Renting a car in Italy

Hints, tips, resources, and pointers for getting your own set of wheels in Italy

A Fiat 500
Just make sure you read the fine print on that "sub-compact" or you may end up with a Fiat 500—cute, yes, but with a top speed of 60 mph...downhill.

There is a lot to recommend renting or leasing a car in Italy, especially if you want to go beyond just the big cities (and you should).

It's the only way to really get in there and visit all the medieval hilltowns, vineyards, colorful fishing towns, isolated beaches, and alpine villages that make up the Italy trip of your dreams.

I love Italian trains, and no-frills airlines make crossing great distances in Italy (or anywhere in Europe) fast and cheap (albeit thoroughly unromantic). But sometimes, only your own set of wheels will do.

Here's how to go about getting them.

Resources for Renting

  1. Use an aggregator to determine a base fare - Research the going retail rates at various rental outfits, booking sites, discounters, and travel agencies by using a meta–search engine called an aggregator: RentalCars.com, AutoSlash.com, Momondo.com, Vayama.com, DoHop.com, Mobissimo.com. Then see if you can beat them.

  2. PartnerSee if a consolidator can beat those prices - Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com) - offers consistently lower prices than the Big Five, Auto Europe actually works a bit like an airfare consolidator, so you still pick up the car at some local European office of, say, Avis or Europcar...you just end up paying less for it. This is almost always my first choice when I need to rent, and since they now do leases as well, it's the best one-stop-price-shopping for the best option. Carrentals.com (www.carrentals.com) is another, newer car rental consolidator/aggregator. Haven't used them personally yet, but seems to have good product.

  3. You can always try the major agencies - I rarely find the best prices by going directly to the big rental agencies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, National, Dollar, Europcar), but occasionally there will be some special sale or promotion that will bring the rates being charges by the majors down to the discounted prices you'll find at the companies listed above. The easiest way to compare prices quickly at all of them is to go through a search engine: Orbitz.comPartner, Expedia.comPartner, Travelocity.comPartner.

The upsides to renting a car in Italy

A perfectly legal scam
No matter from whom you rent your car, the company will inform you that, because you're renting in Italy, you must pay for Theft Protection insurance. This is not a scam—well, actually, it kind of is, but this time it's not the rental company's fault. TP is required by Italian law. The rental company couldn't let you out of that fee even if it wanted to (though I've yet to see the fee that a rental agency didn't derive great joy from charging.)
The main argument for plunking down a big chunk of your vacation budget on an auto rental is that glorious freedom to spread out a map, cross-reference the little towns on it to your guidebook—or just to your whims—and then turn left down any road that catches your fancy.

Driving is by far the best, and often the only reasonable, way to visit vineyards, drop by medieval hamlets, and explore crumbling countryside castles.

With a car, you can be your own travel boss and get away from the tyranny of train schedules, which defines the structure of the traditional tourist trail. Renting (or leasing) is really the only reasonable option if you want to explore any small region in depth.

The beaten path in Italy is lined with railroad tracks and plied by intercity coaches and air-conditioned tour buses. If you want top get off it, you’ll need your own wheels (or a heck of a lot of time and either a bike or sturdy walking shoes.)

The downsides to a rental car

Of course, with a car comes hassles. You'll have to deal with aggressive Italian drivers, navigate nerve-racking and confusing city traffic where the system of one-ways and seem to follow some arcane and indecipherable set of rules while the other drivers seem to follow none, and of course find and then pay (often through the nose) for parking whenever you stop.

If you're constantly behind the wheel of an automobile, you aren't free to relax and do research on the trip between towns (as you would on a train, bus, or plane), and the gasoline prices in Italy will downright curl your toenails, often running three times as much as in the States.

Still, unless you do walk or bike through Italy, there's no way to get closer to the land, its people, and its small towns devoid of other tourists and have the true freedom to go where your travel dreams take you than to rent a car.

Decisions, Decisions

Is a car right for you? Would a railpass and the train system be better? That varies trip to trip and depends on what you want to accomplish on yours.

In brief: If you want to cover lots of ground, concentrate on the cities, or are going it solo, nine times out of ten I’d say take the train or a train/no-frill airline combo. If you're exploring just a region or two (especially if it's a place like Sicily, which isn't quite as well connected by train), plan to hit lots of small towns, and are in a party of three or more, then rent a car (in general, three people splitting one car rental is cheaper than buying three train tickets).

The best trips mix and match transportation a bit. For example, you can take the train to Florence, and then drive through the vineyards and hill towns of Tuscany to Rome. This is why rail-and-drive passes can make a lot of sense.

If you see just the major cities of Italy, you're missing out on a big part of the continent, and I heartily recommend breaking up the metropolis itinerary with some jaunts through the countryside to smaller towns. It'll add spice and variety to your trip.

Use Your Rental to Hit the Road, Not to Hit the Town

Do not rent a car just to get around a city. In fact, avoid having a car in town at all costs. I can think of no aspect of Italian travel less exciting, more stressful, or more wasteful of your precious cash.

Rather than seeing, say, the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums in Rome, you’ll wind up spending an hour or more crawling through traffic while you try to find your way into downtown from the G.R.A. ring road, then being repeatedly foiled by one-way street and do-no-enters as you try to worm your way into the historic center to your hotel, only to find out that your choices for parking are either €50 per night at the nearby garage or another hour's torturous drive to find and get into the public garage at Villa Borghese (where it's "only" €20 a day).

Who wants that?

Not only are cars useless in town—where public transportation is widespread, easy to use, and laughably cheap (max around $1.50 per ride for subways, buses, and trams)—but the parking fees will gobble at your travel budget.

Free curbside parking in cities is rare these days, open spaces even rarer, and often it’s just an invitation to have your window smashed. So your best bet is a lot. However, whether it’s a public lot, private garage, or hotel garage, expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $75 a day—just to park a car you don’t need in town in the first place.

The Strategy

Like the sound of this itinerary? Here's a detailed plan on how to take just such a trip.
OK, so your trip starts in Rome and you’re wondering why I’m giving you advice you can’t use since your heart is set on renting that car in order to head down to see Pompeii and drive the Amalfi Coast, then explore the hilltowns of Tuscany and maybe visit Assisi, tour the sights of Florence, and hike the Cinque Terre before returning the car in Venice after two glorious weeks. Actually, it’s simple to avoid Roman, Neapolitan, and Florentine traffic on this trip—and save yourself not only days of driving but also save several hundred dollars in rental costs, parking fees, and gasoline in the process. Merely save the vehicle for exploring the countryside.

Arrive in Rome, take the train downtown, and spend a few days enjoying the Eternal City, using the excellent Metro to get around. Then take the train down to Naples and then on to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast (which is far better explored by bus and ferry), then a train back to Rome. Arrange to pick up your rental car the morning you leave Rome the second time, use it to explore Tuscany and Assisi for a few days, then to drop it off as soon as you pull into Florence (then you can take trains to the Cinque Terre and on to Venice).

Suddenly, a two-week rental has turned into a four-day rental—and saved you loads of money and aggravation.

This is advice so basic it boggles my mind that more people don’t realize it. (I’m sure you do, but I’ve gotten letters from folks thanking me for this tidbit and gushing about how it saved them $400 before they even left on their vacation. They never seem to include, say, a check for a 10% cut of those savings by way of showing their gratitude, but I’m not complaining.)

Tips & links

Car rental & driving resources
  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: Autostrade.it (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA): Aci.it
  • ZTLs: Ztl-italia.blogspot.com (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)

 

Useful Italian phrases for car travel
car automobile (ow-toh-MO-bee-lay)
or
macchina (MAH-keen-ah)
gas benzina (ben-ZEE-nah)
diesel gasolio (gah-ZOH-lee-oh) / diesel (DEE-zell)
Fill it up, please al pieno, per favore (ahl pee-YAY-noh, pair fa-VOHR-ray)
Where is... Dov'é (doh-VAY)
...the highway l'autostrada (lout-oh-STRA-dah)
...the road for Rome la strada per Roma (lah STRA-dah pair RO-mah)
to the right à destra (ah DEH-strah)
to the left à sinistra (ah see-NEEST-trah)
straight ahead diritto (dee-REE-toh) / avanti (ah-VAHN-tee)
keep going straight sempre diritto (SEM-pray dee-REE-toh)
   
thank you grazie (GRAT-tzee-yay)
please per favore (pair fa-VOHR-ray)
yes si (see)
no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? (PAR-la een-GLAY-zay)
I don't understand Non capisco (non ka-PEESK-koh)
How much is it? Quanto costa? (KWAN-toh COST-ah)


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Resources
  • Car resources
  • Emergency service/tow: tel. 803-116
  • Highway agency: Autostrade.it (traffic info, serivce areas, toll calculator, weather)
  • Italian automotive club (~AAA): Aci.it
  • ZTLs: Ztl-italia.blogspot.com (lightly outdated, but handy, links to cities' traffic-free zones)



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