our own 10-day Puglia road trip, we fell in love with the region but, unsurprisingly, discovered that there are some challenges for a first-time driver here.
Here are our 14 essential things to know before you rent a car and set off on your own amazing Puglia road trip!
you can rent a car at bari or brindisi airport
If you’re flying to Puglia, then you’re going to either arrive in Bari or Brindisi airport. There are several car rental options at each, but it's best to book in advance to save time and money once you arrive. On our last two road trips, we've rented via Auto Europe which aggregates all the options available locally - we used it for Puglia and can happily recommend it.
As ever, be sure to inspect the car and ensure any bumps, scrapes or damage are noted on the contract before you leave the car park. Our tip is to take a video if the car is in particularly bad shape. Note that every car rental place will put a 'hold' on your credit card as a deposit for damage.
italian driving is 'interesting'…
How do know if you’re driving behind a rental car in Italy?
They’re using their indicators on a roundabout!
There’s no doubt that driving in Italy will be different to what most people are used to, especially us Brits. Thankfully though, you get used to its rhythms and quirks quite quickly (and will probably even adopt some of them during your road trip!)
The first thing to note is that Italians rarely use indicators when they should. On the motorway someone won’t necessarily let you know that they’re about switch lanes and cut in right in front of you, which is equal parts stupid and dangerous.
The second is that Italian roundabouts are a bit of a free for all. You need to approach them with caution and do not take for granted that the usual ‘give way’ system is in operation (or that anyone will indicate!) In cities, where congestion is a real problem, junctions can also become a mess of vehicles trying to nudge in at the first opportunity. In both these situations instance, you really do have to be a little more (cautiously) aggressive in your driving than usual, otherwise you’ll be stranded at the front of a line of increasingly irate Italians.
As with any road trip in a foreign land, the first day will be your adjustment period. Make sure you take it carefully and with a huge dollop of patience; it's important not to panic or get too stressed out. By the second or third day, you'll have worked out the unspoken rules of Italy's roads (even if many make absolutely no sense).
avoid too much time driving in the cities
The towns and cities of Puglia are fantastically beautiful, but they were not built to withstand a world where everyone owns a car.
The result is a congested system of narrow streets which can quickly confuse and overwhelm a visiting road tripper. You will inevitably spend some time driving such streets, sometimes by mistake, but our advice is that you should limit your actual time driving in the cities (especially in the cramped, labrynthine 'old town' neighbourhoods). Get in, know where you’re going, find a parking spot as soon as possible, discover everything slowly on foot, and then make a swift exit.
Another reason to avoid the cities is the dreaded ZTL driving zones, and the resulting fines. These Limited Traffic Zones (Zona Traffico Limitato) are found in most major Italian cities, and they're used to reduce congestion in high traffic areas, and make them more pleasant for pedestrians and residents. Unfortunately, many a tourist doesn't know about them and ends up driving past one of the cameras used to check for breaches - the result is a fine sent through the post up to 12 months later! Find our more about the ZTL here.
Similarly, avoid arriving after dark when it all becomes a little more bewildering and much more difficult to navigate.
country roads are incredibly narrow
We took the highway more than we planned in Puglia.
This was largely for convenience and to save some time on days where we had a lot of ground to cover. However, it was also because those single track countryside lanes we did venture down had barely enough space for our car.
We loved the fact the ape is still a common mode of transport for farmers in the Puglian countryside, but it's also a sensible choice given just how narrow these roads are. By all means spend some time getting lost down them too (they will lead you to some beautiful hidden away places), but we wouldn’t recommend using countryside roads for the majority of your route or if you're in a rush.
a smaller car is better
As will become clear by the time you finish reading this post, we think renting a small car in Puglia is absolutely your best option.
We went with an incredibly fuel efficient Renault Kadjar which, whilst perfect in many ways, was definitely larger than we expected and needed. With the cities as congested as they are and too many vehicles trying to navigate very narrow streets, having a pretty bulky SUV just added extra stress and increased the likelihood of a bump or a scrape.
Of course, if you are a large family or group of friends, then get the car that fits you all in - you will be absolutely fine. But, if you’re just a couple or not carrying too much luggage, then maybe opt for something like the Fiat 500 which is much more compact (and cheaper).
You'll be thanking us a lot when try to park for the first time, because...
parking is a nightmare (v.1)
Now, Andrew is about to bare his soul.
He is awful at parallel parking.
He can do it if the space is big enough and there isn’t a line of drivers waiting to laugh at him, but even the best parker’s parking skills will be tested on a road trip in Puglia!
On-street parking in the cities and in popular tourist spots is always oversubscribed so, if you spot an impossibly tiny gap between two vehicles on one of the busy one-way streets, you may have no option but to go for it!
parking is a nightmare (v.2)
So, we fathomed the following rules for parking in Puglia:
- A parking place is indicated by the blue sign with the white letter P or the phrase parcheggio
- Blue lines anywhere mean you can park, but you have to pay (more on that later)
- White lines mean you can park and it’s free (but double check!)
- Yellow lines are only for disabled badge holders
- There are also official and unofficial paid parking lots
When searching for parking, bear in mind that popular tourist cities get really busy, and whilst you may find on-street parking if you arrive early, central car parks may well be your best bet (although they're not always easy to locate).
Note that the closer to the beach or a centro storico you get, the less likely you are to find any non-blue (i.e. free) parking. For those watching the pennies, muster up some patience and head a little further from the centre of town and you should find some eventually (but it could take 10-20 minutes).
Should you opt for paid parking, there will always be a sign advertising the cost per hour, and any day/date/time restrictions. If you're visiting after the busy summer period be sure to read the sign carefully as many paid-for parking spots convert to free in mid-September.
Ticket machines are easy to find, and easy to use, but make sure you have a good supply of small change for them. Simply insert the correct amount for the period of time you expect to be there and the machine will spit out a ticket with your departure time. Take a note of the time by which you will have to leave (or top up by), then place the ticket in your front windscreen.
If you are fortunate enough to find free parking, then check there aren’t any time restrictions (i.e. only 30 minutes free or residents only after a certain time). You rental car will likely come with a small parking disc on the front window; it’s to be used in these instances so you can show the time you arrived to any arriving traffic wardens.
The costs for parking in Puglia tended to be €1.30/hour. It’s worth noting that, if you want a beach day, then there are often parking attendants here with private parking (there will be signs); they will offer a tutto il giorno (all day) rate of €3+/-, which will undercut the rate of the blue parking spaces. As Puglia is so hot, try to park under shade if possible, otherwise you will return to a sauna.
Lastly, ask your hostel, hotel or Airbnb host in advance if they have parking on site, or know somewhere free near the property. Plug this into Google Maps and save for later - it'll save you a lot of time and stress upon arrival.
watch your wing mirrors & hubcaps
Because the last thing you want when you’ve successfully parked in that tight spot is to come back to find that there wasn’t quite enough space left for that car to go past; make sure you tuck those mirrors in before you head off to explore!
It's likely that your rental car will also already have some scrapes on the hubcaps from somebody, likely, trying to avoid hitting a wing mirror on one side, only to end up scraping the wheel against the pavement on the other side. Look out for this when you first pick up your rental and, if there is damage, make sure it's noted in the contract.
Things are closer than you realise
Ok, so we think we’ve earned a little break from some of the less fun aspects of a Puglia road trip?
The great thing about renting a car in Puglia is that you really don’t have to worry about being too far from everything. The area is manageable to navigate over the course of seven or so days - it’s not about covering miles and miles and miles and a lot of the places you’ll want to visit in an area are actually only a half hour or so drive from each other.
So, our main piece of advice is to plan your Puglia road trip route by using the following steps:
- Do you research and find the places you absolutely want to visit (watch this space for our post on this!)
- From that list, pick out a few places which you can use as a base - instead of moving on every morning, you should stay 2 or 3 nights in one spot and then simply take day trip drives. From Ostuni, for example, we managed to visit Alborobello, Martina Franca and Locorotondo in a morning and afternoon without feeling at all rushed.
- Due to the fact that your own car will open up a whole lot of Puglia to you, don’t focus solely on accommodation in the main towns or cities. Use the opportunity to take advantage of the freedom you’ve gained and book the flat in the countryside or in the farmhouse in the middle of nowhere! If you find the most amazing place on Airbnb, then book it and plan your road trip around staying there, rather than the other way round.
speed limits are frustrating
We’re all for safe roads and sensible driving, but we both grew immensely frustrated at the scattergun approach to speed limits in Italy.
First up, it’s worth noting that very few vehicles were sticking to the limit on highways and main roads; that seems to be an Italian thing in general. This situation wasn't helped by the fact that on literally every main road we travelled, the speed limit would fluctuate from 90km/h to 50km/h, then back to 90km/h for half a mile, before dropping back to 50 km/h for no reason.
For us, this actually felt like it created more dangerous and uncertain driving conditions, and increased the potential for accidents on the road.
You’ll need a navigator
Driving in a new country can be really stressful at the best of times, and so it helps out so much to have the passenger taking off some of the pressure by reading the map and letting you know that the street up ahead on the left is one-way (the wrong way!) or that you need to take the 3rd, not the 2nd, exit on the rapidly approaching roundabout.
We have, unexpectedly, managed to create a pretty formidable road trip team over the last 24 months, massively helped by Emily becoming a fantastic co-pilot navigator!
If you don’t have GPS in your car, then do what we do and just download an offline version of the Puglia region Google Map on your mobile, add a ‘star’ to the main places on your itinerary and have your passenger act as lead navigator (really important in the cities)!
There are lots of one way streets
Yep, and we definitely didn’t go down any of them and have to reverse back or just keep on going and hope for the best....
filling up fuel can be confusing
A lot of petrol stations in Italy have an attendant who will fill up the car for your requested amount, and you’ll pay him directly - simple and easy. However, some others had a pretty confusing system with which some friendly locals had to help us
Essentially, it's a little machine where you have to pay and then select your pump number, and it will then allow you to fill up.
It didn’t always work (the first time Andrew used it, it tried to charge him for €100 worth of petrol for another customer!) and we were told that the easiest way to do it is to pay note by note, transaction by transaction (i.e. put in €10, then fill up, then put in another €10, then fill up etc.). It’s probably not as complicated as we’ve made it appear but we thought we’d let you know - and it’s another reason to always keep some notes with you as paying by card won’t always be possible.
As ever when renting a car, make sure to double check whether it’s petrol or diesel before you fill it up for the first time. Unleaded petrol is benzina senza piombo (although most pumps will just say senza piombo), whilst diesel is just diesel said in an Italian accent.
You will love it
It's important to note that we survived the Puglia road trip without having any accidents or major panics, and we got all our car rental deposit back.
And, 99% of the time, we absolutely loved it.
There was the odd stressful moment - like when we arrived in Ostuni after dark and the route to our Airbnb was shut, so our host had to come meet us and guide us to a (parallel) parking space, or when Andrew forgot how an automatic car worked and a friendly Italian man FROM THE CAR BEHIND had to come and help. But overall, if you follow the above tips and advice, then you'll absolutely love renting a car in Puglia and discovering just how gorgeous this region is.