What I wish I knew before Renting a Car in Italy
Leah Walker November 4, 2014

In the months leading up to October’s Italy trip, I realized that a rental car would be necessary. One of the things I love about Europe is the ease of traveling by train, and I try to take advantage as much as possible. But, the rails wouldn’t take me to the isolated Tuscan villa or seaside resort I’d be visiting, and since I’ve found that some of the most difficult places to get to are also the most rewarding, I sucked it up and rented a Citroën.

Now, when I’m in the USA, I’m a driving machine. I started driving at age eight and got a super-fast ’66 Mustang when I was twelve. In Houston, public transportation isn’t a viable option, so I’m behind the wheel everywhere I go. I consider myself a very good driver {though a bit aggressive, impatient, and prone to road rage}.

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I’ve dodged sheep and rock walls on the tiny roads of Ireland and navigated the North and South Islands of New Zealand without issue. In August, I drove in a convoy of 200 Mini Coopers from San Francisco to Albuquerque. There was no problem whatsoever. However, driving in Italy was different. Thus, here are some things I wish I knew before I rented a car in Italy.

Rapido

From the country that’s given the world Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati, you can expect a nation of lead feet. And you’d be right. Italy is no place for the timid driver. Forget leisurely cruising through the Tuscan hills–not going to happen. Highways might as well be racetracks. Frankly, I never knew the speed limit, nor did I care. There were always ten cars driving at least twenty kilometers per hour faster than me. Just move over as soon as possible and let everyone pass.

Tolls

I am filled with anxiety when it comes to toll roads. When I was teaching and coaching basketball in Houston, I crammed a giant, yellow school bus full of kids between two concrete barriers at a tollbooth during rush hour. This happened over eight years ago, and the humiliation and horror still haunt me.

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Now, I’m not particularly concerned about hitting something, but rather choosing the wrong lane. The last thing I need is a warrant out for my arrest in Italy. My advice for using Italian toll roads is to find the cash lane. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use the credit card line, especially if you don’t have a credit card with a chip. My friend, Lily Jang, was charged $8 and $37 on her debit card. Subsequently, I later paid €.70 in cash. That’s just highway robbery {pun intended}.

Manual vs Automatic

I learned to drive a stick shift on a tractor when I was ten. I’m pretty sure I’ve not driven one since {both a tractor and a stick}. You can imagine the look on my face when I climbed in to my trusty Citroën to see three floor pedals and a knob where a cup holder should be. My advice is that unless you’re Giancarlo Fisichella or regularly drive a car with a manual transmission, just go ahead and pay the extra money for the automatic transmission.

Petrol

First off, it’s important to know the terminology. Gasoline is known as petrol. Secondly, the prices may look much lower than in the USA, but keep in mind that in Italy {and pretty much the entire world}, petrol is sold by the liter, rather than the gallon. So, €20 worth of petrol will get you about three gallons. Lastly, paying for the petrol can be an adventure and varies wildly. Often there’s a central pay station for each bay of pumps. Choose the pump number you’ll be using and follow the Italian instructions. Paying with a credit card without a pin can be difficult, if not impossible. Have cash handy, because some of the machines accept bills.

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GPS

With all the construction, tiny roads, and roundabouts, navigating Italy can be a daunting task. I decided against renting the optional GPS and using Siri and Google maps instead. It served me well, but did use a good bit of the international data I’d purchased and ran my iPhone battery down rather quickly. It was, however, entertaining to listen to Siri butcher the beautiful Italian language. If you’re going to be driving a lot then just get the navigation system. It’ll be a good investment.

Insurance

Normally, I’m on the fence when it comes to buying insurance. My credit card offers coverage, so in the USA, I decline the coverage offered by car rental companies. Besides, the insurance often costs as much as the rental, and I find that simply ridiculous. When I’m abroad, however, I usually buy it. And in some countries, like Ireland, there’s a law requiring the purchase of additional insurance.

Some car rental sites offer insurance at a fraction of what you buy at the rental car counter, so make sure to research that option. Before I picked up my car, I bought a week’s worth of excess protection online for just £28.26. The added piece of mind was absolutely worth it, especially since I may or may not have added a little character to the front bumper of my car. I’d also like to suggest keeping a bottle of Tuscan red handy to give to the inspector upon return, although, I can’t guarantee this to be a foolproof method. Individual results may vary.

Find your car rental here:

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One of the best parts of my Italy trip was dropping off the car at the Rome airport in one piece. I will say that the risk was worth the reward, because I got to see parts of Italy that I couldn’t from a train window. I was on my own schedule and had the freedom to stop when I wanted. I’d totally rent a car in Europe again, but next time, it will be with an automatic transmission.

Note: There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I make a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. It costs you nothing more, but helps keep me stocked in French wine {and a roof over my head}.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

54 Comments

  1. Agree with all the tips 🙂 driving in Europe has been one of the best experiences of our lives in the last 6 years but driving in major cities can be daunting. Good you carried that bottle of red for the inspector – always comes in handy in Europe, especially in Italy 🙂

    1. I’ll have to tell you about that tale over a bottle of Super Tuscan. It was brilliant and totally not planned. I’d like to call it “thinking on my toes.”

      1. Im not quiet sure what is the purpose of the red Tuscan for inspector. Inspector of what exactly?!
        Also I will be renting a car from FCO from Rome to Florence to Venice to Amalfi (and surroundings) then back to FCO for our flight back home. The car rental purpose is to get to another city from the other. I will be using public transport to explore each cities.

        Should I worry?
        I have driven around Canada/s busiest cities and towns, also include NYC, Boston, DC and MD

        I should be ok right?

  2. You are one brave woman. There’s no way in hell I’d drive in Italy! Well, I should say, there’s no way I’d ever drive in any of the big cities. Rome? Ha! Naples? Fuhgedaboutit. Maybe the driving is less stressful in Tuscany and points north, but after what we observed in Campania, I’m more than happy taking public transit!

    Germany, however, is a different story. 🙂

    1. Honestly, I picked the car up in Florence and went directly to the Tuscan countryside. Then I drove it to the Rome airport. There was NO way I was driving in a city. They highway and winding, country roads were enough. Plus, I couldn’t enjoy wine like I would have liked. 🙂

  3. we’ve had our fair share of iffy driving experiences when traveling, though nothing so terrible that we’d swear it off altogether. it is incredibly frustrating how much more expensive it is to get an automatic! we feel you, sister.

  4. When we were in Sicily several years ago I dubbed their style of driving “rectal driving” because they – even on roads with no traffic – drove so close it was like they were in the back seat or up my – oh you know! I’m an aggressive, fast Boston driver and held my own but barely! The other thing is that most countries in Europe technically require an idiotic international driver’s license that you just go to AAA and buy. Then they never ever look at it but if you get in an accident and don’t have one you can supposedly get into a fair bit of trouble. But I still like the freedom of a car in Europe – I tell myself I’m building new neural pathways!

  5. Having driven in Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland (plus U.S., Mexico and Canada) I would rate Ireland highest on the nerves level. They charge big time for rental insurance and know you are going to hit a hedge row. Italy comes in second because even the smaller towns have restricted zones and one way streets that will cost you big time if you break the law – and they will track you down through the rental the company. Yet, nothing beats driving through the Italian Alps and surviving.

  6. Great post, we’ve rented cars every time we’ve been in Europe and learn something new each time. Renting a GPS sounds like a good idea but often, if you’re in the countryside, it’ll send you on un-driveable roads so keep that in mind. Also, declining the insurance isn’t always a good thing. We found out that most credit cards cover you for 30 days only and don’t cover liability. Just some food for thought.

    1. Totally! The GPS I rented in Ireland was terrible. I was in Cork and it still had me in Dublin–totally useless. You’re right about the insurance. There is no hard-fast rule and needs to be analyzed by each individual.

    1. OH, yes, how could I forget parking? Thank goodness I never had the car in an actual city. That has disaster written all over it. #StayImpressed

  7. Great tips! I’d also like to add that you can get insurance through most major card companies as long as you use the card to book the rental. It’s part of your card benefits. For rentals in Italy fewer companies offer insurance however, but there are some like Capital One for example.

    1. Yes, but often the credit card only pays the deductible for the insurance you pay for on your private car at home. Then your private car insurance kicks in for the rest of the damage, resulting in an increase in your premiums. It varies and can be quite complicated to figure out.

  8. It’s true that driving in Italy can be manic, in most places. We were fortunate enough to hire a car in Sardinia and to be honest the driving there was a lot more leisurely and orderly than the mainland. Much to my relief!

    Driving with a gear stick is something which I now miss since I moved to a Prius (which appear to be automatic by default). With a gear stick I find I have more control of the car. I have a wealth of experience of both manual and automatic although must admit that automatics are becoming more fuel efficient than ever before.

    I was actually in Houston last week, with a hire car. In spite of what you say about Italian drivers do you remember the way some people drive in Houston? Honestly, when you take the 59 or the 10 you are at times relying on a fate of God that those idiots weaving in and out of lanes at high speed don’t hit you!

    I do remember speaking to a girl in Houston last week who said that she’s never been on a train, due to the lack of transport options in Houston. She can’t wait until her trip to Europe next year which includes train journeys.

    As a non-American I must admit that we are often confused by why you use the term “gas”. The fuel that it is refers to is in a liquid form, not a gas form so we find it quite odd. You’ll find that outside of North America, the term “petrol” or “petroleum” is used in most cases.

    1. So true about Houston! However, I am very comfortable with the laws and roads, so it’s no big deal to me. And yes, it is weird that Americans use the term ‘gas’ for the liquid version. Who knows why we do it?

  9. We’ve rented cars in Italy on two separate trips and really had no issues. I agree with the toll-booth anxiety, though. Mark and I both have freaked out over tolls in Italy and in Costa Rica. I just don’t want to do anything incorrectly and piss off other drivers, ya know? I cannot agree with you more about the GPS! So vital when driving in Italy (and in other countries, too, based on our experiences).

    1. I was OK when I had someone else in the car that could help navigate and such. However, on my own I really needed the GPS and a second pair of eyes.

  10. I haven’t driven in Italy but I still have nightmares about being stuck in Paris traffic for three hours on the city streets. I agree about paying extra for an automatic. I learned on a stick when I was probably around 10 as well and haven’t driven one a whole lot since. I am on the fence about insurance. I also have issues with tolls no matter the country. When I lived in Texas I avoided the toll roads as much as possible. And being back in Tennessee where they don’t exist, I’m happy. But I always get nervous when I approach a toll road, no matter the country or if there are a hundred cars or I’m the only one.

    1. I still think you’re crazy for even attempting to drive in Paris, but it’s still better than navigating Rome. Toll roads suck, no matter if they’re in Texas or Italy. 🙁

  11. I was wondering if you could drive stick! (A tractor, huh? That will do it.) Really sound advice here, I actually would like to tackle driving in Italy. See what Argentina did to me? I *think* I’m ready for some road time in Italy, haha…

  12. Renting a car and driving through Europe is something I’ve always wanted to do but the thought of it is also terrifying. For one, I definitely need an automatic, no question about that.

    1. The trains are so great in Europe, it’s difficult to fathom even wanting a car. It does provide a certain freedom, however.

  13. ooooh yes — those gas prices will get you! I was SHOCKED the first time we did a road trip and I started doing the math of euros per liter to US dollars per gallon. WOWZA! My husband was equally as shocked, the other way around, when we went to America for the first time and did a little driving 😀

  14. Hi Leah, you are one brave woman! You have a courageous spirit considering you are in a foreign land. Italy is so amazing, this is one of my dreamed holiday destinations because of Vatican and Tuscany, such a romantic region! I am wondering how much is the budget of visiting Ital?

    1. It depends on what sort of holiday you want, where you’re traveling from, and for how long. There are inexpensive places and super luxury. Give me a little more information of what you’d like and I can give you a general idea.

  15. Hi Leah,

    I just wondered if you would be able to help.. I am taking my partner to drive around Italy next month however he is only 20 and I’m struggling to find anywhere that will let us hire a car?? Do you have any suggestions??

    1. How old are you? If you’re older than him then I wouldn’t even mention him as a driver. If you’re under 25 and over 21, you’ll likely have a young driver surcharge, but should be able to rent a car. Have you thought about trains and buses? I just got back from Italy and used a train several times.

  16. I am 20 too – the reason we’re going is mainly so that my partner can drive around Italy so we wouldn’t be getting trains or buses? I have notice that the company’s that do allow you to have a surcharge too.

  17. Hey Leah,
    I noticed you picked up the car in Florence and dropped it off in Rome. I plan on doing something similar except picking up in Milan and dropping off in Florence. Did you have any issue with additional charges for one way drop off? or was the rate you got online the rate you paid. Nervous about getting hit with a large fee at the end. Thanks for your help!

    1. There was a one-way surcharge, but I don’t remember it being that much. It should show up when you book the car online, if there is one. It could certainly vary by company, however.

      1. Great thanks. Im renting through Hertz and I think I’m ok based on what I’m reading and when I called the main office. Couldn’t speak with the actual office cause she didn’t speak english. I saw enterprise the charge was $60 so if its a fee like that, I’m good. Just didn’t wanna get hit with a per mileage thing on top. Thanks again!

        1. I’ve never heard of there being a mileage additional charge, but I’ve not rented from every company there is. Just watch out for the speed cameras! I’d google that, just so you know how they work on the highways in Italy.

  18. Hi Leah. Thanks for sharing your experiences. We are currently in Tuscany and I do wish I had read your forum sooner. We were stung €60.00 at a toll booth for what our accommodation said should’ve been no more than €4.00 and we DID go through the cash lane. Apparently we needed a ticket which we encountered on later “Autostrade” (highways). How we missed one on the first highway is a genuine mystery. Highway robbery is an accurate call.

    Today we also learned that it is illegal to enter the old cities around Tuscany which can earn a fine of up to €130 if you’re in a rental (€50 if you’re a local)

    Whilst I now understand the need to minimise congestion in the narrow lanes of these ancient & beautiful cities, I was bewildered as to why there was no warnings from the rental car company about ZTL’s. Whilst I also agree, that I am at fault for not having done more research about such pitfalls, not all blogs make even a mention of it thus my contribution.

    Furthermore, the feedback from the company was that, & I quote “We are not responsible for your ignorance”. I have worked in the hospitality & service industry for over 30 years & it is my duty to provide the best experience possible to tourists, including advising of things to beware of as my reputation and that of my business and country go on the line. This occurs as a deliberate and very lucrative source of income that has sadly impacted on our experience.

    I hope that by sharing here, that someone else may not have this experience. The driving I found easy, despite coming from Australia and driving with right handed columns on the opposite side of the road.

    As for the company, let’s just say they have no ‘Heartz’!

    1. Even if you had known about the ZTL’s it is almost impossible to navigate Florence when you don’t know where you are going without crossing into one. I got slapped with two fines on the same day while searching for a parking garage, and I knew about the ZTLs. Once I didn’t even know I had crossed over and the other time, I knew I was going in it but was trapped in traffic and could not avoid entering the zone without angering 100 other drivers.

  19. What is the maximum age for renting a car in Italy?
    Officially there is no upper limit, but the fine print often shows 65 or 70.
    I am over 75.

    1. Technically, it’s good to have. Some rental places will ask you for it. If you’re ever stopped by the police you’ll need to have one. I didn’t have one, nor was I asked. You can get one from AAA for about $20 a year. Easy to get, if you already have a license.

  20. Manual gear box is standard in Europe. Thus an automatic fitted car will always be a more expansive car. Therefore always expect to pay a large fee for an automatic gear box on a rented car in Europe.
    On the other way round, I once tried to rent a manual gear box fitted car in the USA, just to find out that I would have to rent an European sports car (at a ridiculous daily rate) to get one. I finally gave up and rented an automatic one., just feel quite unsafe while driving it, as the automatic gear box has a mind of it own. I remember driving along the Big Sur at night, wondering
    whether I would remain in the road in the next curve.

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