If you want to experience authentic and idyllic Italy, you’ll find it by driving through gorgeous countrysides and historic villages that don’t have train stations. You’ll discover artistic treasures, hyperlocal food and wines, jaw-dropping scenery, ancient ruins, soaring architecture, lower prices, and fewer tourists.
I do not like to drive, I cannot parallel park, and I have terrible navigation skills. Yet I’ve driven rental cars from Milan in the north to Sicily in the south, and the central mountains in-between. I’ve crept along cobblestone cart paths six inches wider than my Fiat and raced on the autostrada in an Audi, getting a speeding ticket and a ZTL fine along the way. I’ve been charged for damage to a rental car that I did not cause, which I chalked up to karma, having previously used a Sharpie marker to hide scratches that I did cause.
Here’s everything you need to know to rent a car in Italy.
Bring your IDP
Italians drive on the right-hand side of the road, so for Americans-no challenge. You’ll need a valid drivers license and an International Driving Permit, which you can get at a AAA office, or by mail. You do not have to be a AAA member. It costs $20 and is good for one year from the date they write on it. Hint: Ask the clerk to date it the first day of your rental.
Before reserving a car, check your credit card for Collision Damage Waiver insurance on rental cars in Italy. Many credit cards exclude Italy. Mastercard World Elite cards offer it in Italy for rentals less than 31 days and up to $50,000. If your card offers insurance, ask them to send you a letter of coverage that you can bring to show the agent who may try to upsell you into their coverage options. Remember to decline the rental agency’s CDW, or you’ll pay for theirs.
If your card does not provide insurance, add it to your rental at booking or at the counter. A rental agency employee once told me that 90% of their agency’s rentals come back with some sort of damage.
Can you Drive a Stick Shift?
Automatic transmissions are not as common in Italy. You may have to pay higher rates for an automatic car, although it varies by area. If you can drive a stick-shift, you can save significantly.
Consider a smaller car, especially if you’ll be driving in busy cities or small medieval villages. Many small-town roads were once cart paths and are shockingly narrow. Medieval walled cities are often accessed by centuries-old gates. A gentleman who had moved to an apartment in a walled town told me that the van he had rented to move his belongings got stuck in the city gate! Most villages have a carpark outside the walls for larger vehicles and campers.
If your destination includes mountainous or rural areas along gravel or dirt roads, don’t rent a low-profile sports car, like an Alfa Romeo Giulia. Get something with more height, and consider an automatic transmission if you’ll be in a hilly area.
Start your car rental search on Kayak.com for a rough idea of anticipated rental costs, then book direct with the rental company website. If you’re a AAA member, start on the AAA website. They often have a Hertz discount and have always had the lowest prices for Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty. I’ve had no problems renting with Europcar and Sixt, who are transparent about added insurance costs. Leasys Rent is an Italian company that often has excellent prices.
Rental prices may be less expensive in off-airport locations and at train stations.
One-way rentals are available but you may pay more to drop off at a different location.
Drivers less than 26 years old may be charged a young-driver surcharge.
Car seats are required for children aged 4 and younger. Booster seats are required for those under 12 or 1.5 meters, approximately 4.9 feet. If you do not bring your own, rentals are available.
Check your roaming data allotment and speed to make sure they can support GPS. You may want to pay extra for a car with built-in GPS.
At major airports, there might be a “Gold” counter, but in most cases you need to queue to get your keys and contract, so allow extra time to pick up your rental. We once waited almost 2 hours to get a rental car from a well-known agency. Be aware that in some off-airport locations the office will close for lunch and have stated opening hours, outside of which you cannot pick up or drop off a car.
Check before you Rent
Research the parking and driving laws where you’ll be driving. A good place to start is your accommodation facility. For example, much of Rome’s historic center is in a “ZTL” area which means auto traffic is limited to residents with permits. Most cities have vehicular restrictions, but in some cases your hotel can register your car with the local authorities or you can purchase a pass for admittance. If I had bought a five-euro Area C pass for Milan, I would have saved the $50 fine assessed by the rental car company.
Yes, the rental car company will charge you anywhere from $30-75 in “administrative fees” for handing your information over to the local authorities if you violate any parking, driving, or speeding rules. In other words, every fine you incur is charged twice: once by the car rental agency, and once by the police.
If you are driving in the winter, November 1-April 30, you may need snow chains or winter tires, even if it’s not snowing. The police conduct random checks and the fines for noncompliance range from €41 to €335. Some car rental agencies offer this option when selecting your car online, but if not, ask at the counter, and expect to pay a modest fee. Each region sets their own schedule so check before you rent to determine your destination’s rules. (Please note that these links are in Italian but you can use Google Chrome to automatically translate.)
Take pictures of your rental!
When you do pick up your rental, examine it thoroughly for damage and verify that all of the damages are noted in your contract. Take pictures of the car with your phone before leaving the lot. One time I forgot to do so in a fit of jet lag, and I was charged $140 for a scratched rim that I did not scratch.
As you’re putting your luggage in the trunk, you might see a kit or a pouch in it. Italian law requires that drivers have a warning triangle and place it 50 meters away from the car in the event of a breakdown. A reflective vest must also be worn when stopped at night, in poor visibility, or in the emergency lane. Those items are usually found in the trunk but sometimes in the glove compartment.
Italians have a saying: “ne vale la pena,” which means, “It’s worth it.” And it is. Italy’s secrets are revealed to those who rent a car and drive to hidden gems.
In the next posts, I’ll cover everything you need to know to drive and park in Italy.
If you have any questions or think of something I have forgotten please leave a comment.
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