If you’re planning to spend some time in the boot country, renting a car in Italy is a great option. Not only does it give you the freedom and flexibility to travel how and when you want, but it also allows you to visit parts of this fantastic country that are difficult to reach. We’ve rented a car in Italy a few times and loved being able to explore.
The stunning Italian countryside and mountains make driving in Italy an enjoyable experience, as does the ability to explore many of the country’s charming small towns and villages. What do you need to know if you’re considering renting a car in Italy?
What Do You Need Before Renting a Car in Italy?
You need a standard driver’s license to rent a car in Italy. If your license is not in English or Italian, have a translation just in case. You also should be prepared to hand over your passport. You are supposed to have an International Drivers Permit, which can be obtained in your home country. For Americans, this is very easy to get at AAA for $20.
We have never been asked to provide proof of our IDP from the rental car agency, but if you get pulled over, they may ask you for it. If you don’t have one and catch the Polizia on a bad day, you could end up with a hefty fine. You may be required to pay the fine on the spot if pulled over, so it’s best to have cash in hand.
The driving age in Italy is 18, but many car rental companies will require you to be 21. If you are under 25, you may face additional charges. It’s best to read all the fine print of your booking before you get to Italy.
You Need a Credit Card to Rent a Car in Italy
You cannot pay for your Italian rental car with cash, so plan on throwing down your credit card for the charges. If you have a US credit card, many will carry car insurance on them, so you don’t have to pay unexpected extra charges.
Expect a Hold Charge on Your Credit Card
The other reason you need a credit card is the excess charge – or hold a charge. Every one of our forty or so rental cars has put a hold on our credit card for the rental period. Holds can range anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $1000+ in some countries. The “excess charge,” as it is called, is typically stated in your reservation details, but it is easy to miss.
We know that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up exceeding your credit card credit limit. These excess charges are for scenarios where you disappear with the car and are never seen again or get in a crash and refuse to pay. Stuff like that.
Car Rental Insurance in Italy
Do you need to add car insurance to your rental? Many Italian car rental companies will try and convince you to add it on, and if you want to be safe and have peace of mind, it’s not a terrible idea.
However, as mentioned above, if you have a US credit card or equivalent in another country, you may already have CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance for rental car coverage and don’t know! It’s worth checking your documentation and calling your credit card company to find out. It’s even worth considering signing up for a new credit card that does offer this, so you don’t have to pay for ridiculous car rental insurance.
Bringing me to my next point – credit cards with primary rental insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite travel credit card for many reasons, but the primary rental insurance is one of its best perks (including Priority Pass membership). When you put your car hire on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you get primary rental car coverage worldwide for up to $75,000.
That works out great for us since we are nomadic and don’t have a car or home. Car rental companies in Italy and worldwide love to scare customers and upsell all their insurance packages. You need to make sure if you need it or not before falling victim to their trap. Call your credit card company and always find out before arriving in Italy.
If you don’t have a credit card that covers rental car insurance, it may be worth adding it to your package. That way, you won’t be stuck paying for a car hire out of pocket if there is an accident.
The Cost of Renting a Car in Italy
It’s now so easy to compare rental car prices online. You’ll find that most of the big rental car companies have rates that end up being pretty close to one another; they keep an eye on the competitor’s prices, so they remain competitive. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little shopping around.
Be careful when looking online, as rental companies use tricks to make prices look lower than they are. The main way they do this is by using a ‘from’ price, with the actual amount you’ll pay only revealed when you’re further into the booking process, and they reckon you won’t bother giving up and going elsewhere. Another trick they have is to show the price excluding tax, which means you’ll have something in the region of a further 20% to add to the headline price on show.
Needless to say, the cost of a smaller car will be lower than renting a larger one. The fewer add-ons (extra drivers, GPS, etc.) you require, the cheaper it will be. We talk more about this later in this article.
My favorites to look at are:
- Discover Cars: What we use to search rental car prices around the globe.
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Europe.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
Booking a Rental Car in Italy
Nowadays, booking a rental car in Italy is easy before you arrive in the country. We think the benefits of doing this are huge. Not only are you ‘guaranteed’ the vehicle you’ve opted for, reducing stress levels, but you’ll be charged less for renting that same vehicle simply because you’ve pre-booked. Walking up and trying to book a car is one of the worst things you can do for your wallet.
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to pre-book, don’t worry! Rental agencies rarely run out of vehicles (and if they do, you can just pop next door to a competitor). However, it might mean there’s less choice – something worth bearing in mind if you have specific requirements, such as an automatic.
You’ll also be charged a higher rate for exactly the same vehicle, and you’ll end up spending more time at the desk of the rental company rather than enjoying the start of your vacation. I always warn people to book a car rental at least 24 hours in advance. You can see all my additional tips on renting a car abroad here.
Where to Pick Up Your Rental Car in Italy
If you’re flying straight into Italy on a direct flight rather than crossing in from a neighboring country, it may be easiest to grab your car at the airport. Rome Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa have good rental car facilities, with all the main companies represented.
This is the best place to pick up your vehicle because it saves you the time and expense of getting into the city center without your own transport (and probably some heavy luggage too). Even if there is an airport surcharge from the rental agency, renting from there can still be worth it.
City center offices are also a good option if you want to explore Italy on a self-drive vacation.
Opt for a Return Trip Rental
One way rentals almost always cost more, even in the same city. To save money, you should pick up and drop off your car at the same location.
Choose the Right Italian Rental Car
You’ll want to opt for a smaller car when renting a car in Italy. Why’s that? Italian roads are narrow, and most cars are tiny too.
In some places, routes even narrow down to a single lane for both directions of traffic. In this case, you’ll find ‘passing places in which to pass each other.
Another thing you should consider when deciding on what rental car type to opt for is how many people and how much luggage you’ll have. Nippy two-door cars are great for getting about (and easy to park) but don’t offer much leg room in the back if those seats are used and have less space in the trunk for luggage.
It’s best to keep in mind your needs with Italian car rentals. We had a family of five in a compact car with luggage, and it was a super-tight squeeze. Always account for your luggage and group size!
Finally, you’ll have the option of a manual or automatic transmission vehicle. Manuals are the most common vehicles driven in Italy and around Europe, so you’ll have a more extensive choice if you’re happy to drive one.
They also tend to be slighter and cheaper to rent as a result. However, if you’re not confident driving a manual transmission and shifting gears yourself, automatics are available too. Just make sure you make this preference clear when booking.
Fuel Choices in Italy
When picking up your rental car in Italy, you need to know what fuel your car requires. Diesel and Unleaded are not interchangeable. Often on rental cars, a sticker will be near the gas cap to remind you of the fuel type.
You need to return your rental car with the same amount of fuel you were given. Don’t show up with less, as the rental car agency will charge you to fill it back at an astronomical rate.
Gas stations along the Autostrade (like a highway) are usually open 24 hours a day. The gas stations in Italy along the Autostrade are especially special as they usually have espresso bars. Yes, you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant between filling up and going to the bathroom – and this is a common thing.
Gas is expensive in Italy. At the time of writing, it’s about €1.45 per liter. Both gas and diesel are sold by the liter, and gas stations are generally self-service. You can pay by credit card, debit card, or euro.
Opt For Navigation
GPS is brilliant for when you’re driving along unknown roads. There’s no doubt about it in our opinion. Having a GPS kit (generally referred to as Satellite Navigation or SatNav) focus on navigation means you can concentrate on driving without reading every road sign you pass.
Navigation systems are also useful because they can provide alternative routes, should they be needed, and take you around congestion hotspots. The most modern versions will indicate the road’s speed limit too – measured in miles per hour just like in the US.
That’s not to say you need to get the GPS add-on with a rental car. If you have a cell phone with a local SIM contract, you’ll be able to access the data network, which means you can use smartphone navigation apps such as Google Maps.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a local SIM contract and don’t want to spend lots of cash on international roaming, you can download a Google Map to your phone while on WiFi. If you forget to do this, the Italian Airports may have free WiFi to download a map of Italy to your phone, but make sure you have free space on your phone!
Using a cell phone when driving in Italy is not permitted to make calls or send/receive SMS text messages. You can use your smartphone for navigation purposes, but it must be hands-free only (such as safely stowed on the windscreen), and you must not program navigation while the vehicle’s engine is running.
Inspect Your Rental Car
The rental car agent will often ask if you’d like them to show you around the vehicle or whether you’re happy to do it yourself. Always accept the offer of being shown around the vehicle. If they don’t show you around, do a thorough inspection yourself and note anything and everything.
The agent will generally start with the outside of the vehicle, pointing out any existing bumps or scratches, and ensure all the damages are noted. This will also assure you of the roadworthiness of the vehicle.
On the inside of the vehicle, ensure that before you leave the parking bay, you know how to operate the headlights, indicator lights, and hazard lights. You should also know the location of the windscreen wipers, as well as the horn.
Make sure you know how to alter the position of the driver’s seat, how the parking brake works (is it a traditional manual one you pull up or a newer electronic one), and how to engage reverse gear (which often requires you to push a button of some sort first). They will also help you set up the GPS if you’ve opted for one.
Remember that if you’re unhappy with anything you see, you should insist on an alternative vehicle if you find cigarette burns, broken mirrors, or windshield cracks, these need to be noted before you leave the parking lot. Otherwise, you could be charged for the damages once you return the rental.
Distances and Speeds in Italy
Distances and speeds are measured in kilometers in Italy. The speed limit is usually signposted on each new stretch of road or change in speed.
The city’s speed limit is generally 50km/hr, while main roads and motorways are between 90km-130 km. In Italy, vehicles drive on the right side of the way. Turning right at a red light is not permissible in Italy – don’t do it, or you could face a fine.
Some rural roads may be single lanes (roads tend to be quite narrow compared to the US in any case). There will generally be passing places that allow cars to pull aside to allow vehicles coming in the opposite direction to pass. (Speaking of which, don’t park in passing places – only ever use dedicated parking spaces.)
Speed limits are limits, not targets; only drive as fast as feels safe. Try not to worry if locals who know the roads better than you pass you to a safe place on the road.
Can You Cross Borders With Your Italian Rental Car?
If you want to venture into France, Switzerland, Slovenia, or Austria with your rental car, it’s generally okay to do so! As these countries are within the Schengen Zone, you won’t have to stop at a border crossing. Many times you may not even know you’ve entered a new country! (We’ve done this!)
Scooters and Mopeds in Italy
It’s important to watch out for locals driving scooters and mopeds in Italy. They are everywhere, especially in the cities, and should be treated with the same respect that you treat a car. The mopeds drive a bit erratically, so don’t be surprised if they suddenly pull out in front of you!
ZTL Zones in Italy
Large cities like Rome, Florence, and Milan have instituted ZTL Zones (Zona Traffico Limitato). These are zoned off streets to reduce traffic congestion. Cameras monitor them, and when you cross into one, a ticket is issued and sent to the address on the car’s registration. If you rent a car in Italy, the ticket will be forwarded to you. Ask and study maps to make sure you know where these zones are.
It’s also worth noting that in smaller towns, driving and parking are for locals only. These aren’t ZTL Zones, but you will be restricted from parking outside the town center and walking/biking in. We saw this most notably in Lucca, Perugia, and Siena.
Should You Rent a Car in Italy?
While public transport in Italy is generally great in Italy, it helps to have your car if you are two or more. Having a car and renting a car in Italy gives you great freedom to get off the traditional tourist track and see places that aren’t usually accessible. Car rentals in Italy aren’t expensive, and I think renting one is well worth the adventure!
My favorites to look at are:
- Discover Cars: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
What to Pack for Italy
Now that you’ve got renting a car in Italy sorted take a look at our packing list! What to wear in Italy is one of the first things to consider once you plan the basics of your first trip to the country. Packing can be simple.
Generally, Italians are stylish, and we recommend dressing casually. That way, you’re comfortable when hanging out with locals.
Plan For Your Trip
- Protect Your Trip: We don’t travel without travel insurance, nor should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Find Cheap Flights: Sign up for Going (formerly Scotts Cheap Flights) to get notified when prices get ultra low.
- Book a Rental Car: We use Discover Car to book all our rental cars! You can also read our top tips for renting a car abroad here.
- Travel Adapter: Make sure you find a good adapter to keep your personal electronics charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land. Purchase one here.
- Travel Backpack: We like the Nomatic Travel Backpack for our travels. Check the price here.
- Our Favorite Travel Shoes: Our answer to this question is always ALLBIRDS! Check them out on their site!
- Get a Travel Credit Card: We travel worldwide for free because we have leveraged our spending into points. See why you should get a travel credit card and how you can do the same with our favorite travel credit cards.