If you’re planning to spend some time in Italy, renting a car is a great option. Not only does it give you the freedom and flexibility to travel how and when you want, but 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 absolutely loved being able to explore.
The stunning Italian countryside and mountains that are seen so frequently make driving in Italy an enjoyable experience, as does the ability to stop off at small, but incredibly gorgeous towns right around the country. What do you need to know if you’re thinking of renting a car in Italy?
What Do You Need to Rent a Car in Italy?
To rent a car in Italy you need a standard driver’s license. 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. If you are pulled over you may be required to pay the fine on the spot, 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 make sure 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 extra unexpected charges.
Expect a Hold Charge on Your Credit Card
The other reason you need a credit card is because of the excess charge – or hold a charge. Every single 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 are aware that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up over your credit limit on your credit card. 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 on 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, it’s possible you already have CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance for rental car coverage and don’t know it! It’s worth it to check your documentation and call your credit card company to find out. It’s even worth considering signing up to 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 around the world 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 around the world 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 you get to 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, if there is an accident, you won’t be stuck paying for a car hire out of pocket.
The Cost of Renting a Car in Italy
It’s now so easy to compare rental car prices online, you’ll find 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 themselves. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little shopping around.
Be careful when looking online, as rental companies have the tendency to use tricks to make prices look lower than they actually 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 too. We talk more about this later in this article.
My favorites to look at are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Europe.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Booking a Rental Car in Italy
These days, it’s really easy to book a rental car in Italy 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 at least 24 hours in advance for a car rental. 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 by far the best place to pick up your vehicle because it saves you the time and expense of having to get 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, it can still be worth it to rent from there.
That being said 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 if it’s 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’re going to want to opt for a smaller car when renting a car in Italy. Why’s that? Italian roads are narrow, and you’ll see most of the 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 really easy to park) but don’t offer much leg room in the back if those seats are going to be used, and obviously also 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 by far the most common vehicles driven in Italy and around Europe, which means you’ll have a more extensive choice if you’re happy to drive one.
They also tend to be slighter cheaper to rent as a result. However, if you’re not happy driving a manual transmission and shifting gears yourself, automatics are available too. Just make sure you make this preference absolutely clear when booking.
Fuel Choices in Italy
When picking up your rental car in Italy you need to know what type of fuel your car requires. Diesel and Unleaded are not interchangeable. Often on rental cars there will be a sticker 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 up at an astronomical rate.
Gas stations that are located 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 inside them. Yes, you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant in between filling up and going to the bathroom.
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.
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 the navigation means you can concentrate on driving without having to read every road sign you pass.
Navigation systems are also useful because they can provide alternative routes, should they be needed, to take you around congestion hotspots. The most modern versions will give you some indication of 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 when you are in 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!
It is not permitted to use a cell phone when driving in Italy 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
Often, the rental car agent will 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 bumps or scratches that already exist, make sure all the damages are noted. This will also assure you of the roadworthiness of the vehicle.
On the inside of the vehicle, make sure 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 not happy 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.
In the city the 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 on a red light is not permissible in Italy – don’t do it or you could face a fine.
Some rural roads may be single lane (and roads tend to be quite narrow compared to those in 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 at 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 steets to reduce traffic congestion. They are monitored by cameras and when you cross into one a ticket is issued and sent to the address on the car’s registration. If you are renting a car in Italy the ticket will be forwarded on 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 is for locals only. These aren’t ZTL Zones, but you will be restricted for 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 quite right, it helps to have your car if you are two or more. Having a car gives you great freedom to get off the traditional tourist track and seeing places that aren’t usually accessible. Car rentals in Italy aren’t ridiculously expensive, and I think renting one is well worth the adventure!
Compare Car Rental Rates in Italy
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
What to Pack for Italy
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.
We love to have a guidebook when traveling. We spend enough time attached to our phones in everyday life and planning our trips. Once we reach a destination like Italy, we put the phone away and pick up a guidebook to help with our trip.
We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.