Of all the recurring complaints I get from readers, the one they find by far most vexing has nothing to do with excessive fees, surprise surcharges or surly employees.
It's about traffic tickets. In Italy.
Dean Brown is the latest in a long line of agitated drivers. In 2008, he and his wife visited Florence. "I parked my rental car in a space with a meter," said Brown, a general contractor who lives in Tiburon, Calif. "I made sure the meter had the correct amount of paid time for our visit. Now I have received a notice of "Violation of the Highway Code," which states that my vehicle was circulated in a limited-traffic area without authorization. They are asking for €183," about $250.
Here's another complaint, from Joseph Loscalzo, who got a bill from his car rental company seven months after his Italian vacation. "The notice says that they used an approved video control system to issue this ticket and they are asking for 183 euros," wrote Loscalzo, who is the president of an advertising agency in Corte Madera, Calif. "What are my options? I may travel to Italy again and don't want to get arrested if pulled over by the police."
The stories of Italian traffic violations share a common narrative: Tickets are received months, sometimes more than a year, after travelers have returned home. They're impossible for the average American visitor to decipher, because they're in Italian -- and not just any Italian, but Italian legalese. And there's no easy way to appeal them, through either a car rental company or the Italian government, so most visitors pay them.
"The numbers are definitely on the rise," said Molly Douglas, a customer service manager for Auto Europe, a car rental consolidator based in Portland, Maine. "I would say every third or fourth phone call we get relates to a traffic infraction or administrative fee in Italy, and that's a conservative estimate. It is incredibly frustrating."
There are two common ways to get caught. One is by speeding past an Autovelox box, or enforcement camera. The other is by driving in a "limited traffic zone," or zona traffico limitato, without an authorized license plate. Lately, municipal police in cities such as Rome, Florence, Milan, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Orvieto, and Verona have been cracking down on drivers who ignore the signs for those zones, according to Kathy McCabe, editor and publisher of the Washington-based newsletter Dream of Italy (www.dreamofitaly.com).
"The problem is, you won't even know you have been fined until you return home," she warned travelers in a recent issue. "The police are photographing license plates -- sometimes automatically -- and tracing them back to drivers through rental car companies. Not only will you receive a citation for a fine of around $100 in the mail, but your rental car company will levy a fee for the work involved in tracing the violation back to you."
How do you avoid a delayed Italian ticket? Some municipalities publish a list of camera locations online that you can check, says Nancy Parode, who lived in Italy and has been caught on camera. "And do what the locals do," she adds. "If they're all slowing down on the highway, follow suit. They know where the Autovelox boxes are. They know how much they'll have to pay if they're caught speeding, and it's enough to make them drive more slowly."
Parode, an editor for a travel site, warns against ignoring tickets. "Fines double after a certain period of time has elapsed," she said, "and in some jurisdictions, can double more than once."
I asked several Italy experts if the tickets could be appealed. They said the answer, technically, is yes; there should be a phone number on each citation that you can call to appeal. But they were quick to add that traffic cameras are presumed to be accurate and that even Italians find it difficult to fight a ticket.
McCabe advises visitors to avoid renting a car, particularly in a major city. "It is a big hassle, and if you try to park on the street you're subject to numerous rules that could result in big fines, or worse," she told me. Indeed, many Italian cities are better experienced on foot or can be reached more conveniently by train or bus.
If only Jeff Schimmel had known that. Last month, he received two separate letters -- "very official-looking," he said -- from the municipal police in Milan. "I couldn't even tell what the alleged infractions were, but they each ordered me to pay 100 euros per ticket," said Schimmel, who is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. "Here's the thing: I drove through Milan in the summer of 2008. If I did somehow violate Italian traffic laws, it was at least 18 months ago. Now they're sending me a ticket?"
Schimmel suspects a scam.
"Just because a letter is printed and has a seal on it, that doesn't automatically mean it's official or valid," he said. "Perhaps the credit card or bank transfer payment options are just a rip-off?
I agreed that something about the Italian ticket problem didn't add up. I contacted the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York in mid-February to get an official response but heard back from them only last week. A spokesman told me that yes, the tickets are legit, and he cautioned that visitors to Italy should pay attention to the road signs. If you get a ticket, don't contact the Italian embassy or consulate, he said. Just follow the instructions on the ticket if you want to dispute the fine.
But if you don't pay up, will you be barred from the country?
"For a parking ticket?" he laughed. "No, no. We don't do that."
For travelers who unwittingly violate traffic rules in the land of la dolce vita, that's molto bene.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.