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.
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.
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.