As the editor and publisher of a subscription travel newsletter on Italy, you can imagine that anyone and everyone asks me about travel to Italy. In the 10 years, I have been running Dream of Italy, I have certainly noticed that certain questions come up far more often than others and one of the more popular questions is:
Do I need to rent a car to get around Italy?
So…about renting a car and driving in Italy. I’ve isolated four factors to consider when making the decision to rent a car in Italy: fear level, location, expense and comfort/ease.
Fear level: In some ways, I’m the wrong person to ask about driving in Italy. I like to drive and have very little fear. In fact, I’m perfectly fine driving in New York City. But I do understand why many people are afraid of driving in Italy — it is definitely crazier and more harrowing than most driving in the United States, especially if you don’t have big city driving experience. I reference “big city driving” even though I don’t recommend driving in most of Italy’s cities. Why? Well, if you’re used to the maneuvering and craziness of driving in an American big city — and the quick reflexes needed — you will probably do okay on Italian highways and along small streets.
Driving on an Italian highway (autostrada) is a game all its own: God forbid you go too slow in left lane; many Italians will straddle two lanes and drive like this for miles; blinkers and horns are rarely used. But lights (and maybe some fingers) are flipped to let you know you are going too slow. I find it amusing, others find it terrifying. But the Italian countryside can offer many driving challenges as well. Just try to drive in a medieval walled city — the roads weren’t made to fit a modern-day economy car, let alone anything bigger, so you either have to be a master of getting out of a tight spot or park before you walk into the city. The only places I have had any kind of nervousness driving in Italy have been coastal, cliffside roads in Sardinia and on the Amalfi Drive. So location is another consideration…
Location: Where you will be traveling in Italy fits into the driving question in two ways: 1) will you really need a car? and 2) what will the driving conditions be like? Italy has a good train system so you absolutely do not need a car if you will only be visiting Italian cities (large and small). And if you are combining a visit to major Italian cities with time in the countryside, please wait to rent you car until you are traveling into the country. Many Italian cities have confusing parking rules (and you are very likely to get ticketed if you break them) or if you choose to park in a garage, including hotel garages, you could pay 30 to 40 euros per night. It is simply not worth the hassle.
It gets trickier when you want to head into the countryside. I am always asked whether people need to have a car to visit Tuscany. My answer is usually yes, especially if you want to see anything besides the major towns. There are buses in Tuscany but they are limited and frankly if you’re not a backpacker, you’re probably not into the inconvenience. The good news is I have never found driving in Tuscany particularly daunting or difficult — IF you don’t try to squeeze your car into some ancient street and IF you have a GPS. Do as I say, not as I do. BE SURE TO GET A GPS! Your biggest driving danger in areas like Tuscany will be getting lost or not leaving enough time to get somewhere. On one trip, where we rented a villa, I swear no matter where we went, the trip took 40 minutes, even if we thought it was going to take 10 minutes.
If you absolutely positively don’t want to drive in Tuscany or at all in the Italian countryside, there are alternatives. You can hire a car and driver (the downside is this expensive but has to be the most enjoyable way to go). You can join day trips that leave from major cities such as Florence. You can also join a multi-day, small group tour so you don’t have to do any driving at all.
One place I don’t really recommend renting a car is on the Amalfi Coast – you can read why here. If you’re doing a two-week tour of southern Italy and will have your rental car anyway, that’s one thing – I would park it at the hotel and take the SITA bus or the new private buses running along the coast. Especially during the summer, you will spend a long time stuck in traffic if you try to drive between the towns on the coast.
Driving anywhere else in Italy — such as in the mountains — is really just a matter of what you would be comfortable with back at home. Not crazy about driving on mountain roads at home, maybe don’t try it in Italy.
Expense: Italy isn’t the cheapest place to rent a car. Insurance is mandatory and included in the cost of the rental. If you only drive automatic, like I do, you will be paying more than if you can drive manual. And for Pete’s sake, DON’T choose Italy as the place you decide to “learn” to drive manual. Pay more and get the automatic. Gas is also a bigger expense — expect to pay two to three times what you do in the U.S. (mostly due to higher gas taxes). I still think — depending on where you are going — traveling by car is one of the best ways to see Italy and is worth the cost. How else can you find all the little out of the way places?
Long before I started Dream of Italy, I always found the best rental prices with Auto Europe. I’ve negotiated a 5% discount on Auto Europe car rentals for all readers! To take advantage of this offer, call Auto Europe at (800) 223-5555 or visit the Auto Europe website. Please be sure to use or mention this coupon code: 72002261.
Comfort/Ease: If you’re hitting multiple destinations in a short span of time, sometimes it is just easier to have a car and drive, especially if you have a sizable amount of luggage. You can keep your bigger suitcases in the trunk (make sure the hotel’s parking is secure) and just take an overnight bag inside. Speaking of luggage, be sure to take it into consideration when choosing which size car you rent. You may think a small sedan is fine if you have four people but be sure all of your luggage will fit in the trunk.
Also keep in mind: If you are stopped by the Italian police while driving, you may be asked to show an International Driving Permit (be sure to have your regular license with you too). This is a fairly new requirement in the last few years. You won’t be asked to show it at the rental counter, so some folks take the risk and don’t get one. I’m not recommending that. I actually have an IDP but have forgotten to take it with me on some recent Italy trips. I have never been pulled over (knock on wood) so can’t comment personally on whether the police always ask to see it.
— Kathy McCabe