Renting a Car in Italy

By Rick

June 19, 2014

Our baby enjoying the view.

In an article last year, I had advised against renting a car in Italy in favor of public transportation only.  After my recent blog tour, I’d like to amend that statement with two qualifications.

First, yes, if you’re ONLY going to be in major cities, then a car might be more trouble than it’s worth. Second, if you want to get off the proverbial beaten path, then you MUST have a car. Truly, this is where you’ll get to encounter that elusive “Real Italy.”

During our five week romp down the Italian peninsula, we used a combination of the following public transportation methods: airplane, fast train, slow train, tram, subway, funicular, local bus, taxi, ferry boat, donkey cart, and a cable car to get to the top of Erice (see photo at right).

But in addition to these, we also rented a car twice—once in Tuscany/Umbria, and once in Sicily.  And our trip was much better for it.

There are some real advantages of renting a car in Italy, the most important of which is that you can reach places that trains and buses simply don’t go.  For example, we stayed at an amazing agriturismo in Umbria called Il Fontanaro.  One of the reasons that it’s so amazing is that it’s set among the green hills and rolling vineyards, giving you a postcard view in every direction.

Obviously, bus service in these idyllic areas is cumbersome, at best.  It could take half a day to reach a neighboring village that’s only 30 minutes away by car.  From Fontanaro, we went to both Montepulciano and Cortona, and it couldn’t have been easier.

renting a car in italy for the best vacation possible
Paradise can’t be reach by train.

Not to mention there are some incredible places right here near Rome that can only be reached by car.

Then there’s the freedom from fixed schedules and random transportation strikes.  Anyone who has traveled within Italy knows that the posted timetables for trains and buses are really just approximations…somebody’s best guess.

Then once you’ve lugged all of your gear onto the binario (train platform), an announcement comes over the loudspeaker (in Italian only) stating that there has been a platform change, and now you have just two minutes to scramble down the stairs with your luggage, find the new platform, then mule your suitcases back up the stairs on the other side of the station.  No wonder I usually lose a few pounds when travelling in Italy, despite all the pasta and gelato!

Renting a Car in Italy

Which brings me to another point.  Travelling with an equipment intensive infant, we discovered that loading up a car is easier than hefting massive suitcases onto trains and buses, often to the chagrin of fellow passengers.  Then once aboard the bus or train, you must jostle for position, take care not to block the aisles, and then get everything in place to quickly unload when you reach your destination.  A few times we barely got the baby off the train in time as the whistle blew.

there are many advantages to renting a car in italy
Sciopero–it can really spoil your mood.

When riding in the car, our baby sleeps like…well, a baby.  She enjoys the train, too, but when somebody suddenly shouts, or the train itself makes a loud noise, an interrupted nap becomes a full day’s aggravation for mom and dad.  Not a problem when she’s cocooned in her car seat, where she’s been known to doze for two hours at a stretch.

Depending on how many people are travelling together, renting a car in Italy can also be a good bargain.  For example, a high-speed train ticket from Florence to Rome costs 43.00 € per person.  Meanwhile, we paid just 22.00 € a day for our rental car, not including a small extra charge for the baby seat.   And while fuel is certainly more expensive in Italy than in the U.S., the cars here get much better gas mileage, so it’s almost a wash.  Not quite, but almost when you do the math (and I did it…twice).

Of course there are some disadvantages.  When we arrived in Modica, my stellar navigating skills (mis)guided Jessica up a steep narrow “street” (if you can call it that…the hallway in our apartment is more spacious) that eventually got us trapped high up in the village, wedged between a church and an apartment, with no way to turn around.  It took us half an hour and about two liters of olive oil to grease the walls of the buildings in order to dislodge our vehicle from the 16th-century structures and slowly inch back down the hill in reverse.

The only other disadvantage can be parking..  Doing a little research on this ahead of time is a smart move.  Email your hotel and ask them where to park and how much it might cost.  As I mentioned, in the bigger cities this can be a real nightmare.  But in the smaller towns of Tuscany, Umbria, and Sicily, we had no problems.  And we never had to pay for parking.

It should be noted that I’m mostly talking about travelling from point to point by car.  If you’re going to be doing some serious touring, seeing the sites, drinking wine, etc., be smarter still and hire a driver.  You’re on vacation, after all.  Not only will it relieve your stress, but a good driver will know the best spots to stop for lunch, and have plenty of useful information to give you along the way, making for an enjoyable ride.

I had a great day with a driver in Chianti, and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.  But the point I want to make now is that renting a car in Italy can actually be a smart choice from the point of view of freedom, convenience, and even price.  Consider all the advantages and then decide for yourself.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Agree with the author.
    A car is the only way to see all of Italy’s nooks and crannies.
    There would be some little drawbacks like parking, traffic or closed historical city parts.
    Nevertheless, renting car to travel between the cities is a smart choice.

    • Yes, it’s not for everybody on their first trip to Italy, but for those who are adventurous and want to see the “nooks and crannies,” as you say, then it’s the only way to go. Grazie, Stanley!

      • In my community I’m considered THE source for everything Italy and Italian. It may be an undeserved honor, but I have spent a lot of time studying Italian history, culture, and geography, while also living there for extended periods of time. While I can see the advantages of driving a car, I have never actually tried it. I get everywhere by public transport, taxis, walking, bicycling, or hitchhiking (not for everyone).

        When I’m dispensing advice about traveling in Italy I always discourage use of a car. Only in Sicily might I have a different opinion. And it’s not just about the driving. Sometimes rental car companies engage in subterfuge that can completely ruin a trip. Fortunately, not one of my ‘clients’ has ever returned from their Italian vacation and said I was wrong about that. Here’s my latest feedback, “BTW – we ditched the car idea and have been using the train! Great suggestion!”

        Rent a car if you must, but there is so much to see and do in Italy, what you might miss by not having a car isn’t worth the hassle. Just my $.02.

        Buon Viaggio!

  • Totally agree Rick! It really depends on the kind of trip you are going to take. But to get to the fab agriturismi, you need the car. My most memorable car trip was with my sis. Us two and five kids from Milan to Positano in one day. Awwww……the Amalfi Coast with three vomiting children at 9PM at night…..great memory! 🙂

  • Rick, I recently rented a car to drive all along the Amalfi Coast, through Puglia and also through the eastern part of Sicily, and the experience was amazing. The flexibility that having a car provides is priceless – being able to go wherever you want whenever you want. I agree that doing research into parking can make your trip run more smoothly, and choosing hotels or agriturismos that offer parking is helpful. And even though my GPS, like yours, took me down some sidewalk-size streets, the experience was delightful!

    • Thanks so much for the input, Victoria! Yes, there are challenges, but I think on balance having the freedom makes the difference. Ciao e grazie ancora!

  • I can’t imagine dealing with the stress of driving a car in Italy. As several posts confirmed, parking, getting lost, traffic, narrow streets, and damage to the vehicle can all lead to unnecessary tension while ‘relaxing’ on vacation. While Italy has many wonderful out-of-the-way places, if I can’t get there by train or bus, I’ll explore somewhere else. With all Italy has to offer, I’ll never see everything anyway.

    The driver of a car misses seeing about 60% of things along the way, so I’d rather ride in the comfort of a bus and enjoy the scenery along with my wife. Certainly with a car in Rome it’s much easier to find the aqueducts or the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, but for me it’s more exciting getting there by bus, or even by bicycle.

    Last summer, while waiting for the bus from Chiusi Scalo to Montpulciano, I met someone from my hometown and watched a bicycle race. Would’ve missed that if traveling by car.

    Of course, if one can afford to stay at Fontanaro, then the cost of a car is insignificant! 😉

    Thanks for the informative post!

    • Hi Earl! Well, you raise very good points for the opposite argument. In fact, I used to more or less feel the same way. Now my view is: “It depends.” Depends on what you want to see, and it depends on how comfortable you are driving. Yes, in the cities, driving should be avoided as much as possible. No doubt about that. But I now actually enjoy cruising through the countryside at my own pace. And as I mentioned, it also depends on who you’re travelling with. A 10-month old infant makes train stations a very awkward place to be. Not to mention the safety factor of having her on my lap instead of in a car seat. But one or two adults travelling from city to city? Yes, I think the train or bus is a better option. Ciao and thanks for the great input!

  • hello Riack
    hello Rick. We also did a road trip and for more than an hour became lost in Rome,trying to find the highway to Rapallo. It was wonderful, however – the snow on the distant mountains, of course, all the scenery was fabulous !! We also did Pisa, Siena, Florence, Venice, Verona, lake Como – about a month. Would do all of it again .. next time, however, would love to include an agriturismo experience. Italy is bellissima … we love her.

    • Well, yes…it sounds like you’ve done everything BUT the agriturismo! I LOVED the one I did in Umbria, Fontanaro. Still need to make it to Verona, though. Haven’t been there yet. Ciao!

  • Great advice. And in summer, even city bus schedules are drastically reduced because the excuse is, no students. Lol. So if one plans to take a usual bus ” just outside of town”, check online for the real time arrivals. What used to be a 15-20 minute wait could now be an hour, easily.
    I found that in Sardegna, a car rental is a must, not even a real option. Book ahead….well ahead. Lol. I learned the hard way arriving at the caglieri airport that choice becomes limited and expensive ( or shady…like no insurance pack). Lol

    • Great advice, thanks for the tip on Sardegna…I’ve never been there. Yet. And booking ahead whenever possible is always smart. Ciao!

      • No problem. Sardegna is wonderful, a vacation I’ll always have in my top 5….but unless you plan to only stay in Caglieri….there’s no real way to get around the island without a car (the airport and city are connected by a shuttle and train, I think). Street signs are not very present, so driving is an adventure in itself. 😉 The view of the Costa Rei/Muravera (for the passenger!) is mesmerizing.

  • Oh boy, agree totally! When we say in Rome, no car, which is fine, same with Florence but the four times we have been in Tuscany there is not a hope in hell that we would be able to see all those exquisite hilltop towns…we have taken the l’autobus from Panzano into Florence and back which is OK. Everyone must have a story about their rental car being too big for the “streets”. Our turn came in Prato..almost ripped the side mirror off and then in Deruta we had to reverse back down, very amusing for the locals! If it weren’t for the GPS I think we would still be trying to get out of Florence to head towards Panzano! Oh and the car rental place, well, it was Saturday morning and even though we had rented the car a couple of months before, guess what? No car for us, however, they generously offered us a van (more like a small school bus) instead for the same price as the car (they said it was easy to drive)! Can you just imagine it!

  • Until last year I had only used public transport. But I did rent a car in Pisa to travel to Montepulciano, Cortona and other places in Tuscany. Only when I stayed in Lucca did I have a nightmare because the hotel did not have any parking spaces and I had to park out of town. Well, the other nightmare was to return the car near Florence airport because the lot was not marked. It took me 2 hours to find it, driving round and round. Turned out it was a weedy lot with temp buildings so maybe it has improved since spring 2013. Driving in cities is Not recommended. Piombino had so many one ways that I could not figure it out and had to use my iPhone for directions. But that’s the experience, the bitter with the sweet! I love Italy and would like to spend more time there! Thanks Rick for your excellent blog.

    • Ciao! Thanks so much for you comments and adding useful tips to the discussion. I think you made a good point: the “bigger” the town/city, the more likely you are to experience traffic/parking problems. THere are exceptions, of course, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

  • Hi Rick,
    We travel in Italy every year and usually always rent a car for all the reasons you mention. We just returned from 2 months of ‘auto touring’ in Italy and had great experiences driving. One note, if renting from outside of the EU (ex from California), the US citizen will not get the same rates as an Italian. It actually costs us more to rent if directly from Italy and is better to rent prior to leaving the states. The site you mention in your piece doesn’t even offer Italy as a possible destination when I click on it.
    Another help in navigating was to use your phone or ipad and Google maps in addition to the gps. It is often much more accurate and easier to follow. We always have a mobile hot spot so that we always have wifi anywhere (easy to get from TIM, Wind, 3, or…and under 100 euro).

    • Great tips, Sharon, thanks! And I didn’t know that about the citizenship. My wife signed for the car, so I guess that’s why we got such good rates? The site I mentioned worked great for me here in Italy, however. As you say, perhaps it has to do with where your accessing it from. Cheers!

  • Hi Rick. We rented a car while staying in Bagni di lucca which was great. The buses are great but they only really run around school times. One day we took the bus to the next village to do our grocery shopping. We were ready to leave about 10.30 and learned that the next bus was about 1.30. So we thought we would take a taxi. No taxi in the village. So we had to thumb a lift. Actually there were many times that it was fantastic having a car and it was cheap

    • A VERY common occurrence, Lyn, and the exact reason for renting a car! Thanks for sharing your experience and giving a perfect example! Ciao!!!

  • I completely agree, I was recently in Italy for a couple of weeks and my travels included Rome, Florence and Venice. In addition, I wanted to stay in Umbria/Tuscany for a few days to explore Umbria and Costacciaro where my family is originally from. We also stayed at an agriturismo and it was wonderful. The smaller cities/towns in Umbria and Tuscany were amazing! Had I not rented a car for that portion of the trip I never would have been able to explore and discover all that I did. It also allowed me the experience of driving in Rome and Florence (even if only to pickup and return the car).

    • Glad to hear you agree, Tony. You can’t explore the charming little villages without a car. And driving in Rome is sort of like climbing Mt. Everest…a HUGE feather in your cap!

      • I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed driving in Rome, it was quite an experience to say the least. Oh and I forgot to mention that like you and your wife, I also took a turn down a street that wound up being too narrow for the car in Costacciaro and had to back out in reverse. I am pretty sure a group of 3 elderly ladies strolling around the streets enjoyed seeing that!

          • Not sure at our age, hubby and I would rent a car. He did went he traveled there for work years ago, our friend did the driving when in a villa with other couples. The villa was in Umbria and we enjoyed the small towns we visited. We alsox enjoyed the train travel for the other areas. Even in the USA, a small baby takes so much “equipment”!

            • Oh, yes, the tiny baby has a HUGE suitcase!! I enjoy train travel, too, when possible, but sometimes they just don’t take you where you want to go. Ciao Claire!!

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